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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Time Fighting: John Boyd's OODA Loop, Rickson Gracie and Karuhat

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This post is going to touch on something really interesting found in Machado's description of what made Rickson Gracie's BJJ so special and undefeatable, something that he fears is being lost in this generation's Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which I write about on 8limbsus.com. Go to that article if you want to get the full context of what I'm discussing here: What High Level BJJ Can Teach Today's Muay Thai

For my purposes though, I want to concentrate on the OODA Loop theorized by John Boyd, a fighter pilot who had an almost untouchable kill ratio, and took his experiences in dog fighting to his study of military tactics in general. He became very influential in making the US Military much more mobile, communicative and dexterous, rather than just massively powerful, bigger and stronger. The verity of his military design applications can be debated, but what I'm really interested in his his OODA Loop, and the way that Machado described Rickson's ability to create time deficits in his opponents. I'll be adding to this post, but first John Boyd's graphic:


John Boyd's OODA Loop and Muay Thai.png

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This is the germane section of the Machado discussion of Rickson Gracie, in particular I'm focusing on his discussion of both the defensive time advantage (defense is always "short") and how Rickson Gracie would work to overcome the offensive time deficit by leading his opponent into predictable positions, chipping away at that time disadvantage until the opponent no longer had the time to defend themselves.


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This is a pretty good breakdown of John Boyd's OODA Loop, read the article linked below:

Thus, once you move past the simplified, Cliff Notes version of the OODA Loop, you find that it’s actually pretty heady stuff. It’s not “groundbreaking” in the sense of revealing insight never before conceived; rather, its power is in the way it makes explicit, that which is usually implicit. It takes the basic ways we think, decide, and operate in the world — ways that often get confused and jumbled in the face of conflict and confusion — and codifies and organizes them into a strategic, effective system that can allow you to thrive in the heat of battle. It is a learning system, a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning head-to-head contests and competitions. In war, business, or life, the OODA Loop can help you grapple with changing, challenging circumstances and come out the other side on top.

The Tao of Boyd: How to Master the OODA Loop

The Art of Manliness

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from the Tao of Boyd:

According to Boyd, ambiguity and uncertainty surround us. While the randomness of the outside world plays a large role in that uncertainty, Boyd argues that our inability to properly make sense of our changing reality is the bigger hindrance. When our circumstances change, we often fail to shift our perspective and instead continue to try to see the world as we feel it should be. We need to shift what Boyd calls our existing “mental concepts” – or what I like to call “mental models” – in order to deal with the new reality.

Mental models – or paradigms – are simply a way of looking at and understanding the world. They create our expectations for how the world works. They are sometimes culturally relative and can be rooted in tradition, heritage, and even genetics. They can be something as specific as traffic laws or social etiquette. Or they can be as general as the overarching principles of an organization or a field of study like psychology, history, the laws and theories of science and math, and military doctrines on the rules of engagement. Because Boyd was more interested in using the OODA Loop as an organizing principle for a grand strategy, he tended to focus on these more abstract types of mental models.

