Mass Attack! Is This Training Realistic?

Posted by: John W. Zimmer
Under: karate, Self-defense
14 Jan 2012


I don’t know about you but if I could count how many bad karate movies I’ve seen where the good guy is surrounded by a bunch of bad guys and wins… It kind of almost shakes your faith in the martial arts. I mean because as presented – the only way the good guys could win is if the bad guys were inept! I don’t know about you but I do not want to depend on my opponent not knowing what he is doing as my defense!


Imagine you take a short-cut home through an alley and all of a sudden you see a couple of thugs in front of you but as you turn – you notice a couple more thugs materializing from behind some trash cans. You notice they have clubs and knifes and after you throw them your wallet they are still approaching? What do you do? What can you do when multiple attackers are closing in on you? More on this later.


I would submit what most karate schools (evidenced from all of the karate mass attack videos on youtube) teach is dangerous! When I was a kid I used to like watching Peter Pan and Batman and Robin but even back then I had an inkling that never never land was not real. Do we truly have to suspend common sense to take karate lessons?


In this post I intend to critique the seemingly common practice of teaching inept methods of mass attack to karate students and praise the schools that give students a realistic chance. Watch this video for context and note I am not inpuning the fighting ability of the style or participants but rather the concept/strategy employed to ward off a group of attackers. The first minute of this video has the mass attack.


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I enjoyed watching the in essence kata or form but I have a lot of critiques of how this might have been made more realistic. I don’t mean to pick on this video any more than any of the others as I would have the same critiques of any of them.


First here is a few ways to fight and win in a mass attack:

  • Mess the first attacker up with overwhelming force and really hurt him so bad the rest of the group will back off (if you have time)
  • Pull a superior weapon like a baseball bat or a gun and take them all out (those that do not retreat)


Notice that neither of the two above strategies involve you standing in the middle and taking on attackers in turn (or should not). This is because in a real fight you do not know who is going to come at you when – so the idea of planning anything and just reacting will only go so far. I will grant that if you are a tough – good fighting son of a gun you just might take on a group of attackers fighting from the middle but this is the exception and you will not come away unscathed.


How then can one win against a mass attack? Well first you need a lot of luck. It is far better to not get into the situation in the first place. As far as strategy you would have to figure out a way to fight one guy at a time in a standing position. If you start wrestling around you will be dead meat for any of the other attackers that will kick you when you are down (unlike MMA).


How do you fight one guy at a time? Well it is a combination of running and fighting. When I had to do it – I mostly ran in half-circles around combatants to try and get one attacker alone for a few seconds and then I’d pounce. It was really frustrating (I was fighting six guys) because I could not stomp anyone (to keep them from getting up) so I had to fight for about 10 minutes on the expanse of a city block before the cops got there. By that time there were only three guys left fighting me and they could not do anything (by that time they were afraid of me as I’d smack them whenever they came inside my distance).


But what about all of the videos or movies that show one guy in the middle taking on all? In a word Fantasy! Why would a bunch of guys rush in one at a time and give you ca chance? You could try to convince them to send their champion and appeal to their ego – but that won’t work for long.


Most karate schools are more focused on the tree rather than the forest. Meaning how to do the basics, kata, techniques, and pass the belt ranking seem to be more important that fighting in many cases. That is the only way a school would sell a fantasy in lieu of the real think.


All of what is taught even in a traditional karate class is applicable in a fight – just not in the way some students and schools think if they are teaching unrealistic strategies such as. My hope is this is all for show just like breaking techniques are (I mean when is the last time you saw a board attack you back?). As a lifetime fighter (that is how I always viewed myself) I have been interested in what worked. If something did not work I dismissed it as a kata or dance if you will or just fluff. This is how I look at anything that in my view is not applicable or would not work often.


In a nut shell most techniques that depend on superior reflexes inside your critical distance (the distance the opponent can reach you with a kick or punch) have little chance of working unless the other guy makes a mistake. I know we are all used to watching boxers and MMA fighters toe to toe. That have the advantage of rules that protect them from most devastating attacks such as groin shots, eye gouges, throat strikes, kicking your opponent on the ground and such that you don’t in a real fight.


