One of the big debates in MMA exists between grappling and striking.
We’ve seen this battle of styles play out over and over again in the UFC, ONE Championship, Bellator, and pretty much any Mixed Martial Arts fight.
Grappling is widely agreed to be the most effective martial art for controlling and submitting a resisting opponent. Reducing damage while gaining control of an attacker by taking them to the ground where they can dominate. Striking in comparison is more erratic and involves a lot more uncontrollable factors.
In this article, we look at the debate in the context of both MMA and Self-Defense to see:
- Why both fighting styles are important
- How they work together to create a more complete fighter
- Which style is most difficult to learn
- Which one you should learn first for both self-defense and MMA
Striking martial art use hands, elbows, knees, and feet for fighting. Normally striking happens while standing, but can also happen while grappling in a ground-and-pound situation. Grappling is fighting on the ground, specializing in controlling an opponent to submit them using joint locks and chokes.
Eventually branching into other martial arts to complete their arsenal of weapons.
Examples of Striking Martial Arts
Here’s a list of the most popular striking martial arts, also used in MMA (in no particular order):
- Muay Thai
- Kung Fu
What you need to learn striking:
Examples of Grappling Martial Arts
Here’s a list of the most popular grappling arts used by mixed martial artists (in no particular order):
- Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
What you need to learn grappling:
Where The Top UFC Fighters Started
Here’s a list of famous UFC fighters, and where they started:
|Georges St-Pierre||Kyokushin Karate|
|Gilbert Burns||Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu|
In modern MMA, fighters need to be skilled at both grappling and striking.
It’s become its own martial art, consisting of an entire curriculum of striking and grappling arts.
Does Grappling Beat Striking?
I would bet on a high-school wrestler with average striking defense to beat a world-class striker with no takedown defense – every time.
A fighter’s ability to grapple or fight on the ground will often determine who wins the fight. If you have no grappling defense, then you won’t be able to defend against takedowns and the submission attempts that follow. That’s why all strikers now also train takedown defense for MMA.
Keep in mind, most grapplers also understand how to get people to the ground.
Takedowns are extremely difficult to defend against.
Especially if all you’re used to doing is training with thick boxing gloves, meant for clinching and not grappling.
To understand why grappling beats striking, we need to define grappling as an art.
Let’s apply the logic used for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is: Control that leads to submission
In MMA, submissions can take the form of both a tap or a TKO (involuntary submission).
TKO’s are often a result of effective ground-and-pound – Which I would still classify as grappling.
It’s near impossible to effectively ground-and-pound if you don’t understand grappling.
Look at Khabib Nurmagomedov, arguably the most effective grappler to ever grace the octagon and is the current (2021) UFC Pound-For-Pound Champion.
His specialty isn’t necessarily submission, though many of his fights do end that way.
Khabib specializes in ground-and-pound.
Dominating his opponent on the ground until the referee either stops the fight, he wins by unanimous decision, or until the opponent gives up a submission hold.
Some fighters will even give up the submission on purpose because it reduces the damage they need to take before the fight ends.
Have a look at Khabib’s top finishes, you’ll see what I mean:
In the early days of the UFC, when different martial arts would compete for dominance, the advantage that grapplers enjoyed was obvious.
Over 60% of fights would finish in submission.
This number has reduced as more fighters started cross-training in wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu, or other grappling arts.
Percentage of Fights Finished By Submission Vs Combined KO/TKO in The UFC
|Year||Submission Rate||Combined KO/TKO|
Remember, the data gathered by UFC Statistics shows a combined KO/TKO rate.
They don’t distinguish between TKOs on the ground or the feet.
You’ll also notice that most fights now end in decision, because fighters are so closely matched.
Often dominance on the ground will be the deciding factor.
Can A Striker Beat A Grappler?
Strikers can beat grapplers if they’ve got good takedown defense, can strike from the clinch, and can manage distance effectively. Strikers like Conor McGregor have spent years honing their counter-striking skills, using short hooks, uppercuts, and jabs to prevent a grappler from getting too close.
The secret to fighting is the concept of distance or range control, read more here.
Having effective offensive and defensive techniques at various ranges will help you win fights.
Strikers who can kick will dominate at long range.
Martial arts like Muay Thai, Kickboxing, and even Karate are great for learning how to effectively kick an opponent.
Grapplers normally focus on defense against long-range strikes and try to close the distance as quickly as possible.
Once they close the distance, they’ll take the fight to the ground.
Strikers often use leg kicks or a kick called the teep/push-kick for keeping a grappler from charging in for a takedown.
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Medium range is where strikers thrive.
They can use every technique at their disposal.
Examples of great striking arts include traditional boxing, Muay Thai (which includes elbow and knee strikes), and kickboxing.
