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MMA - The Four Staple Martial Arts Disciplines

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Promotional poster for UFC 193.  It was held on November 14th, 2015.  Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm highlighted the main event fight.

Promotional poster for UFC 193. It was held on November 14th, 2015. Ronda Rousey and Holly Holm highlighted the main event fight.

What MMA schools usually teach

Mixed martial arts (MMA), especially since the Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), has shown the importance of cross-training in martial arts.

MMA has brought light upon the importance of learning at least one striking style and one grappling style.

As a sport, MMA has gained generous popularity in the mainstream ever since the first season of The Ultimate Fighter.

Since then, MMA let alone UFC was no longer within the scope of pay-per-view. Over the years, since MMA became a popular mainstream combat sport, more and more MMA schools open up.

MMA, as a sport, pits fighters of varying disciplines against each other. It's the boxer vs. the wrestler, the Judoka vs. the Karateka, the wrestler vs. the kickboxer, etc, etc. Only a handful of martial arts styles have enjoyed success in MMA. A prime example of one style is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu which became a popular martial arts style after the victory of Royce Gracie at the earlier days of the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

As the sport progressively became popular, fighters trained in other styles to compensate for their current weaknesses. Thus, you have four primary styles of MMA. These four are the four “staple” or “pillar styles” of MMA.

The four staple styles of MMA are: Boxing, Wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/Submission Wrestling, & Muay Thai/Kickboxing.

Technically, Full-Contact or “Knockdown” Karate can be classified as the fifth staple style of MMA.

Most fighters that compete in MMA matches utilize a combination of these four styles. Most MMA schools will teach between two and four of these styles. To those outside MMA culture, this seems to be rather boring; however, “boring” usually wins the fights. That's the purpose of MMA fighters and camps.

MMA fighters have the objective of winning fights; especially, if they want to make a livelihood out of it. If you don't win as many fights, you're not going to be making the money that you want to make. For those that want to compete in the major promotions, it's imperative to build up that win record.

MMA camps have the objective of training fighters to win fights. If fighters from an MMA keep losing fights, then nobody will want to join. The fight camp will have a problem retaining its current students. Eventually, the fight camp won't have enough money to stay afloat. As long as the fighters keep winning fights, the fight camp remains strong.

There are many reasons that many MMA schools teach those four styles. One of the reasons is this: the proverbial wheel works. There's no reason to waste time trying to “recreate the wheel” or “invent fire.”

Here's a breakdown of MMA's four staple styles of martial arts:

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Boxing, known as the "Sweet Science," is a martial arts style that is very basic. While Boxing mainly consists of “basic moves,” it doesn't make the style any less effective. Combine the speed of the punches and the kinetic impact to targets on the human body, a skilled Boxer should not be underestimated. While Boxing can look and be considered simplistic, it is far from it. Just because a style can look simplistic, it is far from it.

There is much more to Boxing than just throwing punches. You have to get your footwork, technique, reflexes, and waist movement going. While having strong arms does help in Boxing, the style and sport is not about arm strength. Speed, reflex, proper technique, and aggression are key to being a successful boxer.

Boxers, if they have done it for a good amount of time, know how to take hits. If they didn't, then they wouldn't be in the sport.

Also disciplined boxers have good stamina.

When in Boxing matches, you have to be able to last all the rounds. You have to plan for the possibility the match is going to end up in a judge's decision. While MMA fights usually last for three to five rounds with three to five minutes each round, Boxers go into matches that could last up to twelve rounds with three minutes a piece. In a Boxing match with 12 rounds, with a minute break in-between rounds, the match could last up almost 50 minutes.

There are many fighters that started out in Boxing but transitioned into MMA. That's one of the reasons that Boxing is one of the four staple styles of the sport.

If you step into an MMA school, there's a likely chance that you will be trained in Boxing.

Furthermore, disciplined boxers know how to take a hit and cut weight.

If you plan on pursuing a career in MMA, you have to be able to punch your opponent. Boxing is simplistic and effective at the same time. This is one style that teaches a fighter how to effectively punch.

Many fighters have won using basic jabs and crosses.

UFC Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre does train under Freddie Roach from time to time. When Georges St. Pierre was one of the coaches in one of the previous seasons 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.

There are many MMA fights that ended in KO or TKO from punches. Boxing is very effective at close range fighting. If you get your opponent by the side of the cage or the corner of the ring, you can barrage him/her with punches. Then, you can get a TKO. If you maintain the position on the ground, learning Boxing will make you efficient in ground 'n pound tactics.

If you want to be a good MMA fighter, you need to throw effective punches.

Wrestlers, submission experts, and kickers take up Boxing as a means to throw effective punches. If you're unable to grapple or kick, you still have your two fists. Extensive Boxing spars will get you psychologically to throw punches.

Should you join an MMA school, it might have a striking class dedicated to Boxing. However, Boxing may be incorporated with Kickboxing/Muay Thai for an MMA striking class. If the class doesn't offer a Boxing class nor has an extensive one, then you should also join a Boxing gym. There are many MMA fighters that also train at a separate Boxing gym to work on their punching skills.

