Can Tran is a martial arts enthusiast with a special interest in MMA.
What Martial Arts Styles Are Found in MMA?
With the success of promotion companies like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and shows like The Ultimate Fighter, the sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) has become very popular over the years. The prominence of MMA has highlighted the importance of cross-training in martial arts, since these fights show that it's essential to learn at least one striking style and one grappling style.
MMA pits fighters of varying disciplines against each other—for example, you'll see fights like boxer vs. wrestler, Judoka vs. Karateka, wrestler vs. kickboxer, and so forth. When the sport began to grow in mainstream popularity, fighters started training in other styles to compensate for their weaknesses. This led to the four primary styles of MMA, also known as the four staples or four pillars.
Fighting Styles That Form the 4 Pillars of MMA
- Brazilian jiu-jitsu or submission wrestling
- Muay Thai or kickboxing
Technically, full-contact or “knockdown” karate can be classified as the fifth staple style of MMA.
What MMA Schools Teach Fighters (and Why)
Most fighters that compete in MMA matches utilize a combination of these four styles. MMA schools generally teach between two and four of these styles. To those outside MMA culture, this may seem boring; however, “boring” usually wins the fight, and the purpose of MMA schools and camps is to teach fighters how to win.
If an MMA fighter doesn't win many fights, they're not going to make much money. For those who want to compete in the major promotions, it's imperative to build up that win record. The same pressures apply to the school or camp. If students from the school keep losing their fights, nobody will want to join it, and the school will be forced to close.
Winning is crucial for both competitors and trainers, and this is the main reason why MMA schools teach these four pillars: They work!
We'll take a closer look at each staple fighting style (plus the bonus style of knockdown karate) below.
Boxing, known as the "sweet science," is a very basic martial arts style. However, although boxing mainly consists of basic moves, that doesn't mean it's ineffective. Skilled boxers fight with high-speed punches that target specific areas of their opponent's body, and they should not be underestimated.
Essential Skills and Traits for Boxers
There is much more to boxing than just throwing punches. Boxers have to watch their footwork, technique, reflexes, and waist movement. While having strong arms does help in boxing, the sport is not about arm strength. Speed, reflex, proper technique, discipline, and aggression are the real keys to being a successful boxer. A good boxer also needs to know how to take a hit and how to cut weight.
Stamina is also crucial for a boxer. In a match, you have to be able to last through all the rounds. You have to plan for the possibility that the match might end with a judge's decision. While MMA fights usually last for 3–5 rounds at 3–5 minutes per round, boxing matches may last up to 12 rounds at 3 minutes apiece. When you add in a 1-minute break between rounds, the match could last almost 50 minutes!
Why Boxing Is a Pillar of MMA
It's fairly obvious why boxing is one of the staple fighting styles: If you plan on pursuing a career in MMA, you have to be able to punch your opponent! Many fighters have won using basic jabs and crosses, and many fights have ended in KOs or TKOs from punches.
Boxing is very effective in a close-range fight. If you get your opponent by the side of the cage or the corner of the ring, you can hit him/her with a barrage of punches. Then, you can get a TKO. If you maintain position on the ground, learning boxing will make you efficient in "ground n' pound" tactics.
Cross-Training in Boxing
There are many fighters that started out as boxers but transitioned into MMA. UFC Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre trains under Freddie Roach from time to time. When Georges St. Pierre was one of the coaches in a season of The Ultimate Fighter, Freddie Roach was brought on board as one of the striking coaches. One notable fighter from Roach's boxing camp is professional boxer Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao.
Wrestlers, submission experts, and kickers may take up boxing to learn how to throw effective punches—after all, if you're unable to grapple or kick, you still have your two fists. Extensive boxing spars give fighters the psychological preparation for throwing punches.
MMA schools might offer striking classes dedicated to boxing. However, boxing may be combined with kickboxing or muay Thai in a striking class. Boxing gyms are another option, and many fighters train at separate boxing gyms to improve their punching.
