Are you wondering what the best martial for MMA success are?
In this article, we’ll look at the five best martial arts for MMA success, the benefits and drawbacks of each, and some of the best UFC champions to successfully use each martial art.
What Are the Best Martial Arts for MMA?
While there are tonnes of martial arts out there, only a few are high quality enough to become fundamental for success in MMA.
Time and time again, history has shown the best martial arts for MMA are Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, muay Thai, kickboxing, and boxing.
In mixed martial arts, fighters need to be able to strike and grapple on the feet and on the ground, and also defend and attack submissions – meaning success requires a combination of martial arts.
History has shown a wrestling and Bjj base with a striking art like muay Thai or kickboxing to be the most streamlined and effective combination for success in MMA.
Let’s take a look at each martial art and how it came to be one of the best martial arts for MMA.
1. Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ)
In the early days of MMA, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was shown to be an essential martial art for success in MMA. This realization came as early as UFC 1 in 1993 when the much lighter Royce Gracie effortlessly dominated and finished much larger and stronger opponents one after another to become the first UFC champion.
Royce also won UFC 2 and UFC 4 and made Brazilian jiu-jitsu an absolutely essential martial art for MMA success.
So, what makes Bjj one of the best martial arts for MMA?
1. BJJ Finishes Fights
The first and most obvious reason is Bjj can win you the fight. Fighters can get dominated for 5 straight rounds and still come out victorious with one swift technique – think Anderson Silva vs Chael Sonnen (UFC 117).
Fighters can also use it to finish an opponent where they otherwise couldn’t. Especially in the lower weight classes, fighters lack the power to knock out opponents and can rack up strikes landed in the hundreds.
However, as good as anyone’s chin is, a very small percentage can survive/escape a tightly locked-in rear naked choke, triangle choke, or vicious arm bar. Even if an opponent does manage to escape, a very close submission attempt almost always wins the round, as long as they weren’t dominated beforehand.
2. BJJ Can Save Fighters
Bjj can be used defensively. If a fighter is in the bottom position, they can use Bjj to stop or limit damage from ground-and-pound or submission attempts.
They can also use Bjj to turn defense into attack. Fighters can escape a disadvantageous position by attacking a submission (and possibly win) and either scrambling to the feet or becoming in control on the ground.
Bjj became so essential, it lost the power it once had as all fighters learned how to grapple on the floor and were able to defend against and attack submissions.
However, if a fighter doesn’t know jiu-jitsu, their opponent tirelessly attempts to get them to the ground where they can dominate or finish the fight via submission. This makes it one of the most important martial arts for MMA.
UFC Champions who used Bjj to win:
- Royce Gracie
- Fabricio Werdum
- Frank Mir
- Anderson Silva
- Charles Oliveira
- Glover Teixeira
Negatives of Bjj in MMA
- No striking learned at all
- Learned techniques without the worry of strikes being landed on the ground unlike in Sambo
- Losing fights via decision due to chasing submissions and positions rather than striking and doing damage to an opponent
While Bjj became less effective because everyone in the UFC became high-level, wrestling has stood the test of time and is still the best martial art for MMA success.
When everyone thought Brazilian jiu-jitsu was the most effective tactic available (meta) and fighters were training it nonstop before fights, this was quickly disrupted when Mark Coleman became the UFC 10 champion, UFC 11 tournament champion, and first UFC heavyweight champion at UFC 12.
So, what makes wrestling the best martial art for MMA?
1. Control and Ground-and-pound
Mark Coleman was a great wrestler who successfully used the term he coined ground-and-pound. His game plan was always the same, get a takedown, control his opponent on the ground, and then overwhelm them with ground and pound.
He essentially found, created, and used this blueprint for success in MMA, which still works even to this day. Securing takedowns and controlling an opponent on the ground with advantageous positioning is a great way to win rounds, and being on top opens the door for finishing the fight via ground-and-pound.
This control also stifles an opponent’s Bjj, especially since the wrestler also knows Bjj.