Key to applying Boyd's OODA Loop to Rickson's excellence, or the relentless pursuits of transition by Golden Age Muay Khao fighters is appreciating the mental models that Boyd is thinking about, as summarized above. Not so much the abstract types of mental models - though those would be interesting to examine as well - but rather in terms of fighting as the presentation of puzzles. There are of course the puzzles of styles, for instance in the adage that styles make fights, certain styles pose problems for other styles, or make for more dramatic or interesting action, or, in another sense, a fighter's style may even be expressive of a Nation or culture's aesthetics, which another style, from another culture, can create problems for. John Wayne Parr's defeat of Orono, who in many objective ways was a superior fighter (experience, vision, techniques), but had no solution for the western, upbeat, aggressive tempo JWP fought with, refusing the fall into the cultural lulls of Muay Thai rhythm (the same could be said of Ramon Dekker's few early successes in Thailand). Here we have a kind of clash of mental models (styles) wherein one style produces ambiguity and confusion for another. These are interesting, wide-scale thoughts, especially when debating what the "best" fighting style is in hypothetical way. What is much more relevant in this case are tactical puzzles, which means the tactical pressures or better yet, patterns that are set up for an opponent, as the opponent seeks to avoid or surmount ambiguity. You start jabbing the body repeatedly in a fight, you have set up a puzzle. It's not a difficult puzzle, theoretically, but depending on the opponent's relative experience with body jabs it could demand more and more of the opponent's resources to solve. This is where transitional thinking, and more importantly experience, comes to play. As a fighter, once you ascend beyond the Fool's Mate stage of fighting (finding "unbeatable" or tricky approaches that simply overwhelm your opponent due to inexperience or lack of training), what is really happening in a fight is that each fighter is presenting ambiguity, or the threat of ambiguity, to the other. It's puzzles. Some are easy, some are hard. But it's just one puzzle after another. Some fighters are good at solving puzzles of one type, and not another (which means that the "easy" puzzle will require very few resources, the hard type will demand a lot of resources. Some fighters might be just pretty good at puzzles in general. *As a sidenote, in our recent Muay Thai Bones podcast Sylvie and I talk about why Muay Khao fighting is so effective for Western women in Thailand (and in general as well). It simple removes a whole class of possible puzzles from being presented by your opponent, often puzzles opponents are very adept at presenting.

Bottom line is, the war against ambiguity isn't really a case of fighters trying to "trick" each other, although trickery can play a part on ambiguity, it's about the mind's ability to interpret and uncertain environment. This is really near- or flatout yes, metaphysical stuff. It's not just what human beings do, but all life forms. The patterns we fall into express our history and habits of our knowledge, and our knowledge is organized around making an ambiguous environment more predictable, more stable. When you expose an opponent to ambiguity, especially one that is not trained to respond well to ambiguity, the results can be catastrophic (in the old sense of the word). This is one reason why quitting in the face of the world becoming unreadable (either due to fatigue, or due to technical or emotional disadvantage) is a very bad habit indeed, and cuts across the grain of what fighting really is. Fighting is, in many ways, the struggle for (and imposition of) pattern, in the face of the UN-patterned. 

Now let me slip into what Machado is talking about in Rickson and transition. He says a few things, but I think the most important thing he says is that "Defense is short" (I think that was the phrase he used). He means both spatially and temporally. Because the body can recoil, that is shorten itself, and can do so quickly (short in space and time) defensively your opponent has an advantage when attacking. Small angle adjustments can defeat large investments of attack. The defender can conserve.

Time Fighting

In this very interesting sense, fighters are Time Fighting. When you attack you are working from a Time Deficit, generally speaking. Your defending opponent has more Time in the bank than you do. Or, it's much more temporally expensive to attack than it is to defend. An attacking opponent has a math problem. Now, a primary way of overcoming this Time Deficit is to present very hard to solve puzzles. Not only will this demand lots of resources from your opponent, the most valuable one of those resources would be Time. If a puzzle takes a long time to solve then you have overcome the Time Deficit. You get a lot of this in early, developmental fighting. You've trained in one thing your opponent hasn't, you present a very difficult puzzle. You overcome the Time Deficit, you win. At higher level fighting between experience opponents in the same rule set most of the puzzles are known. Yes, some fighters might be better at solving (or presenting) certain kinds of puzzles, but seldom is it just one fairly basic but "too hard" puzzle winning a fight. Instead, its a puzzle war...Time Fighting.

