Evitar a Guarda: strategies for avoiding the guard

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Guard passing is hard.

To pass a good guard it takes a substantial amount of speed, power and technique. The Jiu Jitsu ruleset recognizes that playing from the top is more difficult than sweeping from guard, which is why passing is allotted more points in the scoring system. That extra point isn’t always enough to incentivize guard passing, however, due to the restrictive time limits and advanced guards commonly encountered in modern Jiu Jitsu tournaments. It’s just too easy to get swept or get stalled out when attempting to pass. While The Jiu Jitsu Lab has taken great interest in guard passing, focusing on the top games of Guilherme Mendes, Rodolfo Vieira, Leandro Lo and Marcelo Garcia, for example, even we have to admit that sometimes the best way to pass guard is to not pass the guard.

At all belt levels, the current crop of competitors is implementing a strategy of avoiding the top position. The benefits can be seen in the rash of submission victories by athletes such as the Mendes brothers. The downside to the philosophy of avoiding guard passing is the boring and unrealistic double guard pull scenario.

This article will focus on several methods of bypassing the guard, many of which you will have seen before – Marcelo Garcia’s armdrag, Rafael Mendes’s berimbolo and other de la Riva back-take positions, the reverse X-guard/leg drag sweep, and the Beijo do Dragão. Put together, it become clear that some of the most aggressive champions of Jiu Jitsu have individually came to the same conclusion – why waste time passing when you can bypass the guard to achieve a dominant position and finish the match?

“If I open a match with a successful double-leg takedown, I still have to pass the guard and mount before I can take the back. If I pull guard and successfully sweep my opponent with a butterfly sweep or a scissor sweep, I still have to pass the guard, mount and set up a back-take. The armdrag, however, is a high-percentage shortcut to the back. In one move, I can skip having to pass the guard and having to fight for the mount. It feels like magic.” – Marcelo Garcia, Advanced Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Techniques, p. 23.

One of Marcelo Garcia’s most iconic performances was the armdrag against Vitor Shaolin at ADCC 2003. The unknown Marcelo was an alternate for the competition, yet dominated the legendary Renzo Gracie en route to his semi-final match against Shaolin. Shaolin was a two-time world champion. Within seconds of the start of the match, Marcelo Garcia was calmly walking away from an unconscious Shaolin.

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Marcelo Garcia vs. Vitor Shaolin, ADCC 2003

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Marcelo’s armdrag has been covered in detail by The Jiu Jitsu Lab previously, and the key points Marcelo makes when discussing the position is that a) it could be incorporated into his game with minimal adjustment, and b) it could be used to by-pass the guard and land him in his best position.  The armdrag can be used from the guard and from standing, allowing its user the ability to achieve a dominant position early in the match with relatively minimal effort. For this reason the position that was seen as a flashy cross-over technique in 2003 is now a staple of most-everyone’s Jiu Jitsu game.

“[If I just use the de la Riva to sweep I will end up in half guard on top and will have to pass the guard again… I don’t go on top, because than I have to pass the guard. If he’s doing a good half guard or inverted de la Riva than I will not pass. So I don’t want to just sweep and go on top. That’s just a normal position. You still have to pass the guard. I want to do something different. I want to take the back.” – Rafael Mendes

Similarly, the berimbolo is a position that can be incorporated into most people’s existing de la Riva game, and one that can be used to avoid having to pass the guard – a point emphasized by its most successful user, Rafael Mendes. If one were to make a video of the evolution of the berimbolo they would see that it originated from a similar de la Riva guard technique used to take the back. It’s common for the opponent to attempt to defend the previous back take by sitting down to remove the angle of attack. What the Mendes brothers and others discovered is that by changing the angle yourself by inverting the back is still obtainable.

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Rafael Mendes – Berimbolo

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Other competitors such as Samuel Braga had previously used an inverted position similar to the berimbolo to sweep. But the combination of sweep and back attack represents a deliberate strategy of avoiding the guard and achieving a dominant position. One of the key linkages from the sweep to the back is the leg drag position. It’s no accident that the Mendes brothers as also seen as driving the evolution of this position as well. As we will see it’s an important intermediary or transitional position between the guard and more dominant positions. Eventually the sweep and back take became one position, however: the berimbolo.

