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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu vs Mixed Martial Arts

April 4, 2024
Ashley v Paige MMA

As far as we know, martial arts and combat sports predate written history. Cultures from around the world have developed their own, many of which are still practiced today. There are nearly 200 styles of martial arts out there and each has its own merits. Some, like boxing, focus on striking your opponent’s upper body, while others, like wrestling, are all about grappling. Martial arts is a wide and varied world with something to offer everyone, whether you are looking to get in shape, train your mind, or learn to protect yourself.

But within that wide and varied world, few disciplines are as popular in the Western world as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). We’ll get deeper into the comparisons between these two styles of combat in a moment, but to put it simply, BJJ is a martial art focused on ground fighting and submission holds, while MMA combines various techniques from different martial arts disciplines, creating something entirely unique. They are closely intertwined, and BJJ played a big role in the rise of modern MMA. 

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Meaning

The origins of Brazilian Jiu-Jistu began in Japan, where judo practitioner and prizefighter Mitsuyo Maeda was from. He went overseas to share his art with the world in 1904, landing in Brazil. It was here that he taught brothers Carlos, Oswaldo, Gastão Jr., O’Brien, and Hélio Gracie jiu-jitsu in 1917. Several years later, after the Gracie family experimented and adapted Jiu-Jitsu techniques to be more effective in real-life self-defense situations. They modified judo ground techniques and eventually created a unique fighting style called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

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BJJ is a grappling martial art that concentrates on the ground game, where you aim to get your opponent to submit via a joint lock or choke. A key aspect of BJJ is its focus on technique and leverage rather than relying solely on physical strength. It promotes the principle that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger assailant, making it one of the most effective combat styles for self-defense.

Like other martial arts, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu ranking and promotion is based on a colored belt system. The five belt colors are White, Blue, Purple, Brown, and Black.

What is Mixed Martial Arts

Interstylistic combat competitions have been held throughout the world for thousands of years. Ancient China held Leitai matches which mixed boxing, wrestling, and other fighting styles. Greece hosted pankration matches – a mixed striking and grappling sport similar to modern MMA – in the Olympics way back in 648 BC. 

What we know today as mixed martial arts arose from 20th-century cross-combat contests in Japan and other parts of Asia. This spread to Brazil, where Judo masters fought Muay Thai experts, and capoeira fighters tangled with wrestlers in vale tudo (no holds barred) matches. The Gracie family actually played a pivotal role in the increasing popularity of MMA-style fights during the 1920s when Carlos and Hélio began issuing “Gracie Challenges” in the family’s garages and gyms. 

These extremely popular mixed bouts were a chance to put their self-defense system of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu against challengers of other martial art systems in an anything-goes competition. Gracie Challenges incorporates techniques from multiple martial arts disciplines, including striking, grappling, and wrestling, making these competitions a direct precursor to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the biggest MMA league in the world. 

Rorion Gracie, the son of Hélio, founded the UFC with businessman Art Davie and hosted the first event, UFC 1, in 1993 at the McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado. It was at this competition that the term “mixed martial arts” was coined. This contest featured few rules and no weight classes between competitors of different fighting disciplines. Over time, more rules and regulations were created to protect the fighters, who in turn started using techniques from multiple disciplines to find advantages in the ring. Thus, over a period of decades, what we consider today as mixed martial arts was born. 

BJJ Techniques and Strategies

Control is the name of the game in BJJ, with fighters using multiple strategies and approaches to outmaneuver their opponents and get them to submit through joint locks or chokes. Matches always begin with both people standing, but striking is not allowed, so practitioners learn techniques like sweeps, submissions, and position control to dominate opponents on the ground.

Let’s quickly look at the terms, positions, and techniques essential to know in BJJ.

  • Standup refers to the phase of a match when both practitioners are on their feet and attempting to take each other down and gain positional control.
  • Takedown techniques to bring an opponent to the ground, such as “pulling guard.” Many are unique to BJJ and are not used in other martial arts. Common BJJ takedowns include single-leg takedowns, double-leg takedowns, hip throws, and foot sweeps.
  • Self-defense situations: BJJ is a self-defense system that can be broken down into four phases. In the first phase, you close the distance with your opponent, and in the second, you take them to the ground. In the third phase, you establish a dominant position using the guard, side control, full mount, or back mount. Finally, you finish the fight by either choking them or applying a lock and immobilizing them. 
  • Control is the ability to maintain a favorable position over your opponent by restricting their movement and advancing your position. 
  • The ground game is the portion of a BJJ match when fighters are on the ground engaged in grappling, submission attempts, and fighting for positional control.
  • Submission holds include joint locks and chokes. Joint locks typically involve isolating an opponent’s list, restricting movement, and applying pressure until the opponent signals defeat by tapping. Chokes disrupt the blood supply to the brain and cause unconsciousness. 
  • Position describes ground-based grappling situations where one practitioner has gained a dominant stance over their opponent. BJJ positions dictate the flow of the match, opportunities for offense, and the ability to control or submit your opponent. Common positions include full mount, back mount, side control, guard, half guard, and knee on belly, among others.
  • Guard is when a practitioner is on their back but maintains control over their opponent using their legs and arms. There are various guard positions, such as closed guard, open guard, and half guard, each offering a unique set of offensive and defensive options.

