With every passing year in MMA the question of ‘what is the best style for MMA?’ gets less and less relevant. Undoubtedly the style of choice in the future of MMA will be MMA itself. The very name of our sport / art almost dictates that you should do a mix of styles to be a Mixed Martial Artist but the truth is MMA is a style in its own right. Right now MMA is still in its infancy and we are still in a state of constant evolution, a large percentage of the current top level fighters didn’t start out doing MMA, they started out in other combat related sports like wrestling, Judo, BJJ, Muay Thai etc. This wasn’t necessarily out of choice, a relatively short time ago (in the big scheme of things) MMA schools were a pretty rare commodity, if you were serious about getting into MMA you probably came from one of these single focussed disciplines and then had to go and cross train to pick up the other skills.
So a few years ago ‘what is the best style for MMA?’ was still a valid question. Should you learn wrestling and then add a bit of striking into your game? Or maybe do BJJ and learn some wrestling and boxing to go with it? Or maybe start out in Muay Thai and then add the groundwork? But now the MMA landscape is different. Now you can be a yougster looking to get into MMA and you don’t have to make this choice, you can get yourself along to a decent MMA school and just learn all the facets of MMA equally. That’s not to say it’s not good to have a background in one of these specific styles, it’s just no longer necessary. If you start training at 16 and you want to compete when you’re 20, is it better to do BJJ for 3 years and then spend a year adding the cramming the ‘other stuff’ or should you just go and do a decent MMA class for four years? I would argue the later. Now of course if you’ve already done 4 years of wrestling / BJJ / Muay Thai / Boxing by the time you get to 16 that will still give you a great head start.
So increasingly I suspect we will see this divide between the old and the new. The ‘old’ cast of fighters that started out specialising in a specific skill and then have take on additional facets and the ‘new’ crop of competitors that have been doing it all form the start. I also believe we’ll start to see the advantage of not specialising becoming more and more apparent. For me a great measure of the all round quality of a fighter is the question ‘what are they best at?’. If this is an easy question to answer then I would surmise that their success in MMA might be limited in the long run. I hate to name fighters here because it’s such a negative thing to say but for context I would be able to answer this question easily for someone like Jake Shields. Consequently if that question is difficult to answer then there’s a chance you’re talk about a really talented individual, think Benson Henderson for example.
So in our current state of MMA evolution the really interesting question is
‘can a fighter who starts out as a specialist evolve into a great all round Mixed Martial Artist?’
I would argue that this depends above anything else on how much they really love the ‘other stuff’. Take Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson for example, over the years Quinton has done an amazing job of encompassing all the facets of MMA into his game, his ground game is far better than it once was, his striking is more sophisticated and his footwork in his fight against Lyoto Machida was fantastic. But I think it’s safe to say Ramage doesn’t love training BJJ, he freely admits this himself, he knows he has to do it to make himself a more complete fighter but he doesn’t, and most likely never will, love it. Quinton Jackson loves to stand and trade punches and slam people on their heads, which makes for great entertainment when we watch him fight but sadly it’s not enough in modern MMA. Without an absolute love for all aspects of MMA you’ll only ever become good at the ‘other stuff’ you’ll never push yourself to be great.
I do believe it’s perfectly possible to start out specialising in one skill and then to fall in love with all the other skills enough to excel at those too. But it is quite a difficult path for a couple of reasons. Firstly your mindset may become skewed, if you’re great at BJJ then the striking skills become a means to an end rather than a skill that has it’s own place. In other words you learn to punch and kick so that you can distract your opponent long enough to get hold of them and get the fight to the ground rather than learning to have the confidence to finish the fight with strikes. Then secondly you become over reliant on that skill, if you’re awesome at wrestling and you can take most people down and use GnP to get a victory then why would you need the other stuff? So you keep with your winning strategy until one day someone with great takedown defence stuffs all your shots and picks you apart standing up. You’ll undoubtedly learn the lesson from this and try and improve your striking but that’s not something that will just come overnight and you may never get to the point where you feel comfortable and confident with it if you’ve neglected it for too long. However if you fall in love with these other skills as much as you did for your original skill set then you’ll see these additional skills differently, you’ll see them as equally important and you’ll train them equally as hard but most important of all – you’ll train them with the passion that comes from loving them.