Mixed martial arts or MMA takes the best elements of different fighting styles to make the ultimate form of fighting. Although many experts and fans often debate, which are the best martial arts for MMA?
That is why we’ve put together this definitive list of the most used martial arts in MMA. Listing what they all entail, along with their positive traits, flaws, and notable MMA fighters from each discipline.
What are the elements of MMA?
MMA is not just one fighting discipline, but multiple disciplines that a fighter molds to make their own style. To be proficient at MMA, you will need to be well rounded in various facets of the fight game.
- Striking: Being able to land a variety of punches, kicks, knees, and elbows on your opponent.
- Clinching: Hand fighting with your opponent to break an opponent’s posture and get in position to land strikes or takedowns.
- Takedowns/Takedown Defense: Being able to get an opponent to the ground using takedowns and also defend against an opponent’s takedowns.
- Ground Fighting: Fighting on the ground, whether you’re on top or on your back in guard.
Starting our list of the sweet science of boxing. The striking art that focuses strictly on punching techniques has been the most-watched and practiced combat sport for decades. All MMA fighters practiced boxing techniques and you must have decent boxing to succeed in the sport.
What is boxing?
The art of pugilism(boxing) is one of the oldest fighting styles in the world. A fighting art that has been practiced ever since early humans began developing fighting techniques.
In modern times, the sport of boxing started to get developed during the 1860s. John Allen Chambers created the Queensberry rules in 1867, which laid the foundation and rules for modern boxing.
Making it to where all boxing matches would be held in a ring and rounds would be three minutes long. Boxing gloves became mandatory in 1892 and as time went on the sport continued to develop.
As the sport of boxing grew, many styles of boxing were also created. Developed by some of the best boxers who ever lived from Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and Floyd Mayweather.
It has long been the most-watched combat sport and is extremely influential in other striking martial arts like Muay Thai.
Why is boxing a good martial art for MMA?
Best punching techniques: If you want to learn punching combos for MMA, then boxing is by far your best choice. The benefit of boxing being one-dimensional is that the sport has perfected the art of punching. Learning boxing for MMA will enable you to learn a variety of different punches that attack the head and body.
Footwork: The footwork in boxing is second to none that lets you move fluidly to attack and get out of danger. Footwork is an aspect that many in MMA neglect, which will make their striking games even better. Learning footwork from boxing will not only improve your MMA striking but also your ability to set up takedowns.
Head movement: Most MMA fighters tend to be headhunters whenever they fight. This makes learning head movement extremely advantageous, which boxing is the best at.
Knowing proper head movement will help you evade your opponent’s punches by slipping, ducking, and keeping out of range. Allowing you to land counter strikes or even hit takedowns.
If you choose to learn boxing, you will need all the essential boxing equipment to start practicing it.
The flaws of boxing in MMA
Boxing is one-dimensional: Unfortunately, boxing is great for punching, but it’s a one-dimensional sport. MMA is a multi-dimensional sport, where you will need far more than just being skilled at punching to succeed.
No answer for kicks: Another problem with boxing being one-dimensional is that the striking art has no answer for kicks. You can attack a boxer’s legs with kicks and they will have no answer for them.
No grappling: There is absolutely no grappling taught within the sport of boxing. Boxers who go into an MMA bout with no grappling skills are usually out grappled and defeated.
Notable boxers in MMA
- Holly Holm: The most successful boxer to transition to MMA and the very first fighter to hold championships in both MMA and boxing.
- Claressa Shields: One of the current best female boxers in the world that dreams of holding both MMA and boxing titles simultaneously.
- Marcus Davis: One of the first boxers to transition successfully to MMA was old fan favorite Marcus “the Irish hand grenade” Davis. He held a 17-1-2 boxing record before transitioning to MMA.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is probably the martial art most responsible for helping develop the sport of MMA. It’s arguably the best grappling martial art for MMA and something all aspiring MMA fighters should learn.
What is BJJ?
BJJ was developed in the early 1920s based on the teachings of Judo. Carlos Gracie and Helio Gracie are credited as being the two main founders of this martial art.
Early innovators of BJJ took techniques from Judo and made them more ground-based. Developing guard along with various sweeps and submissions from the position that relied on timing and leverage.
This innovation in self-defense gave smaller people a fighting chance against opponents that were bigger and stronger. BJJ fighters fought for decades in no holds barred Vale Tudo fights that were the predecessor to MMA.