Striking Techniques in MMA

What sets MMA apart is its hybrid nature, combining elements of various martial arts disciplines. Fighters in MMA must be proficient in both striking, grappling and wrestling takedowns to succeed in the cage and often cross-train in different disciplines to become well-rounded athletes. 

MMA incorporates striking techniques from boxing, Muay Thai, and other striking-based martial arts, so competitors are allowed to land punches, kicks, and knees to weaken and potentially knock out their opponents.

Striking techniques in MMA involve proper stance, footwork, and the understanding of striking ranges. Fighters must learn various punches, kicks, elbows, and knee strikes to effectively strike their opponents while minimizing the risk of counterattacks. MMA practitioners also develop combinations that involve stringing together multiple strikes in rapid succession and setups using feints to confuse opponents and create openings to round out their combat style. 

Grappling Techniques in MMA

Like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, one of the primary mixed martial arts strategies involves forcing your opponent to the ground using a takedown or throw and securing a dominant grappling position. What sets them apart is that once the dominant position is secured, MMA fighters are allowed to strike their opponent. This strategy helps you control the fight’s position and dictate where it takes place, which is why many MMA fighters spend a lot of time learning how to wrestle.

Fighters with strong wrestling skills execute takedowns, secure top positions, and defend better against their opponents. MMA competitors have to be able to secure and maintain top positions like side control, mount, or back control so they can deliver strikes and look for submission opportunities while controlling their opponents.

Submission holds are just as essential in MMA as they are in BJJ. You can’t always rely on landing a clean strike on your opponent and knocking them out or racking up enough points to win the fight. Fighters switch between striking and grappling techniques such as armbars, guillotines, and rear-naked chokes to force their opponents to submit or render them unconscious.

For this reason, it’s essential for MMA fighters to know how to defend against submissions and escape from dangerous positions. If you can’t defend chokes and locks, escape from mount or back control, and prevent your opponents from fully applying submissions, you can quickly find yourself facing defeat.

BJJ & MMA Competitions

While MMA has gained global popularity over the last thirty years (in large part due to the success of UFC), BJJ might be the single most popular martial art today. Part of that has to do with the critical role BJJ tactics play in MMA, but nevertheless, there are now several major BJJ tournaments (in North America and internationally) that bring together top fighters to showcase their skills and compete for titles in various weight divisions. 

The North American Grappling Association (NAGA) and the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) are two of the major organizations that operate in the United States and abroad.

Each institution has its own set of rules, so depending on the event, a BJJ match can have different weight divisions, competition types (Gi vs No-gi), point systems, legal positions, time limits, and submissions.

Out of the mixed martial arts organizations operating worldwide, none are as big or as widely followed as the UFC. Bellator and ONE Championship also host tournaments that feature top fighters from different weight classes competing in the cage using a combination of striking, grappling, and wrestling techniques. There are regional MMA promotion such as New England’s Reality Fighting, that help up and coming professional and amateur MMA fighters get a start and gain experience in the sport of MMA.

Rules & Scoring Systems

Each of the BJJ federations has its own set of rules for tournaments, although one is consistent across them all: fighters are never allowed to strike their opponent. That means any kicking, punching, or elbows will result in a disqualification. Otherwise, the rules depend on the event. For instance, a BJJ match can have different weight divisions, competition types (Gi vs No-gi), point systems, legal positions, time limits, and submissions. In BJJ marches, points are awarded based on positional control, takedowns, and submission attempts, among other criteria.

Originally, MMA had very few rules, including no weight classes or banned maneuvers. Today, however, the various MMA organizations tend to follow a unified set of rules, with some minor differences. For example, the UFC has specific rules regarding fouls, weight classes, and the use of certain techniques. Like BJJ, an MMA fighter can win by scoring more points than their opponent or forcing them to submit. They can also knock (KO) their opponent or surrender. Fighters score points in MMA for effective striking, grappling, octagon control, and effective aggression. Judges assess these factors round by round to determine the winner.

BJJ and MMA Comparison

The biggest difference between BJJ and MMA is that the former exclusively focuses on ground fighting and submission techniques, while the latter also encompasses striking, grappling, and wrestling. BJJ is an individual martial art, while MMA is a full-contact combat sport that incorporates multiple combat styles.

Despite their differences, BJJ and MMA both require technical proficiency, physical conditioning, and mental discipline. They also demand mastery of ground fighting techniques and submissions. To succeed in either of these combat styles, fighters need to be smart and strategize in matches based on their strengths and weaknesses, adapt to their opponent’s styles, and capitalize on opportunities to gain an advantage.

Choosing BJJ or MMA 

Do you want the chance to incorporate many different fighting styles into your training or would you prefer to focus on getting really good at one thing? BJJ is a fantastic sport with a lot of different strategies to master, but MMA allows you to pull techniques from all kinds of martial arts into your repertoire. 

Personal preference is the only real deciding factor when choosing to pursue BJJ or MMA. Some people prefer the technical aspects and emphasis on ground fighting in BJJ, while others may be drawn to the dynamic nature of MMA. If you prefer a broader range of techniques and the excitement of full-contact competition, MMA may be more appealing. The two are distinct yet connected martial arts, and if you want to become an MMA fighter, you could still benefit from learning some BJJ techniques.