As you almost certainly know, MMA stands for mixed martial arts. As long as you adhere to the rules of MMA, you can use any form of martial art you want to beat your opponent. But with that in mind, it begs the question of what is the best martial art for MMA?
That’s what I’m going to find out here. I’ll look at what skills you need to succeed in MMA and which martial arts are best placed to give you those skills. By the end, you should have a clear understanding of what is required to excel in this elite sport. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
- Best Martial Arts for MMA
Best Martial Arts for MMA
Here, I will rank the best martial arts for MMA from worst to best, but with just 15 being on this list, they are all pretty good.
15. Wing Chun
The 15th best martial art in MMA is Wing Chun. While last on my list, this traditional form of martial arts still has some practical applications for those training and fighting in MMA. This martial art has a unique set of principles and practical techniques that may seem quirky but have plenty of thought behind them.
One of the biggest inspirations you can get from Wing Chun for MMA is its emphasis on efficiency and directness. It has a huge focus on redirecting an opponent’s force and then striking them via the shortest possible route.
A part of this comes from Wing Chun’s use of the centerline theory, which, in essence, is where the center of your body should be pointing toward your opponent. This means your fists and feet are always the shortest possible distance from the aggressor.
This stance is not ideal for MMA as it would be vulnerable to takedowns, but there are other important takeaways. Wing Chun’s close quarters combat techniques and rapid-fire strikes are well-suited for the clinch and striking ranges prevalent in MMA.
The simultaneous attack and defense enable practitioners to counter opponents easily. Another helpful aspect of Wing Chun is tactile awareness, which allows you to read an opponent’s movement and react quickly to prevent any attacks.
Wing Chun on its own would have some serious drawbacks if used for MMA, but training in the martial art will give you some excellent transferrable skills you can use in the octagon.
14. Jeet Kune Do
Jeet Kune Do is the martial art famously developed by Bruce Lee. In many ways, this is a form of MMA itself, as Lee wanted to create a system that didn’t have any limitations. Due to this, he borrowed the useful parts from many different martial arts.
One of the most transferable parts of Jeet June Do is the emphasis it has on intercepting and disrupting an opponent’s attacks. This concept of intercepting fist will allow you to upset your opponent’s rhythm and create openings for your counterattacks.
The incorporation of elements from various martial arts will give you a well-rounded skill set. It teaches you the same level of versatility that is vital in MMA bouts. You’ll learn to adapt your techniques to the specific demands of the situation.
Furthermore, Jeet Kune Do’s fluidity and absence of a rigid structure make it conducive to transitioning between striking and grappling. It allows you to remain unpredictable and quickly react to any threats and attacks almost simultaneously.
13. Shaolin Kung Fu
Shaolin Kung Fu is an ancient Chinese martial art and one that brings a unique set of attributes to the world of MMA. While many may associate it with traditional forms and acrobatic displays, Shaolin Kung Fu has a diverse range of techniques that can have real-world effectiveness.
One of the key things you’ll learn from Shaolin Kung Fu is an extensive repertoire of striking techniques. This includes kicks, punches, and elbow strikes. Not only that, but the emphasis on flexibility and agility ensures these strikes can be delivered with a high amount of power.
In any combat sport, you can’t be predictable, and Shaolin Kung Fu’s range of attacks is well suited for MMA. While Shaolin’s Kung Fu’s animal-inspired movement may have limited application in combat sports, they do teach you to have a broad array of strategies for both offense and defense. This gives you good versatility for a strategic and adaptive approach.
Shaolin Kung Fu is also a useful martial art for those who want to work on their mental and physical balance. This can help to improve your resilience, concentration, and overall well-being. For those wanting to learn a historical and traditional martial art that can add some valuable MMA skills, Shaolin King Fu is a great choice.
There’s no doubt lethwei is one of the best mixed martial arts combat sports to learn. For those wanting to simulate the intense and ferocious nature of MMA, this is a great place to start. Also known as Burmese bare-knuckle boxing, its raw intensity and effectiveness in stand-up combat make it a perfect learning ground for MMA.
Lethwei uses a whole range of striking movements, but this does include some that aren’t allowed in MMA, such as headbutts. However, its emphasis on relentless aggression and forward movement conditions you to overwhelm your opponent with constant pressure.
If your style of MMA fighting is going to be more striking-based, then lethwei’s aggressive style could be perfect for you. It will force your opponent into defensive positions and help you to create openings for your powerful strikes.
The obvious downside to lethwei is there is no grappling element. However, it’s usually best to learn both striking and grappling martial arts when learning to fight in MMA. Learning lethwei will vastly improve your striking ability and give you an excellent skill set.
Finally, lethwei requires an exceptionally high level of fitness to sustain its high intensity. This is perfect for the demanding environment of MMA as you’ll prepare for the endurance and physical challenges you’ll have to face in the octagon.
