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Pressure: On top with Guilherme Mendes

Pressure: On top with Guilherme Mendes

Driving past the blinding lights of the Richmond airport on our way back to Vancouver following a Friday night training session, the topic of conversation turned as it inevitably does to Jiu Jitsu. Guard passing was on our minds as the usual heavyweight destroyers were brought up. My training partner Cedric made the astute observation however that even as a light-featherweight, Guilherme Mendes can use a small number of passes to account for virtually all types of guards. The techniques Guilherme chooses work in a system to pass the various modern guards that he may encounter. Not necessarily by having a different move for each guard, but by applying principles that are universal.

After watching Guilherme Mendes fight for years I finally felt for myself how this light-featherweight can develop his passing pressure when I had the opportunity to roll with him while attending a Mendes brothers’ seminar in Arizona last spring. From this experience I was able to better understand Guilherme’s ideas on posture and pressure, as well as the technical details needed to pass some of the best guards in the world.

Guilherme Mendes is a three-time world champion at the black belt level. His first world title came in 2009, a year before his younger brother, Rafael, achieved his first world championship. Since then Guilherme repeated that feat in 2011 in a rematch against Samuel Braga, and most recently in 2012 in a grinding, back and forth match with Laercio Fernandes. While Rafael is best known for his guard, Guilherme has been increasingly using his crushing guard passing and collar chokes to overwhelm his opponents.

To study Guilherme Mendes’s Jiu Jitsu I edited together a compilation of some of his most commonly used attacks, focusing on his top game.  Combining training and competition footage allows us to see how techniques are ideally completed and how they must sometimes be modified in competition, respectively.  From watching these techniques we can learn some of the keys to Guilherme’s renowned takedown, passing game and submissions. Some important principles include: using posture and grips to create pressure and wear down your opponent, focusing on a small number of interrelated techniques, and switching between techniques when being met with resistance.


Pressure: Guilherme Mendes Top Game Highlight Video

Getting on Top (and Staying There)

Say the name “Mendes” and most people focus on the accomplishments of Rafael, who is known for being a multiple-time world and ADCC champion, and his innovation with positions such as the berimbolo. As a result of the latter, the brothers are primarily known as great guard players. But in recent matches and training Guilherme has clearly been focusing on his strategy from the top position. Guilherme trades on his familial reputation for being primarily guard pullers by utilizing a fake guard pull to set up his signature takedown, the ankle pick. While Guilherme doesn’t always take people down in competition, when he does, he uses this variation.


Faking the guard pull to ankle pick

In training footage, Guilherme uses the ankle pick to achieve the top position with greater frequency. It’s telling of his approach to Jiu Jitsu that he only uses the single takedown, and yet has such a high rate of success. The Atos team in general, and Guilherme more specifically, are great advocates of drilling techniques to the point where even when your opponent knows what’s coming they are powerless to stop it. In this highly-focused technique selection they resemble competitive Judo and wrestling athletes. For more information on the ankle pick, visit this entry from way back in the early days of the Jiu Jitsu Lab.


Alternate finish for the ankle pick

No matter how Guilherme achieves the top position, either by uses the ankle pick, or through his aggressive de la Riva guard, his passing game is focused one single principle – give way to your opponent’s force. It’s the true spirit of Jiu Jitsu, which translates to gentle art, or yielding art. Essentially, when met with an opposing force, Guilherme will change his approach and direction as to take advantage of the new opening that is inherently created, and to avoid tiring. This is a manifestation of the literal meaning of Jiu Jitsu, and it makes for some very powerful attacks.

In his recent seminars, Guilherme is quick to point out that the biggest mistake blue and purples belts make is thinking that passing your opponent’s guard five times is a sign of domination. “You should only pass once. Instead of thinking about getting the next better position, first just hold onto what you have.” (source: Andrew Foster). Guilherme has shown that he is able to pass repeatedly in a match, notably against talented guard players Baret Yoshida and Henrique Rezende. But he states that this approach is suboptimal if your goal is to conserve energy and finish the match.

Before delving into the principles of Guilherme Mendes’s guard passing it would be helpful to have some common nomenclature. There are several guard passes that Guilherme uses repeatedly. The first is the kneeslide pass. This is one of the most common passes in the art, and doesn’t need much elaboration. As Rafael Mendes explains , their gi and no-gi variation of this pass rely on similar details, including achieving a dominant underhook, and having your chest and hips on your opponent’s chest and hips, respectively, to remove all space with which they may use to escape the position. Once in position it is a powerful pass, which is why many opponents are adept and preventing it.


Long step.

The second pass that is prerequisite for understanding Guilherme’s top game is the long step pass. When beginning this article I couldn’t remember the name of this pass and had to ask Sherdog’s grappling forum. What resulted was a nice, in depth thread about the long step that goes into more detail than I’m able to provide here. Similar to the long step method of taking the back, this guard passing variation relies on a backstep to clear the legs from your opponent’s guard. While Guilherme begins his passes using a collar and leg grip, he can be seen switching the collar grip from the far to the near side before initiating the pass. His other grip switches from the leg that is stuffed between his legs to his opponent’s free leg, which he pulls downward. The final step to set up the long-step pass is walking the legs back slightly to clear the opponent’s grips and hooks.

