In self-defense, one versus one is already difficult. One versus many is more so, that’s undeniable. In a dynamic of aggression, the aggressor chooses his victim according to his ability to best execute his attack. That is to say that the aggressor measures, sometimes even unconsciously, the probabilities that he has of succeeding in his assault on the victim he has chosen. To put it simply, if the context seems unfavorable to him he will not attack, but if he thinks he will be able to carry out his assault, he will attack. In other words, the balance of power must be in favor of the aggressor so that he takes action. A situation where the victim is alone facing a gang of thugs, easily tilts the balance on the aggressors side.
Rory Miller, an American expert in self-defense, calls Monkey Dance the ritual of domination and approach of an aggressor. I have already presented the Monkey Dance in the post Social distancing: a determining criterion for self-defense. Miller also refers to Group Monkey Dance, the dynamic of aggression led by a group of attackers. This group dynamic is characterized by the challenge of the members of the group to have a certain status within it, as well as the demonstration of loyalty towards the group by abusing people outside this group. This dynamic community can be extremely violent. It often disinhibits impulses and allows certain members of the group to commit violence that they would not have committed individually. 
Because “training is no substitute for experience.” Rory Miller 
For my part, I have found myself in this situation on several occasions. It’s been a long time now, but I have a relatively good memory of events. No doubt the fear felt at that time crystallized these memories. In these situations, at first, my (our) strategy was to flee and avoid conflict, despite verbal interactions, insults and pushes. I tell below, a brief summary of 4 situations that I experienced to illustrate my point of view. I will not go into details, nor will I explain the context that led to these events of threats and attacks. Feedback.
Below are two situations which have remained as serious threats.
First situation. There were five of us (four boys and one girl) threatened by a group of at least 20 people. Of those people, only two or three were really threatening and leading the group, the rest were just followers, but the stress was intense. When the pressure reached its peak we were surrounded and static, escape was no longer possible. One of the group members then threw a front kick at me, which I intercepted and returned to him, causing him to fall in front of all his peers. So the situation was very hot and we were about to fight. Fortunately, a person of strong charisma (let’s call him the Guardian Angel) stepped in and said something like “There are only 4 and there are many of you ! If you are brave, only 4 of you come forward in the middle to face them !” A few seconds passed without anyone in the group of attackers stepping forward. At that moment, the Guardian Angel turned towards us and told us more or less discreetly “Get out of there and quickly !”. He clearly saved us the day, we were able to leave without fighting.
Second situation. I was threatened by a group of 6 or 7 people with 2 pittbulls. I grew up in the 90s and these fighting dogs were very common where I lived. I say “fighting dog” because that is the use it was made of at the time. The owners of these dogs were mostly thugs. I was terrified of these mastiffs and their reputations. During this altercation, I had only one thing in mind ; the flee. Without running but with a brisk pace, I passed through my group of aggressors undergoing their threats, insults, slaps and shoves, lowering my head without saying anything. They put a lot of pressure on me, the dogs helped, but I was able to escape avoiding the physical confrontation.
Below are two other situations where I fought against a group of aggressors.
Third situation. We were 4 buddies and we met a group of 7 or 8 people. A few exchanges of glances, and words, the pressure quickly rose between our two groups. We fled at first, simply by changing location, but the other group followed us and started to get really threatening. One of my buddies (let’s call him Berserker) got fed up and attacked the strongest of the opposing group. Everyone was watching the scene. Berserker clearly had the upper hand over his opponent. At this point, 2 or 3 members of the opposing group took action to hit Berserker. I myself took part in the fray, trying to protect Berserker as much as possible, while my two other buddies, out of fear, fled. In the end, Berserker and I got the better of our opponents and we were able to leave without the group of 7 or 8 following us.