Kali, eskrima, and arnis are all collective terms for Filipino martial arts. This martial art has gained notoriety for its practical and comprehensive approach to self-defense. While the weaponry training of kali doesn’t have any direct application in MMA, its empty-hand techniques can give you some wonderful skills you can use in mixed martial arts.
The key to why kali can be so good for MMA is that it doesn’t just teach striking. You’ll also learn grappling techniques that allow you to easily switch between stand-up and ground fighting. This can give you a well-developed foundation from which to work.
I mentioned how kali’s weapons-based training doesn’t have a direct application in MMA, but there are many side benefits you’ll get with it. Training with weapons will give you a heightened sense of distance, timing, and precision. You can then take this increased awareness into the octagon.
The side benefits of kali don’t stop there. It focuses on fluid and continuous movement that can improve your balance and footwork, allowing fighters to navigate the octagon easily. Training in kali allows you to become a dynamic fighter capable of reading your opponents and delivering powerful counterattacks.
10. Krav Maga
Krav Maga is a martial art known for its real-world effectiveness and deadly techniques, and is one of the best martial arts for UFC. As with kali above, the only thing that stops this from ranking any higher is that its weapons-based training means that not all its moves can be transferred over to a combat sport.
However, there are plenty of reasons to learn this martial art if you one day plan on becoming an MMA great. The Israeli martial art has a no-nonsense approach to combat and only cares about getting the best possible results in the shortest amount of time. This makes it quick and efficient, which are two skills that are valuable for any martial artist.
One of the key takeaways you can get from Krav Maga is its strong emphasis on situational awareness and quick decision-making. In the octagon, you can use these skills to stay composed and read your opponents to take advantage of their movements.
Krav Maga is one of the most versatile martial arts in existence, and this versatility is something else you’ll need when fighting in the cage. Its use of striking and grappling techniques are easily transferrable, and Krav Maga will also teach you mental resilience and adaptability.
It’s probably the best non-traditional martial art you can do for MMA. It’s also perfect for those looking for self-defense skills that can be directly applied to real-world scenarios.
I found kickboxing to be the hardest martial art to rank. While it will teach you valuable skills for MMA, you’d learn more about kicks when learning taekwondo and more about punching through standard boxing training. Therefore, its lack of specific focus negatively impacts its ranking here.
That being said, if you want to learn effective striking techniques, then kickboxing is still going to give you a fantastic skillset. These strikes and stances can give you a good foundation in MMA as they will teach you to perfectly maintain distance in order to avoid kicks and prepare a takedown defense.
It’s this understanding of range that is perhaps kickboxing’s best asset. It will allow you to navigate different distances strategically. This allows you to find the balance between striking from the outside with kicks or moving into close range to deliver punches.
There is no doubt that kickboxing is also fantastic for conditioning. It’s an intense sport and will prepare you well for the cardiovascular demands of MMA. Meanwhile, it will also build up your strength and agility to allow you to sustain a high pace throughout a fight.
Another tick for kickboxing is that it will teach you a lot about defense. Without effective blocking, parrying, and footwork, you’ll soon find yourself knocked out. All MMA fights start from a standing position, and kickboxing will teach you how to avoid strikes and counter while you are standing up.
But would I recommend kickboxing for MMA? No. That’s because number one on my list can do all of the above and much more. The only exception is if the only martial arts school close to you is a kickboxing gym, as it still gives you a very good foundation for MMA.
Karate is one of the most traditional martial arts in the world. It has proven to be a valuable discipline in the world of MMA and a great starting point for those wanting to be a mixed martial artist. Karate is highly effective and has several key attributes that and seamlessly translate to MMA.
The most obvious benefit of karate is that it’s renowned for its emphasis on striking techniques. This includes punches, kicks, knee strikes, and elbow strikes that can give you a devastating skill set. Those MMA fighters with a background in karate often showcase impressive precision and speed in their striking.
Karate’s focus on having a strong and stable stance has a few notable benefits. The first is that it allows you to deliver strikes with a lot of power from your strong foundation. Added to that, it’s also a vital part of your defensive strategy as it allows you to have adept footwork and easily move in and out of range as you please.
One aspect of karate that I love is its use of both linear and angular movements. It allows you to generate plenty of power while remaining unpredictable and hard to fight against. The only thing that really holds karate back is that most types aren’t full contact, which doesn’t prepare you as well as possible for MMA.
My final benefit of karate for MMA is the positive mental attributes it will instill. Karate’s emphasis on respect, focus, and mental discipline can prepare you well for the mindset you’ll need in the MMA arena. It will prevent you from getting overwhelmed and allow you to keep the mental clarity you need.
