We reveal what the number one martial art everyone in MMA should be training right now if they want to dominate opponents and take home Championship Gold. From the traditional, to the modern these are the martial arts that have help define the standout fighters of there generations!
History and origins of MMA
The sport of mixed martial arts as we know it today has been around for about 25 to 30 years. In the western hemisphere it owes much of its growth to the Gracie family, who used mixed martial arts contests or Vale Tudo as fights were know prior to this in Brazil, to demonstrate the superiority of the family martial art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ).
Clashes of styles have obviously been taking place longer than the last 100 or so years, as fighters traveled the globe to demonstrate the strength of there martial arts. Carlos Gracie the founder of BJJ is said to have been inspired to take up Judo have watched a demonstration by Mitsuyo Maeda who was himself sent to tour the world and take on local fighters to demonstrate the greatness of Judo.
What makes MMA such a popular sport today is the variety of martial arts that can be showcased in a single event. Early MMA pitted purists against each other, in a true clash of martial arts styles. This is identifiable in many of the fights that took place in the early years of the UFC. This golden age of fighting didn’t last long as fighters soon realised, they need to adapt to be victorious.
To be a successful MMA fighter you must be well rounded. Very few one-dimensional fighters are capable of making it to the very pinnacle of the sport. Even ten years ago most of the elite fighters were able to fight out of there comfort zone and find a way to walk away victorious.
When assessing the effectiveness and impact of a particular martial art in MMA it’s important to remember that solely relying on one martial art is never a recipe for success.
Training MMA for MMA
First off let’s take a look at where MMA training comes into this debate.
Over recent years the number of MMA gyms has increased exponentially, many of these Gym are led by instructors with backgrounds in traditional martial arts who lean on these for their coaching. But there has been a significant increase in the teaching of MMA as a martial art in its own right.
What a lot of people don’t realise is that MMA training actually has a lot in common with the original form of Ju-Jitsu that was first practiced in Japan by the Samurai. Although traditional Ju-Jitsu is practiced in a Gi, it fundamentally teaches the same ideas of striking, grappling and ground fighting.
Here is a clip of a traditional Ju-Jitsu fight.
So, we know MMA style of training has been around for a lot longer than the modern era, but why does it get so over looked as a martial art in its own right.
Well, someone who practices MMA is definitely thought of differently to a Karate or Judo student. People who train MMA often referred to as ‘cage fighters’ with a contempt that congers images of wild animals tearing each other to bits. People generally don’t recognise it in the same way they look at the ‘noble art of boxing’ for example.
MMA has a reputation for brutality whether this assessment is justifiable is open to debate, but it doesn’t fit in with the traditional view of martial arts teaching life skills as well as fighting skills. The brutality of the sport coupled with the actions of some of the fighters outside of competition (see War Machine) lead many to view MMA fighters as unhinged thugs rather than skilled fighters. The result of this, few people take their kids to learn MMA and that’s pretty much where it all starts for any aspiring martial art.
Another challenge to MMA’s recognition as a martial art come from the fact it draws on techniques from a wide range of martial arts, making MMA hard to categorise in the same way other martial arts. In comparison a Judoka will learn most of the same techniques as a fellow Judoka from the other side of the world, but in MMA there’s a wider scope to bring unique techniques and move the art in a different direction. The rules of MMA mean that pretty much any martial art can be brought to the fight so in a round about way any fighting style is also an MMA style.
The upshot of the above is MMA remains a minority sport with many fighters crossing into it having excelled in traditional martial arts. The public perception of MMA has moved on from the days of “human cockfighting” but it still has a long way to go before it will reach mainstream appeal.
But ultimately it makes sense if you want to be an MMA fighter you should just go train MMA, right?
Well not so fast, whilst it’s easy to understand why you would jump to this conclusion, it would be a little short sighted. When you evaluate the elite MMA fighters almost all of them have spent many years learning traditional martial arts. Maybe this will change in the future but right now the recipe for success is still built on traditional martial arts.
Why are traditional martial arts still creating the elite fighters, well other than the fact they are capturing children at a young age, traditional martial arts teach techniques that have been refined for many years. Most of the best instructors around will be found within the traditional martial arts sphere, although slowly this may be changing.
With there being so much to learn in MMA it makes sense to split your training and find the best striking and grappling coaches around then supplementing their knowledge with MMA training and sparing. Even when you train at an MMA gym you will find lots of traditional martial arts being taught.