Jiu-Jitsu gained recognition internationally thanks to the early UFC tournaments, which BJJ representative Royce Gracie dominated. Along with the sport of MMA, BJJ has grown along with it and is now practiced around the world.
Why is BJJ a good martial art for MMA?
Proven effective in MMA: BJJ was the martial art that helped create the sport of MMA. It has proven its effectiveness frequently and shows the importance of grappling. If Royce Gracie had not won the first UFC tournament, MMA would look very different than it is today.
Fight on the ground: Having an effective BJJ game will allow you to effectively fight on the ground. Whether you’re on top controlling your opponent or on your back using your guard. You’ll be dangerous from everywhere on the ground and always be a threat to your opponent.
The ability to finish the fight: When you have a solid BJJ game, you have the ability to finish fights at any time. If you’re given an inch, you can use it against your opponent and submit them in various ways. This threat is why BJJ is one of the best martial arts for MMA.
The flaws of BJJ
No striking: The biggest flaw of BJJ that has been shown countless times in MMA is the lack of striking ability. BJJ is great for ground fighting, but the martial art has no answer for a striker with takedown defense.
Sport Jiu-Jitsu: The biggest flaw of Jiu-Jitsu has become the martial art itself. BJJ has moved to more of a sport than a self-defense martial art.
Many of the newer techniques used today go against the principles that BJJ was founded on. Moves like berimbolos and worm guard are effective in sport Jiu-Jitsu, but we’ll get you hurt in MMA.
Notable BJJ fighters in MMA
- Royce Gracie: Gracie is a pioneer of MMA that helped the sport grow thanks to his BJJ skills. Without Royce submitting fighters in the early days of the UFC, MMA may not have been developed.
- BJ Penn: Penn is considered a legend in MMA and the first American to win a BJJ world championship.
- Charles Oliveira: The reigning UFC champion, Do Bronx currently holds the record for most submission wins in UFC history.
Muay Thai is a phenomenal striking system that is probably the best striking art for MMA. It is the preferred striking style of the majority of top MMA fighters in the world. Literally every top MMA fighter practices Muay Thai techniques in their training.
What is Muay Thai?
Muay Thai is known as “the art of eight limbs” and this martial art’s techniques have been practiced for centuries. The modern sport of Muay Thai was able to develop in the 1930s thanks to the influence of western boxing.
In Muay Thai, you use a variety of punches, kicks, knees, throws, and elbows to hurt your opponent. It is considered one of the most violent and effective martial arts, which draws many to learn Muay Thai.
The style of striking and clinching in Muay Thai blends perfectly with MMA. Nearly every top MMA fighter practices Muay Thai techniques in their training and uses them in their fights.
Why is Muay Thai a good martial art for MMA?
Dynamic Striking: Muay Thai may be the best striking discipline in the world and transitions very well into MMA. A multi-faceted attack of punches, kicks, knees, and elbows designed to cut or KO your opponent.
Clinching: One aspect of Muay Thai that has been proven to be very effective in MMA is the clinch. Muay Thai clinches offer optimal control on your opponent and allow you to land strikes and even set up takedowns.
Leg kicks: The striking of Muay Thai has already been mentioned, but one aspect that’s proven vital in MMA is leg kicks. Leg kicks have been a game-changer in MMA and may be the most effective weapon that Muay Thai has given to MMA. They take away a fighter’s ability to move and make them completely vulnerable in a fight.
The flaws of Muay Thai for MMA
No ground techniques: As already mentioned in the boxing and karate sections, Muay Thai is strictly a striking art practiced on the feet. There are no ground techniques in this discipline.
Lack of takedown defense: While sweep and tripping techniques are taught in Muay Thai, they are strictly upper body techniques. Muay Thai does not have techniques that address defending single-leg and double-leg takedowns below the hips.
The stance: Another flaw in Muay Thai that highlights the lack of takedown defense is the stance used. A Muay Thai stance is more square and your feet are closer than most other fight stances. It’s great for throwing strikes, but not so much for defending against takedowns.
Notable Muay Thai fighters in MMA
- Valentina Shevchenko: Before Valentina became the queen of the flyweight division, she was a multi-time world champion in Muay Thai.
- Edson Barboza: Barboza is considered to have some of the best Muay Thai skills of any MMA fighter ever. He delivered multiple highlight-reel knockouts during his career.
- Douglas Lima: Douglas Lima is one of the best Bellator fighters in the promotion’s history. Lima has won multiple Bellator titles and tournaments thanks to his impressive Muay Thai skills.