This is how I read what Machado is saying about Rickson, and I draw this from our study of legendary fighters of Thailand's Golden Age. What Rickson was doing offensively was not presenting impossible, singular puzzles. What he was doing was presenting a series of puzzles. He would present one, and as you started to work on it (spending your time bank), he's present another, and then another. He isn't rushing through puzzles, he's in flow, he's in the tempo of his Jiu Jitsu, transitioning. And as he moves, keeping his breath where he wants it, he's eating up the Time Deficit, until as Machado says, you don't have time to defend. You might very well be able to defend that last puzzle pretty easily, all things being equal, but things aren't equal. You are Time Fighting. Your breath is short, your are under duress of repeated puzzle solving, and you can feel the predictability of the world slipping away. By the time the last puzzle hits you you just don't have the resources to solve the problem. This is very akin to the Thailand aesthetic of dominance. You ideally don't want to beat the crap out of your opponent - though sometimes that happens, its a very violent sport/art - ideally, you want it to look like your opponent crumbled from within. This is achieved through Time Fighting. and Time Fighting is brought about by training in continuous flow and transition, not favoring abstract positional knowledge (abstract knowledge is great, if you aren't under Time pressures, musing about the perfect move). Your body, which has millions of years of predatory (and prey) knowledge in its software, vastly capable of reading the patterns of Time and Space ambiguities, has to learn to move through those patterns of continuous transition. Each and every time you call a "break" or a time out, you are robbing yourself of the most vital and highly valued aspect of the fighting arts. 

The other half of what Rickson is doing, according to Machado, is that he is slowly guiding you into more and more predictable positions. While your ambiguity is going up, his is going down. He wants to move you left, half the spatial possibilities have been cut down (less ambiguity). In non-grappling situations this is really essential to what Karuhat does (and teaches). Continually put your opponent where you know they will be. When this happens you can Time Travel, or Time Hop. Your next puzzle is already waiting for them in their future, and they are occluded to it. What is really interesting about this is that none of this is hurried. Perhaps this is why they call BJJ "human chess". You are checkmating 5 moves out, 10 moves out, 20 moves out.

This is what John Boyd called "Getting inside your adversary's OODA Loop", which is what he took from his own dog fight experiences as a fighter pilot. This for him was the moment when you are onto of the enemy aircraft and you are already inside the defensive turn the are about to make to counter your position. It's an incremental dominance, and the power of it, he contended, is that you are sitting inside the very orientation mechanism of your adversary, the means by which they make sense of the world at all. There is no escape, because you are within the means of escape. Metaphorical, but very real, checkmate.

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Inside the OODA Loop.PNG

John Boyd's OODA Loop provides a basic cycle of how an organism orients and acts in an environment. A transitional grappler who presents a series of problems to be solved starts to overcome the Time Deficit the further into the loop the change in in puzzle is presented. If you change too fast, become chaotic, you can just become ineffectual. What you want is to present solveable problems that eat more and more resources, and shift the puzzles deeper and deeper in the loop. Eventually even "Orient" is not possible.

This gives explanation to the Golden Age higher level methods of Muay Khao fighting. Yes, such fighters were praised for being the best conditioned, strongest fighters in the sport. And yes, Muay Femeu (more "artful") fighters were the the most esteemed (the presented the most ornate and visible puzzles). But Muay Khao fighters were not just wearing down their opponents, they were using fatigue as a mental resource depleter, and at the same time using continuous transitional fighting and grappling to work their way deeper and deeper into the OODA Loop of their opponents. The "art" of Muay Khao lies largely within its continuity and transition, that it presents a series of flowing puzzles in Time Fighting, slowly breaking down the interpretative capacities of their opponents. A fighter like Dieselnoi Chor. Thanasukarn, in some quarters arguable as the GOAT was sometimes dismissed as being a product of his inordinately long anatomy. What many people did not see - and it is hard to see what is essentially an invisible series of transitional fighting - is that he was Time Fighting. He is known for his lock and knees (imagined to be his moment of dominance) but he told us that this is when you rest, you rest in the clinch. This is where you start Time Fighting, conserving your resource, eating the Time Deficit. you start presenting puzzles. No one puzzle is the dramatic moment. It's the series of them.

