An MMA fighter engages an opponent in a triangle hold.

Grappling Martial Arts Styles in MMA


Grappling has been a part of the modern mixed martial arts since the early days of the UFC in the 1990s. Although there are dozens, if not hundreds, of grappling styles throughout the world, only a few have been successfully utilized in MMA. 

These four styles of grappling have had the biggest impact on MMA :

  1. Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ)
  2. Wrestling
  3. Judo
  4. Sambo

As a result, MMA fighters are now required to have some experience in these grappling martial arts styles in order to be successful. 

Let’s take a look at each martial art style and its impact on MMA. 

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)

The submissions in BJJ are useful in MMA

There is no doubt that the success of BJJ in the early UFC has had a major impact in developing the modern training and development of MMA fighters. Fighters realized that relying on just one martial art style was not enough. Most notably, this meant having an answer to the ground game and submission. Submissions still remain relevant in MMA, thanks in part to BJJ and its legacy. 

What is BJJ?

Helio and his brother Carlos Gracie developed their own version of jiu jitsu in Brazil in the early twentieth century. The brothers incorporated judo to win prize and grappling fights in Brazil. Through their marketing smarts they brought the style to prominence in their country. Eventually, the gracie family exported their creation to the United States in the 1970s-1980s. 

In the early 1990s, Royce Gracie left an indelible mark on the martial arts scene when he used brazilian jiu jitsu to dominate his opponents in the original UFC 1. Since that time, it’s been near impossible for MMA competitors to compete successfully without having some background in jiu jitsu, or at the very least, have a negative jiu jitsu gameplan. 

As a style, BJJ places its emphasis on position and submission. A jiu jitsu practitioner will generally wish to mount their opponent and obtain a submission.

A strength of BJJ is that its practitioners are well versed in working submissions from disadvantageous positions. As grapplers, they are very comfortable being in a tight spot and taking their time to work their way out of it. They know how to outlast their opponent which is fundamental in a MMA fight. 

The guard is perhaps the most well recognized of BJJ’s positions and symbolic of its approach. In this position a player lays on their back with their legs wrapped around their opponent. At first glance it might defy conventional logic, but Brazilian jiu jitsu practitioners are famous for obtaining submissions and advantages from the guard. While it is arguable that the guard is less relevant in MMA today, (and has lost its effectiveness), the BJJ approach to submission still remains important. 

Who uses BJJ in MMA?

BJJ remains prevalent in MMA today, even if its days of pure dominance are over. Gone are the days when Royce Gracie could enter the ring and just use BJJ to win a MMA fight. In the more modern era of MMA, Demian Maia has long been considered one of the best grapplers in the sport. Brian Ortega and Ronaldo Souza are also top names of BJJ black belts who compete successfully in MMA. 

Wrestling

Wrestlers make great MMA fighters.

Wrestling has been around since the early days of the UFC. Wrestlers like Dan Severn were successful in those early days, even if BJJ, via Royce Gracie, grabbed the titles. Nonetheless, wrestling is perhaps the stand out grappling style that remains absolutely required for MMA dominance.

What is wrestling?

Freestyle wrestling is a popular form of wrestling.

Wrestling is an ancient grappling sport featuring holds, submissions and throws. Wrestling has a storied history with endless variations cross cultures. Popular forms such as greco roman, folkstyle, sambo or freestyle have de-emphasized submissions for pins and throws. Other styles, such as catch wrestling, maintain an emphasis on submissions. Wrestling is also an Olympic sport.

Wrestling is so useful in MMA because of its intensity and control. Wrestlers also have excellent balance and power which are great skills to have in the ring. While BJJ practitioners may have an arsenal of submissions, wrestlers have endless ways to control and move their opponent. 

Who uses Wrestling in MMA?

Just about everyone uses wrestling in MMA. The list of collegiate, Olympic, and even professional wrestlers who have competed in MMA would be almost too long to attempt. Randy Couture, Dan Henderson, and Matt Lindland were all U.S Olympic greco roman athletes. Professional wrestler Brock Lesner jumped into MMA and won a UFC title. Josh Barnett is a catch wrestling who has also had major success in MMA. 

Judo

Judo throws can be dangerous in MMA.

Judo is a martial art style originating from Japan. It has had a major influence over martial arts in general and in MMA.

What is Judo?

Judo is a martial art developed by Jigoro Kano in Japan in the late 19th century. Jigoro compiled jiu jitsu techniques into a new curriculum that was much safer to practice. Judo utilizes a full range of throws, sweeps, pins, and submission holds. Judo is performed while wearing a gi. Today, Judo has been an Olympic sport since the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

A Judoka’s strengths are in his or her throws. Judo emphasis on throwing gives its practitioners an edge in an MMA clinch. Of course, in MMA, a judo player will need to adapt to not wearing a gi, which can be a major issue for some. 

Who uses Judo in MMA?

Many MMA fighters have had a judo background. These include Rhonda Rousey, Rick Hawn, Karo Parisyan and Hector Lombard. An early MMA pioneer, Hidehiko Yoshida was a gold medalist in Judo who had successful MMA career and a win in famous fights with Royce Gracie. Although Judo’s representation is much smaller than that of wrestling or BJJ, Judo is still widely recognized as a skill set to have in the ring particularly for its throwing capabilities. 

Sambo

Sambo in action.

Sambo is a grappling martial art originating from Russia in the early 19th century. Although less well known in the U.S, it is widely popular in the former soviet countries. Fighters with sambo backgrounds have made an increased presence in MMA and the UFC. 

What is Sambo?

Sambo is a martial art derived from various Russian and eastern European folk wrestling as well as Judo. Sambo was created as part of the soviet’s army efforts to improve its hand-to-hand combat training. A collaborative effort among a few core experts resulted in the system known as sambo. As a sport, Sambo is practiced in the gi and shorts. Unlike in judo, practitioners were shoes similar to those in wrestling.  In some forms, such as combat sambo, sambo utilizes strikes in competition making it excellent training for MMA. 

Sambo players strengths are rooted in their excellent understanding of throws and leg locks. Since many of their techniques are unorthodox (compared to Judo and wrestling) this can also present a competitive advantage in MMA. In particular, Combat Sambo combines strikes, throws and submissions which makes it great training and preperation for MMA.

Who uses Sambo in MMA?

Fedor Emelianenko and Oleg Taktarov are the most well-known Sambo players in MMA. In more recent years, fights from the former soviet bloc have begun to trickle into the UFC. Fighters such as Khabib Nurmagomedov, Islam Makhachev, Rustam Khabilov and Zabit Magomedsharipov are some examples. 

Which grappling martial arts style should you train for MMA?

To become a successful mixed martial fighter you will need to have a base in some form of grappling. As we have seen, the grappling styles of BJJ, judo, wrestling, and sambo are the most commonly trained styles in MMA. 

To a certain extent all grappling arts share fundamental movements and techniques. That said, they also have major differences in mindset and strategy. These differences are based on rules, history and culture of each grappler’s martial art. Each martial arts style can improve your effectiveness as an MMA fighter. However, it’s unlikely that you can rely on simply one grappling style to be successful in the modern mixed martial arts competition. Instead, you will need to be comfortable and experienced with all types of grappling. 

If you want to compete in MMA, you should train grappling, and ideally in at least two styles. Find the grappling style that complements your strengths, but also improves on the areas of your weakness. 

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