The trained professional fighters have another obvious advantage – superior conditioning. This is their day job. They can take a good punch from anyone as well as a ton of abuse. The average joe flies a desk for his day job and takes karate lessons as a hobby. He is not going to be in the amazing condition of a pro-fighter so he cannot make mistakes and muddle through.


Ok – how about those schools that put on the pad, and head protectors and go at it realistically? That is better but not really needed. At least those schools are not selling their students a bill of goods when it comes to mass attacks. The student is going to know they have little chance success unless they are able to move around and fight one on one. Hopefully it does not turn into a slug fest as there is no point to that strategically (meaning no tactics employed other then measuring toughness).


So what is applicable in a group fight? Fighting tactics such as strike and move, position, evasive, fitness levels and so on. One has to strike whenever possible and evade when it is not possible to fight one at a time. Other than that most are not going to be able to out slug two or more people at the same time (unlike the movies).


Work on your fitness levels, point sparring (so you can learn how to strike without getting hit back), bag work, critical distance and initial contact. With a well rounded fighting strategy one can train for any eventuality including a mass attack in a why that makes sense without perpetuating fairy tales.


To finish up my story scenario of the guys coming at you after you threw them your wallet. You need a diversion of some type and then you have to get away if you don’t have a gun on you. In this case I’d suggest a fake and attack after picking up a makeshift weapon or taking off your belt.


Run at one attacker and swerve to another that you perceive to be the easiest to surmount. Get by him and swing your weapon as needed to keep them off of you. Here is the deal – if you have to engage them as you are making your getaway – you are going to have to do some damage as you have four guys after you. Getting to a main steet may help and start yelling fire! Fire!


Get people looking out their doors looking for the fire, while you are dealing with one at a time. At the very least the cops are on the way and you have a fighting chance.


Work your strategy of engaging one at a time and try to do some damage to eventually thin them out. There are no hard fast rules other than NOT letting them engage you at the same time. Your best chance is to fight one at a time even if they have weapons. Use your distance, evasion by running half circles (unless you can outrun them – then do that) and singing out one at a time with your improvised weapon.


In closing I do not mean to attack the integrity of any martial arts schools that teach pretend mass attacks. While I do not see any value it that – they might argue it helps their students work up their courage or something like that. What I do like about any martial arts school is the students do learn the basics and hopefully they will become life long learners and figure out winning strategies that will work for them!

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11 Responses to “Mass Attack! Is This Training Realistic?”

  1. Faik Says:

    Well, John I agree with you on some points but the multiple attackers best defense is a weapon. What have you is what decide if you gonna survive the attack. My best weapon is: if you see many come at you and you don´t have a weapon, strike the first one and then run. Trying to defense against multiple attackers doesn´t work. Only on movies John :)

  2. Eamon Says:

    I agree on the way most karate schools teach multiple opponent…completely unrealistic. However, I do disagree on your point about kata being just a “dance” and meaningless. Kata was never meant for multiple attackers. As Choki Motobu said, the angles in kata do NOT represent where our attacker is, but where we move in regards to them (or move them to). The techniques in kata were developed to be used against common acts of violence from a single attacker and, if trained correctly (which again, many karate schools do not do), they are extremely effective.

  3. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Faik!

    I think the improvised or having a weapon is the best option ofcourse. I also like the attack and get away as I’ve mentioned.

    As far as fighting a groups of guys, I’ve done it a few times without issue. So it works for me albeit I was in the best shape and training level at the time. Thanks for stopping By Faik.

    Hi Eamon!

    Sorry about minimizing the effects of what I called fluff. Kata, techniques and such are an integral part of karate and most martial arts.

    What I should have said is the application for teaching mass attacks should not come from kata because this is more how to train one’s body how to integrate the moves and such for muscle memory and improving technique – not in my opinion how to fight a group of people (even if that is what the kata is about).

    What helped me the most in developing mass defense skills (although I did not know it at the time) was getting into great shape and point karate. I got good at hitting my opponent without getting hit back and moving around.

    Thanks for your opinion Eamon – I think I mostly agree with you.

  4. Eamon Says:

    Point karate also helped me when I was training full contact. The guys that started in full contact (kickboxing, MMA, etc) would always square off against each other and have very poor movement. Because of that, they would always end up exchanging punches and getting hit a lot. The movement from point sparring kept me from getting hit and allowed me to hit back a lot.

