For as long as people have been fighting, those same people have wondered what the best fighting style is. Can style X beat style Y in a straight-up fight? How do I knock their teeth out without getting my teeth knocked out? Let’s discuss this question for a moment.
The original stated purpose of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) back in the 90’s before Zuffa, Dana White and the big promotion it has become recently was to find the “ultimate fighting style” by having practitioners battle it out through a tournament bracket. The fights were even billed by their stylistic matchup, such as “Boxing vs Jiu-jitsu.” There were many many issues with this approach, most of which came to light soon after the first few events were held, and none least of which was that the format truly only found the “ultimate fighter,” not the ultimate style. (See Video Highlights of UFC1)
A great boxer can always KO a poor wrestler, regardless of how badly the styles match up. Still, there was a nugget of truth to the whole thing. There are styles that favor approaching combat in ways that make it better at dealing with other styles. The true lab test of this would be to clone a person and teach each clone a different style and have them match up against each other as many times as possible until enough data is collected. The old UFC did their best to determine the best “style”, but the clone match-up would be better if this idea wasn’t so unrealistic due to ethical, moral and technological considerations.
Over the course of the past 30 or so years of the nascent “mixed martial arts” (MMA) scene, many things that have long since been suspected have crystallized into more concrete facts. After considering these over the course of decades of fandom of MMA bouts, I propose a very rough stylistic matchup diagram akin to the rock-paper-scissors game (RPS). For the sake of thorough clarity, in RPS two opponents count down and “throw” their choice of the three (3), indicated by a hand gesture and the winner is determined by these simple rules: rock smashes scissors, scissors cuts paper, paper traps rock. When both throw the same hand gesture, a “tie” occurs, and so throw again.
Rock > Scissors > Paper > Rock
Using the same format we can say the following:
Close-quarters striking > defensive striking > grappling > close-quarters striking.
Close-quarters striking > defensive striking
The close-quarters striker with their quick footwork, short stances and fast pace striking will cuts angles, swarm and overwhelm the defensive striker who would be more used to long-distance strikes, wide stances and counter-attacks.
Defensive striking > grappling
The defensive striker can take their time, pick their angles and watch for the tell-tale “shot” favored by the grappler, countering it with their wide stance and frustrating wrestlers who won’t be able to find purchase for their ground game.
Grappling > Close-quarters striking
It’s the grappler’s birthday! An opponent who willingly walks into the lion’s jaws with a high, short stance and their hands up. As the great philosophers LMFAO intoned, “Shots shots shots shots shots!”
When the styles are the same it follows logically that, all else being the same, the better practitioner of the style will win.
So what style falls which category? I’ll provide an (admittedly incomplete) list that can serve as a starting point:
Close-quarters strikers: “dirty” boxing, muai thai, Krav Maga, etc.
Defensive strikers: karate, taekwondo, shaolin, etc.
Grapplers: Greco-Roman wrestling, jiu-jitsu, judo, etc.
The many and varied styles within kung-fu can place them within any of the categories above.
Again, this is not a hard-fast rule that will predict who will win a match between a muai thai fighter and a Greco-Roman wrestler – more of a way to say who might have the edge, when all other factors are equal. These factors are incredibly broad and generally even more impactful in determining the outcome of the match than style. They go from the obvious: physical condition, reach, height and weight; to the intangible: motivation, will, focus and experience; even the unexpected: weather, clothing choices, whether one forgot their prescription glasses at home. With people it’s never rock vs scissors vs paper. For one thing, with as well-known as stylistic matchups have become, most learn to counter their own counter. Rock might be throwing scissors when stressed!
MMA has much older roots than the UFC with such proponents as Bruce Lee who famously said, “The best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style, to be formless, to adopt an individual’s own style and not following the system of styles.” Tournaments involving fighters of different styles go back as far as Ancient China’s Leitai around 1000 BCE and Ancient Greece’s pankration in the Olympic games of 648 BCE. Mixing and matching different styles is as old as styles themselves and practitioners should always be mindful of their own RPS weaknesses and strengths to make sure to cover their gaps and press their advantages.
If rock is kicking your butt, it’s time to learn some paper. Furthermore, once one has attained a certain degree of competence, a baseline of skill that can serve as a foundation to build on, branching out and borrowing from other styles comes in very handy.
Being dogmatic and pig-headed about the traditional way to do things can only hold us back. It is better to find out why it is done that way, find alternatives, test it out, see what fits with our bodies, our tendencies, our predilections and adapting the style to fit. See the “Idiolect” blog for more on that tangent.