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MMA Fighting Styles

Most people refer to the cage-based combat sport as “UFC” or as “MMA.” Those that refer to it as the first term, UFC, are incorrect in calling it this. We will clarify this in a second. Those that use the latter term, MMA, sometimes don’t actually realize what it stands for or haven’t taken the time to appreciate its meaning.

The reason we are drawing so much attention to what the sport is called is it perfectly explains the importance of this article and why we are doing this breakdown. The official name of the sport is Mixed Martial Arts or MMA for short. It is a combat style sport that MIXES different fighting styles or MARTIAL ARTS. It is literally the mixing of different martial arts. This is why it’s called mixed martial arts.

To better understand the sport, increase your value as a fan, and also to become a more informed and successful sports bettor, you need to understand the different types of fighting styles that are being utilized in mixed martial arts. The more that you understand these core elements that make up the sport, the more you’re going to understand the sports as a whole and more intelligently be able to predict how certain fights are going to go.

Before we dive into the different fighting styles, we do want to address our first point that the sport is not called UFC. We hear this a lot from casual fans and would like to set the record straight so that when you talk about the sport, you can sound like an expert. The UFC is short for Ultimate Fighting Championship and is the name of an organization/league that holds mixed martial arts competitions. A perfect analogy is the sport of basketball. You would never ask your friend if they wanted to go outside and play some NBA (National Basketball Association). You would ask your friend if they wanted to go outside and play some basketball. This is because basketball is the actual sport and the NBA is just a league that facilitates basketball competitions.

People practice and play basketball in the hopes of being in the NBA one day. The same is true for mixed martial arts. People train and practice mixed martial arts in the hopes of one day competing in the UFC. They never “do UFC.” Now that we’ve cleared that up let’s talk about the different fighting styles and forms of martial arts that you commonly see in the UFC. First, a few basic points.

Things to Remember

Before we dig into the actual styles, we want to point out a few things that you should understand and keep in mind when you read through these. First of all, most fighters use multiple of these styles. One of the coolest aspects of mixed martial arts is seeing how different styles come together to make one fluid fighting style. Some fighters may specialize in one style, but most of them work hard on learning other disciplines to make themselves a more rounded fighter.

We also want to point out that there are tons of different variations of these styles as well as several styles that are rarer that we’re not going to list. We’re going to do our best to fill you in on the most popular fighting styles, but just keep in mind that each style has sub-variations and there are rare styles that only a few fighters will use. For example, we will discuss Karate, but keep in mind there are 14+ different types of karate that fall under that heading.

Boxing

Boxing refers to a fighting style that utilizes only the hands as weapons. This is the same boxing that you see as a separate competition of its own on HBO and Showtime. Boxing is also an Olympic sport and dates back to as early as the 3rd Millenium BCE (that’s a LONG time ago). Today Boxing is a major sport of its own but plays a big part in mixed martial arts as it’s an effective form of disposing of an opponent.

Advantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Speed and Technical Striking

Boxers are known to have very fast hands and are able to strike quickly and with effective power. A much smaller fighter with boxing training will typically harness a lot more power than an equally sized fighter without specific boxing training. Boxers are also much more technical in their striking, meaning their punches are going to be more accurate and land much more often with much more devastating power. Most mixed martial arts fighters that fight against a fighter with a strong background in boxing will try and get the fight to the ground or utilize kicks to take the boxer out of their element. Standing toe to toe with a boxer (when you aren’t) is a recipe for disaster and an unscheduled nap on the canvas.

Footwork and Defense

Not only are boxers top-notch on the offensive front, but their ability to move their feet technically and navigate the ring give them a strong defensive edge. Boxers are skilled in getting out of the way of punches and doing so efficiently without wasting a lot of strength or energy. Boxers are tough targets to hit which can make for a frustrating fight if you decide to exchange punches with them.

Knockout Power

The technical striking and ability to put punches exactly where they want them to give boxers an extreme advantage when it comes to knocking out their opponents. A correctly placed punch with some added steam behind it thanks to technical training can send another fighter into dreamland in a matter of seconds. Smaller fighters in weight classes where there are fewer knockouts will see more knockouts if they choose to stand and bang with a fighter with a strong boxing pedigree.

Disadvantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Susceptible to Kicks

Boxing teaches their fighters to stand extremely heavily on their front leg. This allows them to get maximum reach on punches and draw a lot of additional power. This works in boxing because no one can do anything to that front leg. In mixed martial arts, though, people can kick the living snot out of that leg. The more weight that you put on that leg, the harder it is to check a kick (lift your leg and get it out of the way to absorb the shot). This can cause a lot of issues for boxers if they don’t adapt their style.

Unfamiliarity with Other Styles

This is slowly becoming less, and less of a problem as boxers spend more time learning other styles, but it is still a big problem for most today. Boxers aren’t used to seeing legs fly at them or even worse, having to fight off the ground. Everything is great when they are on their feet throwing punches, but it gets a lot more interesting the second the fight hits the mats.

Brazillian Jiu Jitsu

One of the most successful styles in mixed martial arts, Brazillian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) concentrates on submitting your opponent or attempting to render them unconscious. When an opponent realizes their arm or leg is about to be broken, or they are about to pass out, they will tap which counts as an admission of defeat in mixed martial arts. In real world street fights, the villain would not be able to tap and would be put unconscious or suffer serious damage to their joints or appendages. Brazillian Jiu Jitsu allows the user the ability to control the amount of pain and damage they want to inflict on their opponents. For this reason, it’s highly successful as a self-defense art and is also taught to military and law enforcement personnel.

Common Submissions

There are tons of different submissions in BJJ that are extremely effective, and there are more being created every year by practitioners looking to advance the art. With that being said, there are still several submissions that are much higher percentage moves that lend themselves better to mixed martial arts. A lot of times this is because certain moves will expose you to strikes for too long or risk giving up too much position if you miss the submission. Here are three of more popular submissions that you will frequently see in mixed martial arts and a few short notes about each. Remember, there are a lot more, but these will get you started in the right direction to understanding their effectiveness.

Triangle Choke

This is a choke that is normally done by the fighter on the bottom. By forcing one of their opponent’s hands behind their leg, the fighter is able to wrap their legs around the opponent’s neck and apply a submission. The one risk of this submission in mixed martial arts is that your opponent may try and slam you to break the choke. If they are unsuccessful, though, it usually just makes the choke tighter and ends the fight. This can also be countered by adding in a few tweaks to the standard triangle.

Arm Bar

This popular submission is done by trapping the opponent’s arm behind the elbow and bending their arm against the joint. Opponents must tap, or their arm will be broken or dislocated. This is a great submission in mixed martial arts and can be done by the opponent on the bottom or the opponent on the top in a mounted situation. The one drawback to this submission in mixed martial arts is that if you attempt it from the bottom and miss, you may give your opponent a strong opportunity to pass your guard and advance their position. This could leave you in a much worse spot where you’ll take some punishment.

Rear Naked Choke

This is a choke that is applied when you are on your opponent’s back, usually lying on the ground. An arm is slipped under the neck and leverage is applied with the other arm. This is a vicious choke and is hard to get out once your opponent has your back. There really is no downside to using this submission in mixed martial arts as you are behind your opponent making it hard for them to land any sort of significant strikes on you and missing the submission does not give up your advantageous position.

Advantages for Mixed Martial Arts

The main advantage for mixed martial arts is it gives the fighter complete control when they are on the ground. A talented Jiu Jitsu fighter will be able to manhandle another fighter on the ground and usually get them to walk into a submission pretty easily. This can help a fighter to end a fight quickly without taking on much damage. BJJ is especially great for good strikers to learn because it can force fighters to have to stand and fight as opposed to going to the ground and risk being submitted.

Disadvantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Again, the disadvantages come down to whether or not the fighter has adapted their style to fit mixed martial arts. A lot of submissions in BJJ are great so long as your opponent isn’t allowed to punch you in the face. Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the mouth. The good news for BJJ fighters is that most submissions work well in mixed martial arts or can be easily adapted to fit the game. We have seen some fights where fighters have committed too hard to a submission and end up getting their brains bashed in during the process. A well formulated BJJ approach to mixed martial arts gets rid of this disadvantage pretty quickly.

