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Ultimate Guide To Martial Arts in MMA

Over the last decade, MMA fighters have adapted to a Hybrid MMA style of fighting rather than representing a specific martial art in MMA. In the early days of the UFC, there were several fundamental martial arts in MMA that fighters styles developed from.

In recent years the popularity of MMA has grown more than any other sport in the world. It’s important that as the sport grows, fans remember the martial arts from which MMA was developed.

In this article, I discuss eight common martial arts in MMA, and the best fighters that specialise in them.

martial arts in mma

A (Brief) History of MMA

MMA dates back to the Olympics in ancient greek times. MMA originated as hand-to-hand sport called pankration. There were two rules; no eye-gouging and no biting. In ancient times, champions were celebrated like heroes, similar to modern-day champions.

Modern MMA traces back to Vale Tudo and the Gracie challenge. Fights would take place in the circus or on the beaches of Rio and had hardly any rules.

During the 1990s, Modern MMA exploded. The decade featured the first UFC event in America, and PRIDE FC was selling out stadiums in Japan.

MMA is now the fastest growing sport in the world. The sport is on track to take over boxing in popularity within the next ten years.

Martial Arts in MMA

Although MMA isn’t limited to a specific set of martial arts, there are several common martial arts in MMA. Below I discuss 8 of the most popular martial arts in MMA.

Thai Boxing

Martial Arts in MMA

Thai Boxing or Muay Thai is known as the art of eight limbs. The martial art is similar to kickboxing, with the addition of knees, elbows and clinching.

Thai Boxing originated in the 18th century, as a combat martial art for soldiers. Muay Thai is now a popular martial art globally, with the epicentre rooted in Bangkok.

Thai boxing is one of the most complete striking martial arts in MMA, due to the fact it uses all eight limbs. Muay Thai fighters are known for their vicious leg kicks and elbows.

Throughout the years there have been multiple MMA champions who specialise in Thai Boxing. One of the most notable being former middleweight champion Anderson Silva.

The Muay Thai style works well against boxers and grapplers who are unable to secure a takedown. Muay Thai is an extremely effective martial art for MMA, as it teaches fighters to both kick, punch and clinch.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – BJJ

BJJ in MMA

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art that consists of grappling, ground control and submissions. In BJJ, fighters wear a traditional GI, and no strikes are allowed. BJJ was developed by the Gracie family in the 1920s and is an adaption of Japanise Jiu-Jitsu and judo. The popularity of BJJ exploded after Royce Gracie won UFC 1, submitting all his opponents in the process.

MMA fighters use BJJ to control and submit their appoints during MMA fights. A variety of submissions are used including chokes, armbars and leglocks. Also, the better grappler can control their opponent on the ground, enabling them to throw strikes from top position.

As mentioned above, Royce Gracie put BJJ on the map after winning the UFC 1 tournament. Other notable BJJ specialists include Demian Maia and Shinya Aoki.

All high-level MMA fighters need to have an understanding of BJJ and how to defend sweeps and submissions. In the early days of MMA, BJJ specialists would easily submit their opponents as BJJ training was not as accessible as today. As submissions and positional dominance is vital in MMA, BJJ will always be a fundamental martial art in MMA.

Wrestling

Wrestling in MMA

Wrestling is one of the earliest forms of combat. The first references of wrestling were depicted in caves over 15000 years ago. Since then the sport has evolved alongside our civilizations.

Wrestlers use techniques such as clinch fighting, throws, joint locks and most importantly takedowns. There are many different wrestling rulesets including, freestyle, Grecco-Roman and Catch Wrestling.

Wrestling is one of the most dominant martial arts in MMA. There is no better foundation in MMA than wrestling as wrestlers can dictate where the fight takes place. Wresting training is notoriously hard. For that reason, wrestlers are extremely tough, both physically and mentally.

It’s hard to pinpoint the most famous wrestler in MMA. In recent years, UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov has dominated the lightweight division by combining his grappling with brutal ground & pound. Also worth a mention is GSP. He was able to dictate where the fight took place, due to his elite MMA wrestling.

The ability of wrestlers to control where the fight takes place makes wrestling one of the most dominant martial arts in MMA. Elite Wrestlers can control a dominant position to punch or submit their opponents. Similarly to BJJ, wrestlers were dominant in the early UFC events, due to pure strikers inability to grapple.

Boxing

Boxing in MMA

Boxing is a martial art in which two people throw punches at each other in a Boxing ring. For both safety and fairness, boxers are matched using a weight class system and fights take place for a pre-determined number of rounds.

Boxing has been around for centuries. Whilst people have fought in hand-to-hand combat since the dawn of human history, the earliest evidence of boxing dates back to over 5000 years ago. After the creation of Broughton’s rules in 1776, boxing started transitioning into the billion-dollar industry it is today.