To perform the long step pass, Guilherme uses the collar grip to control the shoulders as he supports his weight on his elbow as he swings onto his hip, pulling the far leg away in a fast backstep. From here Guilherme either establishes knee on belly or jumps over to the leg drag pass. The jump to the leg drag is a great option to predict and counter your opponent’s most likely reaction, which is to hip out and reclaim guard. The lighter weight divisions are filled to the brim with flexible, technical guard players and it can be next to impossible to force the pass to the front where all their defenses reside. Instead the Mendes brothers switch the position, putting them in position to get the pass or take the back. Says Rafael about the long step pass:

“When you fight you have to understand the position depends on your opponent’s reaction. Because every time you try to do something it’s going to have a reaction and you need to be ready to change the position right away. You cannot think about it, it has to be automatic.” – Rafael Mendes

The leg drag pass is the final piece in the puzzle that is Guilherme Mendes’s  guard passing. While he may use more passes than just these three, they form the backbone of his game. Guilherme performs the leg drag slightly differently than his brother. He often positions himself in his opponent’s loose open guard, before smashing both legs to one side. He is also known for elevating both legs over his thigh, preventing his opponent’s from using their toes on the mat to hip away. When Guilherme finishes a guard pass, he is also likely to walk back into his opponent’s legs, turning their hips away. This puts them into the leg drag position, from which Guilherme can establish side control or take his opponent’s back.


Pushing the legs into the leg drag

One variation of the leg drag that Guilherme used when rolling with Beneil Dariush is very useful to escape the leg lasso position. In an excellent video analysis, the internet’s Dan Lukeheart explains the position from the point of view of the player on the bottom, and JT Torres explains the position from the point of view of the player on top. The variation of this pass that Guilherme uses is slightly different than JT’s but follows many of the same concepts.

For an example of Guilherme’s ability to combine passes when met with resistance, watch the match against frequent divisional opponent Henrique Rezende from Alliance at the 2012 World Jiu Jitsu championships, conveniently excerpted in the highlight video at the start of this article. Guilherme starts the passing series off with a quick push into the leg drag, than uses elements of the long step pass clear the knee from his hip. From here he is able to slide his arm back up for the underhook as he switches back to his knees for the kneeslide. Finally when Rezende blocks the kneeslide again Guilherme switches his hips laterally, aggressively smashing his opponent back into the leg drag pass. It’s very difficult to defend to one direction and recover fast enough to defend the opposite when your opponent changes direction.

Another example can be seen in Guilherme’s training session with east-coast standout Gianni Grippo, whose Jiu Jitsu is heavily influenced by the Mendes brothers. Grippo does well for a brown belt, but like most of Guilherme’s other opponent’s regardless of rank he is overwhelmed by this method of passing. Following a beautiful long step, unfortunately blocked from view by a purple belt with the spatial awareness of a New York City tourist, Guilherme switches directions, jumping quickly into a leg drag pass before settling into side control to continue his attack.


Hoping over the legs after the long step pass

“Finish Him!” – The baseball bat choke

Watching Guilherme repeatedly finish opponent’s and training partners with his signature baseball bat choke should be evidence enough of the value of drilling a submission to the point where even when your opponent knows exactly what’s coming they are unable to stop it.

The baseball bat choke is essentially an inverted cross collar choke. While the cross collar grip can telegraph your intent when attempting to finish from the top, the baseball choke uses grips that don’t cross the throat, which doesn’t trigger the same level of alarm in the opponent. As with the cross choke, the use of the lapel behind the neck to provide deeper, easier to hold grips provides a powerful option. The single best explanation of this choke and its variants that I’ve seen is by walking Jiu Jitsu encyclopedia Shawn Williams. One detail I picked up from watching Guilherme hit this choke is to slide over the arm with your knee to prevent your opponent from being able to straight arm you, than clearing the other arm with your knee as you step around the head to remove their ability to defend. From my own experience I would suggest focusing on the standard baseball bat choke without the lapel grip first, until you understand the concepts behind the choke and its application.


Everyone needs a finishing move

Of course the baseball bat choke isn’t the only submission used by Guilherme. The Mendes brothers approach to Jiu Jitsu relies heavily on taking the back. Like his brother, Guilherme tends to use of double-lapel choke from here instead of the more popular bow and arrow variation. By their logic, even though it is a powerful choke, the bow and arrow provides an opportunity to escape if the grip is not set deep enough. By using both lapels, the Mendes brothers prevent their opponent from removing the choking grip or turning in to them to escape the position. It requires more effort and finesse to set up, but the Mendes brothers believe that every submission attempt should provide as few options as possible for escape. Also like Rafael, who won every match of the Pans with an armbar, once Guilherme snatches an arm his opponent isn’t likely to get it back. An amazing armbar transition can be seen at the finale of Guilherme’s roll with Beneil Dariush.


The four-armbars-in-one combo pack is always great value.

As Jiu Jitsu students we can learn many excellent techniques from watching and analyzing the top athletes in the sport, particularly innovators such as Guilherme Mendes. From this study I was able to improve my ankle pick, long step pass and baseball bat choke. But it is by understanding the principles behind the technique that will drive our Jiu Jitsu to the furthest heights. The main principles that I learned from watching Guilherme’s Jiu Jitsu include the ideas of posture and pressure, yielding to resistance and focusing on fewer techniques with greater depth. When passing the guard, the pressure created by Guilherme’s posture and grips removes his opponent’s ability to attack, and their defense is mitigated by his constant movement and his ability to switch between several well-honed techniques. Even athletes that use different techniques than the multiple-time light-featherweight world champion can improve their understanding and application of Jiu Jitsu by adopting this approach.

This article originally features on the defunct blog Jiu-Jitsu Laboratory and has been reposted with the permission of the original author.

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