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The Elbow: How, what, when, where, and why

The single easiest strike to learn is the horizontal elbow with the rear hand.

This article is part of a large effort by The MMA UnderGround at mixedmartialarts.com, to understand what martial arts methods work best, not by looking at bouts in the arena, but by looking at what happens outside the arena, on the streets. If you enjoyed it, check out more stories on:
Martial Arts on The Street
Muay Thai
Mutual Combat


How hard do elbows hit?

Take a look at what happened to France's Jeremy Balasse during a Muay Thai bout at Thailand's Patong stadium in 2017. An elbow lands; it took the referee a little time to notice what happened. 

Did you notice before he did?

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Even the ringside doctor looks a little baffled, and appears to push into the hole in the man's head. In blessed news, Blasse underwent the surgery, got a titanium plate inserted, suffered no brain injury, never even felt dizzy, and is back in Muay Thai today.

OK, an elbow can literally put a hole in a skull, but do they work on the street? Let's have a look.

This guy is laid back, and only responds after being shoved three times, and trying to walk away. He throws an elbow at less that full power, and when that is insufficient to deter his attacker, he finishes his cigarette, puts a little English on a second elbow, doesn't follow up, and even drags the prone man onto the cool, soft grass.

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Here is another, enormously controversial elbow thrown on the street, outside of a bar in Hillcrest, Durban, South Africa. It begins with the two men appearing to talking through an issue after having had words. The man facing the camera, evidently having had a few drinks, is not releasing the other man's hand.

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The man who ended up prone, Ntando Gumede, a 21-year-old gas station attendant, told The Sunday Tribune that it began when he had gone out with friends for drinks.

“We were in the pub and a guy began making racial slurs," said Gumede. "He then hit me on the back of the head. The bouncer kicked him out. His friends started to make a noise and said I, too, should be kicked out. The bouncer then kicked me out."

Gumede said when he went outside, and tried to tell the man there was no place for racism in South Africa, and the rest can be seen on video. The young man said he was out for approximately 10 minutes, and when he woke up the next morning, could hardly remember anything.

“I am calm and timid by nature," he said. "My thoughts that night were just to speak to him to make him see that racism is not acceptable anymore. He really took me by surprise because I never expected it to turn violent.” 

“I was shocked to learn that the video had gone viral, but I was also embarrassed because I didn’t want my parents to see something like that," he continued. “I was drunk as well, so it was also embarrassing for me.” 

The aggressor spoke to TimesLIVE on condition of anonymity, and offered an alternative narrative.

“We got out the car and these guys had just parked," said the man. "There were about four or five of them. As I got out the car ... I had a friend with me ... I heard them say‚ ‘Check these white trash boys‚’ or something like that.”

“And I said‚ 'Excuse me?,' and they walked off. I approached them in the bar because I wanted to know what they had said to me. They got a little bit cheeky and they went outside and I was under the influence.”

“I heard one of his friends say‚ ‘Ya‚ we’ll stab them‚’ and I had been stabbed before and I wanted to leave the whole thing. I was outnumbered and I heard them talk about stabbing me."

“I’m ashamed ... obviously I was in the wrong. I shouldn’t have done that and I messed up. I should have walked away.”

That elbow was a clear sucker punch, and, as the anonymous man concedes, was shameful. Whether by intention or accident, it happened immediately after the victim said he was trying to address racism, not a good look anywhere on the planet, especially South Africa.

Regardless of which story more closely hews to the truth, there is a profound lesson. If you want to avoid being hurt in a fight on the street, avoid drunk people. Prevention is the best from of defense, and avoiding drunks is the single best form of prevention.

And if you are interested in defending yourself effectively, knowing how to elbow is important. 

Which Art's Elbow?

Virtually every martial art has an elbow strike somewhere in their system. Learn it from a Muay Thai adept, or an MMA coach, who will have adopted it from Muay Thai. 

The vast majority of Krav Maga and Combatives "experts" are LARPers. They can talk more or less ceaselessly about why their elbow is better, but they won't, don't, and can't back it up. Muay Thai and MMA are real, and a significant amount of time is spent attacking with and defending against elbows thrown with the intent to harm. So that is the rational source for knowledge about what works.

Which Elbow?

So which elbow should be learned first?

A jab is a jab all the world round, but unfortunately, the names for elbows enjoy no such uniformity. There are very many names in common use for the same elbow, and some consider an entirely new elbow what others view as a variation.

You can categorize all elbows under six names; with no authority we use Horizontal, Vertical, Overhand, Spike, Reverse, and Spinning. However, elbows in are not always thrown in precise, textbook fashion, and that is part of their effectiveness. Further, they can be thrown with the lead or rear hand, and in for impact or to cut.

All that said, the Pareto Principle (80-20 Rule) applies here - roughly 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes, and roughly 80% of the elbows thrown effectively on the street are of one type. It is called Sok Tat (also spelled Sok Tad) in Thai, and is thrown with the rear side, traces an arc horizontal to the floor, and lands with impact.

This elbow is easier to learn than a punch. However, effective use against a trained opponent requires excellent footwork, as it is not nearly as easy to vary distance, and unless you are elbowing someone who is asleep, they will be moving. So learning an elbow is not a magical technique, but it can be invaluable.

How to Elbow

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