The Zimmerman Verdict and MMA

Misinformation about martial arts seems to have played a role in the Zimmerman verdict. Because of the mass popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), there is an assumption that people know more about martial arts than they actually do.

When the defense asked Zimmerman’s MMA (mixed martial arts) trainer to demonstrate the ‘mount’ position and the ‘ground-and-pound’, the defense’s theory was based on two propositions.


Misinformation about martial arts seems to have played a role in the Zimmerman verdict. Because of the mass popularity of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), there is an assumption that people know more about martial arts than they actually do.

When the defense asked Zimmerman’s MMA (mixed martial arts) trainer to demonstrate the ‘mount’ position and the ‘ground-and-pound’, the defense’s theory was based on two propositions.

1. That Zimmerman was mounted, with Trayvon on top, raining punches down on him.

2. That the mounted position is a hopeless position for the person on the bottom.

Let us take each of these claims in turn. And let us remember that Zimmerman, as an aspiring police applicant, received about a year of martial arts training prior to shooting Trayvon.

(1)

One of the first things that students of self-defense learn is not to punch people. Young, untrained men (like Trayvon) don’t learn this. The result is that when they get into fights, they use the soft bones of their hands against the hard bones of their opponents’ heads. This is why the first thing that happens in most fights is that the young man who throws the first wild right hand, if it lands, finds that he has broken his punching hand. Hollywood has miseducated generations of people about this with theatrical punching scenes that result in no hand injuries.

The point for the trial? Trayvon had a single abrasion on his left hand. If he was throwing hard punches at Zimmerman’s face, his hands would have been badly damaged. Whatever happened when Zimmerman attacked Trayvon, it did not involve Trayvon repeatedly punching Zimmerman in the face. More likely is that Zimmerman tried to use his MMA training to grapple with Trayvon, and when reality proved less accommodating than he thought, he drew his gun and shot the boy.

(2)

For someone trained in MMA (as Zimmerman was), being ‘mounted’ is far from the end of a fight, especially if the person on top of you (ie., Trayvon) is not trained.

MMA is based on the combination of striking arts, like boxing and Muay Thai, and grappling arts, like wrestling and, especially, jiu jitsu. The phrase ‘ground-and-pound’, which the defense lawyer repeats without context, has an interesting history in the martial arts. The Gracie family, who practice Brazilian jiu jitsu and who founded the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), were extremely successful in the first few UFC tournaments against practitioners of other martial arts precisely because they were comfortable fighting up close, and were capable of fighting and winning even when they were mounted, with their opponents on top of them. Indeed, reversing the mount through what they call the Trap and Roll – notice this is LESSON 1, or doing a Knee Escape to the guard, are some of the first techniques that students of self-defense oriented jiu jitsu learn.

A few conclusions follow.

1. Let us concede that brazilian jiu-jitsu is a particularly complex and difficult art to master. If a practitioner achieves a black belt in ten years, that is a very fast pace of progress. Even so, mount escapes are absolutely fundamental, and self-defense oriented jiu-jitsu is specifically oriented to neutralizing attackers who are bigger, stronger, and untrained. The Gracie jiu-jitsu curriculum is based on learning the fundamental techniques for self-defense in six months. After a year of training, an untrained 17-year old, even in a fully mounted position, should not have been a danger to Zimmerman.

2. Untrained men in street fights use their fists, and in the process break their hands. Trayvon’s hands were not damaged, which means he was not using his fists on Zimmerman when he was shot.

The defense of Zimmerman has taken advantage of public martial arts illiteracy to claim that the mount is an absolutely fatal position even for a trained practitioner like Zimmerman, and that Trayvon could have been punching Zimmerman without damage to his hands. Both of these claims are untenable.

There is something broader to say about the context of self-defense. While it is true that if Zimmerman had been a better, more serious, or less cowardly martial artist, Trayvon would be alive, the opposite is not true. Trayvon could have had the skills of Jon Jones or Anderson Silva and Zimmerman would have shot him dead just the same. The physical ability to defend yourself does not exist in a vacuum, and it means nothing if you don’t have a meaningful right to do so. After this verdict, it is even clearer that Black people do not have that right in the United States, as Bill Fletcher Jr. has written. If Trayvon had been the one armed, and shot Zimmerman, he would have been doomed – if he wasn’t killed by police during the arrest, he would have been virtually guaranteed a guilty verdict in a trial.

The spirit of martial arts is the opposite of one that allows the running down and shooting of 17-year old boys. Whatever training Zimmerman received, he is a disgrace to it.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.