Everything you need to know to get well informed on the age-old debate that has been raging in martial arts Striker vs Grappler. Both camps have their own views on which style is better suited to MMA, street fighting and training for fun. Below we are going to delve in to the topic and address these scenarios to prove grappling is superior to striking, well at least some of the time anyway.
Framing the debate
For many people the first time they encounter the striker vs grappler debate is through MMA competition. Much of the UFC’s early success came from pitting fighters from different martial arts backgrounds against each other. Creating a clash of systems and styles.
However, this argument has been going on a lot longer than the big MMA promotions. The Gracie family used Vale Tudo fights, where they took on fighters from other martial arts backgrounds, as a way of demonstrating the effectiveness of BJJ for decades before this.
In 1976 there was a clash between World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali and professional wrestler Antonio Inoki. Although the fight was a farce it generated global attention for the clash of styles on display. Here are some of the “highlights” from the contest.
Clashes of fighting styles have been offering entertainment to spectators for much longer than the modern era. The Romans were regularly using clashes of fighting styles in epic Gladiatorial contests played out in Amphitheatres across there empire. Contrary to the common belief these Gladiators were trained fighters who had mastered a specific set of weapons and armor to fight adversaries who had trained using a different set of weapons and armor.
When you think about the modern equivalents, is a fighter who arms themselves with great boxing taking on a fighter who has equipped themselves with great BJJ that much of a jump from these great Gladiatorial fights?
Types of match up
When considering a Grappler vs Striker match up there are literally hundreds if not thousands of styles that can be pitted against each other. Some of the most common ones debated today included; Boxing vs BJJ, Muay Thai vs BJJ, Kung Fu vs Jiu-Jitsu, Boxing vs Wrestling, Muay Thai vs Wrestling, Taekwondo vs Sambo, Judo vs Karate, BJJ vs Karate.
The depth of match up here is unbelievable, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is one of the reasons that grappler vs striker match ups have so much appeal, you can debate a thousand different grapplers taking on a thousand different strikers and never have a clash of styles twice.
How the fight is won
We will cover this bit quickly as its pretty apparent where each of these fighters will want to keep the fight. For a striker they will do their best work on the feet in striking range, depending on style some might be prepared to engage in clinch work such as Muay Thai fighters. In this area the striker will beat the grappler as their skills are much slicker.
For the grappler they will typically be strongest when engaged in ground fighting. Controlling an opponent on the ground preventing them from returning it their feet and transitioning to a dominant position. From a position of dominance, they can finish the fight either by using submissions or by landing strikes.
In their area of expertise there is usually only one outcome, so the fighter who can keep the fight where they want it for the longest amount of time is usually triumphant. The pivotal point in any grappler vs striker match must be the takedowns. If the striker can prevent the grappler from executing the takedown they will likely be victorious. However, if the grappler can get the fight to the ground then its going to be a tough fight for the striker.
A classic takedown defence is to sprawl, there are a number of different ways a fighter can sprawl here is a demonstration of one.
Let’s begin by looking at this debate first through the lens of the UFC and more specifically the first 10 UFC events. In these early days the styles of fighters were a lot less rounded than their modern equivalents. As a result, a lot of the match ups were “purer” than you would find today.
Initially these events were dominated by Royce Gracie and his style of BJJ, with him claiming victory at UFC 1,2 and 4. Through his first 11 fights in the UFC all which ended in victory, Royce was able to finish 10 of these by submission.
He utilised his grappling skills to overcome a range of different striking styles presented by his opponents. From the comical one glove boxing style of Art Jimmerson to the kickboxing of Patrick Smith, who compiled a kickboxing record of 66 wins out of 74 bouts.
At the time Royce looked unstoppable and to an extent he was as it took fellow grappler Ken Shamrock to finally fight him to a draw after which Royce took a hiatus from competing in mixed martial arts.
