A commonly asked question is: “What’s the best style of martial arts?”
However, this question is very open-ended and subjective. The answer depends on whether you are looking at martial for self-defense, sports, or both – you see the problem? It might help to consider, “Best for what?”
So, what’s the best style to train in if you want to fight in the UFC?
To be clear, these styles might not work by themselves in the cage, but they form a good baseline for the rest of your fighting skills. With that said, let’s take a look at some styles that you can use as a foundation for your cage game.
The Top 8
There are a few styles that would form a good base for MMA. The eight we’ll be discussing in this article are:
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
- Muay Thai
Originating in Japan in 1882, judo is a style that relies on the use of gravity and momentum to do damage to your opponent. Technique-wise, there are three categories: throwing (nage-waza), grappling (katame-waza/ne-waza), and striking (atemi-waza). A training session is typically divided into kata (techniques performed in a pre-arranged sequence) and randori (free practice). To ensure a level of safety during practice, a portion of each session is devoted to break falls (ukemi).
A major component of judo is its competitive aspect as this is where a judoka’s (a judo practitioner’s) skill and understanding are put to the test. Points are awarded for successful, powerful, and controlled throws. As far as MMA is concerned, the ability to throw your opponent around like a ragdoll is a powerful asset. The chokes, joint locks, pins, and submissions, as well as the ability to fall correctly, provide a solid baseline for stand-up and ground fighting.
I’ve heard a variety of descriptions regarding BJJ, but my favorite is: “the art of making people into pretzels.”
A grappling-oriented martial art, BJJ is derived from judo and focuses on the ground fighting elements and techniques – using joint locks and chokes to force an opponent into submission. Matches start in a standing position, and the two fighters jockey to try and get each other on the ground. Once an opponent has hit the mat it’s a simple game of gaining and holding a dominant position. This is obviously a major oversimplification of the chess game that is BJJ.
BJJ is one of only a few styles where you can go all-out on the mat right from the start with minimal risk of injury to yourself and your training partner. This makes it a great style for those who want a challenge but are worried about damaging another person. You’re also learning and repeating the same techniques over and over again when you step onto the mat at full resistance.
It’s no surprise that this is a cornerstone of the MMA world. The ability to fight on the ground as well as on your feet is crucial for any kind of fight. Like in judo, controlling your opponent on the ground and making it difficult or impossible for them to do anything is a great asset to add to your arsenal.
Karate is a common suggestion for people looking to start out in martial arts.
Brought to Japan in 1922, karate is an Okinawan style, and it is predominantly a striking art. It uses the usual kicks, punches, elbows, knees, and open-handed strikes (knifehand and palmheel strikes). Certain dojos also train in grappling, throwing, joint manipulation, pressure points, and restraints.
What makes karate so good for MMA, apart from the wide stances allowing better balance, is the contact. Depending on the variant (i.e. Shotokan, Goju-Ryu, etc.) you’ll have differing levels of contact in sparring from light taps to swiping the legs out from under your opponent to trying to knock your opponent unconscious. Certain styles also don’t use sparring gear beyond a groin guard. This means you’re taking full-contact hits from bare hands and feet. You learn to move very quickly and take a punch as well as dish one out.
Was there any doubt that muay thai would be here? This martial art is also called the ‘art of eight limbs’ because you’re using your hands, feet, knees, and elbows. In Thailand, a fighter will start training as young as eight and start competing at age 10. The practice matches are done with light contact but the competitions are done with full contact. This makes muay thai a rough, risky style to get into. Common injuries include:
- Soft tissue damage
So, what makes muay thai a good style to incorporate into MMA? The use of your elbows and knees is crucial to clinch work in MMA – this is where you learn to use them.
Boxing is considered to be the best martial art to improve your striking and head movement. Sparring is done with light to medium contact, and competitive bouts are all full contact, lasting anywhere from 27 to 36 minutes (9 – 12 rounds of 3 minutes each). This is an endurance test designed to push your stamina to the very limit. Considering that an MMA match is 15 minutes in length, you’ll need all the stamina you can get.