Traditional Martial Arts in MMA
So, we are about to delve into some of the most popular traditional martial arts that have found their way into cages around the world. These arts have developed some of the most destructive fighters ever, all honing their skills with devastating effect.
Almost all traditional martial arts teach great fundamentals and MMA provides an avenue for these to be tested and refined against an opponent who can readily exploit the weakness of an art form. This means that traditional martial arts are challenged by facing problems they wouldn’t usually have to contend with. Examples of this would be a BJJ fighter having to adapt to the striking of a boxer or a Muay Thai fighter having to worry about being taken down by a wrestler.
But despite these challenges some martial arts have been able to rise to the top and produce dominant fighters.
Let’s start by looking at one of the martial arts that’s success has been intertwined with MMA and particularly the UFC promotion (the UFC will get a fair few mentions here but it is widely accepted as the premier MMA fight promotion in the world, so we won’t be apologising for that!).
Rorion Gracie; a member of the famous Gracie family, who’s history has been entwined with BJJ, was a founder of the UFC. Early performances by Royce Gracie in tournaments 1, 2 and 4 showed how dominant BJJ could be against trained fighters. Royce dismantled larger stronger opponents to claim victory in each of these tournaments.
In those early UFC contests most of the fighters were oblivious to BJJ, so Royce was able to make light work of them. From this very moment to today BJJ has been a staple of nearly every MMA fighters training programme.
At present in the UFC, there are a number of top-level competitors such as Brian Ortega and Damian Maia who base their strategy around utilising there BJJ skills to neutralise and submit their opponents. Grappling in MMA has been synonymous with BJJ since the outset.
MMA has been beneficial for BJJ as it has afforded exposure it would otherwise have not received. The result of this is BJJ is no longer a minority sport and you can find BJJ clubs all around the world and in almost all major large towns and cities. One of the downsides of BJJ is it can take a long time to learn and even longer again to master. Neglecting your grappling game would be a serious mistake. In MMA being able to fight off the ground is essential for success and few arts can compete in this area.
From a neutral point of view watching an intricate grappling match isn’t particularly appealing so a lot of grapplers are thought of a boring fighters. If you want to make a name for yourself in MMA you will do it a lot quicker on your feet than on the mat. However, some fighters have been successful in bucking this trend.
This is a classic western martial art and probably one of the most popular martial arts practiced in the world today. Its not surprising that it makes an appearance on this list. Given its popularity boxing is widely accessible as boxing gyms are everywhere.
Lots of fighters in the UFC are known for relying on great boxing ability to beat their opponents. Boxing underpins the fighting style of Conor McGregor who needs little introduction as the fighting face of the UFC franchise and the fighter who has been involved in more big money MMA fights than anyone else.
McGregor managed to take Floydd Mayweather 10 rounds and even though it wasn’t the best spectacle it demonstrates the level of boxing he is capable of operating at. A former foe of McGregor’s, Nate Diaz is another excellent example of a fighter with great boxing skills effectively utilising them in an MMA setting.
The smaller gloves used in MMA mean that fighters who rely on there boxing actually have more chance of landing their shots than boxers as its much harder to cover up in MMA. The downside for boxing is there’s a lot more than just punches coming the other way in an MMA fight.
As a martial art Karate has been much maligned for its reliance on the practice of patterns and forms over sparring. In spite of the criticism Karate has provided a striking base for a number of exceptional MMA fighters’ past and present.
One prominent proponent of Karate is two-time Welterweight title challenger Stephen Thompson. Thompson has credited a lot of his success to his Karate background which has allowed him to develop his unique striking style.
Another legend of MMA Lyoto Machida has used Karate throughout his career to climb to the pinnacle of the UFC Light Heavyweight division and to challenged for there Middleweight title too. Machida’s striking still causes his opponents problems with him finishing Vitor Belfort with a front kick in 2018.
Although its still thought of as a traditional martial art Karate has a lot to offer as a striking style, its great for maintaining distance and fainting in and out quickly. The records of Thompson and Machida boast a healthy number of knockouts, so both these guys have no problems generating that KO power.
When it comes to traditional striking arts that can be adapted to create an individual and creative striking style, then Karate is certainly high on that list. But it is important that most Karate fighters find time to get sparring rounds in as well, so there techniques can be properly adapted for MMA,
When it comes to grappling Judo is probably the most popular style practiced across the globe. Practiced in a traditional Gi, Judo is now a sport orientated form of Ju-Jitsu the martial art that traces its linage back to the Samurai warriors of Japan.
