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Is the Guard Dead: Part 3
A Different Concept of Distance

“Jiu-Jitsu is a circle that some of us transform into a circus. We go and try more advanced and complicated options. But at the end of the circle we come back to the simple basic position.”

– Grandmaster Helio Gracie

In my last post I began to illustrate how guard play is different between MMA and grappling. The first major difference was the emphasis away from closed guard play. Take almost any grappling match and you’ll see sitting guards, inverted guards, 50/50 guards, very open and mobile guards, deep half guards etc. The fluid, mobile game of grappling is absolutely beautiful. The problem is that much of the grappling guard game favors guards that do not afford as much protection in MMA as closed guard.

But I’m sure many of you realize, simply crossing you ankles around someone’s waist alone won’t keep you protected from a skilled opponent intent on ground and pound. I can point to many, many MMA fights where closed guard has failed miserably. Wrestling-based fighters like Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and more recently, Joe Warren, Jon Fitch and Chael Sonnen have reached the upper echelons of the sport by punishing fighters in the guard.

So how can the guard be effective? The answer isn’t just to play closed guard, but change the way you think about playing all guards, closed included: every movement, every grip, every attack must revolve around protection from strikes.

Head Protection vs. Body Protection

In a fight, obviously, the most dangerous and potentially injurious attack is a head shot. There is a reason the very first thing you learn in a striking class is how to keep your hands up. However, in a sport grappling the danger begins when a part of your body controlled in some way. Therefore, because of the absence of striking, grappling is more and more moving away from strategies that make guard play combat realistic. Sport grapplers now often tend to lean forward, expose their head for sweep positioning, or sit up akin to a freestyle wrestling stance, sacrificing head protection in favor of body protection.

Sitting guard, where players lead with their heads like wresters, is a perfect example of a pure grappling strategy. It is now one of the most common ways to play the bottom position. As an example let’s take this video from reknown grappler, Ryan Hall. Let me note that I do not mean this as a personal attack on Ryan. He is a fantastic person, and an inspirational grappling competitor. It’s just this video exemplifies a trend in grappling. He is certainly not the only player who plays like this. In fact, a majority of top grapplers like the Mendes brothers, Marcelo Garcia, and many others offer show a similar strategic approach.

Watch this video

In reality, this type of guard play has no combat relevance. Because it completely exposes the head in order to protect the legs, this position is absolutely defenseless against a top fighter intent on striking. While it is extremely common in grappling, you will almost never see it in MMA, precisely because exposing your head is about the worst thing you can do in a fight. It’s the most extreme example, but there are many other ways to play the guard that still leave the head vulnerable. Take a look at these common positions:

For every time I have seen one of these moves executed successfully in MMA, I can give you a score or more situations where they failed completely. Actually, it was watching a failed half guard many years ago that started my rethinking of my grappling approach for MMA. The fight was in UFC 51, and grappling savant Dave Terrell was matched up against Evan Tanner. I was so sure Terrell was going to twist Tanner into knots. But Terrell opted to play deep half for a sweep and dove his arm under his opponent without thinking about his head. It was a pure sport move and he was totally vulnerable. Tanner seized on the opportunity and pounded him into unconsciousness in seconds. It was a brutal KO. The thing was I had just spent weeks working the exact same set-up. But here was almost undeniable proof that the move was not fit for the cage.

So my point is that all guard work in MMA must be considered in light of how much protection it offers you from head shots. The guard, any guard, first and foremost must control an opponent’s aggression. Whether it’s half, full or whatever you have to think like a striker: protect your head. So how do you do that….guess what? Just go back to the old school.

The Clinching Guard

The closed guard is one of the most common positions in MMA, but without an appreciation of the danger of strikes, it isn’t any better than any other position. To prevent power strikes you have to kill the hips and that means must control your opponent’s posture.

Eddie Bravo’s style of clinching tight to an opponent is one approach to an effective MMA guard. But while the rubber guard is a new and innovative concept pioneered by Bravo, clinching in the guard is not. Look back to Royce’s epic fights and you’ll see the new school is really just a reworking of the old school. In every one of Royce’s fights he was always looking to control posture, and when he failed, he paid for it (remember Keith Hackney & Kimo…both got some good punches in when they were able to posture). His control of Dan Severn allowed him to avoid damage and set up the win. Clinching in the guard is the same as clinching in boxing, it’s where you go to avoid being punched in the face: it’s just a question of vertical versus horizontal.

The funny thing is this idea of clinching is one of the first things I learned as a white belt; to stay out of punch range, go either really far or super close, those are the safe zones. But somehow we seemed to have forgotten this simple principle. I can point to countless arm bar and sweep set-ups, both with and without the gi, that are very popular but have no clinching element or control of an opponent’s ability to punch. So we are basically sabotaging ourselves, drilling basics that leave us very vulnerable to being hit. While clinching in guard is absolutely critical for an MMA ready guard, in modern grappling it is something that isn’t as addressed. Nowadays in grappling sports it’s once the guard opens (if it ever closes) that the game really begins.

What Rorion Gracie and his sons refer to as the “punch block series” i.e. ways to block strikes in the guard, are required for promotion to Blue Belt in the Gracie Academy, but I know of no other major schools training this way on a regular, day-to-day basis. Why? Simply because there are no punches in sport grappling, therefor there is no need to train to defend them. Grappling competitors are playing to their rules. But in MMA you can’t ignore the danger of an open distance.

