High-Percentage vs Low-Percentage

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

When you gather a sufficient number of martial artists online, you will inevitably generate arguments over which techniques really work or do not work.  Frequently this gets framed in terms of which techniques work “in a real fight.”  This then evolves into a discussion of what constitutes a “real fight.”  (According to many, it appears that a typical real fight consists of being assaulted out of the blue by a gang of armed murderous sociopaths on a crowded bar-room floor covered with broken glass.  Only the most bad-ass of techniques will suffice for this eventuality.)

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

It seems obvious that some techniques are just completely unrealistic and would never work.  Back when I was training in the Bujinkan, there was a technique called Kuki Nage (air throw) that Hatsumi-sensei (grandmaster of the Bujinkan) would sometimes demonstrate.  With this technique the attacker would throw a punch and Hatsumi would move out of the way at the last second, causing the attacker to over-extend and fall without being touched. Supposedly this was an demonstration of Hatsumi’s immaculate timing and ability to blend with the attacker’s energy.  A number of us spent time trying to emulate this feat.  At least one instructor that I knew gave demonstrations of the technique and explained that it represented esoteric methods for manipulating an attacker’s metaphysical energy. In reality, the ability to reliably demonstrate the technique depended on having a compliant uke who would overcommit to an attack and had been mentally conditioned to going along with his instructor’s techniques to the point where, given the right cues, he would throw himself without being touched.

Is this an example of a technique that would never work in real life?  Not quite.  Years previously, as a total beginner in the martial arts, I was sparring with a friend who practiced karate.  He got frustrated because I was repeatedly nailing him with side kicks from a distance.  He lost his temper and charged me with a flurry of punches.  I stepped out of the way just in time.  He lost his balance, tripped and went flying, connecting with a wall head first.  It was a perfect kuki nage – I didn’t touch him and he went airborne. Of course, it was pure luck, but it did happen that one time.

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

It also might seem obvious that some techniques are super-reliable.  No-one can just shrug off a hard shot to the groin or a poke in the eye, right?  Not necessarily.

I witnessed a fight many years ago when I was stationed at Fort Sam Houston for National Guard training.  One rowdy drunk came into the barracks late after a night of partying, loud and obnoxious and  cursing out anyone who asked him to be quiet so they could get  some sleep.  Another soldier, also drunk but wanting some rest, took exception and grabbed the loudmouth in a headlock.  Rowdy drunk then proceeded to hit sleepy drunk with a series of about ten hard uppercuts directly in the balls.  Sleepy drunk responded by slamming rowdy drunk head-first into the lockers until the loudmouth was unconscious and could be tied down into his bunk.  Later on, once the alcohol and adrenaline wore off, sleepy drunk was in a lot of pain,  During the fight, those groin shots did nothing but make him mad.

How about eye pokes?  During my years of sparring, I’ve been accidentally poked hard in the eye three times.  One time dropped me immediately with agonizing pain.  One time made my eyes water in the moment and gave me weird visual after-effects for six months.  The third time my eyes watered up so I could barely see – but I managed to get hold of my sparring partner anyway and operating purely on feel was able to take him down and finish him with an armbar.  The eye poke was effective, but it didn’t guarantee victory.

No technique works every time.  Every technique works some of the time.

None of this is to say that all techniques are equal.  The best framework to use in comparing them is not “works/doesn’t work” but “high-percentage/low-percentage.” If a technique frequently works in a wide variety of situations, against a wide variety of opponents, without relying on superior attributes or luck, then you can consider it “high-percentage.”  If the move depends on superior strength or speed or an incompetent opponent, then it is better classed as “low-percentage.”

None of this should be based on theory or tradition.  Looking back on my time in the Bujinkan, the biggest weakness of the training was that it was based almost exclusively with compliant partners feeding highly stylized attacks.  As a result, there was very little awareness of which techniques were high-percentage and which were low-percentage. Practitioners spent a lot of time drilling moves that they would almost certainly never get to work even in a lifetime of real fights at the expense of techniques that would be much more reliable.

BJJ practitioners tend to be more aware of which techniques are high-percentage, due to the competitive nature of the art.  When you can reliably execute a technique against a skilled opponent who knows the technique is coming and is doing his best to stop you from getting it, you know the technique is high-percentage. Even so, practitioners who only train for one context can have gaps in their understanding.  A technique which is high-percentage for countering a skilled grappler in an IBJJF tournament may not be so useful for stopping a 250-pound biker who wants to smash your face in a street fight – and vice versa.  Some techniques are actually useful in both contexts – those would be truly high-percentage.

Just because a technique is low-percentage does not necessarily mean you should never study it.  Sometimes a technique is low-percentage not because it’s no good, but because it’s only useful for specific circumstances – perhaps a certain environment or an opponent who has a certain style of punching.  If you happen to encounter those specific circumstances, then the “low-percentage” move might be a life-saver.  What I do advocate is training your high-percentage moves first and foremost. 

An analogy might help.  Suppose you decide to carpet your entire apartment on a budget.  An idiosyncratic friend of your owns a carpet remnant warehouse with pieces ranging from room-size down to a few inches across.  He offers you all the carpet you need at an unbeatable price – but he charges a flat rate per piece rather than by the square foot. What do you do? Well, obviously, you start out with the big pieces that will cover an entire room with only a minimum of cutting.  Later on you can pick up some smaller scraps to take care of that oddly shaped bend on the second floor hallway.  You wouldn’t buy five thousand 6-inch scraps and try to cover the entire apartment.  By the same token, your martial arts training is best served by focusing on the high-percentage techniques that will cover most of the situations you might ever be in.  Once you have those down solidly, you can start looking at the more unlikely what-ifs.

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