Has the Guard Ruined Jiu-Jitsu as a Martial Art?

Practicing a ground-based martial art without being proficient at the ability to get the fight to the ground is absurd.

And yet, many practitioners of Brazilian jiu-jitsu spend a disproportionate amount of their time intentionally training from their backs. From my personal experience, I’d estimate that about 2/3 of what I was taught as a student in jiu-jitsu centered around sweeps and submissions while laying prostrate on the ground!

Not coincidentally, in the seven or eight gyms I’ve taken lessons in over the last decade (a decent sample size!), only two such gyms trained takedowns, and typically just as a warm-up to the groundwork, and again, with ‘groundwork’ mostly constituting the cool stuff you could execute from one’s back.

This was predominantly the reason I (mostly) abandoned jiu-jitsu and have taken up studying catch wrestling and coaching a hybrid style of grappling. I firmly believe that there’s a causal link between the seductive nature of the guard and inadequate wrestling skills.

I also adamantly believe that more guard pulling diminishes the representational environment of a fighting situation, and you might recall self-defense was (originally) the bedrock claim of jiu-jitsu! Or put more directly, less wrestling skills equals less self-defense skills!

Don’t believe me on that last point? Forthwith is a graphic compiling UFC champions versus their primary fighting style.

Note that this data was compiled about four years ago, and the chasm between wrestling and BJJ has become even more pronounced in that time, and even wider when similar venues like Bellator and One Championship are included.

Please note that the evidence for jiu-jitsu being ‘takedown poor’ while being ‘guard rich’ is not strictly anecdotal. Check out the following graphic from the latest elite jiu-jitsu competition–appropriately titled Who’s Number One–that compiles data for takedowns across eight matches (courtesy of The Grappling Conjecture, https://thegrapplingconjecture.blogspot.com/2022/11/what-we-learned-from-wno-15-ste-marie.html). You’ll notice that only five takedowns were attempted across an hour-plus of action, with only two (you read that right, 2!) takedowns being successful.

When I view the bar chart above–and continue to watch the most recent competitive invitationals and tournaments–I realize jiu-jitsu has fully embraced the sportive aspect that was always embedded within the art, which is mostly represented by pulling guard and avoiding stand-up wrestling. Again, this tendency is no big deal if you are NOT training in jiu-jitsu for self-defense.

But–despite the UFC graphic above–isn’t the guard still relevant for fighting??? I think the answer is a ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, but not in equal measure.

I recently asked a handful of MMA coaches how they trained guard play with their fighters, and the unequivocal thread in their response was that if a fighter couldn’t stay on top when the fight went to the ground, he or she was at dire risk of losing, either by decision or worse.

The longer you’re underneath someone, even if you have your legs and hips between your adversary, the more likely you’ll receive damage. Such is the fact when living on a planet with gravity and hard surfaces.

According to the MMA coaches, actively choosing the position of guard, i.e., pulling guard, was verboten. As one MMA coach relayed to me, fighters should feel CONFIDENT on their backs, NOT COMFORTABLE!

So if you’re a jiu-jitsu trainee and have guard play tightly woven into your embodied grappling knowledge, how do you start to reverse the auto-programmed desire to fight on your back??? Besides doing more takedown work–which should be a given–try integrating pins into your training regime. I’ll have more to say on that in an upcoming blog post.

Meantime, don’t hesitate to contact us with questions or comments–hope to see you on the mat soon!

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