The Guard is at once the most basic and complicated of the positions in Jiu Jitsu.
Critical Think in Jiu Jitsu: The Guard
(Writer’s note: No, I didn’t abandon this series, This work, and ideas conveyed have very much been a work in progress as I’ve sought more information through learning, teaching, observation, conversation and practice. “Critical Thinking” may always be a work in progress, as my personal understanding of Jiu Jitsu continues to progress. The core idea I’m planning to present later on in this series has become further refined and clarified, and I’ve had the opportunity to converse with many of the top minds in the art about this to help shape this view. This current article on “the Guard”, the first in a series covering the basic positions within Jiu Jitsu, may well have been the most difficult and potentially controversial chapter in the entire series, which also has contributed to the delay. I should end this preface by stating I don’t want to claim to be any kind of authority on the guard, but I have uncovered a few things I have found to be useful.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE GUARD
The Guard is at once the most basic and complicated of the positions in Jiu Jitsu. Basic in the sense that many see the use of the guard as the main differentiation point in Brazilian/Gracie style Jiu Jitsu as opposed to any other grappling art. No less an authority than Rickson Gracie himself has been attributed to the statement that your Jiu Jitsu is only as good as guard is. I’ve heard many sell Jiu Jitsu as unique in that is is the art which will allow you to continue the fight when you happen to be on your back,
I’d first like to tackle the above mentality without diminishing the importance of the guard. The guard was introduced to the world at large (meaning outside of Brazil) when Royce Gracie in the early 1990s won his first Ultimate Fighting Championship. Along his amazing run, Royce managed to win some of his fights from his back (he also managed to a win a few from the top, side, and back as well). But you would expect someone who was on the top to be able from those other positions; winning from your back at that time was unheard of and spectators were amazed. The announcers and press would tout the mysteries of Royce’s guard and wonder if anyone would be able to solve that riddle within the confines of the Octagon. Being on your back was no longer seen as a weak point, but now with the guard it was considered to be one of the strongest and most favored positions.
Perhaps I can spare you some pain frustration in your own career and simply state a major revelation I’ve come to about the guard: Just because you can win a fight from your back doesn’t mean you should start from there. Someone who believes that their guard should be their first offense is in danger of missing one of the more important points of Jiu Jitsu, the ability to fight off your back is secondary to the ability to be offensive in any situation.
What do I mean by that? Let’s take into account a statistic that came from somewhere that 90% of street fights (or unsanctioned fights) will go to the ground. Through observation I can state with some confidence that when a fight goes to the ground, someone will wind up on the top and someone will wind up on the bottom. Before Gracie Jiu Jitsu was introduced to the masses, you could pretty much assume that the person on top was going to win the fight. After Gracie Jiu Jitsu, the person on the bottom now has the ability to win the fight as well. In terms of fight psychology, self defense, and general science, this has huge implications. Before, if the person on top won 100% of the time (let’s say 99.44/% because I hate dealing in absolutes outside of hard sciences), the fight was essentially a moot point as soon as hit the ground. Now, as I’m sure everyone who is reading this article on this website is aware of, the ground is where the real fight begins.
So the fact that the use of the guard gave the person on the bottom ANY chance of winning the fight was revolutionary. Still, out of a Jiu Jitsu fighters arsenal of moves and tricks, the guard is usually no better than a 50-50 or 60-40 proposition depending on the situation (assuming an opponent of roughly equal skill), which is considerably better odds than you had on the bottom before you knew Jiu Jitsu, but victory is by no means assured.
DEFINING THE GUARD
Let’s see how much clearer of a definition we can give for the guard. Fast forward to present day, and not only is the general public more aware of the guard, but there are many different varieties or flavors of the guard. Closed Guard. Open Guard. Half Guard. Spider Guard. Hook Guard. De la Riva Guard. Butterfly Guard. X Guard. Turtle Guard. Rubber Guard. Cross Guard. Turtle Guard. Octopus Guard. The list goes on and on and on! Even a self confessed Jiu Jitsu nerd like myself finds it hard to keep up with all of the different names and terms that are being thrown around.
The first task and challenge to understand the guard is to fins some kind of commonality between all the variations of the guard. We’ve established that the guard is the position on the bottom in a ground fight. I’ll further throw out that the guard involves the bottom fighter using his or her legs in a manner to establish control of their opponent. This differentiates being in the guard from being underneath a mount, where the top fighter is clear of the bottom fighter controlling them with their legs. This would hold true no matter what type of “guard” the person on the bottom would be trying to utilize (with some debate as to the nature of the turtle guard).
Aside from the use of the legs by the bottom combatant, the cause for variance in the types of guards is exactly how the legs are used to establish control of your opponent. I would say in this sense “opponent” is a broad term, because the variations of the guard usually focus on different and specific areas of the opponent. For example, a classical closed guard would involve the bottom fighter aiming their control at the hips of their opponent by virtue of locking their legs together. A rubber guard would use a variation of the locked leg position and focus more on the upper body and shoulders of their opponent. Spider guard would actually open the legs and move the control point further along to the arms of their opponent. There are many different combinations of grips, locks and control points and to come up with a meaningful definition of the guard we would need to delve further to discover a commonality between these variations of the guard.