Carlson used to say that if you punch a black belt in the face he turns into a purple, punch him again and he’s a blue, once more and he’s back to white. These are wise words and something all Jiu-jitsu players who aspire to MMA must consider. In MMA it’s the tight, clinched guard (closed, half or butterfly) where a majority the fight must be played, and any move that sacrifices clinching or head protection should be discarded in lieu of techniques that are more combat relevant.

I probably sound very negative and critical. I want to make clear I have the UTMOST respect for all the top grapplers in both gi and no-gi. There is a tremendous amount of innovation coming from the sport world, a lot of which is transferrable to MMA. They have much to teach us. But in the guard both gi and no-gi sports often play in an artificial distance that does not emphasize clinching, and that, frankly, is very dangerous.

For my next post I want to introduce a variety of clinching guards that are great platforms of attack in MMA. Some are old standards, but I guarantee a few are new and will blow your mind.

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Is the Guard Dead Part 2:
Sport Jiu-jitsu’s Emphasis Away from Closed Guard

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.

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.

Hold On!

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.

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Is the guard dead?

Hey everyone, thanks for checking in.

20 years ago when Royce Gracie burst upon the scene Jiu-jitsu seemed invincible, inexorable, a force of nature even. Those early UFC fights ushered a revolution in the martial arts community, and put the world on notice: ignore Jiu-jitsu at your peril, because once it hits the ground a BJJ fighter is a shark and you’re in his waters.

But flash forward a few decades and things seem to have changed. Even by the time I began training Jiu-jitsu and competing in mixed martial arts, BJJ competitors were no longer the dominant force in MMA they once were.

Of course the game has evolved, and everyone understands that given the high level of skill of even the average MMA fighter, BJJ isn’t enough to guarantee victory. To get a modern, skilled MMA fighter to the mat takes supreme wrestling as well as striking skills. That is indisputable and natural given the sport’s evolution. Just as strikers had to respect Jiu-jitsu, we now have to respect the stand-up arts.

This is not what concerns me. What concerns me is the failure of BJJ when it is in its element. I have seen Jiu-jitsu fighters lose on the ground, in positions where they should be dominating. I mean how many times have you seen a Jiu-jitsu fighter finally get his opponent to the ground, and then instead of scoring the win, get pounded into a bloody pulp? Way too often. I can give you dozens of examples right off the top of my head. Given the crop of grappling champions in MMA, BJJ should be showcasing its dominant technique on the ground, particularly in the guard. But for some reason it’s not. In fact submissions are at an all time statistical low in the UFC.

Is the guard dead?

One of my first BJJ instructors once said to me that what made the gentle art so unique was, unlike other arts, you could fight effectively off your back. The operational word being fight, not just grapple. But now when it comes to MMA I often hear people say the guard is dead. I can point to countless cases where BJJ champs looked listless, even lost in the guard, eating punch after punch. And often even great grapplers like GSP opt to stand out of guard rather than attack there. One trash talking UFC fighter recently said that he doubted if BJJ was actually even effective anymore. UGH! I can’t tell you how much that pissed me off.

Eddie Bravo has addressed the failure of the guard and lays the blame squarely on the gi. But I don’t think that’s the whole story. The funny thing is criticism of modern BJJ has come from another quarter, Grandmaster Helio himself. Not many people know that some time before passing away he left the IBJJF and refused to sanction its rules…he felt sport Jiu-jitsu was ruining his art. His sons and grandsons stick to a more self-defense style that is quite different from most schools. But I don’t think the answer is to just practice “self defense” either. IBJJF and ADCC sponsored events have in many ways been fantastic laboratories for the development of Jiu-jitsu. They have produced the Marcelo Garcias, the Rafa and Guillerme Mendes’s, the Vieras, all competitors who advanced BJJ by putting their groundbreaking games and techniques on display.

In some ways BJJ is more technical, more evolved than ever. Take any Worlds or ADCC event and you’ll see techniques that no one even thought were possible a decade ago. The gentle art is evolving and improving at a breakneck speed. So why the lack of effectiveness in MMA when it should be even stronger than before?

BJJ for Grappling vs. BJJ for MMA.

Here’s my take: Sport Jiu-jitsu, no-gi grappling, and MMA are three different sports with different rules, different environments (the cage), and different ways to score or sway the judges in your favor. It’s only natural that the Jiu-jitsu for each should also differ. The gamesmanship, strategy and approaches are evolving in very, very different ways. BJJ for grappling is no longer the same as BJJ for MMA.

Basically, Jiu-jitsu competitors in both gi and no-gi are competing under a specific set of rules, and they are naturally competing towards those rules in order to win. The same pushing the envelope mentality that has made BJJ more technical than ever, also pushes fighters to play for any little advantage under the rules of sport grappling. But those advantages don’t exist in MMA. In fact, playing to sport rules will not prepare you for MMA. Because, as anyone who has transitioned to MMA knows, punches, elbows and hammerfists make it a very, very different game.

What works in grappling often doesn’t translate to MMA. What’s good for MMA is not always the best in a grappling competition. If anyone knows grappling it’s multiple world champion ADCC champion, and MMA fighter, Robert Drysdale. He comes down squarely on my side of the fence. When teaching MMA fighters he puts it this way: “I have to [change things], to teach to their reality.”

So let’s get to the actual differences in sport guard play versus the MMA guard. For anyone who is training BJJ and wants to transition to MMA, I think you have to recognize two major differences. I want to go over each in separate posts. My next blog post will start with the first and the biggest: sport grappling’s emphasis away from closed guard.

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