Wrestling : 2008 Senior Female Wrestling World Championships at 1st Yoyogi Gymnasium on October 13, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan.

Wrestling : 2008 Senior Female Wrestling World Championships at 1st Yoyogi Gymnasium on October 13, 2008 in Tokyo, Japan.


Wrestling is an age-old martial art to come out of Western and Eastern Europe. Many notable MMA fighters 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.

In the early days of UFC, Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu were the dominant styles of martial arts.

Many fighters that come out of college usually have wrestling backgrounds. Koscheck for example is an NCAA Division I wrestler while Shields is an NCAA Division II wrestler. 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.

Virtually all collegiate wrestlers are good or else they wouldn't be receiving wrestling scholarships.

MMA highlighted the importance of being able to fight on the ground. Wrestlers are known for being physically strong, aggressive (very important in MMA), and explosive.

If you're not psychologically conditioned to fight Wrestlers, the shock of getting taken down will prove advantageous to the Wrestler.

Like Boxers, disciplined Wrestlers know how to cut weight.

Also like Boxers, Wrestlers have the stamina and durability for fighting. As an added bonus for Wrestlers, they have explosive strength on their side.

Wrestling's a very effective style to use to take an opponent to the ground.

Like Judo, Wrestling has its own set of moves such as “take downs” to get the opponent onto the mat. The most common Wrestling take downs are the single-leg and the double-leg. Take downs are effective moves to use against fighters that are primarily strikers.

The single-leg and double-leg are the most basic take downs one will learn when joining an MMA camp. While the moves are basic, they are effective. If you join an MMA camp, expect to learn some wrestling take downs.

If the MMA school is near any two or four-year college with a wrestling program, it's relatively easy to find people to teach wrestling techniques to fighters or to recruit graduating college wrestlers into their fight camps.

In the case of the reality TV show Fight Factory, Koscheck recruited two college wrestlers into his fight camp.

A good wrestler can be aggressive and explosive to rattle the panicky opponent.

A example of such effective tactics would be picking up and slamming the opponent on the mat.

Opponents not used to receiving such attacks will be at a disadvantage.

In the case of the fight reaching a judges' decision, wrestlers are at an advantage. This is due to judges scoring high for successful take downs and maintaining the superior position throughout the fight. To outsiders of MMA culture, this can be boring.

To those that understand the sport, this is a wrestler's advantage. If you're a wrestler, then take advantage of it.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/Submission Wrestling:

If and when taken to the ground or vice versa, it's very important to be able to fight on the ground if you cannot stand back up.

With the “ground n' pound” approach, fights usually end in technical knockouts (TKO) if the referee deems that the defending opponent cannot properly defend.

On the other hand, fights that go to the ground end up with a submission.

While striking continues to become more relevant in MMA, grappling still remains the most important part of your fight game.

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.

To remedy that, fighters train in either Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Submission Wrestling. There are fighters that cross-train in both to cover their ground bases. Royce Gracie, due to his UFC victories, popularized Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In terms of ground combat, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu proved to be the dominant style.

While Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu came from Judo's groundwork, the style popularized moves such as the rear choke, the Kimura, the guillotine, and the triangle choke.

Knowing how to fight on the ground is important. For that reason, combined with the victories of Royce Gracie, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is cemented as one of the four staple styles. Not only is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu a staple style of MMA, it's the crucial style for MMA.

If you join an MMA school, it's almost one-hundred percent likely that you're going to be learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and/or Submission Wrestling.

Many fighters that use BJJ hold a rank of blue belt, purple brown, 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 1stDan. Fighters that hold a purple belt or brown belt in BJJ already have sizable ground fighting skills.

Many strikers take up BJJ or Submission Wrestling in the case of getting taken to the ground so they can defend themselves.

In the case of high school and collegiate wrestlers, they take up either of those two to work on their ground fighting skills and their submission defenses.

Traditionally, BJJ is practiced with a gi which is similarly designed as 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.

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, GSP was a 2nd Dan in Kyokushin Kai Karate.

Keep in mind that BJJ was developed from Judo's ground game. In the case of Judo, you do not necessarily get to the ground fighting techniques until you reach a certain belt.

Muay Thai/Kickboxing:

Like Boxing, Muay Thai/Kickboxing is a pretty basic style. In the particular case of Muay Thai, dubbed as “Science of the 8 Limbs,” it's simplistic but extremely effective at the same time.

Muay Thai is one of the oldest styles in the world.

It's older than Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and many styles of Kung-Fu.

Muay Thai is known as being one of the most brutal styles of martial arts to exist on the planet. This has been a predominant style used by fighters in many kickboxing promotions such as K-1.

Many of Muay Thai's attacks can be transferred to MMA. This is one of the reasons Muay Thai or Kickboxing is one of the four staple styles of MMA. In the case of Kickboxing, it's usually a combination of basic attacks from Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Muay Thai.

In the case of Muay Thai, it's brutal attacks are ideal for MMA. Despite its brutality, Muay Thai is easier to learn as a striking style in MMA than styles such as Karate or Tae Kwon Do (that will be explained later in a different Hub).

