Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Genesis and Development of Zone Theory by Badger Johnson

The Genesis and Development of Zone Theory

Back in 1976, I had been doing Martial Arts for about 6 years, seriously for about three. I was sitting in my car waiting for a friend, thinking about James Yimm Lee’s book on Wing Chun.

Suddenly, it occurred to me that there was a type of ‘Unified Theory’ of how to conceptualize martial arts that transcended and incorporated all the styles and types of hand-to-hand fighting.

Areas of Attack and Defense

I realized that each martial art employed their attack and defense in one or two areas. In Judo, you have grip fighting, tie-ups, throwing and then sometimes a ground submission. So that would be three ranges. Grip would be at arm’s length, closer if it was a collar grip. Tie-ups would be collar ties, wraps, body locks, often in preparation to the throw. Finally, they’d have ground grappling, either a pin or a scramble to a submission. One key was that all these ranges or zones involved being in contact. You could read or feel your opponent’s intent and could react faster than trying to see or guess the intent. It’s called proprioceptive reflexes or contact reflexes.

In Karate, they had long range posturing, long kicks, shorter kicks, long strikes, shorter strikes, elbows, knees and head-butts but they rarely went to the ground, and if they did, there was not a logical plan for ending the fight nor a very good way to train that. They talked about certain locks and grabs, but it was rudimentary and not well incorporated into the training. They definitely did not fight from the ground in a fluid manner, but stopped when someone was taken down or would end up on the ground in a pile.

In Boxing they generally had long strikes and bent-arm blows (hooks and uppercuts). They had swings and crosses. So in effect they really worked in two ranges or zones. I call them zones because it’s not always about exact distances.

I went through the martial arts that I knew, including Greco-Roman Wrestling, boxing, Judo, Aikido, Karate, and other esoteric styles and tried to dissect and describe them based not on their name or their style but what ranges they trained and also what ranges they omitted.

Defining Arts by Zones

Just as suddenly I realized that defining these arts by zones I also could see where they had holes, or deficiencies in their practice and their strategy and tactics.

As I learned Escrima, Arnis or stickfighting in 1980, I also added that to the zone theory, and saw how they could make preparatory moves, they could strike the opponent’s hand but not be in range or the right zone to be hit to the body.

I also realized that some people did talk about range, but in general, back in 1976 people talked style and they were insular and jealously defended their art as being complete and sufficient. But I knew that Karate players were vulnerable to short punches, combinations, throws and ground fighting. I had seen the Gracies-In-Action tape around the time I started training FMA and Arnis, and realized there was more to ground fighting than I realized. Later I separated that range into top control and bottom control, since they developed a robust way to fight off your back, which was counter to what most Western grappling did – they avoided fighting from the back and didn’t do much in the ways of getting position for submissions.

Expanding or Contracting the Zones

One thing that Arnis masters talked about was dealing with multiple strikes from different angles as ‘one strike’. That idea inspired me to realize that sometimes the zones or ranges were open, and fighters exploited them and other times, for various reasons, the ranges were closed and not available, either through ignorance or even skill on the part of the opponent.

Some groups would insist there were only three ranges, standup, clinch and ground, like the Straight Blast Gym group. But they would be using a variety of skills to get in range (close the gap),  to get ‘in the pocket’ and throw short punches, and to transition from clinch to ground or back to striking. They used other zones and ranges but didn’t specifically recognize them.

I looked around further after I had developed my theory and discovered that the Dog Brothers had developed a theory of ranges, but in the late 80s and at the time they had six ranges. Now they have modified it to seven ranges according to Marc Denny (private message). To their credit they were open to evolving their concept.

I expanded my concept of ranges to include, in the end about 10 ranges. Some were subtle, many were not strictly defined by distance. I realized that there was a distinct division of all the ranges into those that began when there was no contact (thus requiring they bridge the gap and also that they didn’t have contact to feel the opponent’s intent), and those that work in the contact range. Some did both.

Developing the Chart

Back to the Wing Chun book, I had noted that they had striking and trapping, so I made trapping a zone, but I realized that Western wrestling and Judo also worked in this range, but differently. The grappling arts worked in the close in range (but not quite body to body initiated) but they had tie-ups which were designed to get the back, to get a throw or a trip or sweep or takedown. In addition grapplers did work outside the contact zone and they closed that by using the ‘penetration step’, which involved catching the opponent stepping forward and then lowering their level and going in deep for waist, knee or foot control. So the grappling arts method of bridging the gap was different than the striking arts. They drew the opponent in, then lowered their level, making it deceptive and using timing.

Developing the Matrix of Qualities by Zone

So, I developed both a chart and a matrix of these zones. In the first chart I defined the Zones, making it clear that it wasn’t all about specific distances, and then I developed a Matrix of the zones and the qualities that each of these zones displayed. I used things like ‘favorable moves’, ‘best weapon or move’, vulnerabilities, methods of training, styles which were most representative of each, showing the styles broken into and defined by range or zone.

Foul Tactics or ‘Seaming’ the Zones

I also added ‘foul tactics’, which I thought often worked on the seams between ranges. For example a missed punch in boxing turned into an elbow. A sudden clinch could lead to a head butt. A clinch could squelch an attack and gain time or position, and sometimes in dirty boxing they would hold and hit, among other things.

In Aikido I discovered that sometimes the master would use a foul tactic (pinching the Uke usually unnoticed which would cause them to flinch and be thrown more easily).

In grappling there are all kinds of fouls, like small joint manipulations, biting (sometimes just biting the gi to get a grip), putting the jaw into an eye, even pulling hair, and twisting or gripping the flesh or the nose.

I put the zones along the x-axis and the tactics or qualities along the y-axis. I limited the qualities to a few things, but tried to get the most relevant ones, including transitions like pummeling, grip fighting and sprawling.

What Works for You

The main thing about this chart is that you can decide what works for you. You can use it to find the holes in your game. You can use the concept to make a framework to structure your opponent in the real world. You can adapt and add or subtract based on your own experience and skill.

With that said, here is the chart:

Please click X-Large to view online or right click -> save as for original pic resolution to view offline.

Badger Johnson © 1976-2015

Please check out Badger Johnson's other essays:

NOTE:  My sincerest appreciation for Badger's gracious consent for permission to archive his essay to my site.

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