Karate is sometimes seen as a joke by many MMA fans, but the techniques are proven effective. Many top fighters have a background in karate, which makes it one of the best fighting styles for MMA.
What is Karate?
Karate is a self-defense martial art that was developed during the 19th century in Okinawa. It would later be spread to mainland Japan and began being practiced worldwide after World War 2.
There are various forms of karate, but they all share many of the same techniques. At its core, karate is a self-defense system that involves throwing a wide variety of linear punch and kick combos.
Karate was considered the best self-defense system before grappling arts became more popular. This striking martial art has produced many top MMA fighters from GSP, Lyoto Machida, and Stephen Thompson.
Why is Karate a good martial art for MMA?
Dynamic Striking: Karate is a multi-faceted martial art with a variety of different powerful strikes. Everything from punches, kicks, and knees is taught within this discipline. Many karate fighters in MMA have displayed their skills with spectacular knockouts.
Counter striking: At its core, karate is a striking art based on counter striking, which makes it a great asset in MMA. Having the ability to defend an opponent’s attack and deliver swift counters.
Footwork: Something that’s not mentioned enough about karate is the subtle footwork of this martial art. Footwork that is perfectly designed for counter-striking. Being able to side-step an attacking opponent and hit them with knockout blows as they come in.
The flaws of Karate for MMA
No ground techniques: Karate is a great martial art for striking, but no ground techniques taught in this discipline. This is easily the biggest flaw of this martial art.
No clinching: The techniques have no answer for how to deal with clenching. There are self-defense techniques, but they don’t work within MMA.
Rigid movement: While the footwork in Karate is effective, the movement is rigid and can be predictable. Whenever we’ve seen Lyoto Machida take a loss, the reason is usually because his opponent read his movement.
Notable Karate fighters in MMA
- Lyoto Machida: Machida was the face of karate in MMA for many years. Successfully winning the light heavyweight title one time.
- Stephen Thompson: Wonderboy Thompson has been known as the karate guy in the UFC during the last decade of his run.
- Georges St Pierre: GSP has a background in Kyokushin karate, which helped him become one of the GOATs in MMA.
Judo is one of the most practiced grappling styles in the world and has produced many high level MMA fighters. Its effectiveness has shown that it can be almost as effective as BJJ in MMA.
What is Judo?
Judo is a grappling style created by founder Jigoro Kano during the late 1800s. It grew rather quickly thanks to the simplicity of the techniques and Kano’s approach to spreading his art.
The objective of Judo is to control your opponent while using a mixture of footwork and leverage to take them down. Either by using a throw or sweep.
By 1964, Judo had become an Olympic sport and was practiced in almost every country. Many high-level Judokas like Ronda Rousey and Kayla Harrison have used their Judo to dominate in MMA.
Why is Judo a good martial art for MMA?
Throw and sweep techniques: Judo offers an effective way to get your opponent to the ground using throw and sweep techniques. A positive trait that you would need to be effective at MMA.
Clinching Techniques: Judo shares a positive quality of wrestling by using effective clinching techniques. These clinching techniques translate well in MMA. Allowing you to grab hold of an opponent, get them against the cage, and set up a throw or takedown.
The flaws of Judo for MMA
No striking: Judo, like BJJ, is a straight grappling art that does not teach striking techniques. The biggest flaw of the martial art
Limited Groundwork: While Judo does teach ground techniques, the main objective is to get your opponent to the ground. One of the main reasons why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was created to address this flaw.
Techniques are more Gi-oriented: Many techniques in Judo rely on gripping a Gi to do them. It can be a bit harder to pull off these techniques in MMA when someone is shirtless and sweaty.
Notable Judo fighters in MMA
- Ronda Rousey: Ronda Rousey is not only a pioneer of women’s MMA but also won a bronze medal in Judo at the Olympics. She used her Judo skills in MMA to become the face of women’s MMA.
- Kayla Harrison: Kayla Harrison won gold in Judo at the Olympics and is currently undefeated as an MMA fighter.
- Yoshihiro Akiyama: Akiyama was a multiple-time Judo champion and used those skills to make his mark in MMA
Whenever MMA experts ask what the best base for the sport is, they almost all say wrestling. This is because wrestlers have been dominant in MMA for the last two decades, which proves the grappling art’s effectiveness.
What is wrestling?
Wrestling is a centuries-old grappling art with different styles practiced in literally every corner of the world. They have different rules, but many principles and techniques are the same.
