Fight Smart in Close-Quarters Combat Using Wing Chun Techniques

by Lucy Haro

In the martial arts, one school of thought holds that you should change your game to match your opponent’s. Example: If you’re a stand-up fighter and you’re facing a grappler, you should immediately switch into grappling mode. Problem is, that requires you to train to such an extent that each subset of your skills is superior to the skills of a person who focuses on only that range of combat. Your grappling must be better than a grappler’s, your kicking must be better than a kicker’s and your punching must be better than a puncher’s. It’s a tough task, to be sure.

Another school of thought holds that you should never fight force with the same kind of force. In other words, don’t try to beat your opponent at what he does best. Instead, use a set of concepts and techniques that will enable you to nullify his attacks and nail him when he’s not expecting it. The best set of concepts I’ve found is called the science of wing chun, as taught by Black Belt Hall of Fame member William Cheung. It offers a strategic approach to combat that’s guaranteed to help any stand-up fighter prevail on the street.

Before beginning, a few words about wing chun are in order. Supposedly developed by a woman named Yim Wing Chun, the system is based on scientific principles that allow the practitioner to achieve peak performance in any combat situation, even against a larger opponent. It does so by teaching you how to fight smarter, not harder. The key to achieving that goal lies in the following seven principles.

Wing Chun Principle #1: Maintain a Balanced Stance

When you’re in a balanced wing chun stance, your opponent won’t be able to read your intentions because you’re not telegraphing the way you’ll fight. He can’t discern your commitment to any move or to any direction.

The stance requires a 50-50 weight distribution at all times. That enables you to move either foot in any direction at any time. Having maximum mobility, at a moment’s notice, is essential for dealing with armed or multiple attackers. Being balanced also conserves energy, which allows you to channel it to other uses while under attack.

Once your opponent moves, wing chun teaches that you should immediately shift into a side neutral stance based on the side of your body he attacks. If he comes from your right, you deal with him by using your right arm and right foot, and vice versa. Your stance is now similar to that of a boxer, except that you’re oriented at a 45-degree angle so you’re less open to his blows.

Wing Chun Principle #2 Attack Your Opponent’s Balance

In any kind of fighting, balance is everything. Strive to maintain yours while attacking your opponent’s. Often, that entails getting him to lean too far into his technique, overcommit to his movement or overextend his body. Without proper balance, he won’t be able to move, block or strike effectively.

In general, grapplers employ a strategy that involves an overzealous commitment to a move. They’ll lean, lunge or throw themselves forward in an effort to take you to the ground, which is their preferred environment. At that point, they’ll attempt to mount you and punch, or they’ll choke you unconscious. That’s all well and good as long as you don’t take advantage of their momentary lack of balance.

In wing chun, you control your opponent’s balance and then deflect his force primarily by controlling his elbow. As Cheung likes to say, if you control his elbow, you can control his balance.

Wing Chun Principle #3: Control Your Opponent’s Elbow

Always watch your adversary’s lead elbow. Why the elbow? Because whenever a person’s arm moves to strike you, so does his elbow. The elbow, however, moves a shorter distance at a slower speed, which means it’s easier for you to track and react to.

Of course, you could watch his fist, but it moves very quickly, and it could wind up in your face before you figure out where it’s going. The elbow, being farther away than the fist, is easier to follow and easier to read. Examples: During the execution of a straight punch, the elbow moves two and a half times more slowly than the fist. When doing a round punch, the elbow moves almost four times more slowly.

Distance translates into time. The longer you can follow the path of his strike—by detecting it sooner—the more time you have to let your reflexes work for you.

To expand the usefulness of this principle, remember that the knee is to the leg as the elbow is to the arm. When you’re facing a grappler, watch his knees for a sign that he’s about to execute a takedown. If you’re facing a kicker, his knee will clue you in as to how he’ll kick.

In close-quarters combat, once you’re aware of which arm the enemy will use to attack, you must take control of his lead elbow. The best way to do that is to use one of your hands to palm-strike the elbow and perhaps pull the arm to disrupt his balance. Simultaneously punch him in the face or body with the other hand. That’s one of the core concepts of wing chun: Always strive to block and strike at the same time.

When you attack and defend simultaneously, you shift the pressure off yourself and onto your opponent. Rather than continuing his attempts to harm you, he must now defend himself or suffer the consequences. The best part is, he’ll be pretty much trapped because you’ll be in control of his elbow and you’ll be throwing a series of blows at the same time. The last thing on his mind will be shooting in on you or grabbing you.