Recall the original purpose of the guard, which is to give the person on the bottom a chance in the fight, where as before the guard the person on the bottom was certainly doomed. If we go back to one of the earlier articles, recall, the Jiu Jitsu mindset concentrates on (in order): Safety, Position, Submission. The first goal of the guard then is safety, and that said being able to just stay in the fight when on the bottom is a victory unto itself.
Once the safety of the bottom fighter has been established, it is time to look at the matter of position, In some situations, the best choice for improvement of position is to progressing or abandoning the guard all together. What do I mean? One of the more accepted progressions from the guard would be the sweep, in a Sport Jiu Jitsu context it is rewarded with 2 points. Once a sweep occurs, the person on the bottom is effectively trading the guard for something else (hopefully one of the superior top positions). In a fight, many times the safest option is to simply to bring the fight back to a standing position (this has been increasingly common in Mixed Martial Arts lately).
Sometimes however, it is necessary to maintain the guard. Does this mean that the battle for position has been abandoned? Hardly, however the battle has become more subtle. Within the guard, the battle for position nearly always starts off or continues as a battle for posture.
THE IMPORTANCE OF POSTURE
While the term posture usually implies correct and erect form, within the context of the guard (and the context of all of Jiu Jitsu for that matter) the definition of posture can be expanded to include base, foundation, self control and everything else that a fighter must do before they can look to progress (safety‡position‡submission) in the encounter.
An interesting thing about posture is that it is dynamic and the balance will shift between the fighters during an encounter. Both fighters can’t have perfect posture, or else not much would happen in a match! Instead this is very much a see saw battle which might be the most subtle of battles to the outsider view (also often termed a “technical war” by somewhat enthusiastic announcers.)
Before any action is made, a careful fighter will be sure to check against their posture relative to their opponent. If posture is in their favor, they will progress to the next step. If posture is not in their favor, they will try to establish a correct posture.
I cannot over emphasize the following. TO MANUEVER WITHIN JIU JITSU WITHOUT UNDERSTANDING OR ESTABLISHING YOUR OWN POSTURE IS TO INVITE DISASTER. As specific as a hint as I will ever tell you in the Critical Thinking and Jiu Jitsu series, never try to fight THROUGH a bad posture. Always try to REGAIN a good posture.
POSTURE AND THE GUARD
Now with our renewed understanding of posture, we can apply this to the guard as a generic whole. The fighter on the bottom utilizing the guard needs to seize control of the posture of the opponent on top if they wish to progress to the next move (usually either a submission or a sweep). The different variations of the guard then, are different ways of seizing control of the posture. Some variations would look for hip control first, some would pull down the head, some will grab the arms, but all variations of the guard are looking to control the posture of their opponent.
If one understands the importance of posture, one will be well on their way to establishing a good guard game and will be able to easily transition their way from guard game. After all each guard has the same goal in mind, and to some degree similar methodologies, with different toolsets.
PASSING THE GUARD
Once a more fundamental understanding of the bottom game of the guard has been established, one could reverse engineer this understanding of the guard in order to learn how to effectively combat it (and I suppose if you’re more of a top player, the inverse remains true as well). If the goal of the bottom fighter is take control of the posture, so to it must be the goal of the top fighter to take posture as well. If the top fighter wants to have any hope of solving the riddle of the guard, they must be able to control their own posture. Once a posture has been established, the guard passing may commence.
As I stated earlier, the guard is about as 50-50 of a proposition in a ground fight as we can get to. The difference then, in which way the orientation of the match will go, is determined by posture.
We can also look at another aspect of the guard we’ve discussed, in order to reverse engineer it into the top person’s advantage. Earlier we stated that the guard is when the bottom fighter has use of their legs in order to establish control. It would stand to reason, that the main goal of the top fighter, after establishing and maintaining posture, would be to neutralize the bottom fighters legs. In my years of trial, error and lot of observation, I would say that the second biggest mistake of novice grapplers when passing the guard is to not effectively neutralize the legs. All too often I see people trying to pass the guard by establishing control points other than the legs, and I very seldom see this strategy work. (If you guessed lack of posture was the number one mistake I see, treat yourself to a cookie. In the spirit of our good friend Nick Diaz, make sure it doesn’t have any hydrogenised fats in it however)
Part 1: Assess your personal version of the guard. Figure out what your favorite grips and hooks are in the context of how you are going to break your opponents posture.
Part 2: Pretend you are on top trying to pass your favorite version of the guard. Figure out first how to establish your posture to counter your grips and hooks. Figure out how to control the legs of the person working the guard.
Previous Critical Thinking Articles:
#2 What is Jiu Jitsu?
#3 What do you bring to the Table?
#4 The Heirchy and Duality of Position