Since long before the UFC’s creation, arguments raged about which fighting styles or martial arts were superior. Boxing was the most popular combat sport in most places, but the mystique of traditional martial arts like karate, kung fu and taekwondo left many to wonder what would really happen if a great boxer mixed it up with a Bruce Lee-like martial artist. Almost left out of the conversation were the grappling martial arts, wrestling and BJJ, but they would make their names known soon. A big part of the inspiration for the UFC was to settle the argument between these disparate fighting styles through competition. A couple decades later into the organization’s run, many of those questions have been answered.
It turned out that some styles were more effective than others, but quickly competitors learned to include other skills into their repertoires to round out their skillsets, making the strict comparison between the martial arts themselves more difficult. UFC 1, although a small sample size that included only eight fighters, was the purest example of specialists in various martial arts fighting since almost none of the men competing had experience in their opponents’ fields. (There was a wrestler, a boxer, a couple karate guys, etc.)
Famously, Royce Gracie, a 170-pound BJJ practitioner, submitted them all, making a strong argument for BJJ as the ultimate discipline. However, as time progressed, the sport modernized, and fighters became more complete. Even so, almost all great UFC fighters start in another sport or discipline and cross over to MMA. So the question remains, which is the best starting point for MMA? There are a number of ways you could seek to answer that question. The simplest way asks which style has yielded the most UFC champions.
Despite some variation, all UFC champions can be divided into seven categories in terms of their primary martial arts backgrounds. These are: wrestling, BJJ, kickboxing, Muay Thai, boxing, Taekwondo and karate. As of 2021, wrestling has the most, with 31 champions total. BJJ clocks in at second place with 17 champions. Boxing finishes 3rd with 13 champions. Muay Thai and kickboxing have five and seven champions respectively, and traditional martial arts taekwondo and karate round out the list with two and one, respectively.
So, what does this information tell us? The diversity of fighting styles in champions tells us that there is more than one way to fight. While some may be more practical than others, most martial arts (except aikido) have elements that are useful in hand-to-hand combat against trained opponents if used correctly. Second, everyone in the pre-UFC era was counting out the grappling martial arts. Grappling is simply just not as sexy as striking. I can’t tell you why exactly, but there’s just something people love about face punching and kicking. As a grappler myself, there is nothing like a good striking war to get the people going. This bias allowed people to overlook grappling until the UFC came along. Guys like Royce Gracie or the myriad wrestlers and BJJ guys after him proved the effectiveness of grappling to everybody.
Therefore, wrestling is king. There are a couple reasons why wrestling stands above the other martial arts in MMA. The primary one is that wrestling allows a fighter to dictate where the fight takes place. Imagine that two fighters are about to square up. One is a superior striker, and the other is a superior BJJ practitioner. Who wins? The better wrestler. Offensive wrestling allows a fighter to take the fight to the ground and defensive wrestling allows him to keep it standing. Fighting is much more complicated than this, but basically if your opponent is a better wrestler than you, then you need to be better on the ground and on your feet to win. This fact, along with the extremely competitive nature of amateur wrestling and the culture of mental and physical toughness that it cultivates, have made wrestling the dominant martial arts base within the UFC.