Here is a list of the individual martial arts disciplines that are most commonly practiced and used in modern MMA.
The defining feature of MMA lies in that first “M,” because in this sport, the martial arts are mixed. An MMA fighter must blend together a number of individual martial arts disciplines in a way that allows him or her to fight in a variety of positions using a variety of techniques. Many of the best MMA fighters of all time have excelled at this blending of individual disciplines.
The vast majority of fighters have a foundation in one particular discipline, and even those that don’t still practice and learn individual martial arts disciplines. What are those individual disciplines that fighters tend to focus on or specialize in?
These are the most common martial arts fans can expect to see in MMA.
More UFC champions come from a wrestling background than any other discipline. With its focus on takedowns, smothering top control on the mat, and superb physical conditioning, the sport of wrestling churns out fighters that can quickly transition to elite MMA at an alarming rate. These fighters not only have the ability to dictate where the fight takes place (on the ground or on the feet), they tend to carry an unmatched work ethic forged through years of notoriously grueling practices.
In North America, kids that wrestle generally practice folkstyle wrestling, but some of the best MMA fighters ever (Randy Couture and Dan Henderson, for example), were world-class Greco-Roman wrestlers. Unlike folkstyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling prohibits attacks and holds below the waist, which in turn creates fighters that are extremely comfortable grappling in the clinch using upper-body holds.
The UFC was, more or less, created to showcase the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). Like wrestling, BJJ is a grappling art. But unlike wrestling, the goal in BJJ is to submit the opponent using a chokehold or joint lock. Often the submission is achieved through a series of positional advancements on the mat, always with a focus on leverage over strength, technique over power.
And even if a BJJ fighter can’t earn a submission, the martial art focuses on positional control in situations, like MMA, when strikes are permitted. Understandably, BJJ has direct applications to MMA, and most elite BJJ practitioners are able to easily and quickly find success in MMA.
Muay Thai / Kickboxing
Technically, Muay Thai and kickboxing are distinct disciplines, but they can be lumped together in the category of striking arts in which practitioners wear gloves and use punches, kicks, and knees as primary techniques (Muay Thai permits the use of elbows and more fighting in the clinch). There is no ground grappling in either discipline; these are strictly stand-up arts.
Barring some sort of injury that doesn’t allow them to kick, MMA fighters will train in Muay Thai and/or kickboxing regularly. In the early days of the sport, pure kickboxers struggled in MMA, as they were woefully underprepared to grapple on the mat. However, as the sport has developed, stand-up specialists have learned to keep the fight standing and protect themselves on the ground, if needed. Some of today’s best fighters, like UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, boast an extensive kickboxing record before their transition to MMA.
Another striking-only art, boxing permits striking only with the hands. And while boxing obviously develops a fighter’s punching ability and power, the “sweet science” also trains a fighter to use head movement, footwork, and various defensive tactics to avoid punches.
Not many elite MMA fighters come from a deep boxing background, but nearly all fighters practice boxing in isolation. And many of today’s best and most popular fighters, such as Conor McGregor, Jorge Masvidal, and Stipe Miocic, are known for their punching prowess.
The Russian martial art of Sambo more closely imitates MMA than any other discipline on this list. Combat Sambo is, for all intents and purposes, MMA with gi tops and shin guards. Competitions allow essentially all types of strikes and grappling techniques.
Naturally, Sambo specialists transition incredibly well to MMA. Both heavyweight great Fedor Emelianenko and current UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov come from a Sambo background.