Importance of Closed Guard with Prof Valerio Ubaldini

“…is the most BASIC and the MOST important position in Jiu-Jitsu!”
For many Gracie Barra students, the first guard we learn is the closed guard. And for good reason – the closed guard is the cornerstone of the bottom game in bjj. Even
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GB: Prof Valerio, can you talk a little about the closed guard position. How does the closed guard differ from the other open guard styles?
What are the strengths and weaknesses?
Prof Valerio: Hello everyone and thanks for having me again on board sharing a little bit of my passion and experience with all of you, it really means a lot.
Let’s start talking about the Closed Guard: I always use to say to my students that this position is the most BASIC and the MOST important position in Jiu-Jitsu. This position is where everything started and it’s the reason why Jiu-Jitsu became so famous starting in the early 1900’.
Even before MMA existed, history tells us that there was a time when the strongest martial arts practitioners were trying to show the world how efficient their martial art was: it was a time of the challenges, where the Karate fighters wanted to prove that their martial arts were better than Kung Fu, or that Judo was better than Boxing, or Capoeira was stronger then Muay Thai, etc..
Well, the fact is that there was a family that every Jiu-Jitsu practitioner know that took these challenges seriously and showed the world that their martial art was the best one: the Gracie Family.
The story of Jiu-Jitsu, to keep it in a few sentences, is as follows: a Japanese Judoka named Mitsuyo Maeda ( Conde Coma) who spent a lot of time traveling the world and engaging in catch wrestling and NHB matches need up in Brazil. There, he taught his trade to a bunch of students and one of them was Carlos Gracie (senior). With the time of training, Carlos modified what he learned (which was a mixture of Japanese Ju-Jitsu, Judo, and catch wrestling) and ended up with what we all know today as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He taught it to the rest of his family, turning all of them into formidable fighters, regardless of their size or strength.
The matches took place in a Vale Tudo rules match with no restrictions. There were no time limits, rules, or referees; most of the fights took place in gyms, although some made it to huge areas and a few even turned into massive brawls!
For most martial arts, if your back is on the ground is game over! A Boxer can be formidable using striking on his feet, but do you ever imagine what can happen if he finds himself on the ground on his back?
The same thing for Karate, Kick Boxing, or Taekwondo… they can be very talented athletes, but if for any reason their plan to maintain the fight standing up doesn’t work, being on their back would be just the end!
But for a Jiu-Jitsu practitioner? The ground is only the beginning!! Needless to say, the challenges back in the days ended: the Gracie family members, even if they were not physically the strongest – the tallest or the heaviest were able to win every match using leverage and high skills techniques to end the position with a submission.
Returning now to the subject, the closed is one of the first positions a new student can learn in Jiu-Jitsu. A guard is considered closed once both legs of the guard player are wrapped around his opponent’s waist and the feet are crossed (locked), holding the adversary’s hips close to those of the bottom player. What makes closed guard so efficient is that we can consider the position an upside-down mount position for the person on the bottom. Also for the person on the bottom with their legs wrapped around their opponent, the closed guard player can attack the person on top with both their arms and legs, having in this way a huge advantage.
In MMA the closed guard is still useful with bottom attacks and sweeps even if very often it is not ideal from a judging and striking perspective.
In self-defense situations, closed guard can still be very useful against an untrained opponent as there are sweeps and attacks that the Jiu-Jitsu trained person can use to block the attacks of their aggressor and come out on top.
From the closed guard, the bottom player will have as a goal to use a sweep and try a way to move on top, or look for submissions such as chokes, shoulder lock, armlocks, and wrist locks to name a few; the player on top instead has only one goal – get out, trying to open and then pass the guard of the person on the bottom.
Let’s talk about being on the bottom of the Closed Guard for example. We certainly can say that this is a very safe position to be in, what can make a huge difference is the use of the grips. Especially if you are on the bottom you always need to keep your hands busy, you can never wait for the action of the person on top. As I always say to my students, most of the time whoever starts the action first can have a high percentage of success to finish their action first: this means that if the person on the bottom makes his own grips first, he can have the highest chance to example execute a sweep or a submission before the person on top can pass and vice-versa.