During this period grappling remained the dominant force in the UFC but now the advantage had moved to fighters trained in wrestling. In this second phase of dominance for grapplers legends of the sport such as Dan Severn, Don Frye and Mark Coleman were able to clinch UFC tournament wins.
So, what do the early years of the UFC tell us about the striker vs grappler debate. Well it certainly shows that if you take a high-level striker and make them fight a high-level grappler its likely they are going to lose. Obviously, this wasn’t always the case but in the era of raw clashes of styles the grapplers were coming out on top.
Just to caveat this, the UFC had signed some of the very highest calibre grapplers in the world at that time. But how would these fighters have coped if they were facing off against some of the reigning boxing heavyweight champions of that era. Notable heavyweight boxing champions of that time include Riddick Bowe, Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield. You can’t help but wonder if having these elite strikes would have levelled the playing field.
Despite the early success enjoyed by grapplers the striker vs grappler match-up is still one of the most interesting fights that can be made. We are just off the back of the latest in a long list of showdowns as Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated Connor McGregor at UFC 229.
Khabib has a great Sambo and Wrestling pedigree and has brought these skills to the octagon, navigating his way to the top of the lightweight division with an unblemished record. Connor on the other hand has been one of the UFC’s top strikers and is hot off a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather, although he was comfortably beaten.
The difference between the modern era of the UFC and the early years is that despite being exceptionally strong in their respective disciplines both fighters are very well rounded. Gone are the days of the one-dimensional fighter only capable of winning where they want to fight. Born are the stars of true mixed martial arts.
The modern era of MMA does muddy the water as the contests are no longer clashes of “pure” fighting styles. But there are only a few fighters who are truly well rounded, and all will have a preference for either stand up or ground fighting.
Unfortunately for the strikers Khabib’s victory does little but reinforce the perception that greatest grapplers will over come the very best of strikers. Another mouth watering clash on the cards at UFC 230 sees Derrick Lewis vs Daniel Cormier. This fight is shaping up to be another classic grappler vs striker match up and I know where my money would be going.
Faced with a street fight would you rather be trained in BJJ or Karate? Boxing or Wrestling? The problem with the grappler vs striker debate in a street fight is you never know what you’re up against. You might be a 10-year black belt in Karate and you walk into a fight with a guy who’s a word champion and this applies to all martial arts in all self defence situations.
The best solution to most self-defence situations is to avoid a fight if possible, if this isn’t possible then striking is surely your best option. Why would you want to end up in a tussle on the ground with an unknown number of attackers? It doesn’t matter how good your grappling is unless your ending fights with throws, getting sucked into a ground fight is a bad idea.
In the street people don’t fight by the unified rules of MMA or whatever set of rules you adhere to in practice. If someone’s desperate they won’t think twice about sinking their teeth into you, gouging at eyes or fish hooking. The likelihood of this happening is all increased by ending up in a grappling match.
Striking provides the chance to hit without being hit, to end the fight quickly and the opportunity to flee if necessary. All of these are better options than getting caught in a grappling match.
The best martial arts for street fighting have been broken down and covered extensively in an article that you can find here. Its well worth a read if your interested in this aspect of the grappling vs striking debate.
Best mastery of style wins in the end?
What happens when a person who has mastered an art fights an opponent who is less experienced in a different discipline. Well in most cases you would expect the person with the better technique to come out on top.
Unless the more dedicated and well-trained fighter has been training in a useless martial art developing a successful style can depend on the people who practice those arts. An outstanding wrestler should be able to easily find a way to beat an inexperienced boxer, but there’s no reason why an experienced boxer couldn’t beat an inexperienced wrestler.
The reason that such a diverse range of martial arts still exist to this day is because with the right amount of dedication to a system a fighter can make most of these arts work against less experienced or less well-trained opponents.
Which is better to train?
If you came here because you’re not sure whether to start a grappling or striking art, then here are some things you might want to consider. In striking or grappling styles if you really want to progress then your going to have to spar to some level to implement your knowledge in a live situation.
