There is a maxim that swept the combat sports and self defense worlds in the last two decades, “Most fights end up on the ground.” Brazilian Jiu-jitsu takes this idea to heart, largely focusing on submitting your opponent with a choke or joint lock from the ground. The self-defense applications are obvious, providing an avenue for someone who is physically weaker to defend themselves against a larger opponent. Training for this martial art often relies upon the assumption that the fight has already been taken to the ground, yet Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Competitions require that their combatants start standing. This has led to the act of pulling guard, and the various mental hang-ups associated with it.
When a BJJ athlete pulls guard, he/she puts their foot on the opponent’s hip while holding their collar and sleeve and sits down to the ground, ideally pulling the other athlete in between their legs into a position closed guard. It is ideally suited for people who prefer to fight off of their back, using their legs and grips on the opponent’s clothing to break them down. That being said, it is also the cause of significant anxiety for some BJJ practitioners, who do not want to be seen as “guard pullers.” They feel that if they pull guard, then they are not being aggressive enough and not pursuing their takedowns. I understand this feeling because it is something that I grappled with, pun intended, about a year into learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
I am tall and on the gangly side, and I train in a gym where most of the other students are at least 180 pounds. Since I was constantly playing off of a weight disadvantage of at least 10 pounds, I gravitated toward fighting from my back and pulling guard. Eventually I realized that I was using this as a crutch and was not taking time to develop takedowns and learn new things, so I tried to move away from this approach. I still love playing off of my back and I think that that is where I am most dangerous, but I generally view it as my Plan B.
Plan A is to shoot for more takedowns and attempt to fight from the top, understanding that even if I get placed on my back I will still feel like I can be a threat. I take comfort in the fact that even if my initial tactic does not work, my Plan B will still be ideal. In the past year since I changed up my strategy, I noticed that I was starting to feel guilty whenever I pulled guard. I think that the stigma surrounding guard pulling comes from a number of different sources, and I wanted to explore them a bit.
The first source is rather simple, and that is the limited application for guard pulling in an actual self-defense situation. I don’t think that even the most ambitious spider guard player would think to sit to their butt in a street fight on stone or concrete. (As an aside, the most common thing people say about this is “What if there’s broken glass on the ground!?” How often is everyone else walking past random shards of glass?) So the guard puller assumes that in a real fight his best techniques will come into play only if he is taken down and put at a disadvantage. BJJ is for self-defense as much as it is for sport, so it seems strange to some to focus on a technique that seems to have fewer applications for real life.
One of the other reasons that the practice is looked down upon is that it puts you at a disadvantage in some competitions. There is an old trick that one of the more experienced students taught me when I first started, to fake a takedown when your opponent pulls guard. This may seem useless, but oftentimes this is enough to get points from judges in a competitive jiujitsu match. There are no points for pulling guard, but there are points for takedowns. If you pull guard you are surrendering your opportunity to capitalize on this and win more points.
Another reason why “guard puller” seems like a dirty word to many is because it is so much easier than shooting for a takedown. Takedowns in wrestling and jiujitsu are explosive techniques, requiring that the athlete expend a lot of energy and power. Failed takedowns can leave you winded and in a bad position, giving up your head to a choke, or even opening you up to be taken down yourself. I am the worst example of this, I will try for takedowns when I am fresh but a few rolls into the night I will pull guard just to preserve my cardio. BJJ is supposed to be about pushing yourself, so I know that I feel dirty sometimes using a technique that is so much easier than the alternative. I think that this gets to the heart of the final reason why pulling guard has a bad reputation in some Jiu-Jitsu circles.
For the people who practice it, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is an intensely important and personal experience. It offers students the opportunity to push and test themselves in a way that modern life rarely offers anymore. The act of vying with another person for control and pushing one’s self physically, mentally, and emotionally, is an important part of the experience. To get any degree of proficiency in BJJ, you need to get dominated and submitted about a thousand times. Not many people are willing to do this because it takes so much work and sacrifice, but it is also immensely satisfying. It tells you something about who you are, and helps you to define yourself in a world where people are constantly categorizing others.
For this reason, the techniques that you focus on, and the ones that you excel at, seem to be a reflection of who you are. One of the special things about Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is that there are so many techniques that there is truly something for every personality and body type. Most techniques can be taught to able-bodied individuals and performed with success, which makes it different from other martial arts that require you to perform unique feats of physical strength and flexibility. Some people may never develop this kind of ability, however long they train. The moves that you excel at in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will be based upon your own physicality and athleticism, as well as your personality.
I think that this is the real reason that no one wants to be known as a guard puller, because it will affect your reputation with your training partners, and affect how you see yourself. You know the people in the gym that are great at one specific position or one particular move. There is that wily purple belt who ties you into knots from X-guard, smiling behind his mouth guard. Or there is the blue belt who walked into the gym with a great guillotine as a white belt and has only made it better with time. You admire and respect these people, and you want them to feel the same way about you. It can be easy to blow the importance of guard pulling out of proportion, asking ourselves “What does that say about you if you decide to pull guard?”
I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with pulling guard, but I think this is why we often find ourselves fixating on it, and I think it says something about how we view jiujitsu. Personally I feel that it’s a technique for sport jiujitsu, and I think that it has its place in the art. If you can use if effectively, why does it matter what anyone thinks of you?