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Real World Example: Sylvie's Development as a Clinch Fighter

In Sylvie's own Muay Khao fighting evolution you can see many of these elements, and the call to greater and greater continuity and transition. Leaving aside the overall sense of balance and timing that just accrues from lengthy Thailand camp style clinch day after day against difficult partners - which grants you efficient defensive counters and recover-ability (Machado praises Rickson's defense above all else, he was very good at solving puzzles, which is important if you want to Time Fight) - Sylvie's first leap in skill came from more or less mastering her lock. This came from the Petchrungruang sub-culture, a technical piece of knowledge that was like Fool's Mate. Lots of her opponents several years ago simply had no solution to this lock. It was the unbeatable puzzle. It's still difficult to defend, but the Thai female fighting community has definitely grown and adapted. It has been countered and solved in several ways, especially be repeat opponents. Once you get past the "can't solve this" cheat, that's when the real game starts, the Time Fight. How quickly can you solve this? How efficiently? The higher aim is never to have the unsolveable position or move. It's to take semi-dominant positions, present them as puzzles, and to use those puzzles in a flow. Move deeper and deeper into their OODA Loop. Added to the Petchrungruang Lock then came the Arm Loop, taught to her by Yodwicha and Dieselnoi, among others. Now she had two dominant positions. Two puzzles. Next came the Long Clinch, which she is working on making a very difficult puzzle, taught to her by Tanadet. You can see that here in this YouTube segment:

The Long Clinch has the advantage of being unorthodox and a position that is not trained very often, across the board. It there for is resource expensive to solve. So, to really over-simplify, We have 3 dominant positions to make anchor points for, in a overall transitional approach. Just being able to pass between these positions (puzzles), in tempo, just as the opponent is about to solve them is fighting a Time Fight. She is pushing further and further into the OODA Loop. There are lots of other elements of course. Off-balances, turns, and strikes mixed in, each of them presenting new small puzzles in the series. The temptation of course is to think about perfecting one of these positions, making it super unsolveable, or at least very, very expensive to solve, but really much more potent is the ability to pass between puzzles, in a relatively relaxed tempo, and to keep putting your opponent in more and more predictable positions, more and more ambiguous to them. Yes, hone your positions, but not at the expense of transition itself. Transition is the biggest weapon of all.

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From the Dao of Boyd

Tempo: To the Swift Goes the Race

“Under OODA loop theory every combatant observes the situation, orients himself…decides what to do and then does it. If his opponent can do this faster, however, his own actions become outdated and disconnected to the true situation, and his opponent’s advantage increases geometrically.” -John Boyd

When I met with Curtis Sprague, former US Air Marshal and instructor, he told me that there are two general principles to keep in mind when considering tempo and the OODA Loop.

First, the individual or organization that can go through successful, consecutive OODA Loops faster than their opponent will win the conflict.

Second, rapid OODA Looping on your part “resets” your opponent’s OODA Loop by causing confusion – it sends them back to square one

What often gets overlooked by folks studying the OODA Loop is that when Boyd talked about rapid tempo, he often meant rapid changes in tempo.

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I was talking to Sylvie this morning about transitional Muay Thai grappling, and we stumbled back upon the idea of persistence hunting and how it connects to Muay Khao fighting styles of the Golden Age. I wrote a post about how Persistence Hunting (a very old hunting strategy) reflected a different concept of time, and even how it connects up to the ketogenic diet:

Muay Thai Aesthetics, Keto, Persistence Hunting and the Shape of Time

It's worth posting that link because this is a pretty huge tangent of thought that might be as important as anything in the subject. In "the hunt" in clinch it's as if many are looking for "the kill" (the lock, the trip), but transitional grappling is more about creating persistence. Transitions from one position of dominance to another are designed to take the quarry literally outside of time and reality, until the capture is easy, or at least a whole lot easier.

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