There are several other benefits to boxing as well. This includes improved core strength, a confidence boost, and significant muscle tone. The risks to boxing are serious, which adds an element of motivation to avoid strikes. Possible injuries include fractures, sprains, concussions, and brain trauma.
Your striking can always be improved, and if that’s what you need to focus on, then boxing would be the way to go.
Like karate, taekwondo is a striking art. Unlike karate, however, taekwondo focuses on the use of kicks to damage ones opponent. You have more reach and muscle in your legs, which means you can generate more powerful attacks with your legs than with your hands. These kicks range from simple front, side, and roundhouse kicks to spinning, jumping and jump-spinning kicks.
There are many ways to use these kicks, and the number of combinations you can use is remarkably extensive. Well-placed kicks can knock an opponent unconscious with relative ease which is a major advantage in MMA where you want to save as much energy as you possibly can.
On the subject of wrestling, most think of the WWE, which isn’t exactly accurate. First, though, what is wrestling? It’s a combat sport that focuses on grappling. The aim of the game is to use joint locks, pins, throws, takedowns, clinch fighting, and other tools to get to and maintain a dominant position. These are the same concepts that shape both judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Like those styles, it’s all about body position and how you can maintain control of your opponent.
There are many styles of wrestling including:
Why is wrestling so important? It’s important because practically every fighter uses it in some way, shape, or form. Knowing how to execute a takedown is important if you want to win, but it’s even more important to know how to defend against a takedown. After all, fighting while you’re on your back is a challenge – even for experienced fighters.
So, where does the WWE fit into all of this? Simply put: it’s more theatrical. If you look at any of the variations of wrestling mentioned above, each one has its own ruleset; additionally, victory is based on the number of points you score in a match. In terms of the WWE, and sports entertainment in general, it’s a very dramatized, scripted affair. The athletes are playing characters in a storyline that will change from season to season. Certain matches are pre-determined. Despite this, the wrestling we’re talking about here is done for competition, sport, or for fun rather than theatrics.
This is an interesting style, and it’s a bit of a wild card in comparison to the other styles on this list. Hapkido is a Korean martial art that’s derived primarily from aikido. It primarily utilizes joint locks, throws, grappling, kicks, and various hand strikes. The aikido influences are clearly visible in the way the throws, locks, and break-falls are executed. There’s a hint of taekkyeon (an older style of taekwondo) in the striking and kicking techniques; although, the kicks used in hapkido are much lower and are typically sweeping kicks as opposed to the snap and thrust kicks found in taekwondo.
Part of what makes this style interesting – apart from the general curriculum – is that it’s a relatively unknown style. As far as MMA is concerned, I can’t think of anyone who has a background in hapkido. That doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but it doesn’t seem to get much attention. It’s a wide-ranging style and the curriculum covers a variety of useful techniques, but there’s very little resistance in the training videos that I’ve seen. This means that there’s not a lot of pressure when it comes time to test the techniques and see what works. The style focuses more on self-defense than on sport fighting, and low-level resistance in training could be an issue.
Despite this, there are good ideas and techniques that could – if trained correctly – be made to work in both MMA and self-defense. If you can make this style work for you in the cage, you’ll have quite a few surprises for your opponent in your next fight.
Traditional Martial Arts in MMA: Develop your Game
Many top fighters have backgrounds in various traditional martial arts disciplines, so these styles do have their place. The big thing to keep in mind is that you shouldn’t rely on one style to keep you in the game. As Bruce Lee so eloquently put it:
“Keep what is useful, discard what is useless, and add something that’s uniquely your own.”
Train in multiple disciplines and amass an arsenal of techniques and tactics. Throw away anything you can’t use, keep what you can use, and add a personal touch to it for some extra flavor.
As always, I hope you found this article enjoyable and informative. Thanks for reading and I’ll see you for the next one!