Muay Thai

Probably the most popular form of striking in mixed martial arts is Muay Thai. Developed in ancient Thailand, Muay Thai is a vicious striking format that utilizes all eight limbs. Eight limbs? Well, what they mean are your fists, elbows, knees, and shins. Muay Thai is extremely effective because it’s just impossible for any person to block all of these different attacks. Muay Thai also utilizes something called clinching, which is the art of “neck wrestling.” A fighter will wrap their hands around the back of the neck of the other fighter and grip tight. They’ll use this grip to control the other fighter and drive them into knee strikes and throw them to the ground in they so choose.

Muay Thai fighters spend a lot of time hardening their body and training it to take punishment. For this reason, Muay Thai fighters are usually some of the strongest and hardest to get through fighters in the sport. In Thailand, it’s not uncommon for fighters to fight every single week. You can imagine how tough this makes their minds and their bodies.

Advantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Variety of Attacks

Muay Thai offers some of the most innovative and effective ways to attack your opponent. With Boxing, you’re just able to punch. But with Muay Thai, you have elbow strikes, punches, kicks, knees, the whole kit, and caboodle. The ability to throw with such variety can overwhelm a lot of opponents who aren’t used to seeing this type of barrage. This is also great in the event that you suffer some sort of injury during the fight. If a boxer breaks their hand, they are in a world of trouble. If a Muay Thai fighter breaks their hand, they still have seven other limbs they can come at you with.

Durability

The intense training, shin conditioning, and endless fight experience make Muay Thai fighters extremely durable and able to withstand a lot of punishment. This can frustrate and dishearten a lot of fighters that are used to knocking out other opponents with their strikes. Imagine throwing all you have at a fighter, and they keep coming forward. It can break you mentally.

Disadvantages for Mixed Martial Arts

A lot like Brazillian Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai doesn’t have a lot of disadvantages as long as it is coupled with a martial art that takes care of the ground aspect of things. If a fighter only learns the stand-up techniques of Muay Thai, they will be in a world of trouble if they get taken down to the ground. While on the feet, though, Muay Thai fighters usually don’t have a lot to fear as they’ve seen most of it before. They must adapt a strong ground game or the ability to stay off of the ground if they hope to survive in mixed martial arts. If they do that, though, they are definitely a force to be reckoned with.

Wrestling

First, we are not talking about WWE wrestling. That will unfortunately not help you very much in the mixed martial arts arena, though, it might make you look really cool before you get knocked out. Wrestling refers to a transitional and ground fighting style. What we mean by transitional is that it is a style that starts from standing a lot and is designed to get your opponent down to the ground. We don’t want to call it a standing style because that is the term we are reserving for standing striking styles.

The purpose of wrestling is to get your opponent to the ground and then be able to control them once they are there. Wrestling involves throws, clinch fighting, joint locks, and grappling holds. The idea of wrestling is to always advance to a superior position. In mixed martial arts, this superior position is one on the ground where the fighter can inflict damage through punches, knees, and elbow strikes. Wrestling is taught in a lot of military hand to hand combat classes which should help to give it credit to being an effective martial art to include in an effective fighting style.

Advantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Threat of Takedown

Fighters that have a strong wrestling background are always a threat to take you down to the ground and pound on you. Fighters that like to fight on their feet have to be very wary of this and are forced to alter their strikes a bit. They’ll be forced to kick less as that leaves them vulnerable and they may have to commit a bit less to other strikes to not allow their opponent to close the distance and use their wrestling to take them down.

No Fear of Takedowns

One of the biggest things that wrestlers are good at outside of taking people down is not being taken down themselves. Years of manipulating their body weight and position and quickly sprawling allow them to enter the ring with much less fear of being taken down to the ground. Because of this, they can open up their game plans from standing and commit more to their strikes. They also won’t have kicks stripped from their arsenal as their opponents might.

Ground Control

Once a wrestler gets an opponent to the ground, the nightmare for their opponent doesn’t stop. Wrestlers are trained to control their opponent and not let them get back to their feet. This can make for a somewhat boring fight at times for fans but can get interesting if they’re able to land significant strikes and damage from the ground.