2. Dictate the Fight
Being the better wrestler in MMA means you can dictate the fight. You can take the fight against the cage, to the ground, to a clinch, or keep the fight standing. In the evolution of MMA, wrestling is just as important for strikers because they use it to keep the fight standing where they can outstrike their opponent.
For fighters with less Bjj experience and facing an elite Bjj practitioner, they too use wrestling to keep the fight standing for striking or clinching – or they at least make sure they end up on top if the fight goes to ground. If the wrestler is on top, the Bjj practitioner is most often using jiu-jitsu defensively to stall.
3. Tire an Opponent
Outside of the best martial arts for MMA, it’s understood by all that cardiovascular endurance is one of if not the most important physical traits for success in MMA.
Therefore, wrestling is the best martial art for MMA because it also produces fighters with insane muscular and cardiovascular endurance with the ability to repeat high-intensity bursts through each five-minute round, every round.
Great wrestlers can use wrestling to drain an opponent to control the fight and win via decision, or take them to deep waters before finishing them via knockout or submission.
Wrestling has been and still is the meta in 2023 because it’s required absolutely everywhere the fight goes. The only situation wrestling isn’t used is when it’s striker vs striker. Even then, the fighter who mixes in some wrestling is going to have the upper hand, most of the time.
UFC Champions who used wrestling to win:
- Khabib Nurmagomedov
- Islam Makhachev
- Randy Couture
- Aljamain Sterling
- Kamaru Usman
- Daniel Cormier
- Jon Jones
- Henry Cejudo
Negatives of wrestling in MMA
- One dimensional and doesn’t learn locks and chokes like in judo
- Too much wrestling can see fighters lose via decision due to inactivity as a result of chasing position too much
3. Muay Thai
Muay Thai is known as the art of eight limbs because it uses the hands, feet, knees, and elbows to strike an opponent.
So, what makes muay Thai the best martial art for MMA?
1. Variety of Direct and Precise Strikes
Muay Thai is the number one striking martial art for success in MMA because it’s literally what’s used. MMA fighters strike with all eight limbs and they need to know how to do this or they’ll get outstruck by an opponent who does.
Not only variety, but muay Thai’s strikes are effective because they’re direct and simple. Slicing elbows, calf kicks, teep kicks, oblique kicks, roundhouse kicks, explosive knees, and sharp boxing – muay Thai has all the tools frequently used in MMA.
Muay Thai also includes clinching, another key in MMA. Being able to clinch means a muay Thai practitioner can fight with different styles to either attack or defend.
They can fight at distance by using teeps, oblique kicks, roundhouse kicks, and jabs, but they can also use a dirty boxing style where they use the clinch to shoot elbows and knees and either keep the fight standing or sweep an opponent to the floor.
Muay Thai is the complete striking package for MMA. If a fighter spends their time training muay Thai, they’re well equipped for success in MMA if they combine it with wrestling and Bjj. This is the gold standard for MMA.
UFC Champions who used muay Thai to win:
- Valentina Shevchenko
- Mauricio Rua
- Anderson Silva
- Jiri Prochazka
- Jose Aldo
- Joanna Jedrzejcyzk
- Jon Jones
Negatives of muay Thai in MMA
- High variety means they’re lacking an area of specialty
- Upright and stationary stance is weak against wrestlers
- Heavy kick focus means boxing combinations are too infrequent
Kickboxers use kicks, punches, and knees. Many of the great strikers in MMA were first big on the kickboxing scene in promotions like K-1 and Glory.
So, what makes kickboxing the best martial art for MMA?
1. Kickboxers Are Specialist Strikers
Kickboxing is great in MMA because they’re specialists in boxing and kicking and can win by outscoring an opponent or by knocking them out. Unlike muay Thai, kickboxers aren’t allowed to use elbows, sweep, or grapple opponents, which is why their punches and kicks are lethal.
While elbows and knees are good, they’re used much less frequently and require a fighter to be close distance. Elite strikers want to avoid closing the distance when fighting against elite wrestlers and Bjj practitioners.
