In Helio’s epic fight against Waldemar Santana, the majority of the match played out in one position: the closed guard. Royce’s legendary match in UFC 4 against Dan Severn was nearly all in closed guard. Those are old school fights, but even today the majority of MMA guard work is in the closed guard. Anderson Silva’s fight against Chael Sonnen was a five round closed guard war. While you do see half guard as well as butterfly and some open guard, most work off the back in MMA is closed. The threat of strikes forces you to be more conservative in your movement and to restrict your opponent’s movement more.
Grappling Guard Play
But it’s the exact opposite in grappling. Most grappling matches emphasize guards other than closed; open, sitting, deep half, inverted, 50/50….I could go on. I can’t recall any recent grappling match that was spent mostly in closed guard. Look at any recent match in ADCC, the No-gi Pro or the No-gi Worlds and you will see a guard game that is open, fluid and very beautiful, but you won’t see much closed guard.
ABSOLUTE: Rodolfo Vieira x Rafael Mendes
U65KG: Rafael Mendes x Guilherme Mendes
U74KG: Davi Ramos x Rodrigo Caporal
U83KG: Vinicius Corrales x James Harbison
U92KG: Rodolfo Vieira x Rafael Lovato
Over 92KG: Xande Ribeiro x Jose Junior
Take the recent World Pro No-gi championships: there was not one instance of closed guard in any of the six black belt finals. Not one. We’re talking about nearly an hour of grappling, and not only was closed guard absent, in situations where a fighter could have pulled closed, he opted to stay open. Look at the 92kg finals match between Xande vs. Jose Junior. I counted more than one opportunity where closed guard could have been used, but wasn’t. In the under 65kg Mendes brothers match, almost every single guard was on display EXCEPT closed. (See for yourself, I’ve provided each match’s link)
MMA Guard Play
This is in contrast to MMA, where the dominant guard is closed. I mean how many times have you seen X-guard in MMA? I can count the number on my right hand. What about inverted? 50/50? Trust me it’s a very low number. When compared to the incidence of the basic closed, the difference is in many orders of magnitude.
Why the difference? The best way to score for a sweep or submission is to maneuver to an angle or under your opponent’s base, and it’s much easier to get that movement in open guard. In grappling, where sweeps and submission attempts score points, it makes much more sense to play a very open game. There is very little downside to opening your guard, especially if you play a mobile game that’s hard to pass.
MMA is totally different. There are two big downsides to open games. The most obvious is getting punched in the face. The second is that your opponent will just opt to stand up out of the guard all together.
A bottom fighter’s movement is more restricted in MMA precisely because of the threat of strikes, and the need to really control an opponent. It’s not easy to play that open, fluid game when one mistake or lack of control can mean a really bad day.
In MMA Not All Guards Are Equal
Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone is an example of fighter who is almost making a career out of frustrating Jiu-jitsu players on the ground. In his fight with Vagnar Rocha (UFC 131) he repeatedly punished Rocha for playing open guard, both striking and standing out of the Brazilian’s guard seemingly at will. In his most recent UFC appearance on August 12th (UFC Live 5), he absolutely mauled Charles Oliveira when the latter poorly executed a Dela Riva guard. Oliveira paid for trying a sweep from a guard position that was quite loose and open. If it had been a grappling tournament, however, he absolutely would have been in a sound offensive position, and most likely would have gotten the sweep. His approach to control seemed very “sporty” to me, and didn’t respect the danger inherent in Cerrone’s ground punching. He paid for that mistake.
This is not the only example, just the most recent. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira chose to play solely open guard in his fight last year against Ryan Bader (UFC 119). He failed to sweep and was rewarded for his attempts with strike after strike. More importantly, he was never able to switch the momentum of the fight and put Bader on the defensive. Brandon Vera made a similar mistake with Jon Jones and wound up hospitalized with a broken orbital bone.
It’s not to say that open guard doesn’t have a place in MMA. Nick Diaz has demonstrated some amazing open guard work in his fights against Cyborg and Sakurai. It’s just that closed guard should be a fighter’s first line of defensive if he wishes to be in the most protected position. Other guards carry a significant risk, some more than others, and that risk must be fully recognized.
Not all guards are equal in MMA, and the guard that gives the most protection seems to be the least valued in grappling. This is a huge difference between the two sports in terms of approaches, strategies and tactics: they have evolved in opposite directions. I think a lot of players are missing this fundamental difference. Frankly, the two guard games are now totally different.
If you are a Jiu-jitsu practitioner with an interest in MMA you have to consider this, and work to reorient your training to include more practice of closed guard. Rickson Gracie has said as much in a recent interview, questioning the utility of popular sports guards like the 50/50 in self defense.
But it was journalist and experienced black belt, Kid Peligro, who summed it up perfectly in the June 2011 Fightworks podcast; “In a self defense situation [a lot of the sport game] is irrelevant…the first thing you have to do [against an aggressive assault] is bring that aggression under control, and you certainly aren’t going to do that with an inverted guard sweep. It’s the basics [not the intricacies of the sport game, that will save you].
Sport oriented training subtracts from your ability to execute the guard in an MMA context, and I am convinced is part of the problem of BJJ players lack of success off their backs in MMA.
I’m sure you are thinking, “Wait a minute, I can see that some of the crazier guards don’t work, but I know plenty of examples in MMA where closed guard didn’t help the downed fighter at all.” It’s true. Just closing the guard in MMA certainly doesn’t guarantee your safety. You have to play your closed guard in a certain way. Otherwise it falls into the same trap as the very open mobile guards used in sport competitions. But that’s for my next post.