From the treasure chest: Jiu-Jitsu and the guard

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Well before the winning submissions of Fabricio Werdum (over all-powerful Fedor) and Anderson Silva (over Sonnen), your most complete magazine on Jiu-Jitsu already stressed the importance of the guard.

In February 2009 GRACIEMAG published the cover story below, unraveling the most important aspects of this position so essential in the rings and on the mat. Check it out, read it and subscribe to GRACIEMAG for more articles like this one, ones that will take your Jiu-Jitsu, and your reading, to a whole new level.

Rilion teaching the guard to students in Miami. Photo: Ray Santana.

Yes, you don’t remember it, but you were born playing guard. If you stopped practicing it for awhile that’s your doing. After all, the position, Jiu-Jitsu fighters’ eternal savior in the ring, has been around for ages. Years. Centuries.

Anyone to peer at the oil-painting masterpiece “Fight at the Cock Inn,” by Francisco Goya, can observe the following scene: a bar fight, Spaniards beating each other with clubs all over the place. At center canvas, a guy seems to have a superior position… passing the guard! Well, you may need a little imagination to see that.

But creativity has always been linked to the guard. In an obscure book, found on the shelves of scholarly Gracie Barra professor Márcio Feitosa, one can read a theory according to which African pigmies, in hand-to-hand combat, valued a technique of maintaining their legs between their ferocious aggressors and their noses. Flailing legs, therefore, have always been one’s salvation.

Goya's 1777 painting is on exhibit at Madrid's Prado Museum.

It was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, though, that further explored and valued the guard, as an art of defense on the ground and one to even out the weight difference between the aggressor and the aggressed upon. More than judo, sambo or any other art.

But, what about the Japanese? Weren’t they the ones to create the technique? Aren’t there schools that prioritize grappling in judo, the thing they call newaza? Yes, it’s true. So then, we’ll ask a specialist like Carioca Flávio Canto, owner of the most attacking ground game in world judo, his view on the question.

“I think Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is exceptional. Its great contribution to world newaza, and to the guard game, was to align a great number of practitioners with Brazilian creativity. From there the whole array of positions and unprecedented situations, today a mainstay, came to be,” says the Athens-2004 Olympic medalist. “The spider-guard, for example, I’d never seen before anywhere, it’s a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu thing. Another positive aspect of the art is to land playing guard and always facing your adversary, after all no one has eyes in the back of their head. That’s the reflex missing for a lot of judokas and wrestlers.”

Stone by stone, the ramparts

When he entered port in Brazil in the 20th century, Japanese master Count Koma didn’t just bring with him an effective leg game, steadfastly learned by Carlos Gracie. He also taught oriental lessons of discipline, health and honor that abide in the family’s history forever. Seeking to spread the art he benefited so greatly from, Carlos began to make history – and to himself scribe the history of the guard. “He was the first westerner to overcome an eastern champion, in 1924, at a time when Japanese thought westerners to be a bunch of degenerates,” recalls son Rilion Gracie, considered to have the best guard in the family. It was against Geo Omori, when the grandmaster pulled guard and applied a tomoe-nage, the ever-popular “circle sweep,” and landed in the mount. So the Gracie popped the arm of the valiant Japanese, who ordered the fight to continue with the ligaments of his arm in shreds.

Later on, in 1951, when brother Helio Gracie closed his guard and, with his wrists (powerful to this day), put extraordinary judoka Jukio Kato to sleep, with a collar choke, the art of the guard came to eminence. And ready for further development, thanks to the ingenuity and sweat of other Gracies, Barretos, Hemetérios, Machados, Vígios, Gomes, Behrings, Alves’, Virgílios, Duartes, Penhas, Jucás, Castello Brancos, Góes’, Vieras, Santos’ and Silvas. And even a Stambowsky. Every new faithful adept at the guard went adding their contributions, depositing a stone here, spreading cement there, and helping to build the guard’s reputation as being the essence of Jiu-Jitsu.

The metaphor of building, in fact, is no gratuity. To Carlos Gracie Jr., the guard position is like a fortress providing the fighter security. You don’t necessarily lose a war just for not having solid ramparts, but it certainly helps. Including for, from atop them, posting your arsenal of attacks: “The guard is the Jiu-Jitsu fighter’s fortress. You choose whether to fight with it open or closed,” he teaches.

“In a war, what’s the most intelligent thing you can do? Start the war with your gates closed. In the closed guard, you are waging war with your enemy from within your walls. If the guy opens your closed guard, he knocks down your drawbridge. It’s a threshold position, which obviously demands a new strategy. If he invades, or in other words, passes your guard and makes it to your side, the battle starts to unfold within your domain, with you much more exposed. It becomes complicated, you’ll need to use thrice the strength to defend yourself, but that doesn’t mean there’s no way out.”

The shield becomes a weapon

In Rio during the 1950’s, Jiu-Jitsu was already famous for giving any old little guy the chance to be his own fortress. Thus, it was Carlson Gracie’s time to add his contribution to the guard – first during his days as a fighter, then with his students. Competitive to the extreme, Carlson would have his students specialize, to win championships. Those were the days when he would bellow: “You’re either a guard player, or a passer.”Should a reader inquire as to who were some of his best pupils, four good guard players surely make the list: Cássio Cardoso, Ricardo de la Riva, Sergio “Bolão” Souza and Murilo Bustamante.

“There’s a myth Carlson only trained guard passers. But besides De la Riva, he had another student, Marcelo Duque Estrada, the Octopus-Man, now a judge, who had an incredibly elastic guard,” comments red and black belt Master Redley Vigio. “Cássio Cardoso, for example, was good all around. But his guard really left an impression: all Jiu-Jitsu students should watch his one-hour fight with Marcelo Behring, from1988. Marcelo too had a phenomenal guard, and the end is sensational; it’s all on Youtube.”