2. Focus on Boxing
Again, compared to muay Thai, kickboxing uses a lot more boxing. Kicks are great and essential in MMA, but boxing is the main weapon among all martial artists.
This focus on boxing gives kickboxers greater footwork, head movement, faster punches, more powerful punches, and great boxing combinations which they can mix in with kicks. Kickboxers are generally more fluid, which along with their elite striking, makes them harder to take down.
UFC Champions who used kickboxing to win:
- Israel Adesanaya
- Alex Pereira
- Zhang Weili
- Leon Edwards
- Alexander Volkanovski
Negatives of kickboxing in MMA
- No elbow strikes
- No grappling (standing or on the ground)
Boxing is the most utilized martial art for MMA success by the majority of fighters. However, at the elite levels of the UFC and other top MMA promotions, boxing-heavy fighters most often lose to fighters who’ve dedicated their time to kickboxing or muay Thai as their striking martial art as they have more weapons.
Boxing-heavy fighters are too one-dimensional and easily countered by those who can mix up their kicks, punches, elbows, and knees.
However, on the other hand, what makes boxing the best martial art for MMA?
1. Cardiovascular Endurance and Footwork
Boxing is a great martial art for MMA because it helps fighters develop insane cardiovascular endurance and the most skilled footwork.
At the highest level, boxing matches are ten 3-minute rounds for a total of 30 minutes of fighting. On the other hand, MMA fights are three 5-minute rounds for a total of 15 minutes, except the main events and title fights which are five 5-minute rounds for a total of 25 minutes.
For this reason, boxers transferring to MMA have the necessary gas tank for success, one of the major tools required. Boxers also have light and nimble footwork for evading strikes and takedowns, but they also know how to plant their feet for the most power in their punches.
2. Specialist Punchers
While variety is essential in MMA, boxers are the quickest and most powerful punchers in MMA – and boxing is by far the most effective striking in terms of securing knockouts and landing the most strikes to win via decision.
Combined with great takedown defense, boxing is brilliant against all opponents as it can be used to keep fighters at bay and it can also be used in the pocket as dirty boxing.
UFC Champions who used boxing to win:
- Junior Dos Santos
- Max Holloway
- Holly Holm
- Conor McGregor
- Francis Ngannou
- Petr Yan
- Stipe Miocic
- Jamahal Hill
Negatives of boxing in MMA
- Lacking variety of strikes and therefore too one dimensional
- Boxing stance is vulnerable to calf kicks and weak against wrestlers
6. Other Martial Arts
The other martial arts less commonly used in MMA but which can also be made to work by elite specialists are:
- Karate – similar to kickboxing
- Judo – a mix of wrestling and Bjj
- Sambo – best martial art for its similarity to MMA
While karate, judo, and sambo can be effective martial arts in MMA, they’re much less effective than the other five mentioned above. Training in them for the purpose of MMA is likely a hindrance more than a help as they’re taking focus away from the more important martial arts in MMA.
The Bottom Line
So, ‘what are the best martial arts for MMA?’
The best martial arts for MMA are quite conclusive. Elite MMA/UFC fighters need Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it’s absolutely essential.
They also need wrestling, as it’s the most widely used martial art in MMA. Strikers use wrestling to defend takedowns and keep the fight standing, as well as clinching an opponent and fighting in the pocket, like Daniel Cormier and Randy Couture.
Aggressive wrestlers use it to secure takedowns and finish fights with ground-and-pound or submissions. They also wrestle to secure better positioning both standing and on the ground, as well as control fights, tire their opponent, and ultimately win via decision.
Lastly, muay Thai and kickboxing are undoubtedly the two best striking martial arts for MMA, with boxing coming in third.
Muay Thai is more well-rounded and gives a fighter a greater variety of tools, whilst kickboxers tend to be more specialist strikers who use wrestling and Bjj defensively to keep the fight standing.
If only three could be picked, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, and muay Thai are the best martial arts for MMA when combined, as they provide all the skills and tools an MMA fighter needs.