The most debated topic in MMA has to be what is the best martial art base. In the short but wild history of mixed martial arts, the generally agreed best strategy (meta) has changed a few times drastically, and we can safely come to the following conclusion.
There is no longer a single best martial art for MMA. Each fighter must develop skills covering all three primary martial arts principles—striking, wrestling, and grappling.
The debate gets even more complicated when you start considering if it’s best to be a specialist in one style and decent in others or equally good in all without being excellent. Even if a fighter needs many skills, some martial arts have more to offer than others. But which one is the best?
Table of Contents
In today’s combat sports world, each martial art is measured not only as a single system but also in terms of MMA effectiveness. While each style has something valuable to teach, some styles require less modification and are thus superior. We’ve written extensively about each martial arts mentioned, but here we’ll review what makes each good for MMA.
All striking martial arts have some punching, but none comes even close to the level of mastery pugilists have. Boxing punches and technique are the golden standards, and boxing is one of the four main pillars of MMA.
Boxing develops the best head movement, footwork, and speed in the hands. Having a crisp and fluid punching technique often makes the difference in the cage. Boxers are lethal with 10 oz gloves, and things get even better with the smaller 4 oz gloves, which open up much more space to land.
Notable boxers in MMA: Peter Yan, Nick Diaz, Nate Diaz, Rob Font, Max Holloway, Calvin Katar.
Wrestling, the second pillar of mixed martial arts, has frequently been labeled as the best martial art for MMA. The ability to dictate where the fight takes place very often decides the whole outcome of the contest.
Good wrestlers can choose to stay on their feet if they feel they have the upper hand or can take the fight to the canvas if they lose the standup battle. Takedowns and takedown defense are crucial in MMA.
Wrestlers also have an elite warrior mentality. The frequency, tenacity, and competitiveness of wrestling competitions build an unmatched mental fortitude. Wrestling has bred the most MMA champions of every other sport on this list and has a solid claim to the title “the best martial art for MMA.”
Notable wrestlers in MMA: Daniel Cormier, Henry Cejudo, Jon Jones, Kamaru Usman, Randy Couture, Cain Velazquez.
BJJ is another critical pillar of MMA. Since the first UFC event, it has become evident that no fighter can hope to win in MMA without jiu-jitsu skills. The days of domination by pure grapplers in the cage are long gone, but submissions remain a vital element of the sport.
BJJ has a complete submission grappling game of all martial arts and is most MMA fighters’ preferred form of grappling.
Even strikers must build a decent ground fighting skill set, at least defensively. Sports BJJ does not translate directly into MMA but is a beautiful sport, self-defense system, and an excellent base for mixed martial arts.
Notable BJJ practitioners in MMA: Royce Gracie, Demian Maia, Jacare Souza, Charles Oliveira, Brian Ortega.
Most MMA fighters prefer Muay Thai as their primary striking discipline. Punches, kicks, knees, and elbows are among the permitted strikes in the art of eight limbs, making it the most similar to MMA in this regard.
Add to that Thai boxing’s extensive clinching game and powerful kicking techniques, and you can see why most fighters prefer it.
Muay Thai is also very physically hard as a style and emphasizes dealing damage to the opponent and not backing down. Muay Thai’s kicks, clinch, and toughness makes it the most important striking style for MMA.
Notable Muay Thai fighters in MMA: Edson Barbosa, Mauricio Rua, Jose Aldo, Donald Cerrone, Joanna Jędrzejczyk.
Judo is not as popular in MMA as the other martial arts listed here, but it has still brought us some great champions. It is one of the few modern combat sports that is also a traditional martial art in its structure, often bringing the best of both worlds.
Judo takes a very different approach to takedowns than wrestling, leaving many MMA fighters unprepared for a good judoka.
Judo practitioners have excellent body control, balance, and takedown capabilities, especially from a very close range. Judo also has a few submissions, like the armbar and triangle choke, among the most commonly used in MMA.
Notable Judokas in MMA: Ronda Rousey, Karo Parisyan, Yoshihiro Akiyama, Kim Dong Hyun.
Despite its limited popularity worldwide, sambo has bred some of the best MMA fighters ever. The Russian self-defense and combat system uses techniques from many other martial arts to be as effective as possible, much like MMA does.
Sambo has a few different rulesets, but combat sambo is the closest you get to MMA without actually being one.
Combat sambo allows striking with every body part, including head butts, wrestling, judo throws, and every available submission.
