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The Science of Ground and Pound: Introduction

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BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch takes his first foray into grappling--well, kind of. Introducing a new series exploring the many facets of striking on the ground, arguably the true signature technique of mixed martial arts.

USA TODAY Sports

"Ground and Pound." Some like the term, some hate it, but every single MMA fan knows what it means. Supposedly the term was coined by Mark Coleman. but the practice has come a long way since "The Hammer" was at the top of the sport. Gone are the days when grapplers like Sakuraba and Royce Gracie could dominate opponents on the ground without throwing a single punch. Now MMA is a sport that not only includes striking on the ground, but one which demands it.

In fact, you could argue that "Ground and Pound" defines this sport. Ground striking is the one aspect that sets MMA apart from nearly every other combat sport in the world. It's also the one that, more than anything else, seems to deter those with weak stomachs. In fact, you could make the argument that GnP is the biggest hurdle remaining in the way of mainstream acceptance of MMA. To me, though, it is one of the most fascinating facets of the sport, and one without which MMA could never be the same.

With this ambitious new series, I and other members of the Bloody Elbow writing staff will analyze the techniques and strategies of striking on the ground, in the hopes of gaining a greater technical understanding of this much-maligned and little-explored aspect of the sport. In future installments, we will break down the strikes by position, identifying the best ways to attack an opponent from full guard, open guard, side control, mount, back mount, and turtle position.

But before we delve into the specifics, let's go through the basic fundamentals of fighting with strikes on the ground. Unsurprisingly, the fundamentals of ground fighting are, at their core, indistinguishable from the fundamentals of fighting on the feet.

They are:

1) Balance
2) Leverage
3) Distance Management

Let's go through these basic concepts one by one, and take a look at how they play into the exciting frontier that is Scientific Ground & Pound.

BALANCE

Seemingly self-explanatory, balance is a fundamental aspect of not only every phase of fighting, but every athletic activity out there. The need to control one's bodyweight and center of gravity is essential to every sport on earth, but the need for excellent balance is underscored in combat sports, where compromised balance can quickly lead to profound physical harm.

In a fight, the need for balance is generally a defensive one. An unbalanced punch can give the opponent an opportunity to counter, for example. Likewise, a grappler needs his balance to prevent the opponent from sweeping him. This is generally achieved by widening one's "stance" on the ground, keeping the hips and, therefore, the center of gravity low.

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Jon Jones spreads his knees apart to widen his base in Brandon Vera's guard.

Ground fighting is unique, however, in that balance plays a key role in offense. Here we can understand balance not only as a matter of stability, but in terms of weight distribution. Unlike fighting on the feet, battling it out on the floor often puts one partially or completely on top of the opponent. In a sense, this means that a fighter in top position is essentially fighting on an unstable surface. He must balance himself not only in relation to the stable floor, but in relation to the resistance of the opponent. Thus, a fighter on top needs to know how to control the movements of his opponent by adjusting the distribution of his weight.

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Cain Velasquez positions his weight over Cheick Kongo's hips to drive him to the ground.

The need to utilize one's weight to control the opponent means that punching power on the ground is often the result of different factors than punching power on the feet. A standing fighter has the luxury of shifting his weight this way or that, effectively throwing his entire body into his blows. The ground fighter, on the other hand, very often has to commit his weight to controlling the man on bottom, meaning other elements of power generation take precedence. Elements such as . . .

LEVERAGE

Leverage as a concept is difficult to describe. A cursory search (of Dictionary.com) tells me that leverage is defined as "the action of a lever, a rigid bar that pivots about one point and that is used to move an object at a second point by a force applied at a third," which . . . kind of explains an arm bar but doesn't really add much to our understanding of positional grappling and striking.

Rather, let's get away from explanations of simple machines, and provide the alternate definition of leverage as "using the position of one's body to generate force." The better the position, the more leverage a fighter has at his disposal. Standing, leverage plays into both striking and wrestling. The man whose hips are lower generally has a leverage advantage over his opponent, increasing his chances of taking or knocking the other man down.

On the ground, however, the man striking is almost always on top. Standing or posturing up over the opponent doesn't give one any opportunities to get beneath his hips, nor would positioning one's body in this way create any additional leverage. Instead, leverage is tied to a fighter's ability to drive off the ground. While the fighter is frequently unable to truly transfer weight from one foot to the other, his bodyweight can still be thrown into the opponent, using the solid, stable ground as a base.

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Thiago Silva using a little leverage to rearrange the nose of Brandon Vera.

Essentially, the rule on the ground is "plant and drive," though body rotation alone can also lead to some remarkable power punches. There is no questioning the usefulness of getting a grip on the floor, however. With the help of a stable base and a strong kinetic chain, it can seem frighteningly easy to knock out a grounded opponent.

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Muhammad Lawal explains the concept of leverage to Seth Petruzelli.

In terms of pure grappling, leverage can be applied even in direct contact with the opponent. After all, a fighter must grab his adversary's hips before he can apply his leverage to them and take him down. When it comes to punching, though, there is one factor that simply cannot be ignored.

DISTANCE MANAGEMENT

It sounds complicated, but the concept of distance management is really very simple. To strike with power, a minimum distance must be created between object and target. Given just two inches of room, there is little one can realistically do to hurt the opponent with a punch. Add a foot and a half of open space between that fist and the opponent's jaw, however, and you've got a recipe for a knockout blow.

In ground fighting, this space is usually created by "posturing up." To do this, a fighter needs to widen the angle between his torso and his opponent's. The closer the angle comes to 90 degrees, the more space for punching and, therefore, the more power those punches will carry.

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Fedor Emelianenko postures up to land a straight punch from within Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira's guard.

A blow needs momentum to hurt the opponent. Whether heavy-handed or lightning fast, every knockout artist needs to get his fist moving at a certain speed before it carries enough impetus to knock the opponent out. Speed must be built up--however quickly a strike accelerates, it needs a bit of time to really get going, and in fighting time equals distance. Within limits, the greater the distance between an initiated strike and the target, the more power that strike will carry on impact.

Distance works both ways, of course. The top fighter might seek to posture up and rain fists and elbows down on his foe, but this allows the man on bottom to pursue submissions and strikes of his own. Gravity and leverage give the top fighter a distinct advantage in striking on the ground, but there are plenty of crafty fighters who use their opponent's posture against him from their backs.

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Josh Barnett pushes Randy Couture's face away from the bottom, only to release his pressure and let Randy fall face-first into a cross elbow.

Space creates both risk and opportunity on the ground. Not only can the bottom fighter strike back when given the room to do so, but a combatant who allows too much open space risks losing control of his opponent's body, giving the downed fighter a chance to escape and return to his feet.

Of course, these are the most basic of fundamentals. We have yet to really touch on any of the many unique and fascinating techniques available to fighters who wish to strike on the ground. But now that we understand these core factors, we can jump right into the methods for undoing one of MMA's most common defensive positions: the closed guard.

Next time, Dallas Winston, T. P. Grant, and myself will explore the specifics of striking an opponent in closed guard--why fighters are sometimes smart to forego the pass in favor of landing punches, how to strike without falling into submissions, and how to generate sufficient power to put a man out without ever leaving the comfort of his guard.