Anderson Silva attempts to control Chael Sonnen using an open guard with wrist & bicep control in their first fight (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Grappling's guard -- developed and innovated in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, while existing to varying degrees in other arts and styles -- has come under scrutiny in recent years over its effectiveness in MMA, specifically the classical form of closed guard that relies on double wrist control. In 2010, Kenny Florian on ESPN's MMA Live once famously stated he believed the closed guard was dead in MMA. Fighters like Jon Fitch have echoed similar sentiments.
Just looking at fights within the last couple of years, we've seen types of Guard used to varying levels of success dependent on type and strategy. For example, Miguel Torres was arguably more effective in using his guard to sweep Demetrious Johnson when they fought at UFC 130, compared to his attempts at submissions from his back. Carlos Condit has used the Butterfly Guard to great effect, almost as a Double Elevator to get back to his feet to continue striking, as he notably did against Dong Hyun Kim at UFC 132.
We have seen submission success from forms of guard as well though, such as Paul Sass' ability to triangle Jacob Volkmann at UFC 146, or Nate Diaz' dangerous guillotine choke variations against fighters such as Jim Miller (UFC on Fox 3) and Marcus Davis (UFC 118). There have also been times when a fighter works to maintain or regain a form of guard on bottom, but ends up losing a decision possibly due to how judges perceive their offensive effectiveness from their back compared to the man on top, or they just get plain beat up in their guard (eg Nick Lentz vs Mark Bocek at UFC 140, Jim Miller vs Ben Henderson UFC on Versus 5).
Anderson Silva in his first fight with Chael Sonnen had one of the best comebacks in UFC history when he latched on a fight ending triangle choke in the last minute of their fight at UFC 117 in Oakland, California, but had been beaten up and chipped away at in his Guard for most of the 4 and a half rounds that preceded it.
Recently, I asked an open panel of MMA and Grappling coaches what they believed the primary goal of the Guard in modern MMA should be. Here are their responses:
Kris Iatskevich (Catch Wrestling coach, head coach and president of the International Submission Wrestling Alliance):
The way we work the guard with our fighters is in the optic that guard is something that may happen during a fight,not something we go to.
For example: The guy shot a blast double on me and we wind up in a ''guard'' situation. As wrestlers we are drilled to belly out after or during a takedown,so guard doesn't happen very often during our fighters' bouts,but when it does we teach them to automatically go for reversals or stand ups.
Our go to position on bottom is the all fours (turtle / defensive position), from there we automatically go for stand ups, reversals, switches et cetera, and try to bring the fight back within our world, I.E. takedowns and aggressive top dominant positions.
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I believe seeing the guard as a position results in a decrease in the person's urgency to get up. In MMA the guard = lost rounds. You are only seeing seldom submissions from the guard in high level MMA.
I am training our new crop of fighters to stand, and of course know the basics, but in training we don't play from our backs in MMA. This is a result of my experiences personally and as a coach. I believe my extensive BJJ has hindered me some in modern MMA, and reprogramming has been difficult. Of course many of my wins were from my back but the skill discrepancies were large. Now that everyone I fight is tough I need to stay off my back.
No disrespect to Jeff Curran, but he is real comfortable on his back and although not taking damage he loses rounds. I see that as a result of the times we came up in the sport.
I tend to agree with both coaches. There are certainly people who make guard work for them. And in the end, 'what is good for MMA' is an individual construct.
Having said that, it is very true that against higher level fighters, the guard becomes less functional (in the way grapplers may think of it). Grappling for MMA is a whole different animal.
I think everyone needs to train guard. But, I view it as a 'best of the worst' position. For MMA, top positions are clearly more favorable. So, like the other coaches, I think one needs to really focus on their stand-ups and sweeps. You have got to know submissions obviously, but strategically, guard has more negatives than positives: tough to use against skilled guys, you are going to eat punches and elbows, failed submissions will often put you in worse bottom positions, and judges view you unfavorably.
My book 'Mastering the Triangle' goes into real detail on a variety of guard systems and how to apply them based on the body position of the opponent. The book should be out any month now. But I agree with a lot of the points the other guys are making.
If you're going to use the guard in MMA, you have to succeed, because you will never win a decision on your back. Succeeding can mean 3 things: submission, sweep, or taking the back. Most guys fail at the guard because they only focus on the submission.
When you're fighting a defensive top player just looking to burn the clock, you're going to have problems putting him away. As a general statement, you will have a higher chance of submitting your opponent if you disrupt his base and balance first. When you do this, your opponent will be forced to deal with countering the sweep which, when chained right, can put him in a higher percentage risk of submission.
Also, the guard player needs to get his legs in the fight. When I trained under Gokor, he would not allow us to lock a closed guard. He made us develop foot and leg control, as this is an important skill that many people miss; how to use your legs to force your opponent to hover and make mistakes in your guard.
If your opponent is postured up and punching you, don't reach to break him down. Because if you're reaching and he is punching, he will do damage. Instead, switch to open guard systems. I like to use one that I call K Control. It allows me to attack the whole body and transition from upper body attacks to lower body attacks. Or use grapevines to break him down, then tie him up.
If an opponent is smothering you, you need to get off-line and make a good angle. This will help you play and control the inside. Some people like rubber guard, but I prefer the Shoulder Pin system (its what I call it, but I've seen others do it), or a solid over hook. These are trapping systems.
So now pairing open guard systems and trapping systems based on how your opponent is playing you, now gives you a solid guard game. To me, being a guard player is really a personal preference of an athlete. I have a lot of athletes I only teach to beat the guard, not play it. If they're on their back I have them purely wrestle; sit up and go for a head inside single, or bridge out and penetrate to a takedown.
I don't see a lot of guard in the future of MMA, but I'm sure there will always be guard masters that win fights off their back. We will see.