Judo is a popular sport in its own right with those who reach the top vying to win gold at the Olympic games and world championships. As a martial art Judo is predominantly sport based and many of the techniques are reliant on gripping the Gi to be successful.
As a result of this reliance on grips Judo hasn’t produced top level MMA fighters as consistently as other martial arts. The obvious exception to this rule being Ronda Rousey. Throughout her period at the top of the women’s Bantamweight division Rousey used quick takedowns and fast ground work to secure position and finish the fight with submissions.
Another Judoka currently active in the UFC is Dan Kelly, although he hasn’t been able to achieve the same success as Rousey he has been a competitive fighter for most of his career. A four-time Olympic Judoka Kelly has a great grappling pedigree but a quick glance at his record shows he hasn’t won a fight by submission since he first entered the UFC.
Whilst undoubtably being a great grappling style Judo is limited in MMA terms as it is less effective for fighting on the ground than other grappling styles. Many of the takedowns are dependant on getting a strong grip of the opponents Gi. Although Judo does teach plenty of foot sweeps and trips no one else has been successful in riding this art to the top of the MMA world like Rousey did.
This striking art finds its origins in in Thailand where it is a popular national sport. Often referred to as the art of eight limbs as fighters use their fists, elbows, knees and shins to deliver strikes to their opponents. Muay Thai fighters are known for being effective from the clinch position which can be a desirable trait for an MMA fighter.
Muay Thai enjoys popularity in Thailand and fighters from around the globe travel to the country in search of the best training and sparring. This is not to say the Muay Thai isn’t a well-travelled martial as there are gyms all over the world teaching fighters the art of Muay Thai.
In terms of MMA there have been a number of top competitors for whom Muay Thai is there primary striking art. Former UFC champions such as Rafael Dos Anjos and Jose Aldo are both trained in Muay Thai and are two of the UFC most elite strikers to this day.
Muay Thai offers the opportunity to build an effective and wide-ranging striking offence. Leg kicks have proven to be an effective strike in MMA and Muay Thai teaches how to use these as a weapon as well as how to check opponents leg kicks.
Want to know how effective leg kicks can be here are some fight ending shots:
The eight points of contact that Muay Thai teaches means that any fighter from this style should be well rounded enough to stand and trade shots with martial artists who have been trained in other striking styles. The heavy use of sparing in Muay Thai as a training tool means that it can be very taxing on the body, but ultimately this sparing stands Muay Thai practitioners in good stead for MMA.
Along with BJJ Wrestling must be the standout grappling system within MMA. Wrestlers have been successful MMA fighters since the very early years of modern MMA. It was the wrestler Ken Shamrock that finally brought Royce Gracie’s 11 fight win streak to an end as he fought Royce to a draw at UFC 5.
After his draw Royce took a hiatus and in the following UFC tournaments wrestlers like Dan Severn, Don Frye and Mark Coleman were able to secure victories. Success for wrestlers is not confined to the past. The current Heavyweight, Light Heavyweight and Pound for Pound number 1 fighter in the UFC Daniel Cormier is a former Olympic Freestyle Wrestler and multiple time US Senior Freestyle National Champion.
If this wasn’t enough Welterweight Champion Tyron Woodley was a NCAA Division 1 Wrestler winning the big 12 in 2003 and Flyweight Champion Henry Cejudo won a gold medal at in Freestyle Wrestling at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
The pedigree of Wrestling in MMA is unparallel by any other martial art at the present moment, and its far from looking likely to slow down anytime soon as Wrestlers are dominating at the very top of MMA.
How is wrestling so dominant, well it comes down to Wrestlers tenacity in the takedown department, they are prepared to fight hard to get to the mat. And when they do it’s a relentless barrage of pressure do maintain control on top. Most wrestlers combine their grappling skills with ground and pound striking which creates a lethal combination.
So, if you want to train MMA and you want to become a good fighter how can you not wrestle? The simple answer is you probably can’t afford not to.
Other crazy Shit
Occasionally in MMA fighters will come along who try and incorporate elements of other martial arts into their MMA game. In the past fighters have attempted to adapt techniques from arts such as Wing Chun and Capoeira with varying success.
With MMA being as open to any art form as long as it’s doesn’t break the rules, techniques can be incorporated from a wide range of styles. In the future who knows what martial arts might rise to prominence.
Historic dominance of grappling
One unavoidable fact of MMA is that grapplers are more successful than strikers. Throughout the history of MMA there are many occasions where great grapplers have defeated great strikers. In comparison there are far few examples of great strikers over coming great grapplers.