The ruleset changes the flow of the contest. It emphasizes grappling much more than striking while allowing the grabbing of the sambo jacket. However, still, the crossover to MMA is almost seamless.
Notable sambo practitioners in MMA: Fedor Emelianenko; Khabib Nurmagomedov; Islam Makhachev, Oleg Taktarov, Blagoi Ivanov
Karte was considered not to work in MMA for a long time, but a few key fighters changed that perception drastically. Karate takes an entirely different but equally effective approach to striking than Muay Thai, which favors fast linear movement, quick punches, and snapping kicks.
The distance management and footwork of karatekas are amongst the best. Many MMA fighters adopt the bladed wide stance of karate and use the fast and varied styles of kicks characteristic of most karate styles.
Starting the martial arts journey with karate is also one of the best choices for kids, teaching them respect, discipline, and traditional values alongside the many physical skills.
Notable karatekas in MMA: Lyoto Machida, Stephen Thompson, Kyoji Horiguchi, George St. Pierre.
What Is The Best Combination Of Martial Arts For MMA?
This is where the water gets even muddier. Due to their deeply rooted traditions and usually very limited rulesets, traditional martial arts don’t allow that much variety in styles and strategies.
Muay Thai and BJJ are a bit more diverse, with more distinctly different styles in each. But the sheer scope of allowed techniques in MMA makes it vastly more diverse than anything else. Countless combinations of skills and techniques can work in the cage.
We can narrow it down to two main types of fighters in the current era of MMA. Specialists and jacks of all trades. Naturally, both types have decent skills in all aspects of MMA, but the jack of all trades truly does not shine in any one area.
An all-time great, George St. Pierre, is a perfect example of this. He could employ a radically different game plan for each fight. He still holds the record for most takedowns in the UFC, but at the same time, he outstruck almost all of his opponents.
Another truly well-rounded fighter is Demetrious Johnson. Mighty Mouse is a world-class switch hitter with smooth-as-butter striking.
Still, it also has excellent takedowns and produced the best submission in MMA history against Ray Borg. Many young fighters today begin with MMA and cross-train in multiple styles without specializing.
On the other hand, there are specialist fighters above everyone else in one area who win their fights by relying entirely on their strength. At the top level, fighters are good in every aspect, but the game plan always revolves around their one strength.
Think about Israel Adesanya. He has good counter wrestling and grappling, but you know he will always want to stay on his feet and beat his opponent with strikes.
Khabib Nurmagmedov was also a specialist, albeit a very different one. He had decent punches, but their purpose was to set up the takedowns until, inevitably, each opponent ended up mauled beneath the Eagle.
There are some mandatory skills for any fighter that wants to reach even mid-level competition. These are the ability to hold his own standing up, wrestle decently, and defend the most popular submissions.
Outside of that, there are countless combinations of martial arts and single moves that you can combine in an effective way for MMA. And this is perhaps the most alluring part of mixed martial arts.
Another commonly asked question is what martial art to learn first. This consideration should only be made if you plan on eventually transitioning to MMA.
Sticking with a single martial art for a lifetime is perfectly fine. Still, many want to broaden their skill set or transition to MMA after learning the ins and outs of a single martial art.
There isn’t an unambiguous answer to this question. Each martial art has advantages and disadvantages on its own and in terms of MMA effectiveness. If we look back at the history of MMA, perhaps the best basis for it is wrestling.
Wrestling is a very popular Olympic sport with a huge competitive scene. The rules consistently award aggressiveness and penalize passivity, so there is a sense of urgency, unlike any other combat sport.
The hard nature of wrestling, combined with the rigorous training schedule and overall level of competition, builds character and spirit that translates perfectly to MMA, as has been shown by countless championship-caliber fighters.
Another excellent route is to start with traditional martial arts. Karate, judo, or taekwondo are perfect for kids. The entire training regimen is structured with a strict hierarchical order, a culture, and a philosophy way beyond simple fighting. Starting with traditional martial arts will instill values.
It will build incredible coordination and priceless flexibility when you foray into the harsher world of combat sports.
Wrestling and BJJ cover some of the most important aspects of MMA and have produced the most champions. On the other hand, every fight begins standing, and many talented strikers from karate, boxing, and kickboxing have successfully transitioned to mixed martial arts.
No single martial art can be called the best for MMA, but styles like wrestling, BJJ, sambo, and Muay Thai have the highest transfer value of skills.