Mixed martial arts (MMA) is one of the most popular full-contact combat sports in the world. The secret to its growing popularity lies behind that first “M.” The mixing of the martial arts is what gives MMA its unpredictable, experimental format that attracts so many curious viewers and out-of-the-box fighters.
MMA began as a competition that pitted different fighting styles against each other. Fighters soon recognized that they could find an edge over their opponents by combining fighting styles from various disciplines. Today, most fighters come to MMA with a solid foundation in one style and complementary moves and counters from many other styles.
There are three main approaches to the sport of MMA: striking, grappling and takedowns.
- Striking fighting styles include boxing, Muay Thai, kickboxing, taekwondo, karate, sambo and capoeira.
- Grappling fighting styles include jiu-jitsu and catch wrestling.
- Takedowns are mainly taught in judo, wrestling and sambo.
Most of the above styles have seen subtle adaptations from their traditional techniques to make them more effective in MMA fighting. Here’s a rundown of the main martial arts you’ll see used in MMA competitions.
Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a martial art based around fighting techniques you can use on the ground. Most of its submissions involve chokeholds and joint locks, but you’ll also see holds and throws that are similar to judo and wrestling.
BJJ is perfect for weaker or lighter people. It teaches you techniques to leverage gravity and use your opponent’s own weight against them. This makes it ideal for self-defense. Most low-level blue belts can easily submit an average person with no BJJ training.
Originally, BJJ practitioners fought in a bathrobe-like uniform they call the “gi.” Many of their holds were based around grabbing the edges of the gi or using it to constrict their opponent. These techniques had to be adapted for use in MMA, since the gi isn’t used in MMA fights.
BJJ was one of the first fighting styles used in MMA. The very first UFC tournament in 1993 was won by Royce Gracie, who trained in BJJ since he was a child. Royce Gracie also used BJJ to win the second and fourth UFC single-elimination tournaments.
Today, most MMA fighters come to the cage with some BJJ knowhow. Two of the most dominant MMA fighters with a BJJ foundation are Demian Maia and Brian Ortega.
Wrestling has become one of the most effective MMA styles. It emphasizes stamina and explosive movements that can help fighters control the rhythm of a fight.
The main staple of wrestling is its wide variety of throws, holds and pins. Wrestling is based around takedowns and takedown defense, which gives fighters an enormous advantage in MMA. Most MMA fighters with a wrestling background can use takedowns to choose where the fight happens. This lets them play to their strengths.
Although wrestling is known for its incredible leg takedowns, its biggest downside is that many people see it as a boring fighting style. Fight control may be effective, but it isn’t as jaw-dropping as striking and submitting and doesn’t sell as many PPVs.
MMA’s most notable fighters with a strong wrestling background include retired icons like Randy Couture, Brock Lesnar, Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo and Khabib Nurmagomedov as well as current superstars like Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington.
Muay Thai and kickboxing are similar styles used by some of MMA’s top strikers. Kickboxing is a stand-up martial art that was developed from Japan’s karate. Muay Thai was founded in Thailand.
Known for its versatility, Muay Thai is sometimes called “the art of eight limbs.” Besides punches and kicks, it also teaches strikes involving the knees and elbows. This allows fighters to attack in both the long and short range.
The original Muay Thai stance was too static for MMA fighting and could be exploited via a number of takedowns. Modern Muay Thai MMA fighters now use modified stances that let them keep their distance better.
Famous Muay Thai-based MMA fighters include former UFC champions Joanna Jedrzejczyk, Jose Aldo and Anderson Silva as well as Darren Till and Max Holloway.
Boxing is one of the most widely-used striking styles in the MMA. Most stand-up punches thrown in MMA fights originated from the sport of boxing. Most knock downs, KOs and other significant strikes in MMA bouts also come from a boxing foundation. Boxing has a much higher strike rate than other striking styles like Muay Thai.