If you want to win in MMA the best way to achieve this is through mastering a grappling style. This doesn’t mean that striking should be in anyway neglected. Often a fight between grapplers ends up as a striking contest as they neutralise each other’s grappling abilities.
After all every MMA fights start on the feet and if a striker can learn to defend a high percentage of takedowns then they have a very good chance of overcoming a grappler.
If you want to find out more about the striker vs grappler debate you can do so here.
Best combination of martial arts
As has been already alluded to success is all about mastering multiple disciplines and merging them together to create a complete MMA style. Traditionally all of these styles will fall into one of the following categories.
Sprawl and Brawl
This is a strategy implemented by a fighter who’s strengths predominantly come from there striking game. The aim here is to keep the fight on the feet for a long as possible. In using this style fighters will use their offence to beat the opponent up and utilise the sprawl technique to prevent the fight from being taken to the mat.
Sprawl and brawl is a sort of catch all term for any fighter who is most comfortable striking and wants to avoid being taken down.
Another commonly used fighting tactic is to utilise the standing clinch position to control the fight. This type of fighting is usually preferred by those who have trained Muay Thai, where the clinch position forms an important part of the sport, or by fighters with less technical striking abilities.
For the less technical fighter most of the techniques revolve around working an opponent against the fence or ropes and leaning your body weight against an opponent forcing them to effectively carry your weight in addition to their own. Clinch fighters will look for opportunities to land strikes or takedown an opponent.
Muay Thai fighters are effective in using the clinch position to land devastating knees and elbows that are capable of ending a fight in an instant. Muay Thai offers a more technical clinch fighting style than the one described above. Both styles can be incorporated into a winning strategy.
Ground and Pound
Typically, this is a tactic used by Wrestlers, but it can be applied by any grappler. The principle aim is to take the fight to the ground and secure top position. From here the grappler will try and find openings to land strikes on the opponent.
There have been many fighters over the years who have been effective in using ground and pound. Two of the top ground and pound fighters of all time are Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Ground and pound fighters can be adept at finishing fights with submissions as they inflict so much damage on the ground their opponents opt to give up a worse position to escape the relentless strikes. Examples of this are when a fighter chooses to give up there back when they are mounted and taking damage from strikes.
This is another ground-based grappling style but with the emphasis being placed on transitioning into a dominant position and working for a submission. This style of fighting is less popular amongst fighters than the two above, but it can bring success.
A fighter who focuses on attempting to win by submission would most likely come from a BJJ back ground. This style of submission hunting was first used with success by Royce Gracie in the early years of the UFC. In the present day this style is used by Damian Maia.
What the Fans Want Vs What is Effective
Although grappling has a great history of producing some of the best champions in MMA, grapplers are often overlooked by fans who have a tendency to prefer watching exciting strikers.
Strikers can change a fight in a blink of an eye, whereas grapplers are more like boa constrictors slowly squeezing the life out of there opponents. There’s no doubt Dana White the President of the UFC recognises the fans preference for striking and it seems to be a preference he shares.
If you want to reach the top of the MMA world in a rush your mostly likely going to achieve this by knocking opponents out in style. The meteoric rise of Cody Garbrandt in the Bantamweight division exemplifies this as he rode as streak of 4 KO’s in 5 fights to gain a title shot against Dominick Cruz in under two years.
Meanwhile at Featherweight Brian Ortega has taken almost 3 and ½ years to reach the same point if you exclude the 9-month suspension he received for a positive drugs test. What’s the main difference between Garbrandt and Ortega, the UFC saw Cody’s hard-hitting style as being more marketable that Ortega’s grappling despite the fact Ortega has stopped all of his opponents in the UFC.
What is the best martial art for MMA?
Well quite simply you can’t conclude there is one martial art that once learned will turn you into a beast. To be successful you will need a good combination of traditional martial arts. For me the best combination is Boxing and Wrestling.
Boxing is a great striking system and there are many very good coaches readily available. Whilst BJJ is often thought of as the prevailing grappling system in MMA Wrestlers have been just as effective and possibly even more successful in recent years.
You can get to grips with the basics of boxing quite quickly and can progress quite quickly with Wrestling in a short space of time. Like other traditional martial arts both of these systems require dedication over a number of years to master and supplementary MMA classes would be useful to put everything together.
The champions of the future will certainly continue to come from traditional martial arts backgrounds!