The de la Riva and reverse de la Riva guards seem to be some of the premier spots from which to transition to the leg drag as a guard avoidance technique. Take the position that is sometimes referred to as the leg drag sweep. This sweep was most-famously used by Rafael Mendes against divisional rival Rubens Cobrinha when they met in the finals of the 2012 Pans. A version of this sweep is demonstrated below by one of Atos’s stars at pluma, Ary Farias. The same technique can be set up from a number of positions, including the reverse de la Riva and one-leg X guard. The leg drag sweep is worth drilling for a number of reasons, primarily that it bypasses the guard. Also, since it uses the leg drag position, which as we discussed in our scoring articles, doesn’t count as a guard pass. Thus you sweep into a position where your opponent is unable to utilize his or her guard, yet you can still obtain pass points by easily moving into side control.

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Ary Farias – Berimbolo/Leg drag sweep

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This strategy can even be applied to one of the most standard techniques you can do from the de la Riva guard: the single leg. In the video below the single leg is combined with the leg drag to sweep into a position from which the guard can be easily avoided and passed. In fact all three de la Riva techniques demonstrated in this video by Rafael Mendes, including taking the back, the tomoe nage and the single leg, result in a dominant position, bypassing the guard. The collar and sleeve grips from this position also lead right into the berimbolo. Even some of the Mendes brothers’ more experimental techniques to pass the guard are using the berimbolo. In fact, my training partner Cedric (who just came home from the IBJJF San Francisco Open with a silver medal) has berimbolo’d me more times that I care to admit from my own guard.

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Rafael Mendes – De la Riva guard

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Thankfully, I tend to get some measure of revenge with one of my favourite positions, the inverted de la Riva sweep Beijo do Dragão, or kiss of the dragon. Although the sweep sounds like it was named by a 13-year-old boy, it follows the same advanced principles as the aforementioned techniques. Spy cam footage from the Atos academy in San Deigo shows Rafael Mendes giving some key pointers on the position. I also really like the following breakdown by Nova Uniao’s Kristina Barlaan. The key to this position, like the berimbolo, is to invert in such a way that it allows you to change the angle of the position, putting you in a prime opportunity to take the back. The best of the guard avoidance positions tend to end up in the back, which is a more stable position than mount for smaller athletes, and is further up the scoring chain (and thus theoretically more dominant) than in your opponent’s guard or even landing in side control. Likewise, many heavier competitors say they prefer the mount; their guard avoidance tactics will reflect this difference by using “basic” techniques like the hip bump sweep to more complex positions such as the tomoe nage.

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Kristina Barlaan – Inverted de la Riva

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The individual techniques are the tactics of the BJJ world, and you will find that some techniques or tactics fit better for your game, similar to how Marcelo decided that the armdrag fit with his. But the overall strategy of guard avoidance has co-evolved at a number of different camps, for the same reason. One of the strategies we are fascinated with the ability to avoid your opponent’s strengths all together.

Most Jiu Jitsu competitors have a strong guard, born from the way Jiu Jitsu athletes develop in the academy. It’s the first position from which a student can learn to launch their attack and set up their defense, and takes much less energy to achieve and maintain than other positions from which a submission can be obtained, such as side control. Thus the stereotypical purple belt competitor has a great guard, but still lacks in their takedown and passing game. The result is that when two such competitors meet, a stalemate of epic butt-flopping ensues. During the double guard pull, both competitors are attempting to achieve an advantageous strategy of guard avoidance. One of the keys to passing modern guards, appropriately, is learning how to avoid or counter the positions discussed in this article, such as the berimbolo or Beijo do Dragão.