If you’re interested in how boxing differs from Muay Thai, read this.
These styles have been forged and perfected by full contact sparring.
Stay away from martial arts like Krav Maga or Aikido that don’t use full contact sparring for developing their techniques
At this range, grapplers always look for takedowns.
Strikers can either stop this by using takedown defenses or by counter-striking.
Timing counter-strikes isn’t easy to do.
The closer two fighters get to each other, the more danger strikers will be in.
Strikers actually do have options up-close, like brutal elbows and knees.
Fun fact: A martial art called Lethwei includes headbutts!
Close-range involves what’s called the clinch (Muay Thai Clinch), which is effective for controlling an opponent while standing.
This is a great control position to start throwing elbows and knees.
Here’s what that looks like:
Is Striking or Grappling Better?
For strikers to compete with grapplers, they MUST also understand grappling. If strikers can’t defend against routine takedowns, grapplers are almost guaranteed to get the fight to the ground. Grappling is considered the dominant fighting style because you can control an opponent with varying levels of force.
Fighting on the ground is all about systematic control that leads to submission, there are no knockout punches in wrestling or BJJ.
Most good strikers can manage distance effectively using their strikes, but grapplers specialize in closing the distance while minimizing damage.
In a self-defense situation, you need to know at least a bit of both.
Do UFC Pro Fighters Prefer Striking or Grappling?
The KO/TKO vs submission rates of male UFC champions who dominated in 2020-21 suggests they prefer striking over grappling, but often TKOs are achieved through relentless ground-and-pound. Fighters who prefer standing and striking have come to appreciate the benefits of grappling, and train it regularly.
|2021 Male UFC Champs||Subs||KO/TKO|
With more fighters training in one grappling art or another, finishing submissions has become increasingly difficult.
This is why a good ground-and-pound game is vital for weakening an opponent and opening up submission attempts.
Often striking on the ground with dominant control is enough to stop the fight, so submissions aren’t always necessary.
Saying fighters prefer one form over the other is oversimplifying the art of fighting.
Fighters prefer what’s required to win a fight, whether that’s striking or grappling.
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Which Is Harder To Learn: Striking or Grappling?
Learning to fight is all about the time you’re willing to commit, not necessarily the difficulty of the individual arts themselves.
Both striking and grappling can take a while to learn and get good at.
Though striking does require time to learn all the techniques, grappling has a far more complex curriculum. It requires an almost 4 dimensional understanding of the human body and its weaknesses, which takes a much longer long time to grasp. Grappling may also be harder to learn both mentally and physically.
Gaining a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu (expert level) for example can take on average 8-10 years.
Even then, most grapplers are still learning new techniques every day.
They even start developing individual strategies for different types of opponents: strong, flexible, small, large, aggressive, passive, and everything in-between.
See this post to start learning Jiu-Jitsu at home.
Should I Learn Striking or Grappling First?
Learning striking or grappling first is a question of priorities.
If you’re training martial arts for self-defense, it’s best to start training a grappling art like wrestling or Jiu-Jitsu. Striking depends on fleeting moments of success to stop a threat, grappling is the art of controlling a threat. By controlling an attacker, you reduce the risk to both yourself and those around you.
If your goal is competing in MMA, then I’d recommend not prioritizing one over the other but rather learning both at the same time.
It’s important to be immersed in both striking and grappling from the very beginning, growing confidence with the various offensive and defensive techniques.
The two grappling arts I’d recommend for both MMA and self-defense would be wrestling and Jiu-Jitsu (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu), here’s why:
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Why Wrestling Is So Effective
Wresting has been trained for at least 15,000 – 20,000 years.
Think about that.
The techniques used in wrestling have been forged through thousands of years of hand-to-hand combat. Anything given that amount of time to perfect is going to be difficult to beat, especially when its only goal is to control and take an opponent to the ground.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not well-known for its takedowns, so many BJJ practitioners will supplement their training by studying Judo or Wrestling.
Why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Is So Effective
Jiu-Jitsu specializes in understanding body mechanics that allow you to control and submit even large opponents while reducing the damage to yourself. Knowing both wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu makes you incredibly difficult to beat unless you’re knocked out before closing the distance.
If your opponent can’t knock you out, you should win the fight no matter their physical attributes.
A good black belt could easily dominate even the strongest of strikers using technique, weight distribution, and energy conservation.
Here are 10 more reasons why BJJ is the best.
Grapplers who manage to close the distance on even the best strikers in the world will most often win a fight. Without regular ground training, strikers must depend on perfect timing and a little bit of luck to finish a fight. With almost little to no control of their opponent at all.
People will debate this fact, but grappling has proven to be the most dominant fighting style over and over again.
Wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in particular are the biggest factors to winning a mixed martial arts fight.
Photos by Bruno Bueno