A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 4

In 1993 in the UFC, Royce Gracie wowed the world by beating all his opponents by fighting off his back. He used the closed guard to do it.

Thousands of years ago, people believed that the earth was flat. These two facts have more in common than you think.

The Earth is not flat. We’ve known this since Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the Earth about 2200 years ago. The Flat Earth model was useful long ago but we now use a better, more accurate spherical model of the Earth.

The closed guard definitely works. We’ve seen thousands of people use it to achieve victory in fights and competitions. So why am I comparing it unfavourably to the Flat Earth model?

The pros and cons of the closed guard


  • Easy for beginners to learn
  • Keeps the fight on the ground
  • Many submission opportunities – guillotines, armbars, triangles, kimuras, omoplatas
  • Moderate ability to sweep to the top position


  • Easy for your opponent to lift you off the ground
  • Easy for your opponent to stack you once your ankles uncross
  • Easy for your opponent to heel hook you once your ankles uncross
  • Hard to defend against strikes

So 4 for 4. Seems even, right? Wrong.

Spinal injuries, knee ligament injuries, getting elbowed in the face. These are some of the worst things that can happen to you when grappling/fighting. Using closed guard makes it easy for your opponent to do these things to you.

The disadvantages of closed guard far outweigh the advantages.

Spinal injuries

There are many videos on youtube of people suffering severe spinal injuries while competing in BJJ. You may have even heard of friends locally who’ve suffered spinal injuries while training or competing. All these injuries occur because of either getting lifted off the ground or getting stacked.

Here is why you don’t want to get lifted off the mat

Closed guard spinal break

WARNING: not for the weak of stomach.

Risks of getting stacked.

Heel hooks

Following on from spinal injuries, the next worst injury is knee ligament damage from heel hooks. These injuries are dangerous because they need surgery to recover more often than other injuries. Once your ankles are uncrossed in closed guard, you have little ability to prevent your opponent from entering for the heel hook.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 5

Strikes from closed guard

The only way to defend strikes in closed guard is to use your arms. Your legs can’t effectively control distance or off-balance your opponent. If strikes are a concern, then using closed guard usually results in this:


There are other guards that avoid the disadvantages of closed guard.

Half guard (and variations e.g. z-guard, lockdown) keep the fight on the ground.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 1

Hooking guards (butterfly, X-guards) allow for higher percentage sweeping opportunities and access to leg submissions

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 2

Why is closed guard so prevalent?

Apart from specialist professions (pilot, ships’ captain) assuming the earth is flat doesn’t cause any real harm for many people.

For BJJ athletes, using closed guard has very real (and severe) risks.

Even though we knew the Earth is spherical over 2000 years ago, it took hundreds of years for it to become universally accepted.

Closed guard’s one advantage over other guards is that it is easy for beginners to learn. Beginners love closed guard because it feels like they’re making progress in learning BJJ. They don’t have the knowledge and experience of the severe risks of closed guard to make an informed decision.

It is a coach’s responsibility to protect their beginning athletes from severe injury, until the athletes gain enough experience to take responsibility for their own safety. If you’re a coach, it’s time to ask yourself if you’re fulfilling your responsibilities towards your athletes.

The closed guard was useful for its time. Its weaknesses are now obvious. There are more modern and better replacements. The earth is not flat and there are better options than the closed guard.

A Flat Earth makes more sense than closed guard 3

As a coach, my job is to provide a training environment where people can learn BJJ safely and effectively. But there’s more to it than that. My job is to ensure that they learn how to keep themselves safe while training and competing.

These two things are not the same.

The most important thing to understand in BJJ is that your safety is your responsibility. Make sure you can keep yourself safe. Don’t rely on rules or referees to keep you safe. The following video shows that you can’t rely on rules and referees.

When you train in the gym, you are friends with the people you are training with and you know that they will look out for your safety. In a competition, or when training at another gym, you can’t afford to rely on your opponent to look out for you.

This means that you must train with illegal moves in the gym. When you train heel hooks, slicers, knee reaping, spinal locks etc with training partners you trust, you begin to understand those moves. When you understand the moves, you know when to tap and when to continue working your escape. More importantly, understanding the moves allows you to see the move coming and allows you to avoid getting caught right from the start. Just because a move is illegal doesn’t mean that someone won’t try to apply it on you.

Basic risk assessment. The worst injury that could happen to you is a spinal injury. Your game should be designed around this risk. Everytime you are in a position where your opponent can pick you up is a potential spinal injury. This means jumping guard, armbars from underneath, spider guard, closed guard. If you play in these positions you should expect to be picked up and you must know how to bail safely. A more prudent approach is to just avoid these positions entirely.

BJJ is a combat sport. Most of the time it’s a friendly sport. But in competition where emotions are high, it can turn into a fight. Your safety is your responsibility.