There’s a friendly argument in BJJ that often sounds more serious than it is. When starting a BJJ match, should you start with a takedown, or by pulling guard? There are a lot of defenses and reasoned arguments on either side, and the justifications often change depending on the skill and goals of the jiu-jitsu player. For fundamentals students, and those looking for the “simple bjj” view, there is an answer.
Defining the Playing Field
Since this is directed primarily towards fundamentals students, let’s first make sure everybody understands what is being discussed. Every jiu-jitsu match, and every street fight, starts standing. For the moment, let’s just assume we are talking about competition. The goal of a jiu-jitsu match is to get a submission and end the match. Although there are ways to do this standing, it’s exceedingly rare, and there are vastly fewer options from standing, so the match is naturally directed towards the ground. The only question is how do you get to the ground in the most advantageous way?
A wrestling oriented jiu-jitsu player will tell you that you should get a wrestling style takedown, then get top position, then go for the submission. A judo oriented player will say to perform a throw. Many pure jiu-jitsu competitors will say to pull guard, which basically means getting a grip on the opponent, then using various means of pulling the opponent towards the ground. Once the guard puller is on the ground, there are all kinds of variations on sweeps, open guard technique, as well as closed guard technique to rely on to immediately go on offense against their opponent.
Takedowns: Pros and Cons
Nobody at a jiu-jitsu tournament wants to deal with a wrestler. . .while standing. Wrestlers drill takedowns until they are smooth and fast. By the time you identify the danger, you are often already on your way to the mat. However, once on the ground, the expert wrestler is out of their league against a reasonably good jiu-jitsu player. In fact, if you are a wrestler, NAGA competitions won’t let you compete at the beginner level. It’s assumed that you will get takedowns and be able to manipulate your opponent on the ground, but you may not be able to finish them. In other words, against an beginner BJJ opponent, the wrestler has an unfair advantage in a jiu-jitsu match. An added bonus is that a wrestler has certain stance and style cues that an opponent will see and respond to. People oriented towards pulling guard or those who have limited takedown defense experience will recognize a wrestler, and will be put at a mental disadvantage. Now if you combine wrestling and BJJ experience, you have both the standup game, as well as the ground game. It is literally the best of both worlds.
As a side note, albeit an important one, Judo also brings something to the takedown game, although it is focused primarily on throws instead of takedowns. For the purposes of this article, assume that when I talk about takedowns, assume I mean 80% wrestling, 20% judo. Judo tends to see less activity in a jiu-jitsu match, but it does come up, and a takedown oriented student should be training judo offense and defense.
When it comes to disadvantages to takedowns, there are some notable considerations. One of the big issues with takedowns is the energy expenditure required to both perform the takedown and deal with the counters. Any wrestler or judoka will tell you that standing up and sparring on the feet can be physically demanding. If you are not well skilled, takedown attempts often turn into major positional disadvantages or even quick submissions. Once there is some BJJ skill involved with the defender, the wrestler finds out that they are very vulnerable to a variety of attacks that don’t occur on the wrestling mat.
Practicing takedowns also opens you up to more injury during training. It is physically challenging, exhausting, and is often inconvenient due to space limitations at your school. Many inherent factors of takedowns mean that you are punishing your body more than if you pulled guard.
In short, there is absolutely more risk involved with takedowns, but also more reward. If you desire a strong offense with aggression, despite the manageable risks, then having a strong takedown game may be your goal.
Pulling Guard: Pros and Cons
Pulling guard properly has some significant advantages in a jiu-jitsu match, especially if you have a good guard. By pulling guard, you deny the good wrestler or judoka an opportunity to apply their skills. Pulling guard also immediately puts you in a position to sweep or submit your opponent. Far from being a passive or defensive tactic, pulling guard is best viewed as an attack that immediately limits your opponents choices and increases your options.
