Blocking the jab

"You can't block a jab - and that shows blocks don't work"

I recently made a video on this topic and I'm surprised by the reactions - especially the private ones: my inbox this morning is full, mostly of some very strongly worded negativity towards what I thought was a fairly honest, unremarkable analysis of the possibilities and limitations of blocking jabs.  I guess people can't seem to understand that a video filmed in class doesn't provide a full analysis of a topic and relies on some background.

I made the video recalling an event that occurred some 20 years ago.  I was training in a gym which had boxers training.  One young trainee there knew I did karate, so he came up and challenged me.  "Blocks don't work," he said.  Then he mimicked a jodan uke and a chudan uke, showing he'd done bit of cursory study in karate.  "You couldn't possibly use these to stop my jab."

I'm going to put aside the obvious absurdity of his position: that difficulties in "blocking" (ie. deflecting/parrying/intercepting) a jab is in no way indicative of blocking every other form of attack.  But in point of principle, he was wrong: you can block a jab - if your arms are up.

So some time ago I made this video in which I showed how it could be done.

Indeed, this is precisely what I did to the young man. I "blocked" every single one of his jabs (he did about 4 or 5 in succession).  Indeed, he didn't even get close (and he wasn't all that bad in handspeed either).

A question of range

It's important to note that he threw all his jabs from a decent range - like most combat sports fighters do.  Jabs are, after all, "approach shots" - they aren't something you throw when you're in the "thick of it" - in the melee range.  There, people use "straight" punches - not "jabs".

After I successfully deflected his jabs, the young man said: "Aha!" he said.  But you weren't using a "block".  You were using an abbreviation!"

My response was: "So what?"  The basic block explores a full range of motion and teaches you a plane and angle of interception/deflection.  It isn't a literal technique but a full range movement to inculcate muscle memory, proprioception and kinaesthesia.

It ended with him muttering about how I wasn't using karate and that he was being kind (which he was) by not fully committing to hit me.  The fact that I didn't commit with my counterpunch, nor throw/grapple him when he came into a clinch after I closed the gap with my deflection, seemed to escape him.

But it is important to note that at the usual jab range (being an "approach shot"), I was able to deflect a fast punch with a retraction - which he had asserted was an "impossibility".

[Note: I'm not suggesting I would use a deflection against a boxer in a ring.  This would not work.  For a start, gloves are too big to allow forearm use - they get in the way and change dynamics.  Apart from that, from a civilian defence perspective there are better ways of dealing with a jab launched from a longer range.  I'd probably default to what boxers do and just dodge it or lean away.  That's assuming I got into a sort of "ring type fight" where I was circling an opponent, waiting for openings - something that very rarely happens in civilian defence encounters.]

What happens when you're in closer?

So what happens if you're in closer - dead in the melee range?  Can you block a jab there?

Well this is a moot question because very few people are likely to throw jabs in that range.  As I've noted, combat sports fighters just don't.  They just punch.  They don't "jab" when either side can throw a full power cross/hook/uppercut etc.

Nor do people in the street tend to attack with "jabs" - at least in the strict sense of what is technically regarded as a jab in boxing etc.

But the other day I faced the same argument from someone online.  "You couldn't block my punch - it's too fast.  I'd have retracted it before you even got your block into position!"

Now I'm going to leave aside the whole "retraction" issue, which I've done to death.  Retraction speed has nothing to do with outward speed.  But the other night I thought I'd examine the whole issue of what happens in the melee range - which is where civilian defence plays out.  Can one block a jab there?

I already knew the answer - but I thought I'd put it on video.  The following footage is taken from an ordinary class.  (You'll note that I expected to cop a few hits, so I put in a mouth guard!)

For this example, I used a "sukui" (scooping) deflection suitable for the inside.  Why?  Just because we were exploring its applications from the goju katas saifa and seiunchin - no other reason (we were just in the middle of a class, as usual - this is not specially filmed for YouTube).  If it were up to me, I'd do an outside deflection like the hiki uke above.  But never mind.

So what happened?

The results

I found that if I had my hands down at my sides I had pretty much zero chance of intercepting his punch - regardless of where Xin's arms were.  That's because I had to move almost as far as Xin did to intercept his punch, yet he had at least a 0.3s advantage (I'm getting older so my reaction time is probably around 0.35 on average now!).

If we both had our arms raised (bearing in mind we're in the melee range and can reach each other's faces without much of an effort) then it was really 50/50: what advantage Xin had in being the initiator (with me "waiting" and responding) was negated by the fact that I only had to move a tiny fraction of Xin's distance in terms of effecting a deflection.

