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The fighting art of MMA, defined

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A basic definition of MMA specific techniques, MMA striking & MMA grappling and the overall MMA game

Author’s note: this article is a heavily edited and updated version of my personal definitions previously posted here on Bloodyelbow (source 1, source 2).

From time to time, I like to share my personal definition of our great sport, a definition that is obviously stated in these three words: Mixed Martial Arts.

MMA is a mix of five individual sports or martial arts. The commonly mentioned ones are the following four specialized arts: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, freestyle wrestling, Muay Thai, and boxing. Arts like karate, catch wrestling or sambo can often replace some of the aforementioned arts depending on each athlete’s fighting background. In general the basic fighting disciplines are

  • a punching art
  • a kickboxing art
  • a submission grappling art
  • a takedown art

An inquiring mind will wonder why I insist that MMA, as a fighting art, is comprised of five basic disciplines although I only just mentioned four specialized arts. This is because there is a less obvious art involved and the one that is the most effective.

MMA-specific techniques & combinations

The fifth art is MMA itself, defined by a set of techniques that are MMA-specific. Those are hybrid techniques which are either not used in the same manner or are illegal in the aforementioned specialized fighting sports. Examples of these techniques are grinding and pummeling against the cage, foot stomps and ground and pound strikes.

As we will see bellow, MMA-specific techniques can also be used in MMA specific unique combinations. This is what MMA commentators often refer to as “mixing things up”.

Randy “the Natural” Couture
Randy “the Natural” Couture
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

One way to examine how MMA-specific techniques evolved is to study Randy Couture’s career. Randy was a pioneer who combined techniques of his sport of origin (Greco-Roman wrestling) with strikes, to make them effective under Octagon rules, thereby making them MMA-specific. Examples of these techniques are his famous single necktie to dirty boxing and his underhook control while delivering punches.

Mark Coleman is another example of a fighter who modified the advantages of his discipline for MMA. Coleman used his top wrestling game to deliver devastating ground and pound strikes.

Definition of MMA fighting

So here is a basic definition of MMA as a method of fighting for sport or self defense:

The fighting art of MMA is the unique combination of techniques from specialized fighting disciplines as well as the implementation of these techniques in a way that is not possible in their originating fighting sports. These techniques can be non-MMA specific (a jab) or MMA specific (stepping on the cage to deliver a kick). Combinations can also be unique/specific to MMA or based on standard specialized arts.

Examples of these unique MMA combinations are the use of wrestling to set up punches, the use of striking attacks to set up takedowns and strikes to set up submissions.

This unique combination maximizes the efficiency of each technique making it possible for a MMA fighter to beat a fighter who is very effective in only one of the four specialized arts. For example under MMA rules, a mid-level MMA fighter can beat a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt using ground and pound when the fight hits the canvas, an outcome that would not be possible in a grappling match.

UFC 217: Montreal Media Day with Georges St-Pierre Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images

The best pure MMA fighters of the modern era are Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre and Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson. They are pretty good at every individual discipline but their strength lies in that they are masters of combining these skills into an art which can beat all other fundamental disciplines. Another fighter who is expanding his skill-set and is starting to fit this description is Henry Cejudo. My definition of a pure MMA fighter is one that can turn the tables by shifting to another mode of fighting if necessary.

UFC 235 Jones v Smith Photo by Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Striking specialists like Anderson Silva or submission artists like Demian Maia, are MMA legends (I am a big fan of both) but do not fit my description of a MMA fighter that can turn the tables by shifting to another mode of fighting. If Anderson is losing a striking fight he will not try to take you down (although he has a great submission game), and Demian will still be trying to submit you no matter how many times he fails to take you down.

That being said MMA competition was built on having specialists of different sports fighting each other and tallent is hard to beat so this post is in no way trying to disrespect these fighters. They are the ones that force competition standards to rise by forcing coaches and fighters alike to find ways to beat their extraordinary skills.

The melting pot

MMA is a melting pot which forces all competitors to evolve and modify their game one way or another. Sparring has a lot to do with this transformation. For example if you come from a karate background and you continuously spar with kickboxers, you will learn how to deal with low kicks, the Muay Thai clinch, jabs, and hooks. Eventually you will become a kickboxer yourself although fans will still identify you as a karate fighter.

Champions from other fighting sports, on the other hand, put different challenges on the table when they start competing in MMA. Mark Coleman, Lyoto Machida, and Mirko Cro Cop had great success in the beginning of their careers until MMA trainers and athletes adapted to their fighting styles using MMA specific methods to beat them. I do not care who you are, if there is enough fighting footage for them to study, your opponents will train specifically for your strengths and weaknesses and will eventually be able to counter you. As a result, this changes the MMA game by enriching it with new tactics and skills. But keep in mind that specialists are always dangerous and well-rounded fighters should never underestimate them. A BJJ world champion only needs to secure a takedown to beat an MMA fighter. A kickboxer only needs to land once.

MMA specific techniques are important but we must note that in order to expand and sharpen their MMA arsenal, fighters need to train with specialists of other sports any chance they get. GSP, for example, had training bases in Greg Jackson’s and Firaz Zahabi’s gyms, but also had a boxing coach, a Muay Thai coach, a wrestling coach, and others. This provided him with the opportunity to raise his level way above the average MMA sparring partner’s by sparring against specialists. Rolling with a BJJ world champion is not the same as grappling with your average MMA grappler. Finding good sparring/grappling partners is always a difficult task but is worth the effort.