    And I do agree about kata not being for multiple attackers. Unfortunately, like the demonstration in your video, many karate schools teach the turns in kata as being facing against several opponents who, of course, all attack one at a time and wait for you to block and attack back. I have heard kata explained like that a lot since I started training, which is absolutely wrong, as you have said. I think Shotokan, as good of a style as it is, is mostly to blame because of all the kihon bunkai against attacks thrown in a way no one will actually attack.

  5. Zara Says:

    I watched the video and can’t say I’m impressed: I guess the guy’s moves were technically correct but the performance was rather bad if this was actually meant to represent a fight against multiple opponents since he barely moved and spent way too much time on each opponent. While I’ve had the good fortune never to have been involved in such a dire situation I know the trick is to keep moving (if you stay in the middle you’re as good as dead) and never hit the same guy more than twice. The object of such a fight is not to win (quasi impossible) but to survive: therefore you should hit and run, look for the exit and get away asap. The longer you stay in their distance the higher your chances of getting seriously injured or killed. If you really can’t run away (if you have to protect someone who isn’t that mobile or you’re stuck in a back-ally with no way out) in my opinion you should attack first (preferably with a weapon if you can get your hands on one) and demolish the guy you’re attacking, so savagely it’ll put fear into the others: even if they don’t back off it might give you a few seconds to move on to the next and fight your way out. What might work, especially if you know your locking, is to hit one guy, lock him up and use him as a shield against the others (preferably in a necklock) although this obviously takes alot of practice.

    In any way I truly hope I’ll never have to find out whether or not I’m ready to face that kind of situation since the chances will be heavily weighed against you (like playing chess against several people at once).

    My to cents as usual.


  6. Dr. J Says:

    I’ve never looked at the martial arts as any more than giving me a chance in a fight that I would not have had without the training. I have never faced multiple attackers in the real world other than that pack of pit bulls. I’m not so sure how you can practice for that, nor what I would do. With flying, I have drilled certain principles into my head as to how I would handle an emergency. When I was faced with one, I reacted immediately and survived it. Strike first, strike fast, strike hard is the mantra. I’d like to keep it a mantra.
    Dr. J recently posted..Lab Notes: Experimental Hepatitis C Drugs Successful; The Choking Game Is Popular with Texas TeensMy Profile

  7. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Well said Zara, I’m with you on the demolish strategy if one has the time. I once got a group of six guys to fight one at a time (for the first three) by saying, “Fight like a man! One at a time.” Then it digressed from there. :)

    Hey Dr J! Somehow I think the canines count. :) I like your mantra.

  8. Jeff Says:

    I had seen this one video which is more believable because it involves running, placing some distance from the attackers then striking the attackers one at a time when they commit a mistake. I have develop some doubts in some martial arts teachings as well. I do believe they are powerful in one on one situation but not so in mass attacks.
    Jeff recently posted..DTS HomeMy Profile

  9. Lori (Vancouver Self-Defense/Martial Arts Instructor) Says:

    I would have to agree with you. Standing in the centre of a group of attackers is hardly a sensible way to handle the situation from a self-defense point of view.

  10. John W. Zimmer Says:

    Hi Jeff – I’m with you about evading and striking when you have a good opening. Unfortunately right now as an older martial artist – I have to lay waste to the first guy and be a little less mobile. Hopefully my wiser attitude will keep me out of most scraps. :)

    Hey Lori – love the new school website. I updated your link. And I’d at least like my back to the wall and a narrow opening if I had a choice. That way it would be just like fighting one at a time.

  11. Jiu Jitsu Maniac Says:

    I have often thought about a multiple on one scenario before and came to a similar conclusion. Run away until only one or two people are close enough to engage and try to take them out one at a time. It might be a different story if you have a bat or a baton.

    In the real world fights are so different than training. In college I did some Tae Kwon Do and had made it to green belt. One day I was with two female friends when three hoodlum girls attacked and mugged my friends. I kept running back and forth from one friend to the other pulling a hoodlum off and then going back to defend the other one. I should have just hit them but I was raised not to hit girls (even if they are mugging your friends). Moral of the story is… IT HAPPENS SO FAST. You don’t have time to stop and think and come up with a strategy. Adrenaline and testosterone take over and your body just reacts. I don’t remember actually making a single decision the entire time of the attack until they were gone.