Wrestling is an age-old martial art that came out of Western and Eastern Europe. MMA highlights the importance of being able to fight on the ground, and wrestling is a very effective style for taking down an opponent. In the early days of UFC, wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu were the dominant styles of martial arts.
Many notable MMA fighters are wrestlers, such as Cain Velasquez, Jake Shields, Urijah Faber, Josh Koscheck, Johny Hendricks, Jon Jones, Ken Shamrock, Mark Coleman, Kazushi Sakuraba, Kevin Randleman, Dan Henderson, Ben Henderson, Randy Couture, Vernon White, Mark Kerr, and Cung Le.
Essential Skills and Traits for Wrestlers
Wrestlers are known for being physically strong, aggressive (very important in MMA), and explosive. Like boxers, disciplined Wrestlers know how to cut weight, and they must have stamina and durability. One key difference between wrestlers and boxers is the wrestler's explosive strength; for example, they're capable of picking up their opponent and slamming them down on the mat. The shock of such a take-down can make an opponent panic.
Why Wrestling Is a Pillar of MMA
The fighters that come out of college often have wrestling backgrounds. Koscheck, for example, is an NCAA Division I wrestler, while Shields is an NCAA Division II wrestler. Virtually all collegiate wrestlers are good, or else they wouldn't be receiving wrestling scholarships; that's one of the reasons that wrestlers have a dominant presence in MMA. If you're going up against a collegiate wrestler, be prepared for the possibility of getting taken down.
Also, when fights reach a judges' decision, wrestlers are at an advantage. This is because judges give high scores for successful take-downs and for fighters who maintain the superior position throughout the fight, both of which play to wrestlers' strengths.
Cross-Training in Wrestling
Like judo, wrestling has its own set of moves—called “take-downs”—designed to get the opponent onto the mat. The most common take-downs are the single-leg and the double-leg. Take-downs are effective moves to use against fighters who are primarily strikers. While these moves are basic, they are powerful.
MMA schools and camps that teach wrestling moves will definitely cover take-downs. If the MMA school is near a college with a wrestling program, it's relatively easy to find people to teach wrestling techniques to fighters or to recruit graduating college wrestlers. For example, on the reality TV show Fight Factory, Josh Koscheck recruited two college wrestlers into his fight camp.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Submission Wrestling
Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is a prime example of a martial arts style that has enjoyed great success in MMA. It became popular after the success of Royce Gracie in the early days of UFC, and it is the dominant style for ground combat.
While striking continues to become more relevant in MMA, grappling remains the most important part of your fight game. If you get taken to the ground during the fight, it's very important to be able to defend yourself from there if you cannot stand back up.
Essential Skills and Traits for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Fighters
Ground skills are imperative for BJJ. You could have the best stand-up game, but that doesn't mean anything if your opponent manages to take you down. If you have no way to fight on the ground, you're defenseless until you can get back on your feet. Should your opponent know that, then s/he will make sure you stay grounded.
While BJJ was developed from judo's ground game, the style popularized moves such as the rear choke, the Kimura, the guillotine, and the triangle choke. With the “ground n' pound” approach, fights usually end in technical knockouts (TKOs) if the referee deems that the defending opponent cannot properly defend themselves. On the other hand, a skilled BJJ fighter can win a ground fight via submission.
Many fighters that use BJJ hold a rank of blue belt, purple belt, brown belt, or black belt. At schools that have a serious BJJ program, it could take a couple of years before you reach purple belt or brown belt—and even longer before you attain the rank of 1st Dan. Fighters that hold a purple belt or brown belt in BJJ already have sizable ground-fighting skills. (In the case of judo, you do not necessarily train in ground-fighting techniques until you reach a certain belt.)
Equipment: Traditionally, BJJ is practiced with a gi that is similar to a judo gi. However, BJJ for MMA is practiced mainly without a gi and instead with a rash guard. Fighters may opt to have a short-sleeve or long-sleeve rash guard.
Why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Is a Pillar of MMA
Knowing how to fight on the ground is important. For that reason, combined with the success of Royce Gracie, Brazilian jiu-jitsu is cemented as one of the four staple styles. In fact, BJJ is not just a staple of MMA; it's the crucial style for MMA.