Both big for those days, at around 76kg, Cássio had in the Rickson Gracie student his greatest rival, and the one-hour battle between the two was their decisive bout, held in Lagoa, Rio de Janeiro. “Carlson told me to pull guard and tire him out. I even used a sweep I learned from Marcio Macarrão, but at the time it didn’t count on the score. In the end, I passed his guard three times and he passed mine once, 6 to 2 on the scorecards at the time. Today, it would be more like 21 to 5,” Cássio, 46, comments.

Up until 1994, it was not enough for the fighter on the bottom to reverse the fight and land on top to earn points from the sweep – he had to do it using recognized moves, like the tomoe-nage, or foot-on-crotch, or the classic scissor. With the reform of the rules, proposed by the newly-inaugurated Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Confederation, all guard players had to do was pass and go on top to score points. Now they were given their due prestige. And were ready to surprise.

“The guard, which up until 1994 had been a shield, became a weapon and could decide the fight. I remember having seen in the gym, in 1987, Renzo Gracie playing spider-guard for the first time. As he was a guy with a lot of resources, he didn’t use it much in competition. Me, being skinny, I loved the invention and surprised a lot of people with it,” recalls Vinicius “Draculino” Magalhães, 37. The guard player show was taking off. The same year, with his confusing outer hook placed with his broad and ductile foot, Ricardo de la Riva managed to stop the impetus of the practically unbeatable Royler Gracie, and gained a guard named after him. Now Sérgio Bolão, with a peculiar guard (lying, with a knee drawn back at the bend in the adversary’s elbow, while the other leg would remain free to stand up; the sleeve was held on the bent knee’s side, and the other grip was placed at the knee, creating a pendulum and sweeping to the side of the knee pulled back), he made history and, in good cheer, inspired a generation of sweepers.

With a “bunk knee,” as he remembers it, Roberto “Gordo” Corrêa was obliged to improvise and also made his mark on the art. “The half-guard, which until then could be considered a position favoring the athlete on top, almost as good to attack as having side control, is today the perfect position for the guy on bottom to attack from. There’s no two ways about it, Jiu-Jitsu carries on in sheer evolution,” Carlinhos Gracie observes.

Stiff legs? That’s fine, you, too, can be a great guard player

It’s tough talking about the position’s evolution without citing two other out-of-the-ordinary fighters. Roberto “Roleta” Magalhães, the engineer of the sweeps, influenced a generation with new moves, unlikely traps that would lay waste to, in World Championships, aces of several generations – from Wallid Ismail (1996) to Zé Mario Sperry (1998), to Amaury Bitetti (1999) to Fernando Margarida (2000). Not without cause, the three owners of the most admired guards in present day – Rubens Cobrinha, Bráulio Estima and Roger Gracie – consider him, Roleta, the best they’ve ever watched fight. Another extraordinary guard player, with surreal finishes, was Antonio “Nino” Schembri, who also breathed a new rhythm into attacking Jiu-Jitsu – in this case, his idol Elvis Presley’s rock-and-roll.

Malleable, with strong and flexible legs, the duo from Gracie Barra helped reinforce the myth that an effective guard is elastic, almost magical. Not necessarily so. The referee in the battle between Roleta and Wallid, at the 1996 Worlds, policeman Sergio Ignácio was fed up training with the best guards at Gracie Barra. A passer of the best kind, strong, adept at the squashing game, he ran into a dilemma at brown belt: “I either learned to play guard, or Carlinhos wouldn’t promote me to black belt. That’s when I revealed my problem to Renzo, and he provided me the way off the plateau that dispelled my fear of playing guard: good guard replacement doesn’t demand elasticity, flexibility in spreading the legs – all you need is to not let the guy past the line of your knee. This lesson makes it a lot easier to replace.”

Sergio Ignácio didn’t just learn to play on bottom, but earned his black belt. The sensibility Renzo demonstrated, though, is an attribute one can develop as a guard player, in figuring out what works for his or her self. What most unleashes this sensibility, of course, is flight time in the gym. But there are shortcuts. “Jiu-Jitsu is body and mind,” Redley Vigio conveys. “When training, you use mostly your body. That’s why it’s fundamental that one converse after training, and take notes – even if just mental ones. It’s when you ask your training partners: ‘At that moment were you trying this, when I blocked you? Or was that what you were trying for?’ It’s when you go over the positions in your head and draw on your instinct and sensibility.”

Starting there, your guard will begin to gain wings. As revealed by Bráulio “Carcará” Estima: “When I attack, I do it from back to front. First I block my adversary’s defenses for my attack, and only then do I go for the fatal assault. They’re tiny adjustments. The first thing is to break your opponent’s posture. Then I work on him and try to annul his defense, before actually attacking. Thus, if I attack with a triangle but the guy defends, an arm ends up hanging out. These days, a good guard player is not one who defends his adversary’s best pass, but one who doesn’t even let his adversary begin to go for his best pass. You can’t let him develop his best game. That’s what being one step ahead is.”

For you to arrive at an advanced stage, though, never forget to build a solid foundation, for your ramparts not to crumble: “Anyone wishing to have a good guard should learn and practice all phases of the guard,” says Fabio Gurgel, leader of Alliance. “First closed, with the adversary on his knees, then with him standing; after that the classic foot-on-crotch guard and its variations. Insist on the basics, as later your body type and style of game will surely define what’s ideal for you.” There you have it, now you are ready to flail your legs, this time doing it with class.

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