“Once the bear's hug has got you, it is apt to be for keeps.”
Bearhugs. They're more dangerous than you may realize. But there are some basic defensive tactics you can use to defend against them. And to understand these tactics, you have to understand the motivations behind this style of grappling attack and the context in which it might occur.
First it is important to understand exactly why an attacker would grab you in a bearhug. There are essentially three reasons why this might happen. First, to contain your arms and prevent you from attacking. Second, to hold you in place either for a second attacker or to prevent your escape. And third to change your position, either with a lift or a takedown.
Bearhugs can be from the front, rear, or either side. The defender can have either, neither, or both arms pinned inside the hold, and the attacker can be pressing, pulling, or holding a static position. Consideration of all of these parameters must be incorporated into the defense, but regardless of the exact nature of the attack, there are three basic defenses which can be universally applied.
The first and most important thing to do when inside a bearhug is to establish a base. The defender should widen their stance and press their weight down through the outside edges of their feet into the ground. This lowers the defender's center of gravity and makes it more difficult for the attacker to either lift them into the air or to manipulate their position. This is key. In order to fight back most effectively, the defender must be able to control their mobility and generate ground leverage, and in order to do that they must have a strong solid base.
The second thing to do is to control the attacker's arms. Once the attacker has the defender in the hold, he may try to adjust the bearhug into a choke or headlock. Grabbing and controlling the opponent's arms, even with only one hand, is an important part of preventing this.
Finally, if the attacker attempts to lift the defender into the air, the defender should wrap one of his legs around one of the attacker's legs, either from the inside or outside. This is a technique called "grapevining." When performing the defensive maneuver, the defender should always be sure to keep one leg free. If the attacker lifts the defender into the air and then releases him, the defender needs to have a free supporting leg or else he will fall to the ground with the attacker on top of him.
A handy mnemonic device for dealing with bearhugs is to think of the number three. Three reasons for the bearhug attack. Three directions it can come from. Three variations of arm positions. Three types of energy the opponent may be applying. And three basic bearhug defenses. Drop into a base. Pin the opponent's hands. Wrap your leg around theirs to defend the lift.
Drop. Pin. Wrap.
You'll learn a lot of kenpo techniques for bearhug defenses. You'll learn Escaping the Bear, and Subduing the Bear, and Crushing the Bear. But even within bearhugs, basic self defense concepts apply. If the opponent is behind you, you must change positions. If they try to drive you forward or back you must establish a strong line. Your relative positions determine targets and weapons. These concepts are universal. But the three tactics described above are bearhug specific.
Drop. Pin. Wrap.
Beginner: Student A attacks Student B with static bearhugs from the front, side, and rear. Student B practices basic bearhug defense. Alternate.
Intermediate: Student A closes their eyes. Student B attacks with any bearhug without warning. As soon as Student A feels the attack, they open their eyes and defend with basic technique until they are able to reposition themselves to perform one of the kenpo bearhug self defense techniques they have learned. Alternate.
Advanced: Students A and B are sparring at long range. Student A looks for an opening and then suddenly advances into a front bearhug with the intention of either a lift or takedown. Student B defends against the attack and re-establishes long range by either escaping or pushing Student A away. Continue long range sparring with Students alternating bearhug attacks.