Cross-Training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
To enhance their ground skills, fighters train in either Brazilian jiu-jitsu or submission wrestling (or sometimes both), and it's almost 100% likely that MMA schools and camps will cover these styles. While strikers take up BJJ so they can defend themselves, high school and collegiate wrestlers study it to improve their ground-fighting skills and their submission defenses.
In the documentary film called The Striking Truth, Georges St. Pierre talked about his first time learning Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He genuinely admitted to having no ground game at all. At the time, he was a 2nd Dan in Kyokushin Kai Karate!
Muay Thai or Kickboxing
Like boxing, muay Thai and kickboxing are pretty basic styles. In particular, muay Thai is simplistic but extremely effective at the same time.
Muay Thai, known as the "Science of the Eight Limbs," is one of the oldest styles in the world. It's older than karate, Tae Kwon Do, and many styles of kung-fu. It's also known as one of the most brutal martial arts styles. Muay Thai is the predominant style used by fighters in many kickboxing promotions, such as K-1. (Kickboxing is usually a combination of basic attacks from karate, Tae Kwon Do, and muay Thai.)
Essential Skills and Traits for Muay Thai Fighters
Muay Thai fighters have many valuable moves at their disposal, such as the leg-level roundhouse kick (performed with their bony shins instead of their insteps), knee strikes, clinching, and elbow strikes.
These fighters are very effective at close range with the clinch, since they can deliver knee strikes to their opponent's solar plexus or face. Elbow slashes are effective at cutting opponents above the eye, which can result in a TKO victory. A well-placed spinning sweep kick can knock opponents off their feet.
Psychologically, muay Thai fighters are trained to have a hardcore mindset, which is crucial for an MMA fighter. As an individual sport, muay Thai is rather brutal, since fighters are scored on kick damage rather than number of kicks or clean technique.
Why Muay Thai Is a Pillar of MMA
Muay Thai is a staple style because many of its attacks can be transferred to MMA, and the brutal nature of the style is ideal for this sport. Yet, despite its brutality, muay Thai is easier to learn than karate or Tae Kwon Do.
Cross-Training in Muay Thai
MMA schools frequently offer muay Thai training to cover kicking attacks. For wrestlers, grapplers, and boxers, training in muay Thai or kickboxing is effective for its focus on basic kicks. For wrestlers and grapplers especially, the muay Thai clinch is a perfect setup for take-downs and submissions.
Here are a few examples of fighters who benefit from muay Thai skills: Josh Koscheck (collegiate wrestler), Jake Shields (Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter), and Ronda Rousey (Judoka).
Many other fighters, such as Cung Le, Mirko “Crocop” Flipovich, and Allistar Overeem, got their starts in kickboxing before going into MMA. For example, Le first competed in many San Shou and K-1 matches.
Why Are These Four Styles So Important?
To recap, boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and muay Thai are the four staple styles because of the importance of ground fighting in MMA, the basic striking coverage these techniques offer, and the simple fact that numerous MMA fighters have previous backgrounds in one (or more) of these disciplines.
While MMA is a mixture of martial arts, that mixture specifically consists of these four combat sports. The Unified Rules of MMA usually favor fighters who are accustomed to these four tournament formats.
For cross-training, the 4-pillar system also works well for students with no previous martial arts background. Those students are tasked with becoming proficient with any combination of these four styles at the same time, rather than starting with one style and adding another one later to mitigate their weaknesses.
The Fifth Style: Full-Contact or Knockdown Karate
On various technicalities, full-contact or knockdown karate can be considered the hidden fifth staple style of MMA. In some senses, it can be grouped with kickboxing, but there's also a strong case for this type of karate to have its own classification. This is because many full-contact karate matches are bare-knuckles or kickboxing matches.
Essential Skills and Traits for Full-Contact Karatekas
Like boxers, muay Thai fighters, and kickboxers, full-contact Karatekas know how to take a hit. Also, the very good competitors know how to be explosive and aggressive, which are both important traits in MMA.
