The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program has been the basic hand-to-hand combat system employed by the United States Marine Corps since 2002, and as I’ve written about in the past, it tends to get dragged through the mud by young guys with limited experience and a lot of bravado. In order to complete recruit training, you need to show competency in the program’s Tan Belt syllabus (comparable to other martial arts’ white belt) and depending on your occupational specialty, many Marines stop seeking continued training in the discipline except when mandated by their command.
You’ll often hear young Marines (or older ones that have managed to avoid getting hit in the face throughout their careers) say things like “MCMAP doesn’t work,” only to find that they never made it past their tan or follow on grey belts and have limited experience in any other discipline. That’s a lot like a guy spending two weeks training in Brazilian jiujitsu and then walking away dismissing the entire discipline because it hasn’t made him Royce Gracie yet. Doing it doesn’t really say much about the martial art, but it does say a lot about how naive you were as you approached the mats. Learning to fight takes time, discipline, and effort – things that come from within, rather than things that can be mandated through a syllabus.
There are certainly elements of the MCMAP syllabus I learned along the way to my black belt that I didn’t feel worked particularly well for me, but just like my training in other martial arts disciplines, I approached MCMAP with the mindset that I would find what worked, adopt it into my repertoire, and strive to better understand why other techniques didn’t seem as effective, in hopes that the broader understanding would make me a more capable fighter. Learning to defend yourself with your hands, like learning to drive or shoot, means repetition, analysis, adjustment, and trying again. If you approach the process expecting to become Randy Couture in a matter of weeks, the problem isn’t the program … it’s you.
And nothing better represents the distinction between the pseudo-tough guys that “already know how to fight” and students eager to become more proficient fighters than the time-honored rear hand punch.
Every striking coach I’ve worked with, every Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor, hell, even most sparring partners I’ve trained with, start work at the rear hand punch. It’s supposed to be the simplest fighting mechanism a human being has at his or her disposal — all you have to do it ball up your first and throw at your opponent’s face, and you’ve got the technique down, right?
A rear hand punch, just like most powerful strikes, shouldn’t derive much of its force from your arm at all. In fact, if you’re hoping to end a fight with a knock out (something that’s far more difficult than movies and TV would have you believe in most cases) the force behind your punch should actually be coming from your hips. No, that doesn’t mean you should throw a long, telegraphed haymaker like we’ve all seen in dramatic fight scenes on the big screen – but it does mean you should spend some time working on the proper execution of a rear hand punch before demanding that a program move on to more exotic forms of violence.
If you can’t (or won’t) throw a proper rear hand punch, I don’t see any point in teaching you more until you can (or will). Learning is a mindset, not an outcome.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to learn the fundamentals of a rear hand punch, it would really benefit you to get some in-person training, but I’ll lay out the bare bones of the process for you here:
Start by getting into what the Marine Corps refers to as a “basic warrior’s stance,” but everyone that’s not a robot or manual tends to call just a “stance.” I have strong feelings about the right types of stances for different situations — but I also believe that one’s stance needs to be a reflection of one’s self. Subtle adjustments in hand and foot placement can make you a more effective fighter, but it takes a fair amount of trial and error to nail those subtleties down, so let’s make it as simple as possible:
Get in a quick and dirty fighting stance.
Raise your hands to around chin height (I prefer to draw from my Muay Thai experience and keep them higher) with your palms facing in, fingers curled (not clenched) and your chin tucked close to your neck. Place your feet shoulder width apart, then put your non-dominant foot (the same side as your non-dominant hand) a half step further forward than the other. Sink your butt into your stance a bit, balance your weight between both feet, and if needed for comfort, turn your feet so your toes are at a slight angle as compared to the opponent in front of you.
As you go about throwing a rear hand punch, remember to keep your lead hand up to counter any incoming punches. That lead hand should stay up throughout the technique.
Start the punch with your hips.
The momentum for your punch starts by rotating your shoulders and hips toward your opponent as you level and throw your punch. That means the core of your body should actually shift visibly in execution of the punch — rather than letting your arm do all the work. Think of your body as a hammer: your fist is the striking surface, but it’s actually the handle that allows you to produce the force. As you extend your fist and your core rotates with it (slightly now, don’t over extend yourself off your base) your rear heel can (and should in many instances) lift slightly and even twist or “flare.”
Throw the punch with your palm down and your wrist straight.
When training in a few forms of Filipino martial arts, I was introduced to the concept of throwing punches with your palms facing in – and I’ll admit, I found it pretty effective. Nonetheless, in most instances, I still prefer the good old fashioned method of face punching whenever possible. Close your fingers into a fist with your thumb wrapped around the outside below the striking surface of your hand. Do not, I repeat, do not wrap your fingers around your thumb. Some of you are laughing at that but others needed the reminder.
Ensure your wrist is straight – it takes very little to fracture your wrist when striking a hard surface like a heavy bag or human skull, especially if it’s flat on the ground, so bone support is integral to keep you in the fight. I’ve been at this for years, and I’ve broken my wrist badly enough to be casted three times, once as recently as last year, so it’s a lesson we all need to be reminded of from time to time (especially when we’re gassed).
Drive through the impact point with just the first two knuckles of your fist.
I won’t lie to you, my hands look like shit. Callouses and scar tissue have left my knuckles shaped more like a flat block of flesh from a decade and a half of punching things the wrong way and living the repercussions. It’s easy, especially when throwing hooks and crosses, to start using your ring and pinky finger knuckles as a striking surface – but it’s also a good way to break your hand.
Make contact with your opponent using just your index and middle knuckles – contact should occur at the end of your hip rotation, just as your heel lifts or flares. Do not simply aim to make contact with your opponent’s face, try to drive your knuckles through the point of contact and into the opposite side of their skull. That follow through will make all the difference in the punch – but be careful, once again, not to over extend yourself off of your base. Maintaining your balance should be a focus.
Retract your fist quickly and properly.
Most people tend to think making contact with your opponent is the end of a good punching technique – but nothing could be further from the truth. Getting your hand back to where it belongs in a manner that keeps you protected is possibly the most important aspect of throwing a punch — because a good punch doesn’t mean much if your opponent knocks you out as you retract it.
First, be sure you don’t leave your fist lingering — an extended arm is my favorite thing to play with in a fight. If you leave your fist in the air for a second, you’ll find yourself in a standing side choke with your legs swept out from under you and a blurring view of the sky above before you have a chance to say, “I thought I was done with this punch!”
As you quickly retract your fist, don’t drop it – it’s a common mistake people make as they regain their “basic warrior” stance, but it also leaves your jaw exposed to a counter punch. Keep your weak hand up and retract your thrown punch along the same trajectory it followed as you threw it.
That’s it. I mean, that’s all there is to it – you’ll still need to practice it a few thousand times, but I’ll leave that to you.
Images courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps