Class 2014-02-23: Defense in Side Control

defenseMost jiu-jitsu players dread being stuck in side control.  If your opponent wants to hold you down, there’s a very good chance he can restrict your escape attempts enough to keep you pinned to the ground.  The first time you try to use the escape you learned in class, you find out that escaping side control isn’t the clean process that you thought it was. 

Add to this that in competition, you have three seconds to escape before your opponent gets points for the position.  It’s normal to see a guard pass, followed by the top person holding side control and staring at the ref, waiting for the points signal.  Every time I see a competitor look at the ref for points I want to slap them.  It would almost be worth the DQ to walk out and do that.

This class, which due to a missing flash card wasn’t recorded, deals with how to treat defense in side control.  I racked my brain to come up with a good way to describe my approach, and it wasn’t until late in the day that I came up with good labels.  The salient point is that initially, you want to fight back and prevent a consolidation of side control.  If you fail and your opponent gains a clean side control, it’s time to reevaluate your goals and stop wasting energy.  This division of phases can break down your defensive goals into active and passive defense.

Active Defense

Active defense is when you are establishing a safe defensive position with the intent of using it to escape.  When dealing with a fresh side control attempt, this lasts no longer than three seconds.  After three seconds, two things happen.  First, in competition, your opponent gets side control points.  Second, your opponent has proven that he won the position, and any further escape attempts that you chain on to your three second burst are going to tire you out, and may not be effective.

Your goal for an active defensive position should be to have your inside elbow against your ribs, and your outside forearm against your opponents neck.  The trick here is establishing that position.  From a starting position of your outside arm around their head and their hip blocking your inside elbow (ideal for them), I use the following technique:

To regain control of your inside elbow, bridge into your opponent, then as you settle back, drop the inside elbow past their hip and establish your wrist on their hip.  Ideally, this is immediately followed by rocking to the opposite side to get your outside arm in place without being worried about getting it submitted.  The roll to the outside either traps your opponent’s arm under your body, or it forces them to post out.  Either way, you can slip your forearm past their face and get it under their chin and grab onto their shoulder.

This position gives you a very good frame to use your normal escape techniques.  Your hands can come back to your neck quickly to defend against chokes, and your opponent’s body pressure can be handled with your frame.  It takes just a second or so to establish this active defensive position, and it drives up your chances of escape.  Use it aggressively and avoid any attempts to get you out of that defensive posture.  If your elbow gets scooped up by a knee, get it back inside.  If your arm slips back over the head, put it back where you want it before you continue your escape.

If you can’t capitalize on this active defense posture in three seconds, it’s time to switch to a passive defense posture.

Passive Defense

A passive defense seeks to reduce energy expenditure while denying access to submissions or transition opportunities.  The best example of this is Ryron Gracie’s technique of controlling the attacker’s arm on the inside and controlling the head on the outside.  If you can hold off Andre Galvao for 20 minutes, then you are doing something right.  The key thing to understand for passive defense is you are waiting for the perfect opportunity to switch to an active defense and escape.

As with active defense, any time your position deviates from your ideal, you should recover, reset, and retry.  Re-establish the defensive posture and continue looking for the right time to escape.  For this passive defense, your opponent is going to try to try to remove your control points on the arm and head, and he will also try to go to north south or to mount.  Mount can be prevented with your inside leg against his side, and north south can be prevented by staying connected to your opponent and allowing him to rotate you as well.

One thing that will reliably happen is your opponent will tend to elevate his hips to start his attempts to break through your passive defense.  Any time the hips are above the head, you know it’s your time to strike.  Shrimp, insert your inside knee across the stomach and regain your guard.

Your opponent will get frustrated.  He may accuse you of stalling.  He might even stop actively trying to alter the situation.  All that matters is that your escape is on your timing, not his.  In the meantime, he is expending more energy than you are and you are safe from further deterioration of your position.  Remember: you can’t win if you can’t survive.


Active defense is oriented towards immediate escape.  It takes exactly three seconds for this strategy to expire.  Beyond that, you are better off saving your energy and using a passive defense and waiting for the perfect time to make the escape on your terms.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.