In recent years MMA has exploded in popularity, and regularly competes with boxing for PPV buys.

Whilst lots of MMA fighters have strong boxing there are a few fighters whos boxing skills stand out. Connor MgGreggors impressive boxing lead him to become a two-division UFC champion. In terms of pure boxing, Cody Grardbrant is one of the most technical boxers in MMA and racked up an impressive 32-0 record as an amature.

Boxing is an extremely effective martial art in MMA. Boxing alone is not enough to become an MMA champion. The most effective boxers in MMA combine their high level striking with grappling to become well rounded martial artists.

Sambo

Sambo is a martial art created in the soviet union in the 1920s. The martial art is a form of grappling, similar to catch wrestling known for its leglocks and aggressive grappling style.

There are two types of Sambo; combat sambo and sport sambo. Combat sambo involves punching, kicking and grappling like in MMA. Sport Sambo is similar to Catch wrestling.

Sambo fighters in MMA are known for their aggressive leg lock game and intense grappling style. As the UFC expanded into the eastern European market, sambo has increased in global popularity.

One of the UFC’s G.O.A.T fighters Khabib Nurmagomedov is a 2x world champion sambo fighter, and has since recorded the longest undefeated professional MMA record (29-0). Another famous sambo fighter is Fedor Emelianenko. Fedor put sambo on the map, making a name for himself as an MMA fighter with devastating knock out power.

Sambo’s aggressive style and log lock game make it an effective martial art in MMA. Similar to wrestling, Sambo fighters are known for their toughness due to the gruelling training sessions.

Kickboxing

Martial arts in mma

Kickboxing is a martial art that involves both punching and kicking. It’s hard to pinpoint the origin of kickboxing, but competitive kickboxing was founded with the combination of karate and boxing in the 1950s.

Kickboxing has several different rulesets depending on the governing organisation. Fights usually take place in a ring similar to boxing, and take place for a number of rounds.

Isreal Adessanya is the best kickboxer in MMA. Before his MMA debut, Isreal Adessanya had an impressive kickboxing record (75-5). He is a 3x champion of the king of the ring tournament. The tournament is a last man standing tournament, in which eight fighters compete for the title in one night.

Kickboxing is one of the most effective martial arts in MMA. Kickboxers are known for leg kicks and are most effective against boxers.

Judo

The martial art Judo was created in 1882 in Japan by Kanō Jigorō. Judo is a martial art that uses leverage and holds to throw or submit a resisting opponent. The martial art is practised in a traditional GI uniform, making it easier for fighters to grip and throw each other.

In MMA, judo fighters use a variety of throws to force their opponent to the ground. Judoka find success against the cage, or when they are in a clinch position in MMA.

The most famous Judoka in MMA is undoubtedly Rhonda Rousey. Rhonda was UFC champion for over three years, and 75% of her victories came from the same armbar submission. Before becoming the first female UFC champion, Rhonda Rousey won a Judo bronze medal in the 2008 Olympic games.

Judo is an effective martial art for MMA. Whilst Judoka can take their opponent down its vital fighters learn another martial art to become a complete MMA fighter.

Karate

Karate is a martial art that was developed in the Japanese territory of Ryukyu. It utilises striking techniques including; punching, kicking, knee strikes and open hand techniques. Fighters wear a traditional Karate GI, similar to the BJJ uniform.

Most styles of karate derived from the four main styles; Goju-Ryu, Shotokan-Ryu, Wado-Ryu and Shito-Ryu. Each style differs in terms of the methodology of training.

In recent years, karates popularity has declined as the popularity of BJJ has increased.

Although the popularity of karate has declined in recent years, it’s still a popular martial art in MMA. Notable Karate fighters in MMA Include former welterweight champion GSP, who was a black belt in Kyokushin Karate. In addition, middleweight Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is regarded as one of the best strikers in MMA. He has a karate background and currently runs a Karate program in South Carolina.

martial arts in mma

What is the Best Martial Art in MMA?

Over the years the martial arts in MMA have evolved alongside the sport. In the early UFC days, fighters would be experts in one martial art, hoping they could impose their gameplan to win the fight. These days fighters have a more of a hybrid MMA style, but often have a strong background in one of the martial arts above.

Fighters looking to start MMA should learn both striking and grappling martial arts. Most MMA gyms also offer specific MMA classes, where traditional martial arts are modified to be effective in the cage.

There is no best martial art in MMA. In modern MMA, the winner is often determined by conditioning and how well a fighter executes their game plan. Fighters should learn as many martial arts as possible, to become a well rounded martial artist.

Photo of author

Gareth Davies

I'm a martial arts competitor and enthusiast. Over the last 15 years, I have trained and competed in several martial arts. I live in Manchester U.K working as a strength & conditioning coach when I'm not travelling and exploring martial arts around the world.
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