Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts are inextricably linked because the latter was largely created to demonstrate the efficiency of jiu-jitsu against other styles. But 30 years after the first UFC events, jiu-jitsu is hugely popular but also different from its traditional form. So, how does BJJ fare in MMA today?
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a core part of mixed martial arts, and it refers to the art of using the positions and submissions emphasized in jiu-jitsu in the context of an MMA fight. While all MMA fighters must know certain BJJ elements, it is just one piece of the whole game.
There is a big difference in how jiu-jitsu developed as a separate sport and how well it works in a mixed martial arts fight. Today, we have gi BJJ experts, no-gi experts, and jiu-jitsu experts in MMA, all of whom have distinct skill sets. Do you know what characterizes each?
BJJ in MMA refers to using common positions, submissions, and jiu-jitsu concepts in a cage fight.
MMA started as an outlet for martial arts and fighting styles to clash and determine which is better. This is what masters back in the day were doing when storming dojos and accepting challenges, and MMA brought this to large audiences and allowed profit other than glory to be earned.
While Vale Tudo has been a thing in Brazil for a long time, fighters there knew well what to expect from their opponents, whereas, in the early UFC events, no one was certain of what was coming.
There were boxers, sumo wrestlers, BJJ guys, kickboxers, etc. Brazilian jiu-jitsu was perhaps the least known of the styles, and it caught everyone by surprise, with Royce Gracie winning UFC 1, UFC 2, and UFC 4.
But this era ended as quickly as it came, once wrestlers understood the danger and brought back elements from catch wrestling. The sport rapidly evolved with the implementation of both regulations and fighting styles.
In a few short years, mixed martial arts became a distinct style, combining techniques, concepts, and strategies from different systems—however, each modified and adapted to the fighting where everything is combined.
Mixed martial arts can be split into many elements, but the general ones are stand-up striking, clinch fighting, stand-up wrestling, and ground fighting. BJJ is a vital part of ground fighting, and many of the positions and submissions used in MMA come from Jiu-Jitsu, and the names used are the same.
BJJ was created mainly as a self-defense and no-rules fighting system, and it even includes some basic striking. In this form, BJJ was super effective for early MMA. But gradually, a pure grappling element emerged in Brazil and later exploded in the USA and worldwide in the past 20 years.
Today, sports BJJ is greatly more popular than the traditional self-defense-oriented version, and the two are considered by many to be different styles altogether.
Sports BJJ vs BJJ in MMA
While sports BJJ and submission grappling have evolved greatly over the last 20 years, constantly spurring new techniques, tactics, and strategies, the rules have led to a direction not necessarily applicable to MMA. Let’s see how competitive BJJ differs from grappling in MMA.
Traditional BJJ is done in a gi, which is used in many techniques, while MMA fighters wear only a pair of shorts. This is a significant difference because many BJJ practitioners are used to gripping the gi in every position.
In recent years, no-gi grappling has been gaining tremendous traction, and MMA fighters rely on this style for their grappling, so if we consider no-gi, the difference between BJJ and MMA is smaller.
The big rift that sets apart sports jiu-jitsu from BJJ for MMA is striking. The guard position is a fundamental part of BJJ and is the thing that characterizes it the most. However, fighting off the back is quite different when the top person can rain down punches and elbows.
In sports BJJ, there are dozens of types of guards, like the worm guard, lasso guard, spider guard, De La Riva, and so on, all of which become almost worthless when there is no gi and strikes can be used.
In MMA, you either have to be very close to the opponent or far from him, whereas in a grappling-only scenario, the middle ground is where most of the time is spent. This is why techniques like the rubber guard are great for MMA but average in grappling.
Many of the sweeps and clever systematic attacks from sports BJJ are just not possible when the opponent hits you and destroys your setups.
This is why, in modern MMA, more wrestlers have had success with aggressive top control and ground and pound compared to the number of BJJ specialists who submit opponents off their backs.
Takedowns and Positions
Takedowns are one of the weakest aspects of traditional gi BJJ, and pulling guard is more common than shooting for a takedown or hunting for a throw.
This is even better illustrated in the mount position. It is the most dominant top position in MMA and allows you to deal significant damage.
In grappling, the top mount position offers little when both players are advanced, and the bottom player knows how to defend.
Having the ability to take someone down and be on top, defend a takedown, and be able to return to the feet are crucial skills in MMA, which often neglected in BJJ.
Is BJJ a Good Base For MMA
Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a good base for MMA, like many other styles.
Is it the best? I don’t think so.
But the concepts, core positions, and submissions are mandatory for every fighter. You may never finish a fight with submissions, but if you don’t know how to recognize, prevent, and defend things like guillotines, armbars, and triangles, you will surely be finished by them.
Jiu-jitsu still produces elite MMA fighters, but they also have diverse skill sets. No fighter relies solely on his grappling, and those who use striking only to set up grappling exchanges are few but still exist.
Elite jiu-jitsu practitioners like Gary Tonon, Ryan Hall, Roger Gracie, and Shinya Aoki have created grappling masterpieces in cage fights. Others, like Charles Oliveira, Glover Teixeira, and Bibano Fernandes, have a more well-rounded approach.
They use their killer jiu-jitsu to give them the comfort to stay relaxed on their feet and not worry about being taken down because the opponent ends up in an even worse position if he does bring the fight to the canvas.
BJJ remains a solid base to build upon for MMA, but the days of dominance are long gone. Today, the best MMA fighters have started with either wrestling or striking, and the hottest prospects and younger champions have started directly with MMA without specializing in a single style.
Can You Do MMA Without Grappling
No, grappling is a core part of MMA, and no fighter can succeed at any level with just striking.
When you see elite strikers in the cage like Israel Adesanya, Alex Volkanovski, Cory Sanhagen, and the likes always fighting on their feet, know this is a result of their solid takedown defense and ground game, which allow them to not be kept on the canvas.
If the question is, can you do MMA without BJJ? The answer is “kind of”. If we speak about traditional gi BJJ, you can absolutely do MMA without it.
But you must always know how to use closed guard and half guard, transition between positions on the ground, and defend against many submissions.
You can learn this skillset in BJJ class, in sambo, catch wrestling, or if your end goal is only MMA, then the best option is to learn grappling for MMA from day one.
I love BJJ and submission grappling, but if your only interest is mixed martial arts, there is no point in learning moves and concepts only applicable in a non-striking scenario. There are more than enough things to learn and master in MMA, and wasting time with stuff you can never use in the cage makes no sense.
Grappling is one of the main aspects of MMA, and jiu-jitsu is one of the most complete grappling systems. While it’s not enough on its own to build a complete MMA fighter’s skillset, certain parts of it are mandatory for everyone.
It’s also a solid base to build upon, and many great MMA champions have come from a BJJ background, gradually expanding their skills and reaching the highest levels of mixed martial arts.