Besides its heavy strikes, boxing also teaches valuable movement skills like footwork, slips and head movements. It emphasizes both offensive combinations and defensive stances, training fighters to throw multiple punches and then return their hands to a high protective position. Most original boxing stances have been modified for MMA use to improve their leg kick defense.
Boxing-heavy MMA fighters include Conor McGregor, Calvin Kattar and Nick Diaz.
Judo is a takedown fighting style that originated in Japan. Its main objective is to drag or throw your opponent to the ground.
All those takedowns make judo an extremely physically demanding martial art. Constantly throwing opponents around is taxing on your muscles, and constantly being thrown around can be quite painful.
In MMA, judo, like wrestling, can help you control where the fight takes place. Some of the most useful judo takedowns can even be done from the clinch, which can add another level to your fighting skills. Many judo takedowns work well in tandem with BJJ training, allowing you to easily transition from a throw to an arm bar or other submission.
Ronda Rousey was one of MMA’s most famous judo fighters. Cub Swanson and Khabib Nurmagomedov were also judo black belts.
Karate is another Japanese martial art that has been adapted for the MMA. It specializes in striking from a distance and promotes good defensive movement.
MMA fighters with a foundation in karate are usually good at managing range. Karate teaches you to keep your distance from your opponent so you can land huge counterstrikes when your opponent tries to get within range. The sport of kickboxing has a karate background, and karate features a number of effective kicks.
The two most famous fighters who use a lot of karate in their styles are Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Conor McGregor, who starts most fights in a traditional wide karate stance.
Sambo is a martial art that began in Russia. It combines takedowns with submissions to create a hybrid style that looks like a cross between freestyle wrestling and judo. Combat sambo is a sambo sub-style that adds strikes from the fists, feet, knees and elbows to make it more effective for MMA use.
Combat sambo looks more like MMA fighting than most other disciplines we’ve talked about today. Combat sambo fights basically look like UFC fights with shin guards and gi tops. Fighters mix grappling with striking in a way that makes transitioning to MMA feel comfortable and intuitive.
The most famous MMA fighter with a strong sambo background is none other than world-class retiree Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Wushu Sanshou/Sanda/Kung Fu
Sanda is a modern Chinese martial art that mixes the ancient arts of wushu and kung fu together with modern striking and grappling techniques. It’s a full-contact combat sport that involves punches, kicks and throws.
Punches in the art of sanda use various parts of your fist to strike your opponent, instead of just the knuckles used in boxing. Sanda also teaches a number of useful kicks. These include the round kick, which uses a snappier motion than most Muay Thai kicks, making it difficult to catch.
The most well-known MMA fighter with a sanda foundation is former world champion Zhang Weili.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art with an arsenal of killer kicks. Although taekwondo also teaches takedowns and punches, its lightning-fast kicks have garnered it international attention on the MMA stage.
Fighters who train in taekwondo usually know how to use range combined with timing and speed to find their opponents’ weak spots. The typical taekwondo stance is wide and extremely mobile, which makes it hard for your opponent to corner you.
The most famous taekwondo kicks include the spinning kick, the side kick and the axe kick. The side kick exploits the high guard and exposed midsection of the typical boxing stance. The rarer axe kick lifts your foot straight into the air so you can crash your heel down directly on your opponent’s head.
Current UFC world champion Valentina Shevchenko as well as Anthony Pettis and Anderson Silva all have black belts in taekwondo.
Like BJJ, capoeira started in Brazil. The two are often used in tandem. Besides fighting skills, capoeira also teaches rhythm and dancing.
Capoeira movements are fast and complex, emphasizing reaction time and defense. Although there are capoeira kicks and trips that can be used in MMA, in its original form it’s mainly seen as a dance between partners.
Its motions aren’t as brutally effective as most other martial arts, which makes them more tiring and easier to see coming. Used correctly, though, capoeira movements can hypnotize opponents and set up more effective strikes and takedowns.
In MMA, former champions Anderson Silva and Conor McGregor incorporated capoeira techniques into their fighting styles.