Wing Chun Principle #4: Using Chi Sao to Improve Your Contact Reflexes

Hundreds of years ago, Chinese martial artists figured out how to control an opponent’s balance. The key was sensing his energy. Using contact reflexes, they could predict what the other person was about to do with the rest of his body. It was so successful that it’s still a part of the Chinese martial arts.

By using touch instead of sight, you can cut your reaction time from 0.2 seconds to 0.05 seconds. Once you’ve sensed his movement through contact, your eyes will be free to tackle other missions, such as making your strikes more accurate and monitoring your adversary’s free hand and his legs.

The traditional training method known as chi sao is wing chun’s preferred method for honing this skill. Because it helps you develop the required touch sensitivity and reflexes, it allows you to “read” what your opponent is doing and react to his movement more quickly than if you used your eyes only.

In chi sao drills, you and your partner stand with your hands touching to facilitate the detection of movement. You then have him run through various attacks to develop your ability to feel and predict. When you’re done, reverse roles.

In wing chun, your goal is to remain standing, but no one’s perfect. If you fall, be prepared to back off until you can scramble to your feet. Again, chi sao can help by enabling you to control your opponent’s elbow and then change the angle of leverage long enough to escape.]

Wing Chun Principle #5: Fight on the Blind Side

Once you control his lead elbow, step to his blind side—to the outside of his lead arm—and counterattack from there. Being in that position is advantageous because it permits you to keep the maximum distance between his rear arm and your body, which means you’ll need to deal with only one arm at a time.

Again, distance equals time. If you achieve the blind-side position and your opponent tries to reach you with his rear hand, it’ll take him longer, which gives you more time to react. Also, he may cross his arms as he tries to do so, and that will render him susceptible to a trapping technique.

The objective is to ensure that you have free use of both arms while limiting him to one. Always avoid standing directly in front of him because he’ll be able to attack you with both arms and legs.

Wing Chun Principle #6: Don’t Fight Force With Force

When you make contact, quite often your opponent will attempt to oppose your force with more force by pulling away his arm. If he does, follow the elbow and trap it against his body.

If he opts to struggle violently against you, you can use an “exchange move.” That entails using one of the following:

  • Execute a push palm strike (pak sao) to control one of his elbows to dissipate the force. Make sure you’re still in position to strike simultaneously with your other arm.
  • Execute a grabbing block (lap sao) to control his balance and move with his force. Again, you must be in position to strike with your other arm.

Using the time-tested strategies of wing chun, you can deflect your opponent’s force, control his balance, avoid his attacks by positioning yourself on the blind side and then disable him with strikes. Whether he’s a close-quarters striker or a grappler, you’ll nullify his attempts to take you to the ground. If he does shoot in for a takedown, he’ll have already sacrificed his balance. This presents you with your best opportunity to sidestep to avoid a collision and knock him to the ground when he misses you.

When you’re on your feet, if you gain control of his elbow on the blind side, you’ll be able to pin it against his body and finish him with his strikes. To ensure you have the absolute advantage, control his elbow even if he falls so you can unleash strikes at will without getting hit.

With practice, you can incorporate the principles of wing chun into your self-defense system no matter what it is. They will enable you to fight where you’re most comfortable—on your feet—and where it’s safest—on the blind side.

Wing Chun Principle #7: Using Chi Sao to Improve Your Contact Reflexes

Hundreds of years ago, Chinese martial artists figured out how to control an opponent’s balance. The key was sensing his energy. Using contact reflexes, they could predict what the other person was about to do with the rest of his body. It was so successful that it’s still a part of the Chinese martial arts.

By using touch instead of sight, you can cut your reaction time from 0.2 seconds to 0.05 seconds. Once you’ve sensed his movement through contact, your eyes will be free to tackle other missions, such as making your strikes more accurate and monitoring your adversary’s free hand and his legs.

The traditional training method known as chi sao is wing chun’s preferred method for honing this skill. Because it helps you develop the required touch sensitivity and reflexes, it allows you to “read” what your opponent is doing and react to his movement more quickly than if you used your eyes only.

In chi sao drills, you and your partner stand with your hands touching to facilitate the detection of movement. You then have him run through various attacks to develop your ability to feel and predict. When you’re done, reverse roles.

In wing chun, your goal is to remain standing, but no one’s perfect. If you fall, be prepared to back off until you can scramble to your feet. Again, chi sao can help by enabling you to control your opponent’s elbow and then change the angle of leverage long enough to escape.

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