If you are on top, depending on what point of the match you are, you can also use this position sometimes to rest yourself and then push again, you can always find a way to open the guard of your partner from your knees or standing up. Very often students ask me: “ Professor can we do submissions from the top of the closed guard?” My answer is always the same: “ Can you can, but at your own risk! “. It’s true that there are sneaky submissions from the top of the closed guard and they can work, but most of the time the end result of this trying is always the same: the person on the bottom works a submission on you or he moved to your back!
I believe that the Closed Guard is a really strong and solid position: everyone from white belt to black belt needs to have a solid foundation from this position. I always say to my students: “ what is the most important part when you build a house? “ FOUNDATIONS.
If you understand the principles of the closed guard, you can then over time understand and work from all the different open guards, bottom or top.
Can’t say that is a weakness, probably is more a limitation, but one of the first things that come up in my mind if I have to find one is hip mobility. In Jiu-Jitsu having good hip mobility helps a lot and from the closed guard, you don’t have as much as if you are in an open guard for example.
But obviously, it depends on the level and experience of who is doing guard.
So in my opinion, closed guard is the most important position in Jiu-Jitsu and it’s a position that everyone should know and have strong skills from it.
GB: If someone wants to improve their closed guard game, where should they start? Where are most students lacking in their closed guard game?
Prof Valerio: Let’s start first talking about the bottom player. First of all, in order to know how to work or get better from the closed guard, every guard player needs to know how to properly PULL GUARD from standing. This is fundamental! And I always repeat to my students that the best time to pull guard either in training or in competition is when you feel that your partner/opponent has a better stand-up game than you.
For rules, whoever works a takedown gains 2 points: starting a match in advantage can play a big role, so is so important to don’t be the one at disadvantage. If you know that your partner/opponent has a background in Judo or wrestling, or you feel in a tournament the way the person in front does work his grips or set up is movements are better than your stand up experience, the smartest thing to do to don’t be throw around is: to pull guard.
You can obviously pull and lock the guard if you are a lower rank: you technically and safely reach the ground in a position that you can be and must be more familiar with, you took 0 points and your partner/opponent gained 0 points, but from there you can now start setting up your attacks and eventually finding a way to end the match with a submission or start to build up your points by working sweeps being able to move on top and reaching better dominant positions.
So as I say to my students in training: “ if you don’t want to get your flight ID, pull guard that is better! “
If you are of a lower rank, I always tell my students to start feeling comfortable making grips and keeping their hands busy. A grip can make the difference, especially if you start the action first; you can use both of your hands to grab the sleeves of your partner, sleeve and collar, sleeve and cross collar, two hands on the collar… it’s all about what you want to do!
Even if you don’t have a specific plan in your mind, make grips! If you don’t have any grips, the person on top can set up his grips and have a successful action in opening and passing your guard; but if you set up a grip, EVEN if you don’t know what to do next, this grip can delay or even stop the action of the person on top: because now the person on top doesn’t have clear action and before to work his way out, will need to focus first on the grips his receiving! So highly recommend, use your grips even if you haven’t a plan: you can always use your grips to pull your partner towards you with the help of your legs if the person on top wants to create space and disengage, or you can always use your grips to push in case the person on top wants to short the distance and make more pressure.
For advanced rank, as mentioned before you must focus on your hip’s mobility!
I always joke with my students telling them: “ remember what Shakira (the singer) says – HIPS DON’T LIE “. It’s not about strength, the flexibility, or the length of the legs that a position from the bottom guard doesn’t work – is because of the positioning of your hips. If you train the shrimps, creating angle and you don’t stay completely flat on your back you can definitely have a better open guard.
So a lack and huge mistake for the person on the bottom from a closed guard, in my opinion, can definitely be grips fighting; for an open guard, the mobility of the hips.
See also on GB Blog: GB Inspiration: Prof. Flavio Almeida on overcoming struggles
Writer: Mark Mullen, Gracie Barra Black Belt