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Wrestling's Referee Position to the Butterfly Guard: A Novel Strategy for BJJ Rolling

Updated on April 22, 2016

Trying a new take on how you approach rolling and training by "importing" a little freestyle wrestling into your Jiu Jitsu game could pay a few dividends. The following is an edited version of my personal notes on the subject of integrating the referee position into a BJJ game.


When you are pinned under the side control and cannot reverse the person or put him/her into the guard or half-guard, going to your knees into the turtle position is a common option. The turtle is a smart position to switch into when an opponent is passing your guard since doing so nullifies guard passing points. The drawback is the turtle position is limited in terms of offense and defense. Wrestling has a decent alternative for those not too comfortable with the overly defensive Judo-oriented turtle.

The amateur wresting equivalent to the turtle is the referee position. The two positions are similar in the sense that you position yourself upright on your hands (elbows) and knees, and keep your shoulders from being pinned to the floor.

The Basic Differences

There are a few fundamental differences between these two defensive postures. In general, the turtle position is highly defensive and, mostly, transitional. The turtle does relies on an highly defensive to protect against getting the hooks in while making things difficult for an opponent looking to employ a choke or armlock. A major drawback here is the turtle doesn't lend itself to much mobility.

The referee position is designed to avoid a turnover and pin and best facilitates a sit-out position wise. A sit-out could effectively reverse the positioning making the person on top forced to assume a defensive referee position.

Of course, the rules between Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and wrestling are vastly different. In Jiu Jitsu, you do not lose from a pin - hence, the guard. In wrestling, there are no chokes or armlock - hence, no need to protect the posture from submission attempts.

No matter. We aren't going to stay in the turtle or referee position for very long anyway.

To The Butterfly Guard

Transitioning from the turtle position to the butterfly guard doesn't require a lot of complex movements. Once the positioning shift is made, the butterfly guard affords better defenses and far more offensive options.

Why the butterfly guard and not a different guard? You can use any guard. Honestly though, the butterfly guard is easier to get to.

There are quite a number of ways in which a BJJ player is able to go from the turtle position to the butterfly guard. Crossing your ankles and spinning around is among the simplest ways to achieve this result. Quite honestly, there is no reason why you cannot do the same thing from the referee position.

A Question of Need

The question is "Why would a BJJ player want to use the referee position if he/she already has an effective turtle?"

Basic answer: more options based on minor posture changes. Using the turtle position in conjunction with a side control escape, for example, has limitations.

Basically, the path referee position might be the only way to escape from the bottom. The angles and movements to go from your back to the turtle is somewhat different than those required to go to the referee position. If your path to the turtle is obstructed, tweaking things to head to the referee position provides an alternative to struggling and being, well, stuck.

Making the Transition to the Referee Position from the Side Control

Going to the referee position is likely going to require a bit more strength than the way going to the turtle is done in Jiu Jitsu de Brazil. Wrestling employs more strength and explosiveness, two traits the more-inclusive art of Jiu Jitsu tries to avoid. Commonly, a traditional "upa" or elbow escape is used as a simple transition to going to the knees. From the knees, "turtling up" becomes the next step.

No short prose could ever convey all the details necessary for properly executing this or any wrestling move, but here is a basic overview of escaping from the side control to the referee position:

  1. The arm closest to your opponent comes across your chest and "punches" to the floor in the direction of the opposite shoulder.
  2. The "punching momentum" helps you turn over to your knees.
  3. Drive your head up and your hands come close to the knees for the 'high referee' position
  4. Lock your elbows out for stability.

Again, you really need a qualified trainer to teach you how to do this move properly.

Building Up Strength Levels

Since quite a bit more strength is required for this technique than is necessary for an elbow escape to turtle transition, anyone wishing to use this move should hit the gym and perform some free weight exercises for the upper and lower body. No one has to become an Olympic power lifter, but building up strength levels in the tris, quads, shoulders, and chest would be beneficial.

Basic body weight exercises such as free squats, pull-ups, and push-ups definitely help increase the strength and muscle endurance that would build up this escape.

Drilling Escapes and Protecting the Neck

No amount of strength or technical proficiency a player develops is going to be worth much of anything without the practical experience of actually escaping from the side control to the referee position and then to the butterfly guard while a skilled opponent is trying to hold them down.

Training the moves and the transitions should start out with a partner not providing any resistance and then gradually increasing the resistance level. The resistance should not only include trying to keep you pinned, but also passing any attempts at establishing a butterfly, half, or other guard. The referee position should also be attacked with traditional turnovers and reversals.

This leads to another point.

The obvious danger of the referee position is your neck and back are exposed. Partners should work on attempting chokes and getting the hooks in. Doing so allows for developing experience at countering, reversing, and escaping attacks.

Experience is the key here. A dedication to reps and practice is the only way to enhance skill. During the early stages of trying to put the butterfly guard and the referee position together, take things very slow. Work on technique, finesse, and ironing out any troubles you are having.

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