Shinya Aoki, right, is one of the last great guard practitioners -- until the next one comes along.
Mired in the black hole that was MMA in the 1990s, there were doubts -- some from people with serious financial interests in the sport -- that grappling would ever be tolerated on a grand scale. Punching with tiny gloves is easily understood and respected; a man wrapping his legs around another man's torso can meet with some resistance, for reasons ranging from homophobia to absolute boredom. Once fighters learned to avoid the traps of the closed guard, those situations turned into stalemates.
After a deadly dull UFC 33 event in 2001, the MMA Unified Rules of Conduct were quickly altered to give referees the power to stand up athletes who were in a static position on the ground. That, more than anything, probably saved the UFC's butt on a commercial level. Now, according to athletes such as Jon Fitch and Shinya Aoki, the closed guard may be a thing of the past.
"The closed guard is dead," Fitch told Fox Fight Game. "Strong wrestlers … will just pound you out all day long."
But just as Fitch's comments are grappler-dependent -- he says Aoki and Demian Maia are skilled enough to mount an effectively threatening guard -- his argument for wrestlers is also reflective of which one he's talking about. Matt Hughes is the last guy you'd want to be on the bottom of, because he can create enough space to deliver punishment and has the knowledge to stay out of problems; greener fighters are more susceptible to attacks from the bottom.
MMA is a cyclical activity: Certain trends die off for a bit, only to come back stronger. If the guard is indeed dead, it will be only until someone figures out how to reanimate it.