In my opinion, one of the most critical skill sets needed for close quarters fighting is a deep understanding of the vertical clinch.
It is one of the primary ways to prevent yourself from being taken to the ground. It is one of the primary methods to be able to access and deploy your weapon in a fight at bad breath distance. And it may be your only chance to continue the fight if you have been taken by surprise with a sucker punch (there is a major reason boxers clinch up when they have taken a mind altering hit). Done correctly with technique and correct tactics, it can also help the smaller, less physically capable person handle a bigger, stronger attacker.
Unfortunately, while there are only a handful of physical actions needed in the clinch and are simple to learn, they require a good amount of work to be able to get the maximum functionality. So we need to do some work and train it and here we run into the biggest drawback. It is not that easy to find places to get some legitimate work in the clinch. Ideally, we would have access to a top notch Greco-Roman wrestling club. There, not only would we have great instruction, but we could have a lot of varied training partners to get in the flight time needed. Tack on some practical “street” practice, you would have a definite ability to fight in the vertical grapple. It is too bad clubs/gyms like that are as rare as an honest politician. So what can we do? Here are some alternatives.
First, a general wrestling club that is focused on freestyle/folkstyle will have some clinch work, as well as possibly having some members who have competed in Greco matches. Again, though, most wrestling clubs are competition oriented and have little to no interest in teaching this to people who are not committed to competition. Understand this mentality if you do find a local wrestling club.
Second, some MMA gyms (like The Hardcore Gym in Athens, GA http://www.thehardcoregym.com/index.php) have a great knowledge and understanding of clinchwork. Thanks to the popularity of MMA however, many, many MMA gyms are no better than strip mall McDojos. And many other MMA gyms may train hard, but are run by people with little true MMA skill ( a lot of MMA gyms are run by guys who did a year of BJJ, a year of some striking martial art and maybe a seminar or two, but no real deep level of experience). So, as with the local wrestling club, caveat emptor.
Third, judo is an option. Not completely the same, since with the cloth handles, there can be more “distance clinch” work, but for some places (especially in areas that do not have a strong wrestling background like the UK), it does have some usefulness.
So where does this leave the average person? Should we just give up? Or settle for a sloppy clinch game? I say no. There is a very viable alternative. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. But not just BJJ in general; rather a specific strategy/positional game – butterfly guard.
The positioning of butterfly guard is almost identical to classic clinch work. And the principle moves that we need in the vertical grapple – wrist tie, elbow tie, underhook, overhook, arm drag, duckunder, 2on1 – are exactly the heart and soul of the butterfly guard. The way we need to position our body parts – head, elbows, hips, feet – are the mirror image of what we need to do with butterfly.
Here is a visual of what I am talking about. Note particularly his head, hip, and elbow positioning, and especially at how he shifts his hip to sweep:
Watch here for the armdrag. Note carefully that EVERYTHING you need to do while standing is done here as well:
The great thing is we can go to any BJJ gym in the world, focus on training butterfly guard with the intent of making our vertical clinch better, and no one in the gym will say a word against it! And even better, we make our horizontal grappling better at the same time! Talk about bang for the buck. And butterfly guard is usually taught even to beginners in BJJ, so even if you are new to jiu-jitsu, there is a good chance you will be taught butterfly guard fundamentals fairly early. In the Fundamental class I run myself, it is generally taught within the first six months.
And, there is a lot of butterfly guard instructional material out there. Books, DVDs, YouTube videos, it is all easily accessible. So, improve your standing clinch while sitting on your butt!