If you want to improve your kicking game, there’s nothing better than taekwondo. While punching is a part of this martial art, it’s dominated by its dynamic kicking techniques. These techniques require speed and agility and, when delivered properly in an octagon, can lead to some devastating knockouts.
Most taekwondo kicks share the same qualities of being high, fast, and powerful. This gives you the ability to strike from a distance, an ability your opponent may not possess. If so, this can give you a huge amount of control over the fight, and your opponent will always be hesitant to come forward and engage.
The added benefit you’ll get from these kicks is that they’ll give you impressive mobility and balance. This not only allows you to move in and out of range easily, but it will also help with your general movement around the cage even when not in kicking position.
Taekwondo is a physically demanding sport which often requires intense cardiovascular workouts. It will contribute to your excellent conditioning and allow you to stay active and engaged throughout the fight.
There are downsides to taekwondo. It will teach you to be an elite kicker but not much else. While it would be a fantastic addition to your skillset, you would need to learn another striking martial art on top of taekwondo.
As I enter the top six, there is very little to choose between these martial arts. All six of them have very few drawbacks when it comes to teaching you MMA skills. To become an MMA star, you need to train in both striking and grappling martial arts, and grappling martial arts don’t come much better than judo.
However, the reason judo can be so good for MMA isn’t just its grappling but also its throws and takedowns. As UFC legend Rhonda Rousey showed here, judo throws aren’t just about getting your opponent to the ground; they can also do plenty of damage.
Judokas will develop exceptional balance, timing, and leverage. This not only allows them to execute powerful throws that can control the fight, but it can also give you the upper hand when facing against a larger or physically stronger opponent.
It’s in the clinch where judo is especially unmatched. It allows you to dominate in close quarters and ensure that if the fight does go to the ground, you’ll be in a dominant position. Once on the ground, you can then use judo’s impressive range of techniques, which includes pins, joint locks, and strangles.
It all adds up to giving you a significant advantage in specific circumstances. While I think other martial arts are a little better for grappling, the clinch, takedowns, and throws of judo will make it very difficult for you to fight against.
Fifth on my list of the best MMA fighting styles is Sambo. This martial art has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, mainly as it was used to great effect by UFC legend Khabib Nurmagomedov. It has a multifaceted approach that includes throws, ground control, and submissions.
As with judo, sambo places a lot of emphasis on throws and takedowns. These are fundamental skills that can allow you to dictate a fight. The use of off-balancing and executing powerful throws allows you to gain strategic control.
However, it’s in the ground control where sambo really shines. It has a wide variety of techniques that will allow you to have dominance on the canvas. A sambo master will know how to have perfect positional control at all times and use this along with pins to put opponents in vulnerable positions.
Once in that vulnerable position, an expert sambo practitioner will know how to quickly end the contest. Through the likes of joint locks and strangles, sambo gives you a diverse skill set that allows you to come out victorious.
Perhaps the only downside to sambo is that it’s not as widely taught outside of Eastern Europe as many of the other martial arts on this list. However, if you can find a high-quality instructor, it will give you a fantastic foundation of conditioning, technical skills, and situational awareness.
I mentioned how finding high-quality sambo tuition can be difficult in the Western world, but you won’t have that problem with wrestling. This time-honored sport has been developed over centuries, and many see it as an essential discipline for those wanting to succeed in MMA.
If you look at UFC champions by primary fighting style, wrestling is the most common martial art used. Of course, a part of the reason for that is because of how widely taught wrestling is in schools and colleges.
Wrestling is most notable for its emphasis on takedowns and control. Once the fight has gone to the ground, you can dictate the pace of the fight and use your skills for a strategic advantage. It will teach you to remain in the top position and use that dominance to work your way to a submission.
As with almost all martial arts on this list, wrestling will also mentally prepare you for the world of MMA. It instills a strong work ethic and gives you strong mental toughness. Added to this, the rigorous training routines and intense physical conditioning required also prepare you well for the challenges of MMA.
Another place where wrestling excels is in the clinch. With the use of underhooks, overhooks, and pummeling techniques, you can work to control and opponent’s position. This will also help you to defend against takedowns and remain in the most dominant position.
But whatever techniques you learn, there will often be times in a fight where you’ve lost the upper hand. Wrestling’s use of sprawling and quick escapes can quickly switch the momentum of a fight and allow you to regain control.
It doesn’t matter how good you are on the ground. If you’re not good at punching, and avoiding punches, you’re not going to make it in MMA. But of course, boxing isn’t just about punching, as it will also teach you precise footwork, effective head movement, and elite balance.
In terms of striking, boxing will teach you better hand skills than any other martial art. You’ll soon develop the ability to deliver crisp and powerful punches. You can then control distance with jabs before using the likes of crosses, hooks, and uppercuts to deliver stunning knockouts.
