By T.P. Grant
The guard pull is the center of one of the longest-standing debates in the Brazilian jiu-jitsu community.
Some decry it as being too sport-centric to be considered worth of a martial art, but the results of guard pulling in grappling competition cannot be argued with. Many of the top athletes in the sports of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission grappling use it consistently to win high level tournaments.
So let's look at this strategy, how it works in competitions, and how to maximize its potential for your game.
The most elite of guard players use a simple 'grip and sit' approach. The rules of most tournaments require a grappler to have at least one grip before they can pull guard.
Joao Miyao is a consistent user of the "grip and sit" strategy. He often attacks for even the briefest of grips and then sits to guard, where he stays even if the grip is broken. It works best in matches were the contestants are in a 'race to pull', where both competitors are guard players and want to force their opponent to try to pass the guard.
This style of pulling requires almost zero stand-up training and really anytime spent practicing this is better spent working on the guard. For this approach to be viable, the guard play of the puller must be at a very high level relative to their competition, otherwise it could lead to a quick pass.
The "grip and sit" strategy and the "race to pull" in matches between high-level guard players (and the reliance on these strategies to ignore takedowns) are often what draws the criticism of being too sport centric. But the guard pull is an unavoidable and important aspect of grappling.
When FloGrappling asked Travis Stevens, member of the U.S. Olympic judo team and a Renzo Gracie black belt in jiu-jitsu, about how he looks at guard pulling he responded:
"I think it's a must. I'm a big fan of guard pulling in jiu-jitsu. And I believe knowing where to put your hands and knowing how to grab the gi properly is an important part of being a guard puller. It's an essential part. I would much rather see my players pulling guard rather than jumping guard."
While the guard jump is something jiu-jitsu players are taught, as Stevens points out, it is less than ideal for a few reasons. The primary one being the safety of both parties, as the guard jumper is in danger of being slammed, either intentionally or accidentally, and a badly timed guard jump can result in potentially serious injury to the opponent.
Still there are lessons to be drawn from this, so here is Andre Galvao teaching how to jump guard as a drill.
Grip Fighting: A Key To Success
Notice that that last video is categorized as a grip fighting drill, and this brings up the first major point: standing grip fighting matters in guard pulling. This isn't just to satisfy the rule, but true controlling grips give the guard puller an advantage during the transition from standing to the ground.
When you sit and end up with no grips your options are fairly limited; you either stand back up, butt scoot after the opponent, or wait from them to come to you to grip up. But with the guard jump the grips are already established, and this allows for an immediate transition to the preferred guard game without relying on the opponent to engage.
While grips are an important aspect, Stevens points out that most BJJ practitioners don't need to overcomplicate matters. "If you know a few basics you'll be just fine. You don't need to over think it. Jiu-jitsu players don't spend enough time on the feet to need anything more than the basics."
Why Everyone Should Know At Least One Flying Submission
Galvao mentions a few grips he likes but settles on the basic sleeve and collar grip, mostly because of its versatility as a grip set. One option he mentions is to attack for an armbar. Attacking submissions directly off a guard jump is a very realistic option. A guard jumper can bypass the guard in their leap and directly attack a submission.
While flying submissions are often seen as flashy and not practical, but with the right grips and in certain situations it can be a very savvy move. In practicality, flying submissions are just guard pulls that bypassed going back to the guard and directly attacked for a submission.
Stevens shared his thoughts on the role of flying submissions in a competitors skill set:
"I love them. They either look really flashy or really stupid. Either way they make for a great highlight reel on YouTube. But I feel like all competitors should have at least one flying attack they can pull out of their back pocket when things get tough, or for that quick easy win in a big division."
While flying submissions certainly have their role, they carry a risk of being slammed under some rule sets and as such they often serve as secondary tools. Most guard work relies on disrupting an opponent's base, so the objective would be to hit a guard pull that gives the bottom man strong grips and disrupts his opponent's base so they cannot instantly attack for a pass. The sacrifice throw nicely meets that requirement.
Sacrifice Throws: Guard Pulling Directly To Submissions
It may seem a bit counterintuitive that in order to get better at pulling guard one would practice takedowns, but the interplay between sacrifice throws and guard pulling is too good to ignore. Most guard players pull guard to put themselves in a position to sweep their opponent directly into a inferior position. Sacrifice throws are simply expedited versions of that thought process, and should the throw fail the result is essentially a guard pull.
Pulling guard is illegal in sports such as judo and sambo. Those who want to initiate a ground fight will use sacrifice throws as a way of pulling guard to set up submission attacks. Kosen judo is a non-Olympic rule set of judo which has a greater emphasis on ground fighting, and jumping or sitting to submissions is a common tactic. You will likely have seen these tactics in Brazilian jiu-jitsu as well.
Here is Bellator veteran and double black belt in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu Brent Weedman teaching the yoko tomoe nage throw. This is a good introduction to sacrifice throwing for jiu-jitsu students because planting a foot on the hip and then dropping down is a basic guard pull taught at many academies. In the video Weedman teaches how even a failed throw can be valuable and lead into guard play.
The tomoe nage setup is a strong one for ground offense, and as Weedman pointed out it can lead to arms being extended and opportunity for quick attacks. For a example of this being used offensively, here is two time Brazilian Olympic judoka (and BJJ black belt) Flavio Canto, who is famous for his lightning fast ground attacks.
Canto uses a foot in the hip, or sometimes lower on the thigh, to double over his opponents. He pulls on the collar and sleeve, extending the arm. As his opponent falls forward, Canto brings the other leg over the head and slides the other foot off the hip and attacks for a rolling juji-gatame (armbar).
This attack is very effective when paired with the tomoe nage, as defending against the throw will see opponents flair their hips back and exposing their arms.
Here is a great clip of Canto training this entry much as one would drill takedowns.
Another very effective sacrifice throw that can be adapted into a guard pull is sumi gaeshi, which is a throw which is very similar to sitting back to butterfly guard and attacking a sweep.
Here is Travis Stevens with U.S. Olympic Judo coach Jimmy Pedro teaching the sumi gaeshi. Please note it is taught from lefty-righty match up and uses what is known as a Georgian grip, this throw can be done from a variety of grips.
Winning The Transition
In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, students are often encouraged to think a step ahead and try to win the transition -- and the transition of standing to the ground should not be ignored. In recent years the amount of instant guard pulling at the highest levels of the sport has mostly declined, as more top players are investing into the effort on of developing effective, well-timed guard pulls.
T.P. Grant is a Chicagoan writer and purple belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Follow him on Twitter.