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