clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Artwork by Chad Stanhope

Filed under:

Evolution of the Guard Pass in MMA: Part I - The basics

In part one of this two-part series, BJJ & Judo black belt Tommy Elliott examines the fundamentals of guard passing and the divergence between MMA and sport BJJ.

Note: This technique breakdown is a guest post from BJJ & Judo black belt, multiple time Fight 2 Win Pro competitor, and amateur Muay Thai fighter Tommy Elliott.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu was the originating art of modern, western MMA. And while less central to the modern game than it once was, it remains an essential skill set for any fighter. The core of BJJ - and what differentiates it from other grappling arts such as Judo, and the various styles of wrestling - is the emphasis on positional hierarchy, and specifically the centrality of guard play. The guard exists in Judo and catch wrestling, but in both those styles it’s a somewhat incidental and technically underdeveloped position. The scoring system and competitive dynamics of sport BJJ have made the guard the primary battlefield of high level matches; many players will opt for bottom position as their main attacking platform. And for the top player, a successful guard pass will often be the difference between winning and losing.

The guard plays an important role in MMA as well, though the days of fights at the top level being regularly decided by an offensive bottom game are far behind us. Rather, the guard is mainly used (as the name implies) for defense when taken down and to help the fighter return to their feet. Submissions from the bottom still occur, but for most fighters using the guard to hunt for subs is a low percentage strategy—and one that is becoming less common every year, as top games continue to improve.

Given that the guard has been developed at such a deep technical level within the BJJ community and still plays a very important role in MMA, it might be expected that innovations from jiu jitsu would be seen regularly in MMA—as athletes and knowledge continue to cross over from the mat to the cage. Instead, what we find is that MMA has its own imperatives that have driven the development of a style of passing very specific to cage fighting. and quite distinct from what viewers see in sport BJJ.

Guard Passing in Sport BJJ

While a handful of successful competitors exist who still rely on a heavy pressure style of guard passing (in recent times both Bernardo Faria and Murilo Santana have had consistent success with low line pressure passing), the overall trend over the last decade has been towards an upright, side-to-side style of passing involving extended sequences of direction changes. A recent match that exemplifies this trend occurred between Joao Miyao and Alexsandro Sodre at the Brazilian National Championship, one of the IBJJF Grand Prix events. Like his brother Paulo, Joao Miyao is renowned for his virtually impassable guard. Sodre however was able to find a way through with this brilliant sequence:


Sodre first feints a leg weave to his right, and when he feels Miyao counter back the other direction he switches to a knee slice. He transitions off that to a long step, which Miyao counters by bringing his left leg over the top to try and re-guard. Sodre continues turning the corner and then pulls up hard on Miyao’s right leg to help clear the left leg before settling into north-south. Note that while Miyao continually tries to reestablish his guard, he never attempts to disengage or change the basic dynamic of guard passer vs. guard player. An example without the gi comes from all time great Rafa Mendes.


Here we see Rafa utilizing his trademark leg drags and windshield wiper footwork to continually move around and redirect his opponent’s guard—eventually outrunning his ability to keep up, and culminating in a back take. Notice again that his opponent consents to play guard, not coming up to attempt a single or double leg or framing away to get back to a standing position. This is the main difference in the dynamic between passing in sport BJJ and passing in MMA: Jiu Jitsu players readily consent to playing bottom, whereas MMA fighters rarely do so. Before diving into how this difference manifests in passing strategies, we need to talk a little bit about riding.

The Folkstyle Advantage

Of the various amateur sports talent pools from which MMA draws its fighters, none has produced successful competitors more consistently than American folkstyle wrestling. There are various reasons for this (lack of professional career opportunities in wrestling, hardcore strength and conditioning from a young age, mental toughness born of brutal training regimes, etc.), but one of the most distinctive technical differences of American wrestlers is their ability to ride their opponents.

