At UFC 120 we saw Paul Sass repeatedly pull guard in his fight over Mark Holst. Pulling guard is a move that does not get a lot of respect in modern MMA. It's seen as the last resort of desperate jiu jitsu artists who are too one-dimensional to get a take down and are desperate to get the fight to the ground because they can't hang on the feet. But it worked for Paul Sass.
Dave Meltzer described the fight in the Wrestling Observer (subscription required):
Sass, from Liverpool, was a throwback to the old days of a submission specialist. With his triangle on Holst, that gave him an 11-0 record, with eight of the wins coming via triangle and two others via heel hook. Sass is the type of fighter who practically tells you ahead of time that he's going to triangle you, comes out, pulls guard and starts obviously working for the move from the bottom from the start. But his reflexes and coordination, almost like he's a human octopus, his legs are so amazing that even when you know what to block, he finds the opening by baiting, and it's on before you can react.
Paul Sass at the post fight press conference via MMA Junkie:
"Everyone expects English people to stand up and bang, and I just want to get to the floor and on my back," Sass said. "It's different, and it makes me feel a little bit better."
Eddie Bravo talking about the stigma against pulling guard in TapouT Magazine's Best of Mixed Martial Arts:
Is pulling guard a stupid thing to do in MMA? Most people think so. Why? I'm not sure, but it might be because we haven't seen too many MMA fighters win at a high rate with that strategy or it might be a little of that mixed in with the whole "missionary" thing.
It's interesting to note that Sass' Team Koabon gym features a Luta Livre coach in Marcelo Brigadeiro and a wrestling coach, Shane Rigby, who is a 3rd generation Snake Pit Catch Wrestler, learned to wrestle under Roy Wood who officially took over from Billy Riley at that storied gym -- the home of catch as catch can. They have a purple belt in BJJ as their head jiu jitsu instructor, but it's interesting that they've got a such a varied set of backgrounds for their grappling coaches and yet Sass' approach is throw back old school jiu jitsu, pulling guard and working for subs at all costs.
In the full entry K.J. Gould of Cage Side Seats will break down a whole passel of animated gifs from the bout.
Gifs by Chris Nelson.
Take it away K.J.:
K.J. Gould: Sass leads with a looping right hook to get Holst reacting, and then covers up and tries to avoid Holst's strikes while looking for an opening to grab Holsts hips. Typically this indicates a takedown attempt but instead Sass pulls guard and ends up in
what I believe is referred to as a Z guard an odd position where one leg is in like a butterfly hook and one leg is out like a regular guard. Sass is surprisingly calm during this and must be extremely confident to pull guard like this.
Gould: Sass takes a pretty telegraphed penetration step and shoots his arms around instead of through. It's difficult to tell though if this is a fault in technique or a deliberate fake to get Holst reacting so Sass can pull Z guard again. If it's the latter it shows great fight intelligence for this stage of his career.
Gould: It almost looks like Sass is trying rubber guard but with the wrong grips and posture control that Eddie Bravo teaches in his system. It's not a guard that can be played effectively when Holst is on his feet like that, however Sass has overhooked Holsts's left leg and keeps his grip after Holst postures out. As Holst tries to escape Sass repositions his left shin inside and behind Holsts knee to off balance him while wrapping his right leg inside and around Holsts other leg. I don't think this is the De La Riva guard, as that has the leg go outside and around to having the instep inside the groin / abdomen, in which case this is similar to Demian Maia's Anaconda / Snake guard which Maia developed when he was having trouble with the X guard. Sass pushes Holst off and looks to attempt a heelhook. The whole sequence is a scramble of attempted guard control, some of it deliberate and others like instinctive and improvised. Video of Demian Maia demonstrating the Anaconda Guard below.
Gould: Again, what looks like a scramble for a takedown ends with Sass pulling Z guard when Holst is sprawling back. Complete confidence in his guard game. It's hard to argue against the strategy when it currently works for him but it'll be interesting to see how effective he can be as he progresses in competition.
Gould: With one shin in though Sass is able to counter with a heelhook, possibly learned from his Luta Livre training. We'll see catch wrestling guru Erik Paulson showing a mount escape to heel hook below.
Gould: Sass superman punches and shows another combination of penetration shot attempting a head inside single leg takedown and then settling on pulling guard. It looks like he tries to hook Holst's leg with his lead leg to trip but isn't in deep or quick enough to do it.
Gould: Sass shows what he's become famous for setting up a triangle choke. He brings his left knee in close and this also acts as a great block against punches from above. Sass then controls Holsts wrist and pops his left leg through and quickly locks up a triangle while hooking Holsts's right left leg to reposition himself perpendicular to Holst. The main reason for this is in the normal triangle setup you're using your adductor muscles to compress and squeeze the triangle but because these are small muscles the technique of a triangle choke with the opponent's inside arm brought across and his posture broken down often has to be perfect. By turning 90 degrees you can now utilise your hamstring and quad muscles, much much bigger muscles and can get a choke from this alone rather easily. This form of triangle was innovated by Ryan Hall, BJJ grappling wizard and founder of 50/50 BJJ.
Demian Maia shows the Anaconda Guard:
Erik Paulson showing a mount escape to heel hook
Ryan Hall Triangle video