“It is the rule in war, if ten times the enemy’s strength, surround them; if five times, attack them; if double, be able to divide them; if equal, engage them; if fewer, be able to evade them; if weaker, be able to avoid them.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War

My thoughts on the importance of guard passing in a world where we have to recognize that the double guard pull is a common competition tactics are summed up nicely by the above quote by Sun Tzu, a Warring States-era Chinese general who may or may not of existed. While applying The Art of War to sporting events is both dubious and cliché, it actually makes the point that I’d like to fairly well. It’s not just that we want to avoid our opponent’s strengths (the guard). We must also be able to engage and defeat the guard when forced, thus we need to ensure our passing is at least equal to their guard. The problem with trying to use guard avoidance techniques when in the double guard pull is that you’re already in your opponent’s guard. This should be obvious, but again, people want to play the game with which they’re comfortable.

The best strategy to finish a Jiu Jitsu match with a submission, which is the ultimate goal, is to avoid protracted battles in positions where you have the tactical disadvantage. For many, their opponent’s guard is such a place. But it’s important to not let this disadvantage (or perception of disadvantage) become overwhelming by not developing a solid guard passing game, lest we fall into a protracted battle of our own making. However, knowing when to apply your techniques to avoid the strengths of your opponent’s guard and gain a position from which you can finish is sound strategy of which Sun Tzu would have to approve (if he, you know, existed).

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Evitar a Guarda: strategies for avoiding the guard

  1. That was a good read. Great work as usual!

  2. texmo

    I am not sure where you get all your ideas from, and I am not sure what impresses me more your ability to again and again come up with new ideas on relevant topics or you ability to be able to articulate yourself.
    Every time I read an article that you produce it gives me great concepts to focus on and methodologies that I implement to help me improve my Jiu-Jitsu.
    Please keep up the great work.

  3. As always, your writing is great! Your articles are consistently the most well-researched and well-written. I’m always waiting for the next JJLab article, I hope you can become more productive someday, maybe when the young’un takes care of him/herself… :)

    Anyway, some comments regarding your interpretation of the point system: I always interpreted it as points being awarded according to how dominant the position achieved is (particularily in a real fight), rather than how hard it is to get there. E.g. sweep gets you on top, which is better than bottom, but not as good as being passed. If the points were according to difficulty, not dominance, shouldn’t mounting be less points? I think most would agree that mounting/taking the back once passed is easier than passing. This discussion is obviously ancillary to your article, but it interests me.

    • Thank you for your excellent points, Rikard. I think you’re absolutely right regarding the official reason for allocation of points. I was trying to say that in the mind of the competitor – when given two options at the start of a match (play guard or pass) – the points allocated have to incentivize someone to attempt the riskier position (passing, in most cases). Otherwise you have competitors not trying to pass and instead playing double guard.

      • Do you think a change to the points system is needed? Perhaps 4 points for passing? I like the ADCC rules where pulling guard will give you a negative (I think they only use that for the whole match for finals though). It makes it possible for the top player to be more conservative in passing, since he has an advantage. The imperative would be on the guard puller to make something happen. On the other hand, that may make matches more stalled out. I myself share your view that it is important to have a good passing game, and I prefer to be on top. But my sweeping from guard is alot better than my takedowns. So the best strategy for me would be to pull guard and then sweep to top and then pass. If a double guard pull occured, I would try to stand up as soon as possible, and the other guy would probably let me. I think this scenario is pretty common actually, I feel like Gui often plays this way. It’s only a few extremely guard specialised players who refuse to get up after a double guard pull, like Rafa sometimes and the Miyaos. Or am I reading things wrong?

  4. This is so true. I remember seeing Marcelo’s DVD’s about the arm drag as a white belt and always being able to use it on other whites and blues and immediately being able to get to their back.
    After moving to Brazil and getting my blue I was exposed to a much more complex game and decided to put the arm drag stuff away for now and focus on guard passing and other sweeps in order to expand my game. My sweeps are much much better now but honestly when I just want to win there’s nothing simpler then just dragging someone with force and speed like Marcelo.
    It’s always a point of internal debate for me of what my priority should be. Should I just work on my drags and make that a strong focal point in my game or try to broaden my horizons with techniques that appear to be less efficient so that my “all around” game will be better and I can feel comfortable everywhere.
    Any opinions?

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