To Play Top or Bottom, That is the Question
By: Daniel Frank
Many jiu jitsu practitioners will tell you that they favor either the top game or the bottom game. You can find many elite jiu jitsu stars who excel at the passing game and/or finishing from the top. You will find just as many elite performers who have amazing flexibility and unpassable guards. While being unpassable they are also deadly and precise in hitting their submissions from the bottom position. The best of the elite can perform equally as well from the top position as they do on the bottom. The question for you though is, top or bottom, which position is better for you?
The answer, for most practitioners, can begin to be found in the standing position. When a match begins do you have an advantage due to a strong background in judo or in wrestling? A background in either one of these martial arts will not give you a complete advantage in a jiu jitsu match, it will give you the initiative in deciding positions and a possible lead in points early in the match. If your judo throws are accurate, and your timing is precise, you can easily take a two-point lead on your opponent and end up in a dominant position due to the shock your opponent feels by being thrown forcefully down to the mat. The same can be said if your wrestling game is superior to your opponent’s. Can you negotiate and manipulate the space between you and your opponent quickly? A dynamic single or double leg takedown can send your opponent reeling and tip the scales in your favor throughout the remainder of the match.
If you find yourself playing the top position, then how can you take advantage of that position and get your hand raised at the end of the match? Most of the points scored in a jiu jitsu match are achieved from the top position. By passing guard, gaining the knee-on-belly position, the mount, and the back mount positions you are able to rack up a sizable lead in points while putting yourself in increasingly favorable positions. It is not a coincidence that achieving the mount, or the back mount, are worth more points than other deeds. By achieving these dominant top positions the jiu jitsu practitioner can use an array of submissions attacking the neck, shoulders, elbows, and wrists of their opponents in an attempt to quickly finish a match. Attaining and maintaining the top position, therefore, looks to be a good strategy for any jiu jitsu player looking to come away with a victory.
The bottom position is not inferior, in any way, however. By establishing a strong guard the bottom player can manipulate the top player’s balance, while robbing them of valuable energy and unleashing a barrage of submissions that can finish a match in a matter of seconds. Despite the fact that the bottom player can only earn points through a sweep to the top position, the bottom position still has its many advantages. Take, for example, the closed guard position. The closed guard is one of, if not the first, positions that a jiu jitsu player is taught. By maintaining a good closed guard the bottom player, using minimal energy, can prevent the top player from standing or passing. The bottom player can attempt submissions against the top player’s joints while the top player can do little, but defend.
If the bottom player has their closed guard opened, or elects to open their guard themselves, they are presented with an ever increasing system of guards to attack with. By using their grips and their feet to control the opponent the bottom player is constantly wearing at their opponent’s defenses and manipulates the movement of their opponent much like a puppeteer might manipulate their toy. The opportunity for a quick finish is always available and a submission always trumps points in the end.
A wise jiu jitsu player will always elect to sharpen both aspects of their jiu jitsu game, the top and the bottom positions. However, the mastery of both takes considerable time and practice. As you find yourself gravitating towards one side of the fence, or the other, enjoy the process and be the best that you can be on that side. But, don’t forget, further on down the road you will have to sharpen your skills on the other side to truly be considered elite.