You’d think grip fighting would rank at the top of the “grappling fundamentals” list. When you grapple with someone, you have to grab them, and if they’re wearing clothes, those clothes are an ideal target for said grabbing.
Yet when I started jiu-jitsu, I remember my knowledge of grips lagging behind. I don’t want this to happen to you, and so although I’m hardly an expert on grip fighting, I’m going to list some of the principles I wish I’d known all along.
Because grip-fighting is its own universe, we have to narrow it down: this post will focus on grip strategy for when you’re on your back in guard, although a lot of the principles apply everywhere else in a fight or grappling match. Let’s talk about two crucial overarching principles first.
Control Inside Space: We’re more powerful when our arms are pulled in close to our bodies. This makes it easier to push and pull an opponent, harder for them to push and pull us, and creates a barrier to them striking us. This is why pummeling is so important in nogi situations and MMA — and the principle holds true when wearing the gi as well.
For a simple example, from your closed guard, try grabbing the outside of your opponent’s sleeves. Not only would your opponent be able to punch you pretty easily, you’re less able to control their arm movements. Now, pummel inside and put your hands on their biceps. The situation changes. I’m not suggesting the hand-on-bicep play as a preferred position: just trying to illustrate that if your opponent’s grip-fighting has allowed them to successfully control inside space, you need to address that.
Deny Their Grips First: An ounce of prevention is worth a 16 ounce can of whoop ass. I think Confucius said that, or Stone Cold Steve Austin. Whichever. If your opponent can’t effectively grab you, they can’t effectively grapple you.
Judo players are some of the best at this. I’ve watched Olympian and world champion Jimmy Pedro’s Grip Like a World Champion DVD several times, and I still feel like an high school student auditing a Ph.D class when I do. Pedro illustrates both of these principles in this short spot:
This second principle might seem self-explanatory, but its importance can’t be overstated. If they don’t get the grips they want, their game never gets going. As Jimmy Pedro says in the video, the more skilled person is always going to win given equal mastery of grips. But if you get into a situation where your grip is much more advantageous, you can win exchanges with opponents who are more skilled than you are. That’s powerful.
If we initiate our ideal grips, we can do double-duty: if I control the sleeve well, getting a deep grip and putting my knuckles on the back of my partner’s wrist, I can both get good control and prevent my partner from re-gripping.
Now let’s get into what grips you want. The attacks you prefer inform the grips you want, and vice versa. Let’s talk first about what we can do with grips when we’re in the guard.
Note: there are endless possibilities (and you’re welcome to share your favorites in the comments), but these are some solid fundamental grip options to begin playing with.
When We’re In Closed Guard, or They Pass From the Knees
Collar and sleeve: We reach for the cross-collar grip (deeper the better) with one hand. For example, my right hand would reach deep in my opponent’s right-side lapel. Then, my free (left) hand grips my partner’s same/mirror side, in this case his right hand.
This allows us some control of our opponent’s posture, since we can use the collar grip to prevent them from posturing up, and accesses powerful fundamental attacks like the cross-collar choke and the scissor sweep. Because we have control of one sleeve, our opponent can’t post that way, and so if we off-balance them in that direction, they risk losing top position.
Cross-grip on the sleeve: This powerful grip is the counter-point to the mirror grip. If I can grab my opponent’s right sleeve with my right hand, for example, I can turn that opponent’s body at angle that allows me to expose their back. If we get a good grip here, we can put constant pressure of a back attack on our opponent — which also sets up fundamental sweep options like the pendulum sweep, taking us to mount instead of the back.
I will often set up the cross-grip off of a grip break. Check out the Vicente Junior video below for good grip break tips.
When They Stand To Pass Our Open Guard
If they’ve opened our guard and stood up, they have more mobility — but they also have a less stable base.
The answer to problems in jiujitsu is usually “move your hips,” so don’t think getting grips alone is going to save you here: you’ve got to engage your legs and hips and move. But a couple of basic grip configurations will help you get started.
Personally, I don’t do a lot of grabbing the collar when my opponent stands. Lots of people who are better than me do this, though, so don’t think it’s wrong if you wind up liking it! I just find that the collar grip is easier to break when people are standing, so since I have weak grips, I am more likely to grab a grip that’s tougher to break — like the belt. We’re not going to talk about belt grips here, but I use that as an example.
Two options that are good to start with, and also serve as jumping-off points for the more advanced open guards:
Sleeve and the heel/cuff of one pant leg: If I get a sleeve — mirror side or cross-side — this sets up fundamental attacks like my favorite sweep, the tripod sweep. I like to grab the heel of one leg, because it diminishes their mobility, and also because it allows me to play De La Riva guard. Even if you don’t do De La Riva guard, though, controlling their leg and stepping on their hip diminishes their mobility and allows you some control/attack options.
Double sleeve grips: Michael Langhi is magic with these. I like controlling sleeves because when we control sleeves, we control posts — where our partner can place their hands. If they can’t post a hand, there’s a good chance we can roll them over that direction and get on top.
Just like sleeve/heel grips are good entry points to De La Riva guard, the double sleeve grips are solid entries to the world of spider guard. When we have the sleeves, it’s a short jump to step on biceps.
But what if they get their grips before we get the chance to get ours? If they do get the grips they want, you can break their grips, of course. The great Vicente Junior, along with his black belt Lance Trippett, show some good drills for doing that:
Another option can be to re-grip, which Jason Scully shows from the top guard position here:
The more I learn about grips, the more I realize how much I don’t know. Grip fighting is a vast thing, and you won’t ever learn all you need to understand.
This post is intended to provide a framework for you to explore and to go down whatever rabbit hole of grip resources you choose — like any of the videos linked here. Check out this Reddit thread for more tips.