There are two types of ground games. The top game, which favors being on top, and the bottom game, which favors the guard. Typically the size of a person as well as where they train determines which they will be better suited for. At 180 lbs (~82 kg) and having a background which is mostly judo and wrestling (though I’ve never formally wrestled) I’m a top game player. When you go into Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, the goal is to make everyone play the bottom game.

The Top

As a top game player I have a few reliable traits. I prefer to get the throw/takedown, and I usually do. If for some reason I end up being thrown I will quickly recover to a position where I’m on my knees. This means I end up in the Turtle a lot. My BJJ coach views this as bad as my back can be readily taken. My judo coach doesn’t mind it so much and goes as far as helping us actively attack from the Turtle. I consider escaping the back mount and finishing hammer locks from my Turtle as areas I’m reasonably strong in. I do get choked sometimes though, and because of that my BJJ coach wants me to avoid a bad position instead of simply being very good from it.

Being a top player has also awarded me with a decent leg-lock game. BJJ players have tricky guards, but in order to use that guard you end up being controlled with the legs. Once that guard is open (and a few times when it’s not) you can lock the legs up and simply submit someone for the petty crime of playing from their guard. This won’t always work, but it seems to enough of the time for me. Right now I’m practicing not doing leg-locks and just passing the guard. Once I’ve passed, kesa gatame becomes my home. I feel like I could hold down King Kong if I could get kesa on him.

The Bottom

In every top player’s life he’s going to meet someone bigger and stronger than him. In these cases, being a top player might not work out. I’m in an odd weight class. It’s light enough that we have smaller guys than me who aren’t that strong for their size, but heavy enough that the guys who are 200+ lbs (90+ kg) and cut down to it are huge. I’d call it average. Boxing would call it Light Heavyweight. MMA considers me somewhere between Middleweight and Welterweight. The point is, sometimes I end up going up against a guy who has 20+ lbs (9+kg) on me, but who cut water weight. In these situations I’d still rather be on top, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and all of the sudden I’m the small guy on his back.

Enter BJJ. I’ve missed the throw, I’m on my back, and I’ve escaped to… the guard? This is still a disadvantageous position in my head. It’s got a lot of sweep and submission options, but only if I can keep him from passing. Bigger guys manhandling your top game gives you a new appreciation for all those guard skills you’ve learned. When you’re the middle of your weight class size-wise (even when you’ve weighed in only 0.1 lbs under weight) having a bottom game will save your bacon because it works on everyone. It just doesn’t work as well as mounting someone and choking them blue. I disagree with the sentiment that the guard is the great equalizer. I don’t think it’s the beat-all-end-all position BJJ paints it to be. I don’t think you do less work there, even if you’re good. I can just chill in a pin, even against a larger opponent. Against a large guy in your guard, you have to actively work to control him. Luckily BJJ has provided some basic survival skills.

The Relationship

The bottom is what happens when I’m smaller or just make a mistake. I still view it as a tool to get the top (via submission or sweep). The top is my home. Having said that, I don’t think I could have just one. The guys who I’ve rolled with who have phenomenal guards at the cost of their top game still end up on top via a sweep and from there you can escape back to neutral and start imposing your top game on them. I’ve done it. It’s happened. Someone does a great flower sweep from closed guard and I’m mounted, but a back-door escape to a turtle-turnover ends up getting me to side-control, and from there it’s my game. Likewise I’ve been on top, spinning for an armbar from the mount and I end up in half-guard. All of the sudden he’s recovered the guard. Both are important. You can and will end up in both, and you’ll be so happy that you know how to play it properly when you have a good pinning game with submissions (a la Judo) and a solid guard game to fall back on so to speak (a la BJJ). Having said that, I think training both circumstantially or alternating your game is probably better than the judo approach of always being on top, or the BJJ approach of pulling guard. Pulling guard will always be a sin to the guy who knows how to throw.


One thought on “Games

  1. It seems that broadly speaking, particularly if you’re bigger than most of your training partners, you’ll become a top player because they have trouble holding you down. If the reverse is true, then you become a bottom player out of necessity, as people keep trying to squash you.

    It would be interesting to do an extended study of that, and how it changes over time. I’m a low-level purple belt, and while I previously would have called myself a bottom player (due to being small), these days I’m much keener to be on top. However, I think that’s probably also because where I currently train it is almost entirely white and blue belts, and the instructor also tends to pair people up by size.

    Either way, it’s definitely more comfortable being on top: less strain on my neck (I avoid turtle now for that reason), and also less chance of my arms and legs getting tweaked (which happens sometimes in guard: I did something to my elbow playing guard earlier this week, which frustratingly I can’t even remember doing. I blame gravity).

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