Many fighters such as Cung Le, Mirko “Crocop” Flipovich, and Allistar Overeem got their starts in Kickboxing before going into MMA. Before going into MMA, Le competed in many San Shou and K-1 matches.

For Muay Thai, it's basic and more than effective.

Muay Thai fighters have valuable moves at their disposal such as the leg-level roundhouse kick (used with the bony shins instead of the insteps), knee strikes, clinching, and elbow strikes.

Muay Thai fighters are very effective at close range with the clinch as they can deliver knee strikes to the solar plexus or the 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 this “hardcore mindset” which is crucial for an MMA fighter. As an individual sport, Muay Thai is rather brutal as fighters are scored on kick damage rather than number of kicks or clean technique.

In the case of Wrestlers, Grapplers, and Boxers, Muay Thai/Kickboxing is effective as they can focus on basic kicks. For Wrestlers and Grapplers, the Muay Thai clinch is a perfect setup for take downs and submissions.

Several perfect examples are: Josh Koscheck who is immensely skilled in collegiate wrestler, Jake Shields who is immensely skilled in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Ronda Rousey who is immensely skilled at Judo.

If you join an MMA school, it may offer Muay Thai to cover your kicking attacks.

They are the four staple styles because of MMA fighters having previous backgrounds in any of the four, the importance of ground fighting, and the basic striking coverage.

Keep in mind that this system works especially when you have people with no sort of martial arts training join your school. In the case of those students, they are tasked with being proficient with any combination of those four at the same time.

While MMA is a combination of martial arts, it is a combination of specifically those four combat sports. The Unified Rules of MMA tend usually favor fighters used to those four tournament formats.

Sparring at the Swansea University Karate Club

Sparring at the Swansea University Karate Club

Full Contact/Knockdown Karate

On various technicalities, Full Contact or Knockdown Karate can be considered the hidden fifth staple style of MMA.

On some accounts, this can be grouped with Kickboxing; but on other accounts, this type of Karate should have its own classification.

This is due to many Full Contact Karate matches being bare knuckles or kickboxing matches.

There are Full Contact Karate fighters that became successful in MMA and K-1.

In terms of K-1, one has to look at the late Andy Hug.

He holds a background in Kyokushin Kai Karate and Seido Karate with the latter being the more direct path to K-1.

There are plenty of MMA fighters that got their professional fighting career started in K-1 and similar promotions. Hug was known for his devastating ax kick which was used to successfully knock down many opponents and his leg-level spinning hook kick that could successfully throw opponents off balance.

With regards to most Full Contact Karate tournaments, they are bare knuckles. That means the competitors are wearing no protective gloves, no protective shins, no protective in-steps, no forearm protectors, and so forth. Usually, they only allow mouth pieces and protective groin cups.

Like Boxers and Muay Thai fighters/Kickboxers, Full Contact Karatekas know how to take a hit. Also, the very good competitors known how to be explosive and aggressive which are important traits in MMA.

Again, not many fighters do come from a traditional Karate let alone full contact Karate style. The only reason this can be a staple style is due to some MMA fighters having that type of background.

Because of the various circumstances at hand, Full Contact Karate should be considered the hidden technical fifth staple style of MMA. Do not overlook Full Contact Karate as a potential staple style of MMA.

Very Important to Know:

While they are the four staple staple styles of MMA, don't feel discouraged if you have a background in something else other than any of those four styles.

If you join an MMA school and you have a background in something like Tae Kwon Do, you do have the advantage over someone that joined with no martial arts background.

Several fighters such as Anthony Pettis (3rd Dan), Ben Henderson (black belt), and Dennis Siver (black belt) have effectively used Tae Kwon Do in their fighting repertoire. George St. Pierre (3rd Dan Kyokushin Kai), Chuck Liddell (5th Dan Kenpo & 1st Koei-Kan), and Lyoto Machida (3rd Dan Shotokan) have effectively used Karate in their fighting repertoire. Seth Petruzelli, who easily defeated Kimbo Slice in the Elite XC promotion, holds a 3rd Dan in Shito-Ryu Karate.

Fighters such as Dong Hyun Kim (4th Dan) and Ronda Rousey (4th Dan) have effectively used Judo in their fights.

Rousey held the bantamweight belts in Strikeforce and UFC.

With a previous background in martial arts combined with the four staple styles of MMA, that does give you an edge against most fighters. If you started martial arts training when you were younger before getting into MMA, you have a strong foundation to build upon.

Even when you join an MMA school, never ever forget your past martial arts training. Remember, MMA schools train you to win amateur and professional MMA fights. Good instructors will help you implement what you previously know into the MMA tournament format.

Marcus "Lelo" Aurelio, fighting out of Axe Capoeira out of Vancouver, is one of the few to successfully implement the use of Capoeira in MMA.

In most cases, those with previous martial arts backgrounds (provided they don't have an attitude), are usually easier to teach than those with little to no background at all.

Also they may be asked by instructors to help assist other students.


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.

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