These days, the best offense is actually a good defense.

From Sun Tzu to George Washington, quotes on military and fighting tactics often exemplify the old adage that “the best defense is a good offense.” The meaning behind this quote has been used to justify the premise that overly aggressive tactics and constant attack is the most effective form of engaging in all forms of battle. This can be applied to war strategy such as in preemptive attack or at the individual level to justify a primarily offensive strategy.

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. – Sun Tzu

In man-to-man combat though (outside of lethal close proximity scenarios), and especially in loosely relevant modern day sport (like our own), this adage is often misconstrued and in fact, not the most effective way of winning. You’re familiar with examples of this.

We see this in Mexican boxers. These guys are known sluggers who are going to chase you down even if they take a bit of extra damage. Chavez (mexican) got beat by De la Hoya (mexican but raised stateside) who got beat by Pacquiao. All fights lost by those who were initiating and not the better counter attackers. And we all know know who beat De la Hoya and Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather Jr, a master of fight avoidance.

George Washington wrote in 1799: “…make them believe, that offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defence”

We see this in American wrestlers. American wrestlers are taught to move forward unrelenting in their attack. This builds a crazy level of baseline cardio and an extremely hardened mentality that launches beginner grapplers into at least the intermediate division of most submission grappling tournaments. And it should. But where do we see this strategy falter? Historically, it’s been at the Olympic level. The Soviet Union was the most dominant, so what were they doing? Why did and do American’s lose to modern day Russians? Ding ding, you guessed it. Defense.  Kenny Monday beat Dave Schultz but Satiev made him look like he was in middle school. Most recentlyrecently, Sadulaev beat Snyder by tech fall.

Then we have jiu jitsu. Masters of stalling, and where a defensive strategy reigns dominant. Gordon Ryan is arguably the most dominant current player right now. What does he do after that “combache!”? He sits down. Scoots towards you. Where Russians stuff those takedowns and use the openings for their own shots, jiujitieros go ahead and sit down.  Let’s skip the takedowns all together, go ahead and set up a guard (a frame of defense). What makes Keenan Cornelius and his innovations so effective? Defense. They completely shut down offense. Same purpose of leg lasso, same purpose of inversion. Modern day jiu jitsu is simply attack prevention evolved into it purest form. People think it lacks applicability but the DDS demonstrate here that it simply isn’t the case.:

If you are a master of controlling someone and your opponent/attacker isn’t, you can probably berimbolo them on the street.

So what’s the point of this discussion? All in all, high level boxing, wrestling, and jiu jitsu matches (as well as the synthesis of all 3 in MMA) have become stall fests because secretly every knows that it turns out that the best offense is a good defense.

These examples are obviously gross oversimplifications but the purpose is to reiterate that good defense is often ignored, which is a bummer because it’s easier to master. As someone who grew up wrestling and transitioned into BJJ I’ve come to the realization that as I get older, good defense, for me, is the most effective way to train and to win. Whether it be some D1 wrestlers who join the gym until their egos force them to quit, or trying to hang with dudes in their 20s, it might be for you too. Here’s some principles you may find useful.

  1. Learn to counter wrestle. Make sure you always follow the basics of stance using the 3 H’s: Head, hands, and hips:

    Blows my mind that people with quite a few years of grappling experience either forget to follow or don’t know these rules. A few more detailed and important ones are not reacting to your opponents set-ups. Posts on your head or shoulder? Fakes a shot or head tap? Who cares? Stay in your stance and ignore it.  Where this usually gets you is into a collar tie. Suck in, pull, and circle the elbow out:

    Get stuck head to head anyway? Learn takedowns that don’t change your position. Ankle picks, throw-bys, body locks. Finally, work moves based on losing the positional dominance battle. Get good with an overhook or over tie. Here’s one of the best examples of counter wrestling in submission grappling:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9RliEJromhg

  2. Work your guard for goodness sake. This is especially important for you previous wrestlers or stronger heavier dudes with limited flexibility. You’re a purple belt? Sure, on your knees with a smash pass. Build a strong frame, get flexible. You should be able to be asleep while most people try and pass your guard. One of the best things I ever did was putting my previous grappling experience on hold to build my guard. Sell out on the newest lapel guards too. People complain about them in one sentence and then use the gi for a choke in the next. Also, if you want to be competitive at the IBJJF level in gi, then pull guard (unless you’re a bonafide passing tactician or a Judo black belt). That’s right I said it.
  3. Adjust your strategy. You hear a lot of coaches, fighters, and players say that you shouldn’t adjust your strategy. That you should just go out there and play your game. This is certainly often true (and in some sense always is), but the best fighters can change on the fly and often do at the highest level. In the broad sense this can mean a lot of things. Got a super tall guy up next in your bracket? Pull guard. Galvao did it to Romulo twice. Always get stuck in some guy’s guard while training? Then sit down. Be ready for multiple styles and keep track of what works for you. If I run into a high(er) level wrestler than me, I play Leite style half guard. If the guy is super tall, I’ll get under their hips with X or deep half. Always get stuck in lasso? Then drill a few specific passes. When you’re close in skillset I find one of the best ways to take someone down, sweep them, or pass their guard is when they think they’re in the middle of initiating their own sequence. This is when they let you closer than they usually do.

    Mao Zedong opined that “the only real defense is active defense”

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