You will use less energy in converting the scenario from standing to ground work, and you’ll often get more time to work towards a dominant position where you can attempt submissions. When you have a limited amount of time to work with, less time standing is a good thing. Using less energy is also a big plus when you have many matches in a day. Along with using less energy, pulling guard is a less risky option when you are tired or injured. I had one match where I pulled a hamstring early in the match and had no choice but to pull guard. I eventually won the match, but it would have been far more difficult, if not impossible, to attempt a takedown on an injured leg. This speaks volumes to the usage of guard pulls to keep you safer while still retaining options for a good offense.
Pulling guard has some dark elements to it. Too often, a beginning student will use pulling guard as a stalling tactic, just as a wrestler might use a takedown into a closed guard as a stalling tactic. If you don’t have a plan for what to do after pulling guard, then you aren’t really pulling guard in the sense that advanced competitors do. A good guard pull is immediately turned into a sweep or submission attempt, but too often inexperienced guard pullers treat it as a means to get the opponent in their closed guard where they hope to find something to attack, but they don’t necessarily have something in mind. Good guard pulls have significant thought put into them, much like all the thought and options that are available once you get to the x-guard position. Options that you don’t use are no good to you, so a guard pull without a sweep or submit immediately after is nothing more than a tactic to prevent takedown points. This is an unhealthy jiu-jitsu attitude.
Pulling guard as a default style also leads to the absurd scenario of a double guard pull, where both competitors walk up to each other, get a momentary grip, and sit down. This is far from the spirit of what jiu-jitsu is meant to be, and only causes confusion for spectators that are unaware of what’s going on. The IBJJF recently implemented a rule that double guard pulls have 30 seconds to be turned into a dominant position or else penalties will be assessed. Nobody wants to see a round of patty cake instead of jiu-jitsu. Double guard pulls are simply an embarrassment to the sport.
Finally, it’s too easy to assume that pulling guard means you don’t need a good takedown or judo defense. It’s a somewhat reasonable point, but you lose any notion of jiu-jitsu being a martial art instead of a sport, and you miss out on a rich variety of standup techniques that have ideal sport scenarios where they should be applied instead of the guard pull. In these takedown specific cases, like a leg being exposed with no defense, you should be attacking with a takedown in mind for no other reason than you’ll get points in a jiu-jitsu competition.
War. . .or Skirmish
Although BJJ people will vigorously disagree about the best way to get the match to the ground, it’s not dissimilar to other fights within a family. Catholic vs Protestant, Republican vs Democrat, or any other argument amongst people who believe in the same core principles, yet disagree on details that don’t affect the core values. The two sides often feel like they are arguing as if it’s a choice between raw power and intelligence, or smart strategy versus ignoring holes in a game. There’s some truth to these views, like many stereotypes, but it doesn’t tell the whole story or give you a plan of attack as a fundamentals student.
While there is a place for all opinions, and plenty of friendly jousting is warranted, I believe that for a fundamentals student it is best to fill out your martial arts repertoire and take the most aggressive and most valuable path, despite the difficulty involved. Learn your takedowns and throws as your primary starting goal, and also train guard pulling for when you have a situation where aggressiveness or your own physical state may work against you.
If you have any desire for your jiu-jitsu to be street applicable, then there is very little argument for pulling guard at all. In self defense circles, pulling guard is simply a joke.
If your main goal is competition, especially advanced competition, you’ll tend to treat takedowns as the brutes’ method to the ground, while pulling guard is the advanced game. Ask yourself this: who is more dangerous, a BJJ player with judo and wrestling experience, or a BJJ player with just jiu-jitsu?
So. Takedown or Pull Guard?
In the end, you are going to have to evaluate your own style of aggression vs defense, energy expenditure vs efficiency, and many other factors not only at a high level view, but even on a match by match basis. No matter what, you should have a basic understanding of takedowns, throws, and various methods and tactics for pulling guard. It will require more study than just rolling in open mat and occasionally having your instructor teach basic wrestling or judo. Take all of them seriously, but take the things that are worth points and are applicable to street defense more seriously. As a fundamentals student, it’s best to have an eye towards training takedowns which will be more effective and productive early on, but will also serve you well as your skills increase and you can differentiate on the fly when to apply your takedown game and when to apply your guard pulls.
I’m still going to make fun of guard pullers, no matter how good they are. You’ve been warned.