Evitar the Guard: Strategies for Avoiding the Guard

This article was originally found on the now-defunct blog Jiu-Jitsu Laboratory and has been reposted with their permission.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 footagefrom 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.

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.

“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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Richard Presley

A purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Richard is the owner and primary writer of Attack The back. Check out my About Me Page to learn more!