What is “Grappling”?


I was involved in a recent discussion where the term “grappling” came up, and I very quickly realized that my definition of “grappling” didn’t mesh with the individual I was talking to. He used the term to mean ground fighting. I use the term to refer to the set of techniques for fighting that require or establish fixed points of contact. There are even more definitions for “grapple”. It can refer to a specific set of sport rules under FILA. It could be a metal hook used to anchor a ship. It could even by a hybrid fruit between a grape and an apple. So, what is “grappling”, and how should we use the term?

If we consider the terminology of judo, “grappling” is katame waza, or at least we translate katame waza as “grappling techniques”. Katame waza is composed of three groups: shime waza (chokes), kansetsu waza (joint locks), and osaekomi waza (pins). It doesn’t include nage waza (throws and takedowns), but it doesn’t mean groundwork either, that’s ne waza. In fact, Aikido and jujitsu are built around the notion that kansetsu waza can be done standing. It is the case that katame waza and ne waza are pretty interchangeable in practice though. Joint locks in a competitive setting are more likely to be finished on the ground.

Merriam-Webster defines “grapple” as:

transitive verb

  1. to seize with or as with a grapple
  2. to come to grips with : wrestle
  3. to bind closelysynonyms: wrestle, rassle, scuffle, tussle

I think there’s a few good take-aways from the entry. Number one is that “rassle” is a real word according to the Merriam-Websert dictionary so maybe the world did end without us noticing. The second is the appropriate use of “scuffle” because it’s so much more specific than generally referring to a fight as people seem to use the term today. The third is that we have a pretty good standard definition for “grapple” in English – to take hold. So we have a few definitions, we could go to other resources to get more, but what we end up with is pretty much the same: fighting, grabbing, etc.

So, why do I think of “grappling” as being anything that establishes or requires fixed points of contact? People have this amazing gift to sort things based on similarities so that we can cleverly categorize them and use those categories to convey meaning. I personally categorize techniques like I would living things (KPCOFGS). This kind of categorization is useful. It fundamentally needs some term for the top though. Joint locks very clearly aren’t chokes, but they’re both submissions. Submission holds very clearly aren’t throws but they both belong to this general category of techniques that is based around having entangled contact. A leg-reap and a collar grip might be very different, but the concept behind them is the same thing – you’re establishing a fixed point of contact that is used to control the other person. That’s not to say you can’t be striking and grappling at the same time (GNP, the plum, striking while executing a throw), but there are two discrete actions happening at that point. Grappling is being used to maintain those fixed points of control while striking is being used to deliver one or more blows.

It’s similar to how BJJ includes closed-quarters striking, throws, and standing joint locks, but all people ever think of is the ground work. There’s more to it than that. We tend to associate the most common element of something with the definition. In general use, it’s a good assumption. In the case that you’re talking about the entirety of the subject it defines, the assumption falls apart pretty quickly. When we think of judo we only think throws. That’s not to say that judo only has throws or that it’s fair to describe it as throwing alone.

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