The objective of all wrestling styles is to get your opponent to the ground using a takedown or throw. Then once you’re on the mat, your goal is to control your opponent and pin their shoulders to the mat.
Wrestlers have arguably the most successful athletes that have transferred to MMA. They have won the most MMA titles out of any other fighters from other fighting disciplines.
Why is wrestling a good martial art for MMA?
Takedowns: The takedowns used in wrestling are the most effective used within MMA. This is why the majority of champions in the history of MMA have had a background in wrestling.
Clinching: Not only are the takedowns in wrestling the best for MMA, but also the clinching. Good wrestling ability in MMA allows you to get your opponent to the cage, hand fight, and win the head position battle. Thus, putting you in a position to pick your opponent up and land a solid takedown or slam.
Top Control: Once a wrestler gets you to the ground, their goal is to control you and lay down heavy pressure. This pressure that wrestlers give exhausts opponents and leaves them gasping for air as they struggle to get up.
The flaws of wrestling for MMA
No striking: Wrestling is another straight grappling art that does not teach striking techniques. You can see this flaw whenever a wrestler isn’t able to land takedowns on a striker. They will miss their takedowns and look helpless on their feet.
No submission defense: Even though wrestling is great for learning takedowns, submissions and submission defense are not taught within this discipline. Straight wrestlers commonly get submitted with chokes and limb locks within MMA and BJJ. They’ll get a takedown, but leave their neck and limbs exposed and get submitted.
No mount back mount escapes: Wrestlers do not know how to get off their back when on the ground. They will either frantically try to explode out of these dominant positions to no avail before being submitted or stopped with strikes.
Notable wrestlers in MMA
- Dan Severn: The very first wrestler to win a UFC championship was Dan Severn. Using his wrestling skills to ragdoll his opponents and control them on the ground.
- Jon Jones: Jon Jones is considered the GOAT of MMA by many and his background in wrestling helped build his legacy.
- Daniel Cormier: Cormier is considered to be one of the best wrestlers to ever fight in MMA. He was the first UFC fighter to defend titles in two different weight classes.
There has been a wave of top MMA fighters from Russia and Eastern Europe that are competing for championships. Almost all of them have a background in Sambo, which may be the best overall martial art for MMA.
What is Sambo?
Sambo is the official martial art of the Soviet Union that was developed in 1938. Two Soviet sports researchers named Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov are credited for helping create sambo.
Oshchepkov learned Judo directly under Jigoro Kano and Spiridonov was an expert on Russian wrestling and martial arts. The two would bring their knowledge back to the USSR, where Sambo would be developed from their research.
Mixing elements from Judo, wrestling, and indigenous Russian martial arts. MMA fighters with backgrounds in sambo like Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov have proven the effectiveness of this Russian martial art.
Why is Sambo a good martial art for MMA?
Combines wrestling and Judo techniques: Sambo is a combination of both Judo and wrestling. Knowing sambo will give you the ability to get your opponent to the ground in various ways.
Submission Techniques: In sambo, many submissions are taught that can help you in MMA. Particularly arm locks and many leg locks that BJJ adopted and are using now in No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu.
Combat Sambo is a form of MMA: A form of sambo called “combat sambo” is another form of MMA with a different ruleset. In combat sambo, you also fight with MMA gloves with the goal of either submitting or knocking out your opponent.
The flaws of Sambo for MMA
No guard techniques: Even though sambo does teach ground techniques, the guard is something that is not taught. Sambo has the same belief as wrestling, where you should never be on your back.
Not learning the guard has been a big flaw for sambo athletes in MMA. Many sambo fighters that get put on their backs struggle to defend and get up.
No chokes allowed: Sambo does teach various submissions, except chokeholds. This is a big flaw as chokes are the most effective of all submissions.
Notable Sambo fighters in MMA
- Khabib Nurmagomedov: Before Khabib became one of the greatest lightweight fighters of all time, he was a multi-time Sambo champion.
- Fedor Emelianenko: Not only is Fedor a legend in MMA but also in Sambo, winning multiple world championships.
- Islam Makachev: Before moving to MMA full time, Makachev won a Sambo world championship in 2016. Just like his relative Khabib.
Which of the best martial arts for MMA should you learn?
To be the best mixed martial artist you can be, you should try to take elements from all of these martial arts. Learning aspects from all of these martial arts will make you proficient in fighting on the feet, as well as on the ground. You’ll become a more complete MMA fighter if you try to learn something from all of these martial arts.