Sure, going to the local gym and hitting pads or drilling jiu-jitsu technique can be a great work out and for some people that’s all they want. But if you really want to get good sparing is the only real option.
Sparing in a striking style is much different to sparing in grappling. In a striking martial arts, it is definitely going to mean being repeatedly hit in the body and face. If you haven’t done that before it can be pretty taxing on your body. Lack of fitness can mean you get ripped apart in sparing, so you will need to expect a few black eyes and some sore ribs. Obviously, you don’t have to engage in sparing if you don’t want to and most of the time it won’t involve going very hard but to master a martial art sparing is essential.
Sparing in a grappling style and getting thrown into the ground or repeatedly submitted probably doesn’t sound like its that much better. But in reality, this has far less impact on your body over time. In grappling if you’re not the fittest person its possible to find opportunities to hold position or lock your opponent down if your out of gas. Two people can spar at pretty much 100% and the relative risk of injury or long-term health issues is much lower.
It well known that taking repeated strikes to the head over a long period of time isn’t a good idea. You will see less people over the age of 50 still practicing a striking martial art than you will a grappling one. If your looking for a martial art, you can continue to do in later life then it has to be grappling.
Both these forms offer lots of opportunities to get involved in competition, so if this is important to you there’s no need to be put off either for that reason. If your motivation for starting a martial art is to get into MMA, then you would probably be best just going to a gym that specialises in MMA. They will have their own striking and grappling coaches and you can supplement what you learn with other martial arts if you wish. Boxing, Muay Thai, BJJ and wrestling have all provided bases for successful MMA fighters.
From a hobbyist’s point of view this comes down to whether you are prepared to accept the potential pitfalls of a striking martial or would prefer the less taxing option of training in a grappling style.
That’s not to say you won’t get injured grappling, but your brain will defiantly be thanking you in 20 years’ time. Grappling is great fun and can be trained at close to 100% a lot of the time which means that if the skills were ever needed in real situation they are more easily adapted.
Its generally considered to be the case that striking martial arts are more fun to watch than grappling contests. Its not hard to understand why as you have more explosive finishes in striking styles. Grappling can be much more about grinding out a victory and sizing on a small mistake, whereas in striking contest you are more likely to see an old-fashioned tare-up.
There’s a reason why millions of people will pay to watch a world level boxing match but grappling competitions such as the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) have a much harder time generating a large audience.
This is the same in MMA, most casual fans would rather watch a low skilled slugfest than an intricate and evenly matched grappling match. As fun as it can be to participate in unless you’re a big grappling enthusiast grappling doesn’t have the same audience pulling power.
Combat Jiu-Jitsu has been generating a buzz recently and under these rules’ competitors are able to use open handed strikes to grounded opponents. This definitely made the contests easier to watch from a casual perspective as it keeps the match moving and creates new opportunities to attack.
— UFC FIGHT PASS (@UFCFightPass) November 13, 2017
Will the debate ever end?
To wrap this up let’s consider if the grappler vs striker debate will ever be brought to a conclusion. Will there come a point in time when one of these fighting styles is abandoned as an inferior art? Well the short and obvious answer to this debate is no.
The way martial arts evolve mean that whilst both may experience periods of dominance, overtime the gap is closed as fighters learn how to effectively utilise their own skills and avoid the weapons of the other style. Different body types and physical attributes keep the striker vs grappler debate interesting. A lanky striker vs a stock grappler is a different fight to two muscle bound fighters one a striker and the other a grappler facing off.
Most of the grappler vs striker debate centres around MMA fights where being a one-dimensional fighter was found out pretty quick in the first few years. In MMA today, all the top fighters are well rounded athletes who probably don’t get enough resect for how good they are at developing their weaknesses.
As a hobby both have their merits although striking arts tend to have more of a physical impact on their practitioners. Grappling is great for longevity and has a richer pool of techniques that an individual can learn and master.
For as long as martial arts continue there will be fans of striking and fans of grappling, it is unlikely this debate is ever going to be resolved.