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What Martial Arts Are Used In MMA?

In the UFC (and MMA in general), there are many different styles of fighting allowed. Due to the unrestrictive ruleset, competitors are allowed to train in and use various different styles as they wish in competition. With so many styles allowed, which ones are actually used?

What martial arts are used in MMA?

In short, the most commonly used martial arts in MMA are Muay Thai, Boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling. However, MMA is not limited to these styles, and there are many successful fighters who utilize less common styles such as Karate, Taekwondo, Sambo, Judo, and more.

So that’s the short answer. But you probably have more questions based on the martial arts used, such as why some are more common than others. In the rest of the post, I will go into depth on why each particular style is used in MMA.

The Four Most Important Martial Arts In MMA

So as I mentioned in the short answer, there are four main martial arts that are used in MMA: Muay Thai (Kickboxing), Boxing, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling. But why are these used so regularly?

Royce Gracie's Jiu-Jitsu was so effective, that he complained opponents were stealing his techniques at UFC 2.
Royce Gracie’s Jiu-Jitsu was so effective, that he complained opponents were stealing his techniques at UFC 2.

Well to put it simply, these are the most effective martial arts in existence. Over the years since the UFC was first started, certain styles of fighting have continued to be a prominent part of most fighters’ training styles. The prominence of a martial art used in MMA is directly related to effectiveness.

This makes sense right? If someone has a more effective style than you, then simply start training in their style. And this is exactly what happened, starting with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu after UFC 1. So let’s look at each of these four styles individually – Muay Thai, Boxing, Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling – to find out when each one became a staple of MMA, and why.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The first martial art to become a prominent part of MMA was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a grappling art, meaning that it focuses on clinch work and submissions instead of strikes.

BJJ is a ground-based grappling art, meaning its primary purpose is to get your opponent to the ground, and then beat them by submitting them. Submissions usually came through the use of various chokes, locks, or strikes.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was created by two Brazilian brothers named Carlos and Hélio Gracie, after being taught Judo by a Japanese traveler named Mitsuyo Maeda.

Mitsuyo Maeda was a Japanese Judoka and prizefighter, who traveled the world teaching Judo as per Kino Jigoro's wishes.
Mitsuyo Maeda was a Japanese Judoka and prizefighter, who traveled the world teaching Judo, as per Kino Jigoro’s wishes.

Maeda was sent to travel the world and spread the art of Judo by its founder, Kano Jigoro. Carlos Gracie witnessed a demonstration by Maeda, and asked to be his student. Helio and Carlos later formed what they learned from Maeda into their own martial art, later known as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Many years later, Hélio’s son Royce Gracie would take part in the eight-man tournament known as UFC 1. Despite being the smallest man in the tournament at 6’1 and only 175 pounds, Royce submitted every opponent to win the tournament, proving the effectiveness of BJJ.

After Royce won UFC 1, BJJ became an extremely popular martial art, with many new schools opening in the United States. The style was so effective, that in later tournaments, Royce accused his opponents of copying his style.

Submission wins are still a regular part of MMA competition today, and for that reason, the vast majority of MMA fighters train in BJJ.

Wrestling

Brett Johnston (182) of SPASH wrestles on Feb. 27 at the WIAA State Wrestling Tournament. Johnston lost this match and his bid for a spot on the podium.

The next martial art to rise to prominence in the UFC was wrestling.

Wrestling is a martial art with a focus on takedowns, although it contains various moves such as pins and submissions, as well as maneuvers for defending against takedowns.

Dan Severn was the first world-class wrestler to rise to prominence in the UFC, after winning the UFC 5 tournament. Many of the early fighters who were tournament winners, were also wrestlers, such as Don Frye, Mark Coleman, and Ken Shamrock.

Dan Severn won the UFC 5 tournament, and at the time was also a Pro Wrestling champion.
Dan Severn won the UFC 5 tournament, and at the time was also a Pro Wrestling champion.

