BJJ vs. Wrestling: Which Background is Best in MMA?

MMA combines some of the world’s most unique fighting traditions. There are four broad categories that all fighters fall into, which include boxing, wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and muay Thai. Then there are other specialized traditions that are seeing a resurgence, including judo, taekwondo, and karate.

Depending on which style a fighter prefers, it will influence how they approach each opponent. Prior to UFC and KWS fights, analysts cover a fighter’s background, including their preferred moves and fighting style. Before backing a fighter via online betting, fans comb over this type of analysis to gain an understanding of each fighter’s martial arts training.

Khabib Nurmagomedov, for example, is considered one of the greatest wrestling-trained MMA fighters of all time—but most other big names have a background in Brazilian jiu-jitsu instead. In fact, the general consensus amongst MMA fans and pundits is that BJJ is far more useful in the Octagon than wrestling chops. But why is that? And does it hold up?

Grappling vs. Striking

Wrestling and BJJ are two very different traditions that inform how a fighter attempts to take down their opponent. Wrestling is all about that takedown, as a wrestler wants to get onto the mat to start using pins. BJJ, on the other hand, uses a more nuanced approach to fighting.

The idea behind BJJ is to use an opponent’s momentum against them, which enables even a smaller underdog to take down their opponent. This means a BJJ fighter will look to employ joint locks and chokes in order to pin their rival. The general idea is that BJJ fighters have more moves to use, especially in terms of defense and striking—but both traditions focus on ground fighting.

A Closer Look at Techniques

BJJ was created in the early 2000s from a long jiu-jitsu tradition. The idea was to empower anyone to take down an aggressor in a street fight. Wrestling, on the other hand, requires athletes to nab points for certain pins. BJJ techniques focus more on chokeholds, joint locks, and positions; wrestlers rely more on pins, sweeps, and the ever-exhilarating escape.

From the outside looking in, BJJ and wrestling look similar—especially compared to muay Thai and boxing. But the data doesn’t lie: there are more UFC champions with backgrounds in wrestling than in BJJ. Though developed as a defense-first martial art for street fights, BJJ includes quite a bit of striking—and that doesn’t necessarily help pin a wrestler.

A Closer Look at Philosophy

The general assumption about BJJ and wrestling in MMA is that wrestlers tend to have greater endurance and power, especially to stay on their feet… but with less flash. Meanwhile, a black belt in BJJ will have a way better chance in a ground-and-pound situation—and a wrestler might want to avoid going to the ground with a BJJ-first opponent.

That’s because BJJ practitioners have more moves available at their disposal to force a submission when on the ground. Once again, circling back to the philosophy behind BJJ of protecting an average person in a street fight, BJJ fighters are comfortable against larger opponents.

Here, we see the bottom line for debates on wrestling and BJJ in MMA: wrestlers have a strong advantage as long as they avoid the ground, and a BJJ fighter will do just about anything to force them onto the ground. So, how does this play out?

Tyron Woodley vs. Demian Maia

One of the greatest MMA exhibitions on wrestling vs. BJJ happened back in 2017 in UFC 214 in a welterweight faceoff. Woodley is a first-class wrestler while Maia is one of the world’s most lethal BJJ experts. Prior to the match, Woodley and Maia doubled down on their own fighting techniques—then stuck to their guns in the ring.

Woodley wanted to avoid going to the ground. To prevent Maia from taking him down, he kept his arms low and struck at Maia. Meanwhile, Maia circled and kept his patience, waiting for that one perfect takedown that would open Woodley up to submission. Woodley had the advantage, as he was able to dictate where the fight took place—and then won on decision. 

Severe MMA Staff