Half guard is arguably the most important development in the evolution of submission grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu techniques. Before the development of half guard, effective bottom games revolved around the “full” guard positions (ie. closed and butterfly) where the guard player uses their legs to control both of the opponent’s hips and legs. Half guard gives bottom players offensive options when their legs are in control of just one one of their opponent’s legs. Among the advantages of building a half guard game are: more options when you’re unable to prevent an opponent who is starting to pass your guard, and having a very mobile bottom position to fight from. Not to mention that when you’re mounted or in turtle it’s easier to snag a leg and get into half guard than to recover closed guard.
Maurice Smith Uses MMA Half Guard to Change the Landscape
Probably the first high-profile blip on the half guard radar happened in 1997 at UFC 14 when kickboxer Maurice Smith fought ground-and-pound wrestling monster Mark Coleman at his most terrifying (ie. when headbutts were still legal). This was back when “grappling beats striking” was pretty close to a universally accepted axiom. Coleman had been unbeaten up to that point and most people were expecting Smith to get mauled. It didn’t happen.
Mark Coleman took Smith down like he was supposed to, but Maurice defended from the bottom very effectively – thanks in no small part to half guard with a leg triangle – and was able to get back up and put his world-class kickboxing to use. Coleman, who had never had his endurance tested, eventually turned into a shambling mass who could only stagger around while absorbing kicks and punches up the yin yang. After 21 minutes, Maurice Smith was the UFC Heavyweight Champ and one of the first predominantly stand-up fighters to win a major MMA championship.
Videos of this landmark MMA fight are elusive online, but I did find one link to a poor-quality Mark Coleman vs. Maurice Smith highlight video that barely shows Smith’s use of half guard. If you haven’t seen the fight it’s definitely worth watching, but playing it on a big screen will probably make you feel drunk.
Half Guard for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Submission Grappling
The half guard has also been used very effectively by many competitors at the highest levels of grappling competition, whether you’re talking about the Abu Dhabi Combat Championship (ADCC), the No-Gi Worlds, North American Grappling Association (NAGA) competitions, the IBJJF World Jiu-Jitsu Championship (Mundials), or the Abu Dhabi World Professional Jiu-Jitsu Cup.
Half guard is sort of a funny position – from bottom you’re half way to your opponent’s back or to full guard, and from top you’re halfway to mount or to the back. Randy Couture has said that he prefers being on top in half guard to having side control because half guard gives him more control over his opponent’s hips. Conversely, many submission grapplers find that they have more hip mobility from bottom half guard than from full guard and can get right under their opponent’s centre of balance, which is very helpful for sweeps.
Submission Grappling / BJJ Half Guard Techniques
Most half guard BJJ techniques involve getting yourself under your opponent’s centre of gravity and destabilizing them to create an opening for a sweep or submission. Categorization freaks like to break half guard into a number of positions. From traditional BJJ half guard, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter or submission grappler can branch into butterfly half guard, deep half guard, knee-shield half guard, octopus half guard, and onward. Half guard submissions include the kimura shoulder lock, calf crush, kneebar, electric chair, and guillotine choke.
There are enough half guard techniques to fill a series of books, so this article is going to be a collection of online instructional BJJ videos that will provide a solid starting point for anyone who wants to begin exploring the world of half guard for submission grappling.
Technique #1: Foot Grab Sweep (aka Old School Sweep)
The foot grab sweep, or old school sweep, is one of the first half guard sweeps that most people learn. Here, Kiwi Shane Poppleton breaks it down. Note in particular how Shane uses his left leg to scoop and stretch his partner’s right leg. That’s one of the key motion that made this half guard sweep start working for me.
Technique #2: Rollback Sweep (aka Plan B)
The rollback sweep often comes next because it utilizes the typical counter to the foot grab sweep and uses your partner’s energy to your advantage. There are a few variations of this sweep. Here’s one demonstrated by Andre Galvao:
Technique #3: Shaolin Sweep
This sweep is a good one to learn because it gives an attack option from half guard when you don’t have the underhook. It’s also a good way to practice creating, and then capitalizing on, an opponent’s reaction. Who better to give an instructional on this sweep than Stephan Kesting of Grapple Arts and Vitor Shaolin Ribeiro, the man who popularized it in the first place.
Technique #4: Climbing to the Back
Half guard with an underhook puts you in position to swing up to your opponent’s back:
Technique #5: Half Guard Submission – Kimura
The kimura is a popular submission attack from half guard (but be careful of the spinning armbar counter!)
And that’s a very quick overview of some of the basics of traditional half guard. So get out there on the mat and start experimenting. You’ll probably get crushed at first, but keep at it and things will eventually begin to gel. One day you’ll start hitting some sweeps, maybe catch a submission here and there, and then you’re off to the races.
Next Step: Get Started with Deep Half Guard
Over the last half decade or so, deep half guard has become very popular in high-level submission grappling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu competitions. It’s different enough from traditional half guard that most people see it as a distinct BJJ position. It wasn’t even touched on in this article, but you’re curious, head straight to the Jiu-Jitsu Laboratory’s deep half guard page to start your education.