Wrestling became an important base martial art, as a wrestler knows how to defend a takedown, which is a good way to neutralize the attacks of a BJJ practitioner. For this reason, BJJ and Wrestling are the two most effective martial arts, noted by the early rivalry of wrestler Ken Shamrock and Royce Gracie.

To this day, every UFC fighter has some type of wrestling training. Whether it means they themselves are a wrestler, or they are a striker learning takedown defense, wrestling is a requirement to survive in MMA.

Boxing

Next on our list of most used martial arts in MMA is boxing.

Boxing is a bit of a difficult martial art to track, because it is so widely used in every form of combat. Every fighter since the UFC’s inception has used some form of boxing, whether they called it that or not.

Boxing is simply the martial art of punching. However, it is a lot more than just that. Boxing places emphasis on being able to hit your opponent while avoiding punches yourself.

This means positioning your body in a way where you can tilt and move your head in order to dodge or parry incoming attacks. The major issue with boxing is that it quickly becomes less useful when kicks are allowed in competition.

This is because a boxing stance is susceptible to kicks and takedowns. Firstly, a boxer stands very wide, so they can easily get hit with a leg kick without having time to defend it. Secondly, their front leg is extended so far out, that it is easier for a wrestler to initiate a single-leg takedown.

Cody Garbrandt (right) has one of the most effective styles of boxing within modern MMA.
Cody Garbrandt (right) has one of the most effective styles of boxing within modern MMA.

Despite boxing’s shortcomings in MMA, there is a lot to be said about it, as most MMA fighters train some form of punching. However, as MMA continues to evolve, more boxers have learned to adapt their style successfully for modern MMA.

One example is former UFC Champion Holly Holm, who was initially a champion welterweight boxer. She later implemented kicks into her game, and eventually became an MMA fighter with a striking specialty, knocking out the Judoka UFC Champion Ronda Rousey in the first round of their fight.

Another example is former UFC Bantamweight Champion Cody Garbrandt, who had a 32-0 amateur boxing record before becoming an MMA fighter. His boxing skills are easily the best in MMA, as seen by his masterful display of head movement and striking against Dominick Cruz to win the championship.

Muay Thai/Kickboxing

And the last of the four martial arts most used in MMA, we have Muay Thai. I have also included kickboxing here, because it is pretty much the same thing as Muay Thai, except Muay Thai is more commonly trained and has a wider range of techniques.

Muay Thai is a form of kickboxing originating in Thailand. The style uses the basics of every kickboxing style, punches and a variety of kicks. There are several techniques that are unique to Muay Thai however, that make it so widely used.

One is the leg kick. It is a technique not featured in most other kickboxing styles, and so it is almost completely unique to Muay Thai. For the same reason, a defensive maneuver against a leg kick, known as a “check”, is also used in Muay Thai.

Leg kicks are extremely effective in MMA, as an accumulation of them has been known to render fighters unable to compete. Thus not only are leg kicks good to know, but knowing how to check them is also crucial.

Jose Aldo (left) is a former UFC Featherweight Champion with brutal leg kicks.
Jose Aldo (left) is a former UFC Featherweight Champion with brutal leg kicks.

Secondly, Muay Thai uses a very strong roundhouse kick. Fighters are taught to step into their kicks, and twist their hips as they kick, putting a lot of momentum behind it. The momentum makes the kick a very dangerous one, even when blocked with the arms.

Another big advantage Muay Thai has over other kickboxing styles is that it also teaches elbow and knee strikes. For this reason, it is often referred to as “The Art of Eight Limbs”.

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones is known for mixing elbows into his strikes, a staple of Muay Thai.
UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones is known for mixing elbows into his strikes, a staple of Muay Thai.

And lastly, Muay Thai is very effective for its extensive knowledge of clinch work, including a clinch unique to Muay Thai often referred to as the Muay Thai “Plum”. You can check out a post I made talking more about what exactly this clinch is here: What is the Muay Thai Plum?

Almost every fighter since the UFC’s inception has used some form of kickboxing, but Muay Thai has stuck around the longest, and almost every MMA fighter learns some variation of Muay Thai. Prominent Muay Thai fighters in the UFC include Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and Jose Aldo.

