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So Meta: The MMA Guard Game

T.P. Grant takes a look at the state of the guard in MMA and where it may be headed.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The guard has been a part of MMA since its founding days, and for a long stretches of the sports history it was seen as a potent offensive position. As the sport has progressed the role of the guard has changed a great deal, it is a position practiced by every MMA fighter but used in a variety of different ways. This article will look at the boarder use of the guard in MMA and theory behind it.

The Original Use of the Guard and Evolution with-in Grappling

While the guard is often viewed as an offensive position by fans, it is in fact, as the name suggests, a defensive position. In the positional hierarchy observed and practiced by Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners the two best positions to attain are the mount and back control, and the worst spots being the wrong end of those positions. The 'dominant positions', which normally include mount, the back, side control, and knee-on-belly are desirable because of the offensive advantages they provide the top player. Bottom positions are generally considered to be lesser than the top positions, with the guard being position from which the bottom fighter has the defensive and offensive options available.

In the early days of Vale Tudo and No Holds Barred fighting a bottom player's goal was to get back to guard and not expose one's back. Once back in the guard the bottom player's first objective was to keep the opponent from passing or striking, and then look to sweep to the top position or submit the opponent. Sometimes this could take quite a while, and the guard was used in an attritive fashion mean to slowly tire out an opponent. In Vale Tudo matches in the mid-20th Century this could result in matches that were over an hour long as the guard player wore down his opponent's ability and will to fight.

As Brazilian Jiu Jitsu continued to grow as its own independent sport, the overall theory of the guard hasn't altered a great deal. It's first job is to prevent the opponent using their weight to put down the immobilizing pressure that is a key aspect of most guard passes. In matches between two well schooled grapplers submissions from the one's back are rare, so often the goal of the guard player in sport grappling matches is sweep directly into a dominant position. All the evolutions in guard in sport grappling have been specific responses to styles of passing, made to divert the pressure and set up a sweep. Matches between black belts are often 10 minutes or longer and often it can take more than half a match for a guard player to attain the right combinations of grips and positioning to hit a proper sweep.

Here is a BJJ Scout breakdown of the mechanics of combating and diverting pressure in the modern guard play of one of sport BJJ's best, Leandro Lo. While the details in this video aren't critical to the larger understanding of the MMA guard, it does nicely demonstrate the basic premise that there is purpose to almost every limb placement and movement in guard play.

So while many of these evolutions in guard are dismissed as ridiculous, such as Bermibolo sweeps or the spider guard, they are in fact practical responses to certain situations and conditions. In MMA however that are additional factors that impact guard play.

Influences on Guard Play in MMA

The two biggest influences on the guard in modern MMA are that it is a no-gi sport and that ground striking is legal. In sport no-gi grappling the removal of jacket grips reduces the effectiveness of several guards and attacks. The lack of gi grips also makes controlling and passing the guard of the bottom player more complicated. Strikes further limit a guard player's options because they have to devote a portion of their guard work to strike prevention as well as preventing pass attempts and setting up offense.

Another influence is how MMA is judged, the consistent awarding of rounds of fairly close, and sometimes not so close, grappling to the top player sets a strong precedent that position matters over actual offense in MMA. Additionally the 5 minute rounds in MMA mean that after the time spent striking and fighting for takedowns, when a bout does hit the mat it often isn't for more than 2 minutes, giving guard players a very limited window to work offense. The cage also plays a big role, learning how to operate against the cage is a must for most guard players as it has sever impact on hip mobility.

A not often discussed difference in MMA is that in sport grappling there are rules mandating engagement from a top player, they top player is expected to be aggressive and engaging the bottom player. However in MMA there are no such rules and a common tactic for a top player who feels he is getting into trouble can disengage and then ask the referee to restart the fight on the feet, which often will happen.

The result is that guard players in MMA are dealing with a far more high risk situation than that of guard in sport grappling, both the risk to take damage from strikes and that even if they negate the offense of the top player the guard player is still considered to be losing. The guard player is also working inside a tight time window when compared to the mat time offered in pure grappling situations.

The Guard in MMA

Guard play in MMA has evolved and changed a great deal in the last ten years and has become streamlined towards the goal of winning MMA matches. The level of grappler in the upper ends of MMA is generally fairly high, so submissions from the guard have become increasingly rare and difficult. So much like in high level sport grappling the guard's primary offense is sweeping, but in MMA the shorter rounds and mat time makes successfully setting up and executing a sweep much more difficult. A few distinct tactics on how to most effectively use the guard have emerged as the most commonly seen in MMA. Note that these strategies are generalizations, some fighters can employ all three in a single fight, while some may use a single approach for their entire career.

The Get-Up Guard

The most common use of the guard in modern MMA is as a tool to get back to one's feet. The cage plays a key role in takedown defense, many fighters use it as bastion for their balance. When hit with a level change most MMA fighters will now bodily drag their opponent to the cage and lean against it to combat the takedown. As a result most fighters have a strong chain of cage takedowns, and having an answer for being on the bottom against the cage became a top priority for serious fighters. Guard play against the cage is extremely difficult, but if a fighter can dig a strong underhook or overhook and get their back against the cage they cage use the cage to work their back to their feet.