There are full-contact karate fighters who became successful in MMA and K-1. In terms of K-1, one has to look at the late Andy Hug. He held a background in Kyokushin Kai Karate and Seido Karate, with the latter being the more direct path to K-1. Hug was known for his devastating ax kick, which he used to successfully knock down many opponents. Another of his famous moves was his leg-level spinning hook kick, which could throw opponents off balance.
Equipment: Most knockdown karate tournaments are bare knuckles. That means the competitors are not wearing protective gloves, shin guards, in-steps, forearm protectors, or other gear. Usually, these tournaments only allow mouth pieces and protective groin cups.
Why Full-Contact Karate Is the Hidden Fifth Pillar of MMA
Not many MMA fighters come from a traditional karate style, let alone a full-contact style. However, since some MMA fighters do have that background, it could technically be considered a staple style and should not be overlooked.
Other Fighting Styles Can Still Succeed in MMA
Don't feel discouraged if you have a background in a fighting discipline outside of the main four styles. If you join an MMA school and have a background in something like Tae Kwon Do, you still have the advantage over someone who joined with no martial arts experience.
Several fighters have been successful while focusing on other techniques. Below are a few examples.
Tae Kwon Do
- Anthony Pettis (3rd Dan)
- Ben Henderson (black belt)
- Dennis Siver (black belt)
- George St. Pierre (3rd Dan Kyokushin Kai)
- Chuck Liddell (5th Dan Kenpo and 1st Koei-Kan)
- Lyoto Machida (3rd Dan Shotokan)
- Seth Petruzelli (3rd Dan in Shito-Ryu Karate). Petruzelli easily defeated Kimbo Slice in the Elite XC promotion.
- Dong Hyun Kim (4th Dan)
- Ronda Rousey (4th Dan). Rousey held the bantamweight belts in Strikeforce and UFC.
- Marcus "Lelo" Aurelio. Fighting out of Axe Capoeira in Vancouver, Aurelio is one of the few to successfully implement capoeira in MMA.
Any Martial Arts Background Will Give You an Advantage
No matter what discipline you studied, if you started martial arts training when you were younger before getting into MMA, you have a strong foundation to build upon. Remember, MMA schools train you to win amateur and professional MMA fights. Good instructors will help you convert your prior training into the MMA tournament format.
In most cases, those with previous martial arts backgrounds are usually easier to teach than those with little to no background at all, and they can help assist the newer students. When you join an MMA school, never forget your past martial arts training!
Ian Tamondong from Philippines on December 26, 2015:
You are absolutely right. Those 4 disciplines shaped modern mma. In other words, those are the styles that have emerged to be most effective in real life hand to hand combat.
When I was young I was hooked on watching kung-fu films.
I once saw Royce Gracie submitted a kung-fu guy. He was flying all around until Royce caught him. Royce submitted him while standing, the kung-fu guy was upside down tapping in pain.
Kevrell on December 14, 2014:
Enlnehtgniig the world, one helpful article at a time.
TheWatchman from Traveling! Asia-Canada on November 03, 2012:
nice hub, but I wouldn't call boxing simplistic! the level of skill that high level boxers possess takes years of hard work to achieve. I can't wait for the day a truly high level boxer in his prime decides to jump into mma. The big kickboxers are finally coming over ( tyrone sponge anyone?) , now lets get some boxers into it.
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on November 02, 2012:
This is a very good examination of the styles most useful in MMA: Boxing with its simplicity and effectiveness; wrestling with its strength and toughness and explosiveness; Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with its intricate technical knowledge and good adaptation; and Muay Thai with its ferocity and bare-bones brutality. I remember before the UFC, many martial artists assumed the fight wouldn't go to the ground; the UFC opened eyes to the fact that a person will need to know what to do on the ground if they end up there. It's true too, as you say, that fighters with backgrounds in other styles (Chuck Liddel comes to mind, having trained in Kenpo) have had success in MMA; to some degree, it depends on the individual. Thanks. Enjoyable read, good information.