[At this point I'll note that Xin retracts his arm on the left but not on the right.  This is simply an artefact of Xin being an orthodox puncher who seldom jabs with his right.  It is also totally irrelevant to this rather artificial test - an isolation of reaction times.  Someone debating with me on Facebook started on about how important the retraction was to combinations, yadda yadda.  Yes, yawn.  This wasn't an instruction of "how to fight".  It was a test of whether one could block a jab.  The outward speed is what we were measuring - not what happened afterwards.]

However, when Xin did the whole "monkey dance" routine and moved up to eyeball me, arms down, then suddenly threw a punch (which one could call a kind of "jab" since it is straight), he didn't stand a chance.  Like the boxer punching me from a distance, I had plenty of time to deflect his punch.

[To further answer my correspondent on Facebook, I'll also note that I closed the gap straight away to deal with multiple punches and immediately countered.  So the retraction thing really is a red herring.]

The lesson: don't "wait" for punches to block!

The main lesson I sought to obtain from this analysis is that once you're in the melee range and both sides have arms raised, you really are smack in the middle of a full-blown fight.  You have zero reason to "wait" for a punch that you might block.  There is no rule in traditional martial arts that states this.  Never once is it mentioned in any of the classic writings or old tales.  There is no kata or form that requires you to "wait" for anything.  "Karate ni sente nashi" (there is no 'first strike' in karate) doesn't mean you are required to stand around, passively responding to aggression.  This is plain daft.  And everyone who raises this appalling argument against traditional martial arts is simply erecting a straw man.

Where do you "wait"?  There is only one instance: where you don't know if your antagonist is really intent on fighting.  I'm sure most of you will be well aware that most little aggressions out there, in queues, parking lots and over neighbourhood fences, are mostly verbal.  There may even be a bit of chest bumping.  But most of the time you have two very frightened males trying not to show it and not wanting to be humiliated.  Neither wants to fight.  You'd be an absolute moron to escalate every such situation into a full-blown fight by throwing a first punch the moment someone you're arguing with stepped a "bit too close".  And, as I've previously argued, you'd likely also run foul of the law.

So there might be situations where you raise your arms passively above what I have called the "centre sternum line".  This will help you deal with any punch that might suddenly come your way.  I'd be confident that in 90% of most Western interactions, nothing much will happen and the whole thing will simply fade away.  But in about 10% you could face a sudden punch - usually from lowered hands (if your antagonist raises his hands to fight, then the situation is totally different).

In terms of chances of intercepting/deflecting a punch, the absolute worst case scenario is that you face a straight, "shortest distance between two points" punch.  You can call this a jab, or you can just call it a lead punch.  But what my video above demonstrates is that a properly trained traditional martial artist will easily deflect that.  This means that any other circular punch - be it a looping cross or a haymaker, will be easier due to the increased travel time.

So you can block a jab.  It just depends on what you mean by "jab".

If your opponent raises his hands to fight, and he is in close (melee) range then you have a very different situation.  You are already in a fight.  You have to be proactive.  You don't have to "wait" for his attack and no one has ever said so (other than ignoramuses who peddle this tired trope).

My conclusion

The whole "you can't block my jab so that proves blocks don't work" is a nonsense.  First, I stand a very good chance of "blocking" your jab if it is launched from a longer range.  I probably won't, but that is an entirely different issue.

If you are jabbing from within the melee range, then something is very odd indeed.  But chances are we are toe to toe and both punching.  I won't be arms down, waiting for your punch (where I have zero chance of not being hit by your jab).  I train to position myself very differently in that range, so I won't be facing off with you, "waiting" for your jab (and certainly not with arms down).  I'll be doing my own punching, thank you very much, as well as trapping, grappling, pushing, throwing etc.

If you come at me with the "monkey dance" and throw a punch, I'm fairly confident that, if I keep my wits about me and make sure my hands are sufficiently raised, I'll deflect your punch.  Then I'll rapidly close any gap, deal with any combination you're throwing and deliver my own counter, all more or less at the same time.  Obviously if you throw any other, longer, more telegraphed punch, I'll be able to intercept that even easier.

Am I certain that I will do so every time?  There's no guarantee.  I might have a bad day.  I might face someone whose hand speed totally eclipses this rapidly aging suburban martial artist.

All I can say is that there is nothing wrong with the method.  It works as well as any for its intended purpose - civilian defence.  It's just that there are never any guarantees.

Copyright © 2015 Dejan Djurdjevic