Most experienced practitioners will have a decided preference when asked “In bjj, do you prefer to play top or bottom?” “My takedowns are terrible, so I prefer to just jump to spider guard.” “I have short legs, so I prefer to stay on top and try to pass.”
Your physical attributes, your head instructor’s style & philosophy, your competitive goals, and just what feels most fun to you will all determine what style of game you prefer.
Lighter students of bjj will often develop more of a guard bottom game, not out of preference, but out of necessity! Matched against larger, heavier opponents on a daily basis, they are forced to defend from the bottom and in the process tend to develop highly technical and dangerous guard games.
The bigger guys in any academy will be less mobile on their backs and therefore less effective. Playing from top and getting expert at passing and heavy top control seems to be their pattern.In a previous article 5 expressions of bjj I outlined the difference. The rule set of whichever “expression” is most important to you will also influence how your top/ bottom game develops.
Sports bjj competition players tend to regard the guard position as more important and will even often battle for the bottom position (ever see a simultaneous guard pull)? Many competitions are won by sweeps and advantages by the guard player (ex. berimbolo), so those who emphasize sports bjj will tend to answer more often that they are bottom players.
Jumping to guard is also a tactic to avoid surrendering takedown points to an opponent who may be superior in wrestling or judo.
Within sports bjj with a kimono, the emphasis on the guard (more specifically the open guards) has lead to great technical innovations in the art of jiu-jitsu.
Many argue that these complex, sports oriented guards utilizing the lapels are diverging from the original self defence goals of bjj, but one can not deny they are contributing to the evolution of bjj. An “arms race” of grips and continually emerging new guards is driving the top competitors to create and match strategies never before seen in the art and sport.
While in MMA, even those with world champion sports bjj background will avoid accepting an opponent’s takedown and playing guard, fighting for the more important top position. Dealing with punches from the bottom makes the guard less attractive and submissions from the bottom in high level MMA are becoming increasingly rare.
It will be curious to see how the increasing popularity of submission-only competition formats impacts the games of those who specialize in that rule set (or lack thereof). With reward for neither takedowns nor guard sweeps, this will lessen the importance of those two areas of bjj and an increase in other strategies. Time will tell.
Previous sports / martial arts experience is also a big factor. If you came from another grappling sport that had less emphasis on the guard and sweeps, you will likely have more time spent training takedowns and tend to dominate the top position against pure bjj players.
When asked my opinion on top or bottom game in bjj – the true answer is of course both! – I point out that brazilian jiu-jitsu is but one of many different styles of grappling in the world. Every single other grappling system regards being on top as dominant.
I also ask the hypothetical question, “If you were fighting a clone of yourself, who would win? Top or bottom?” Usually the response is “The top me!” If we are talking “A-game,” I believe that the top game is probably the higher percentage when you really trying to win. Using your weight and pressure to make life miserable for the bottom opponent.
At the same time, most of our training hours in a month are about attending class and rolling with our best training partners and just having fun. If you enjoy laying back and playing some spider guard and trying a cool sweep that you just learned, I say forget the debate and just enjoy jiu-jitsu!
Please share in the comments if you prefer to play top or bottom in your game.
Credits: Mark Mullen
Gracie Barra Black belt based in Taipei, Taiwan