The Less Commonly Used Styles

There are many different styles of martial arts, and MMA fighters are not limited to the styles listed previously. Below, I will describe some styles that do not have too many practitioners in MMA, but that are still effective when used correctly.

Karate

Karate is a form of kickboxing from Japan, that focuses on quick kicks to create space and hard snappy punches. Karate, as you probably know, is a more traditional martial art, and uses a belt system to rank its practitioners’ skill level.

It is not widely used due to its lack of effectiveness when compared to a more rigid kickboxing system like Muay Thai. However, there are cases of successful MMA fighters with Karate backgrounds, notably UFC Welterweight Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, who has challenged for the UFC championship twice.

Notable techniques in Karate are the sidekick, the snapping front kick, and the spinning back kick.

Sambo

Sambo is a more complete martial art, resembling MMA in a way, as competitors are allowed to wrestle and strike. For this reason, Sambo practitioners are usually considered wrestlers, as they are very similar styles, simply practiced in different parts of the world under different names.

The emphasis of Sambo is on the ground game, particularly in takedowns and submissions, as it is a descendant style of Judo. However, some forms of Sambo combine elements of Muay Thai and Boxing into their style, making it similar to MMA as I already mentioned.

The most famous Sambo practitioner in MMA is UFC Lightweight Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who hails from Russia, where Sambo was created.

Taekwondo

Taekwondo is another kickboxing art, and is very similar to Karate. It is a Korean martial art that actually descended from the Japanese Karate style.

Taekwondo places a lot more emphasis on kicks than Karate does, as Taekwondo practitioners rarely punch to the head. Instead, Taekwondo fighters are encouraged to strike their opponents head with their foot, leading to many high-kick attacks than can generate a lot of power.

The most powerful Taekwondo technique is the wheel kick, a spinning attack in which the back of the foot strikes the opponent’s head while spinning.

The most notable fighter with this style is UFC Featherweight Yair Rodriguez, a Mexican fighter who grew up training in Taekwondo. Other fighters seen using elements of Taekwondo include Uriah Hall and Conor McGregor.

Judo

Judo is a grappling martial art, which you are probably familiar with by now given how much I’ve referenced it in the rest of the post. It is a martial art focusing on throws, used to get the opponent to the ground. Once there, Judo also teaches submissions, although not as extensively as Jiu-Jitsu.

Judo is a lot rarer in MMA than Jiu-Jitsu, and this is likely due to the prevalence of wrestling, as wrestling and Judo serve similar purposes. The most popular Judo practitioner in MMA is former UFC Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey.

Sanda

The last martial art we have here is Sanda. Sanda is a Chinese form of kickboxing and is actually the official combat sport of China. It is also known as Sanshou or Chinese Kickboxing.

Sanda is a very liberal form of kickboxing, meaning that similarly to Muay Thai, it allows the use of many different moves. Including the strikes used in Muay Thai (punches, kicks, elbows, knees) Sanda also uses Taekwondo and Karate style kicks, such as spinning back kicks, hook kicks, and wheel kicks.

Sanda even allows the use of spinning backfists, a technique that is almost uniquely seen in MMA. Notable Sanda practitioners are Zabit Magomedsharipov, and UFC Strawweight Champion Zhang Weili.

Conclusion

So to finish up this post, there are many styles of martial arts used in MMA, and almost every style has effective techniques. However, there are simply some styles that are more effective with less effort, and those are the styles you see most often.

Also note that while these fighting styles (as well as MMA itself) are very effective, but there are more fighting styles that are better suited for self-defense. If you’d like to know more, check out What Is The Best Hand To Hand Fighting Style?

In short, martial arts used in MMA include Boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Wrestling, Karate, Sambo, Taekwondo, Judo, and Sanda. However, the styles that are simple and effective, are the ones that are used more often, with some fighters preferring to have a specialty in a traditional martial art.

I hope this helped you learn about the martial arts in MMA. If so, please consider checking out similar posts on the Training Tips page. Thanks for reading!