In wrestling parlance: a ride is any situation in which a wrestler in top position maintains that top position, preventing his opponent from disengaging or reversing to the top himself. Points are awarded in American scholastic wrestling for riding time, and two of the three periods in a match will typically start with one wrestler on top trying to maintain dominant position. As such, folkstyle wrestlers get very, very good at holding people down and keeping them under control. Here’s an example from the collegiate career of one of America’s most successful wrestlers on the world stage, Jordan Burroughs:


Burroughs starts in referee’s position, and when the whistle blows he immediately moves to cinch up his opponent’s waist. His opponent, Tyler Caldwell of Oklahoma, does a good job building up his base to set up an escape, but Burroughs immediately switches to a double leg and forcefully returns Caldwell to the mat. From there Burroughs manages to get a better cinch on the waist, thus breaking Caldwell down, entangling his right leg to prevent him from building his base, and driving his head into Caldwell’s armpit before switching to wrist control to further destabilize him.

This sort of pressure and prophylactic grappling pays huge dividends in MMA, as it allows wrestlers like Kamuru Usman and Ben Askren to keep their opponents on the canvas while delivering continuous punishment. It’s the skill set that enabled ground & pound to become a dominant strategy in MMA in the early 2000s, and it remains a powerful weapon in the arsenal of accomplished American wrestlers. One that sets them apart from fighters based in other grappling arts like Judo, BJJ, and even the international wrestling styles (which place much less emphasis on mat control, instead rewarding turns and back exposure).

Modern Sprawl and Brawl

Given the efficacy of takedowns and riding as a strategy for winning MMA fights, how have non-wrestlers responded? The old school strategy - of a fighter accepting bottom position and trying to sweep or submit from their back - has largely given way to denying the takedown with footwork, preemptive framing, and scaring wrestlers away from the level change with uppercuts and intercepting knees. And if a fighter is taken down, getting back to the feet as soon as possible rather than ever accepting bottom position.

Fighters like Chuck Liddell and Maurice Smith first demonstrated how effective this ‘sprawl and brawl’ strategy could be against even very good wrestlers like Mark Coleman and Tito Ortiz. And modern exemplars like Robert Whittaker have had success with it against wrestlers as dangerous and decorated as Yoel Romero. However, no one has ever brought this style to the same heights as GOAT candidate Jose Aldo. Here we see Aldo demonstrate the perfect response to be taken down off a caught knee in one of the greatest fights of all time, his second tilt with featherweight ‘prince’ Chad Mendes.


Mendes catches the right knee from Aldo and quickly goes into a knee tap spinning Aldo towards the cage. With his forward momentum so cleanly redirected, Aldo has no choice but to fall to his hip. Rather than play guard however, he immediately starts framing on Mendes’ head to create space. When Alpha Male fighter adjusts his head to Aldo’s right, Jose also switches sides and locks in a whizzer on Mendes’s right arm and frees his left leg. Once his left leg is free he’s able to crank down on the whizzer and get to both knees, push Chad away, and finish with a left body kick.

The defensive wrestling ability of top strikers means that very few BJJ stylists are going to get the sort of engagement they want off the takedown—namely one where they get to pass while their opponent consents to play guard. Looking at the above GIF, it’s clear that there’s no point at which Mendes would have been able to start a guard pass—as Aldo never starts playing guard in the first place. The implication for BJJ stylists looking to get to dominant positions and submit their opponents is that, sport style passing is not sufficient for MMA. The lack of control would lead to easy stand-ups. Modern MMA passing must combine elements of riding and passing into a hybrid system that both keeps fighters on the mat and creates openings for positional advancement.

Part two of this series will examine the evolution of this system through four fighters who have made it their bread and butter in the Octagon: BJ Penn, Georges St. Pierre, Demian Maia, and Khabib Nurmagomedov. So, stay tuned!

Latest News

The Level Change Podcast 234: Edwards Prefers Masvidal Over Covington, UFC 286 Recap

Latest News

Steven Seagal launches Aikido centre to train Russians for military service

UFC News

Fights on Tap: Kai Kara-France vs. Amir Albazi among 9 UFC bouts announced

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the Bloody Elbow Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your MMA and UFC news from Bloody Elbow