Boxing’s use of footwork can also be especially useful. It allows you to control distance and navigate the octagon effectively. This is especially important if you know that grappling is a weakness. Boxers are adept at being able to circle opponents, cut angles, and create openings.
In boxing, your defensive techniques are just as important as your offensive skillset. Using head movement by bobbing and weaving will not only allow you to avoid punches but also frustrate your opponents, causing a mistake.
Even when the fight goes to the ground, you can use your striking skills to deliver powerful punches from short range. Of course, the sole focus on one specific striking technique is quite limiting, but punching is the most important single skill you can have.
2. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
There is no doubt that Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is one of the best martial arts to learn for MMA. BJJ all started with the Gracie family who created the martial art which then became hugely influential in the early days of the UFC, especially through Royce Gracie.
Once the fight goes to the ground, BJJ gives you all the skills you need. You’ll know how to maintain positional control and find openings that lead to submissions and your inevitable victory. It’s no surprise that some of the best UFC fighters ever built their careers on a foundation of BJJ.
In my view, there is no better marital art out there for fighting on the ground and being able to maneuver yourself into advantageous positions. After you get into a dominant position, you can then use joint locks and chokes to ensure your opponent taps out.
There is plenty about defense in BJJ’s teachings, too. Specifically, fighters with a BJJ background are often skilled at utilizing the guard position to defend against strikes. From here, they can also control an opponent’s body position and launch submission attempts.
There is no doubt that BJJ will teach you mastery over grappling. However, the learning curve can be steep, so it may take many years of practice. Eventually, you’ll have a sophisticated understanding of ground tactics and be able to reach your full potential.
1. Muay Thai
As I mentioned, it’s very difficult to rank the best martial arts for MMA, but I’m sticking with Muay Thai as my number one. The reason for that is simple, and it’s because every MMA bout effectively starts off as a Muay Thai match with two opponents circling around each other throwing out jabs and/or kicks, unless you’re Jorge Masvidal, of course.
So why isn’t boxing number one? The reason is Muay Thai’s greater range of relevant strikes. While boxers may hold and clinch if they get too close together. Muay Thai fighters will use their knees and elbows to still try and deliver devasting blows.
Also, Muay Thai needs a slightly more squared stance to protect you from kicks when compared to boxing. This squared stance makes the transition to a grappling martial art such as BJJ easier, as you’ll be better prepared to defend against takedowns.
What I love about Muay Thai is that it has a fully comprehensive striking arsenal. I mentioned knees and elbows before, and when combined with punches and kicks, this is where Muay Thai gets the nickname “The Art of Eight Limbs.”
It’s Muay Thai’s use of the clinch that can make it more effective than boxing, as you’ll better learn how to fight in close quarters. Added to this, your defense will be better, too, as you’ll need to protect yourself against a greater number of threats.
Due to all of these striking methods, Muay Thai is a physically draining sport. Practicing in this brilliant art form will give you incredible conditioning and endurance. It allows you to enjoy all the benefits of Muay Thai while still maintaining a high pace throughout the fight.
What is the best martial art for MMA?
The best martial art for MMA can change from one person to the next, depending on your skill set and approach to the sport. I ranked Muay Thai as the number one here, but that is a striking martial art, which will need to be combined with grappling martial art.
In reality, the best MMA fighters will use the best bits from many different martial arts. With this, you can then develop your own style to be effective in the octagon.
What training should I do for MMA?
In terms of ways to improve your fitness, there are many great MMA workouts you can follow. But the best way to train for MMA is to simply start learning one of the martial arts above. They all require a high level of fitness and will prove to be excellent conditioning for MMA.
What is the best way to learn MMA?
There are two main ways you can go about it. The first is that you can head to an MMA gym and follow their curriculum, which will almost certainly involve specific classes in two or more of the martial arts I’ve mentioned above.
The second way is to start by becoming an expert in one specific martial art, such as BJJ. This will give you a great foundation that you can then take to an MMA gym before working on your striking skills.
I’d say the best approach can depend on what’s local to you. For example, if you have a high-quality boxing gym in your area but very little else, then start with that.
Can I do Muay Thai and BJJ?
Absolutely! It’s essential to learn both a striking and grappling martial art to succeed in MMA. While you can learn them separately, many will be training in multiple martial arts at any given time. Muay Thai and BJJ are perhaps the best combination to learn for MMA.
How should I lift for MMA?
You shouldn’t. Or, at least, you don’t need to. MMA is a sport with weight divisions, which means if you bulk up on muscle mass, then you’ll be fighting against people much taller than you, as they’ll be leaner.
Added to this, extra muscle can negatively impact many areas of your fighting performance, such as balance, reflexes, speed, and agility. While heavyweights can afford to carry a little more muscle as power becomes more important, every fighter below that level needs to focus on having lean muscle mass.