The MMA Game: specialized MMA coaching

The way I look at it, an MMA coach is an architect trying to build a house using the best materials and methods provided by specialized craftsmen. Individual sports are rivers of wisdom that join in the ocean which is MMA. So, in order to get better in MMA we should appreciate and study all effective forms of fighting in their own sport rules, and at the highest levels. But it takes a true MMA coach to know what works in MMA and what does not. To know, for example, that an overhook in the clinch will save you from getting knocked out in boxing but in MMA it will give an underhook to your opponent, and probably a takedown opportunity. Same techniques under different rules may produce different results.

A follower asked me on Twitter how he can identify a specialized MMA coach instead of the common BJJ or kickboxing coach teaching MMA. Unfortunately, this is no easy task. Our sport is relatively new and everybody seems to be learning through trial and error. There are not many MMA masterminds out there. It seems to me that coaches who have a grasp of the MMA game are Javier Mendez, Greg Jackson, and Matt Hume.

GSP’s philosophy in particular is heavily influenced by coach Greg Jackson. Jackson’s fighters would often apply gameplans and tactics that go well beyond your traditional kickboxing or grappling game. For example, they would combine the use of the cage, wrestling, and grinding to make opponents carry their weight and work harder.

MMA: UFC 196-Holm vs Tate Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Like his former head coach, GSP’s conceptual framework was the “study of the game”. I first heard about the “game” concept from BJJ legend Marcelo Garcia. He focuses on teaching and understanding the grappling game as a whole rather than a list of individual techniques. Each move is a part of a puzzle, creating opportunities or countering attacks. What comes before and after every move is important, but the game is not just comprised of techniques in chains or combinations. Tactics and objectives for every round are the driving force behind training, performing and game-planning.

This conceptual framework of understanding MMA as a complete game is important in defining MMA striking and MMA grappling and applying them in a way that is unique to MMA.

Definition of MMA striking.

MMA striking is the art of:

a. Hitting opponents from the furthest distance away, exposing the least amount of your body, while getting into position to strike with maximum leverage and not get hit.

b. Closing the distance in order to strike from angles or to avoid taking damage

c. Getting the clinch or pressing against the cage to attack with dirty boxing and clinch fighting strikes in order to neutralize your opponents’ speed, power or reach and make them work while carrying your weight.

d. Getting takedowns when your opponents are expecting strikes and connecting with strikes when your opponents are expecting takedowns.

e. Delivering ground and pound strikes from dominant positions to punish and cut your opponents with punches and elbows to limit their vision, demoralize them and disrupt their breathing patterns.

f. Attacking with strikes from the bottom without exposing your limbs to submissions in order to create space, escape or get a submission.

g. Landing strikes when opponents open themselves up to defend submission attempts or getting submissions by isolating your opponent’s limbs when they cover from strikes.

MMA grappling

MMA grappling is the unique combination of wrestling, strikes on the ground (often referred to as “ground n’ pound”) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu positions, sweeps, escapes and submissions. This unique combination allows a fighter to:

A. Demoralize opponents through the use of grinding and leverage

B. Get submissions from attacking with strikes

C. Land strikes when opponents open up in order to defend submission attempts or by controlling defending limbs

Finally, MMA grappling is also unique in that the ability to stand up and disengage from groundfighting attacks can be a winning objective and an art in itself. Techniques that can be used to escape from the ground and keep the fight standing are crucial and often neglected or totally ignored in grappling classes.

I prefer to use Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in my definition of grappling and not submission grappling or catch wrestling due to the fact that Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighters where the ones who popularized fighting of their backs in the early days of modern MMA. I train and teach Brazilian Jiu Jitsu so no-gi submission grappling is still Brazilian Jiu Jitsu to me. I have to admit, though, that I love Catch wrestling and top wrestling control, especially Wade Schalles’ concept of “legal pain.”

MMA specific technique sample: Rashad Evans’ punches to takedown

In conclusion and as a final note here is a great, MMA-specific, high-percentage move which should be taught in all MMA classes.

Notice in photos 1-3 how Rashad goes on the offensive with a wild left hook while his head moves to the other side, then closes the distance with a right hook to the body, cutting the angle as his head is changing levels moving to his left. This way he closes the distance, gains momentum and goes for an awesome double leg takedown.

Gif link

Here you have a clear example of a true MMA-specific technique. This is neither boxing nor wrestling, this is MMA. The combo has to be applied in a decisive manner, using the Tyson-style offensive mindset of initiating a sequence of techniques designed to cause specific reactions. There is no time to hesitate. This is a quick 1-2-3 technique with a single breath. Should the takedown fail, your opponent will probably be open to strikes.

Finally, for a crash course in MMA specific standing game please read my article Strikes to Takedowns: A breakdown of George St-Pierre’s game. This is an essential blueprint for success in modern MMA.


For a list of my previous technique breakdowns on Bloody Elbow, check out this link.

About the Author: Kostas Fantaousakis is a researcher of fighting concepts, tactics, and techniques, and a state-certified MMA, grappling, and wrestling coach in Greece. He teaches his unique Speedforce MMA mittwork system © which combines strikes, takedowns, knees, and elbows applied in the Continuous Feedback © mittwork system of the Mayweather family. Kostas is a brown belt in BJJ under MMA veteran and BJJ world champion Wander Braga (the teacher of Gabriel Napao Gonzaga).

Follow Kostas on Twitter: https://twitter.com/kostasfant and search #fantmoves for more techniques.

Website: www.embracingthegrind.com

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