Disadvantages for Mixed Martial Arts

No Stand-Up Aspect

This is a bit false, but we will explain. Wrestling does have some stand-up clinch work that can be effective for controlling opponents. What we mean though is wrestlers are not trained to punch and kick and typically will get picked apart by a good or even decent stand-up fighter. For this reason, they almost always will want to take the fight to the ground unless they are a well-rounded fighter. Wrestlers also need to need to be careful not to become too overly concerned with the takedown and end up walking into a well-timed knee or get picked apart on their feet by not setting up their takedown shots.

Judo

Created in 1882 Japan, Judo is a combat sport, martial art, and Olympic sport that specializes in the throw or takedown of your opponent. There is an aspect of Judo that takes place on the ground, but most are the transition of getting your opponent to the ground. Practitioners of Judo, or Judokas, also do some work with strikes but only in their forms (katas). For the sake of discussing Judo in mixed martial arts, we will only be referring to the takedown and throws aspects, and some of the ground work as those are what are utilized typically.

Advantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Vicious Takedowns

One of the biggest advantages of Judo in mixed martial arts is the ability to violently throw your opponents to the ground from a lot of different positions. Wrestling takedowns are effective, but the majority of them do not inflict any damage on their opponent. Judo takedowns and throws are known for being rough and inflicting damage on the fighter being tossed through the air. Even the threat of these throws can cause the other fighter to rethink their gameplan and keep their distance not letting the Judo-trained fighter get close to get a grip on them.

Body Control

Judokas have a strong understanding of how the body works and how to manipulate their balance and their opponent’s balance to achieve their goal. This helps immensely with takedowns and throws, but also helps in general control of their opponent and preventing takedowns. Judokas are also trained to control and pin their opponents on the ground and to employ different choke and joint lock techniques (similar to BJJ). This rounded approach and overall mastery of body mechanics make these fighters dangerous in their craft as well as more successful in other martial arts they may be newer too.

Disadvantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Some Moves Don’t Work

Some of the more effective throws in Judo aren’t as effective in MMA due to the risk of the body position if the throw is missed. A lot of throws involve the fighter turning their back to the other fighter to complete the throw. If they do complete the throw, all is well. If they happen to miss or abort part way through, the other fighter may be able to easily take their back and have a supremely dominant position.

To counter this, a lot of popular Judo throws are amended to fit better into mixed martial arts. This might be a complete abandonment of a technique or a change in body angle that might make the throw less effective or less violent but protects the thrower due to the differences of mixed martial arts versus competition Judo.

Karate

Probably made most famous by Lyoto Machida, Karate is a mainly open-hand martial art that focuses on strikes with the hands, legs, elbows, and knees. As we mentioned earlier, there are tons of different variations of Karate all with different techniques and movements. Karate gets a bit of a bad name in mixed martial arts because a lot of people claim it is ineffective. Don’t try and tell that to Machida. The reasoning for this may have to do with the commercialization of Karate and “McDojos” poorly teaching the art. Karate is also done in competitions where opponents score points for light contact. This has been criticized and being “soft” and not producing good fighters.

Still, we have seen several fighters effectively use the style to inflict real damage on their opponents. Our take is that if taught correctly and utilized intelligently, the martial art can be very effective.

Advantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Unorthodox Strikes

A lot of people look at Karate and just assume it’s kicking and punching. Technically, they’re correct, but there is a lot more to it that you might not see unless you get in the ring and spar a few rounds with a Karate master. Their ability to hit you with strikes from odd angles and to contort standard strikes into something new is strong. If a fighter doesn’t have experience against this, they could have some troubles.

Speed

Karate teaches its fighters to strike quickly. The competitive nature of point sparring also presses for speed and agility to land strikes and win. This translates into fighters who are quick and are able to strike quicker than a lot of power hitters.

Disadvantages for Mixed Martial Arts

Power?

We left a question mark after this one because this is something that is often debated. A lot of people claim that Karate (and Tae Kwan Do) are great for making contact quickly with your opponent but not that great for inflicting powerful damage. You’ll be able to find a large number of people that tell you the exact opposite as well. Ultimately, it looks like this may go deeper and be fighter dependent or style of Karate dependent. If you’re looking to see how this affects a certain fighter, we recommend looking at their history and seeing if they pack a power punch or are just slap happy on their opponent.