Even in the center of the cage, which full ability to move and attack many fighters prefer to get up, largely due to the challenges previously mentioned. The butterfly guard has become the tool of choice for fighters looking to create space and stand back up. Explosion grapplers who like to operate in transition often will use the 'get-up' guard tactics to create scrambles where they can find submissions or superior positions.

For the vast majority of MMA fighters guard play has become more trouble than its worth, the bottom game takes a great investment of training time that is often better spent elsewhere. So a quick, repeatable way to escape the bottom and get the fight back to phases that are more even from a judging perspective is greatly preferable. This use of the guard is the most in line with the current meta-game of MMA.

Here is Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt Matt "Aesopian" Kirtley doing an excellent breakdown of the transition and of the mechanics involved in standing up from the guard.

The Stalling Guard

Stalling is part of mat work in any grappling sport, but most of them have some mechanic in place to punish stalling. In MMA however the only punishment that is commonly enforced is to simply restart the fight on the feet. It is easy enough for top players to look busy enough to stave off a stand up with 'staying busy' strikes, but for many MMA fighters from bottom a stand up is a reward.

So fighters who either don't have enough skill off their back to attack or get up, or don't have the energy, the answer is often to stall in an effort to get the referee to stand the fight up. Fighters using the guard to stall with often try to lock down and opponent's arms and posture and then not make any real effort to attack or even make an appearance to be aggressive. This purely defensive guard can be taxing on the energy of both fighters, but beyond that isn't a very practical if the referee doesn't reward the behavior with a stand up. This guard use is fairly rare these days and is normally a sign either a fighter is extremely tired, hurt, or completely out of his depth.

Anderson Silva's guard play was purely defensive and geared towards survival at UFC 200. Photo credit: Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

The Aggressive Guard

There are some fighters who still invest a great deal of time in their guard game and use it as an offensive weapon. Flying in the face of all the disadvantages and metagame of MMA is difficult, but not impossible. It takes a deep skill with guard player, the physical conditioning to be on constant attack, and an ability adapted one's attack to counter the opponent's defenses. The guards used also cannot rely on the opponent attacking and attempting to pass and need to be able to keep the opponent from disengaging and running. As a result aggressive guard players tend to favor the closed guard, including high guard variations such as the rubber guard. These guards have fallen out of favor with most fighters because while they can be very offensive, they tend to limit the ability of fighter's options. These guards are very effective at taking away the space to top fighter needs to strike, but that lack of space also means it is very difficult for the bottom fighter to escape out if needed.

While this type of guard play comes from an 'old school' mindset, sport Jiu Jitsu players will play aggressive guards also that incorporate aspects of guard player from pure grappling competition. Aggressive guards don't necessarily look for the submission at all times, often the very best guard players combine submission threats with sweep and back takes, keeping the top player on the defensive constantly.

Fighters who play this game need to be extremely effective and aggressive, and even then they are often resigned to the fact that will be giving away rounds at times. However once a fighter establishes their guard is potently dangerous it acts as its own takedown defense as opponents wish to avoid it. While not nearly as common a game as it was 10 years ago, there are still highly offensive guard players in MMA, the Diaz brothers chief among them.

Ben Saunders' use of the rubber guard has played a key role in the successes of his second UFC run. Photo credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Next Evolution

MMA continues to progress as an athletic contest fighters continue to explore reliable ways to win fights. It can be argued that the level of the average bottom game in MMA has gone down from the early 2000's, but while that has decline the level of offensive grappling in the standing to ground transition has been trending upwards in the last few years. Submissions offer fighters the chance to end a fight in an instance, and more fighters are cultivating a transitional submission game.

The guard is likely to follow this trend, MMA ground work is essentially sprint grappling and a slow developing guard game isn't suited well for it. The guard work in Sambo and Judo, when done well, is much faster developing due to limited mat time. Fighters and camps are continuing to adapt the guard to MMA and urgency is one of the common themes they are focused on. Firas Zahabi, the head coach of Tristar and Renzo Gracie black belt, has his fighters work what he calls the "60 second guard", in which the fighter attains a sweep, submission, or escape back to the feet within 60 seconds of hitting the mat.

This emphasis on immediate attacking and using the standing-to-ground transition is strongly suited for the demands of the MMA guard player. Those sort of attacks aren't unheard of in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu but are dramatically less common, as today there will certainly be guard players of the future who through sheer force of will and skill work an old school approach. It is possible that over time guard play in MMA starts to resemble a middle ground between that its Brazilian Jiu Jitsu roots and the higher paced attacks that start with standing grappling seen in Judo and Sambo.

To close with here is a fantastic piece by the BJJ Scout, who while breaking down the guard passing of Demian Maia does a break down of modern MMA guard work.

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