Fourth situation. The most serious and complicated of the 4 situations that I present. I ran into the wrong guys, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. They were two and challenged me, the pressure has risen step by step, I answered their words while continuing to walk because I really did not want to talk with them. I was clearly no match for these two thugs. When the stress was too much for me, I preferred to take the initiative by pushing as hard as possible one of them and asking them to leave me alone. Bad idea, the guy I pushed threw himself on me. After a few exchanges of blows, I got caught in a clinch and finally I fell. The next was rough. I suffered a ground and pound while the second assailant kicked me in the head. After a few seconds of surging, I managed to extract myself, get up and run away. I clearly lost this combat, but looking back, I tell myself that I did pretty well because I didn’t have any serious injuries. Just a few abrasions, bruises … and a big post-traumatic stress !
I am aware that some people have experienced much more crass and difficult situations. I had the opportunity to discuss this with my training partners and my students, some of whom have experienced difficult situations, sometimes in the course of their job as police officers, security officers or bouncers. Nevertheless, the situations that I have presented are real and they deeply affected me. All experiences must be useful, those lived of course but also those told.
Fight against multiple opponents in Wing Chun
When I discovered Wing Chun in 2004 in my Sifu’s school, to my surprise, I learned that this difficult situation was taken seriously in training. This learning was part of the curriculum for the more advanced students. After 2008 and the impact of the release of Ip Man, the film by Wilson Ip, the situation of fight against multi opponents aroused the curiosity of many students within the school. Indeed, this film made it possible to popularize Wing Chun in France, which was then quite unknown in the early 2000s, and attracted many people. I sincerely think that it was a good publicity to the opening of my school in 2011. The scene where the character of Ip Man beats 10 Japanese people is memorable. It was, and still is, evoked and appreciated by the students. However, I have a critical look at this scene, which in this post will be called the dojo scene.
In the following lines, I will not talk about the aesthetic and scriptwriting aspects of this fight scene but only the martial aspect (technique, principle and strategy).
Overall, I enjoyed the fight scenes in this movie because I find them fairly representative of the system. However, for the dojo scene, I have a much more nuanced opinion. Donnie Yen’s performance is striking and does not leave the viewer indifferent, it is undeniable. However, concerning the theme of this post, I find that it is mainly a one versus one combat, where the character of Ip Man faces his opponents one after the other, rather than a one versus many combat. Indeed, most of the time, the opponents turn around Ip Man and launch themselves on him once he is “available”, even allowing him to be able to “finish” his opponents on the ground a few times. There are only a few times when Ip Man is confronted with multiple opponents at the same time. This scene is ultimately quite similar to the dojo scenes of Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury (1972) and Jet Li in Kiss of the Dragon (2001). Even if I loved these films, it remains movies, we are far from a real situation of fight against multiple opponents.
However, in many Wing Chun schools the dimension of fighting against multiple opponents is often trained. As Benjamin Judkins points out, this is more of a modern teaching of the lineage of Ip Man . An example of this practice is shown in the documentary series Fight Quest (2011). During episode 13 devoted to Wing Chun, Doug Anderson, one of the two protagonists of Fight Quest, is confronted with a staging simulating an attack against multiple opponents in a narrow alley of Hong Kong.
It must be said that the techniques and principles of the system lend themselves to a confrontation against several people. Let’s go through a few of them.
First of all, Wing Chun is a system that emphasizes strikings. This is an essential criterion for causing damage and ending a confrontation quickly. Joint locks, stranggles, techniques of control … are not adapted to a situation of combat against many attackers (see my post on Dim Mak). The same goes for ground fighting, and in Wing Chun, we try to fight standing up. You can’t do a juji gatame on an opponent while other attackers are going to kick you in the head.
In terms of posture, the head is back which allows to have a fairly wide peripheral vision, not insignificant for spotting several attackers, especially when one is constrained by “tunnel vision” (see my previous post, part About fear).
Finally, fighting several attackers implies a precise control of stepping. It is a fundamental notion because the management of space is very different when dealing with several opponents at the same time. At first glance, the stepping of Wing Chun, the footwork in general, can be very simplistic. After all, as a southern style, the main emphasis is on hand techniques. Nan Quan Bei Tui 南拳北腿 says an old Chinese proverb ; southern fists and northern legs. However, Leung Ting considers footwork to be the most advanced skill in the system . This involves stepping, turning, as well as attack techniques with the legs (kicking, kneeing, sweeping …) .
