4 variables to remember during a melee attack

Keep these vital components to self-defense in mind during close-combat fighting

By Amir Khillah

You’ve been to this house many times and never had an issue, so you assume this will be just another routine call. You even think you could get away with talking the parties down, so you won’t have to write a criminal report. But today is different. John Doe, who is usually cooperative, has had a little too much liquid courage and decides to take a swing at you. Things quickly get out of hand.

There are four variables that come into play during a melee or close-quarters combat: distance and timing, footwork, head movement, and blocking and deflecting.

Maintaining a proper reactionary gap can be hard, especially when complacency sets in.
Maintaining a proper reactionary gap can be hard, especially when complacency sets in. (Photo/Amir Khillah)

1. Distance and timing

The most important aspect of striking is controlling the distance. In fighting, it’s called distance/timing; in law enforcement, we refer to it as the “reactionary gap.”

Maintaining a proper reactionary gap can be hard, especially when complacency sets in. Keeping people out of your “kill zone” may be at the forefront of your mind if you are a couple of years out of the police academy, but if you have a few miles on you, it’s easy to get comfortable and allow citizens into this critical area. But preventing this is one of the most important elements of defending against a melee attack. So keep your eyes up (even when running file status checks!), and keep the subject at a distance where they will have to attempt to close the gap before delivering a punch, kick, elbow, knee, or head butt while you are writing down the proper spelling of the subject’s name.

2. Footwork

The second most important variable is footwork. The subject, for example, takes the opportunity when you look down to change the channel on your radio and steps in with a wide, although highly visible, telegraphed and ineffective punch. The last thing you want to do is wake up missing your department-issued firearm and finding your partner staring down at you. 

There are many drills you can do to improve your footwork.
There are many drills you can do to improve your footwork. (Photo/Amir Khillah)

Your ability to move your feet and get you out of the striking range of the suspect is vital. There are many drills you can do solo to improve your footwork. Just remember:

  • The foot closest to the desired direction of travel needs to initiate the movement.
  • Maintain a fixed stance; don’t allow your strong-side leg to abut your support-side side leg, leaving you out of a staggered stance and making it easier for a suspect to take you down.

3. Head Movement

Get off the “X” is a term we throw around a lot in law enforcement. Your ability to get your head out of the line of a punch is important. Although we could have avoided ending up here if we paid attention to distance, timing and footwork, we now need to resort to our third line of defense: moving our head out of the way of that incoming fist or beer bottle.

There are a number of drills from basic Western boxing (you can find these online) that will teach you how to move your head. Better yet, wear a pair of safety glasses, grab a partner, and have her/him throw some tennis balls at your face. Try moving your head off the “X”; remember, “if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.” By the way, this drill also works great for footwork. For now, just focus on moving your head off the line.

4. Blocking

If a subject has got past our first three lines of defense (distance, footwork and head movement), now we move to our last level of defense, blocking, parrying and deflecting strikes.

When it comes to blocking, parrying, or deflecting, you need to think of the bumper on your vehicle. If you’re going to get rear-ended, the bumper doesn’t shoot out and intercept the vehicle behind you, instead, it absorbs the impact of the crash and disperses it into foam or springs. Your block/deflections need to mimic the same action. Don’t reach out to block a strike. Reaching out will leave you open in other areas, plus force you to defend a larger perimeter or sphere. Keep your hands up (they are never as high as you think), and keep them close to your “off buttons,” which are the temple and jaw areas of your face.

The bottom line

If you’re like me and are just looking for the “punch line” (no pun intended), maintain proper distancing or a reactionary gap. Make sure your feet know how to move to avoid getting your head clobbered. If your feet fail you, make sure your head can bail itself out. If you are completely off guard, keep your hands up and close to your vital targets.

About the author

Amir Khillah is a retired professional fighter and holds a master’s degree in human performance, a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology/kinesiology. He is a police academy subject control instructor and a full-time police officer. Visit his website at www.CenturionMSC.com

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