Regarding stepping, the forms of Wing Chun can seem quite rudimentary compared to other Chinese Martial Arts. Indeed, the first form, Siu Nim Tau 小念頭, is static and concretely there is no stepping. Stepping must be train with other exercises mixed with hand techniques. A good example is the wooden dummy form. We can see that on certain sections of the wooden dummy form the stepping are richer and invite the practitioner to move from the left of the dummy to the right and vice versa.
Another interesting tool for footwork is the tripodal dummy or Saam Sing Chong 三星樁. It also allows you to work on kicking techniques in different directions, a concept that is sometimes useful when confronting several opponents at the same time.
Nan Quan Bei Tui 南拳北腿, soutehrn fists and northern legs, not so sure then, the kicking techniques are also very rich in the southern arts although they are not performed in the same way as in the northern arts. Moreover, many students of Ip Man have praised the impressive footwork of the Grand Master.
“Ip Man himself was highly skilled in footwork. He could kick in a manner that none of his students of that time could duplicate.” Leung Ting 
“Ip Man’s best trait was his footwork and kicks. It was like he had no shadow. He could kick from any position.” Roland Tong 
How to train fighting against multiple opponents ?
Because “experience is no substitute for training.” Rory Miller 
Learning to fight against multiple opponents should be reserved for advanced students with a solid foundation (in most graduation systems ; black belts) because it is necessary to concentrate on strategy and leave the intellect free of any technical reflection. It is essential to have beforehand a good sufficient and efficient technical background, as well as good automatisms, to be able to approach this dimension of the fight against many attackers.
Some have the merit of having looked into the subject to try to identify the most important principles and strategies to face a group of attackers. I am thinking in particular of Mark Phillips, Wing Chun teacher in London (see youtube channel Fight SCIENCE and londonwingchun.co.uk).
Below are some principles and strategies to keep in mind :
- Take into consideration the group and not focus on just one person. You have to be able to see everyone else.
- Do not let yourself be surrounded by your opponents, keep moving to be outside of the group by forcing your opponents to create a “funnel” in front of you.
- Remain upright, do not fight on the ground, nor consider controlling an opponent on the ground.
- Using obstacles, an opponent can hinder others for example. Also think about the elements of the place (cars, poles, trees …).
- Be aggressive and threatening. Do not wait for your opponents but on the contrary attack them to cause trouble and prevent them from organizing.
- Prioritize eliminating certain people from the group. Eliminating the leader, or the strongest, may be enough to scare others.
- Consider an exit, a leak, as soon as possible.
Some training tips :
- Train the attackers. It is not that easy to attack someone who is moving. You must not be in the way of others and know how to manage the space and its stepping.
- Start by working in a 1 vs 2 module, with different strategies.
- Train the stepping. We can’t stay in the center and face these opponents one by one. The dojo scene works in movies but not in reality.
- Test at real speed with protective equipment.
- Film the performances. Do a debriefing and compare the progress of the training.
- Integrate weapons to generate new strategies. Realize the difficulty. Stay humble.
- Get to the ground and suffer a rush of blows from several assailants. Trying to get up and run away. Realize the difficulty. Stay humble.
Running away, avoiding confrontation is often the best solution in a self-defense situation. I already covered this in my previous post. When faced many opponents, running is certainly the best option. But sometimes fight-or-flight is not a choice. Some situations arise on their own. From my point of view, we can’t ignore this dimension of self-defense by simply saying “It’s impossible, you have to run !”. It is necessary to linger and train it seriously. Anyway, it is a very good exercise, both very stressful and fun, which allows you to test your combativeness under high pressure.
And it also makes it possible to relativize and acquire a little humility which is not negligible for martial arts practitioners who often have a lot of ego !