The sport of MMA is still relatively young, but there have already been numerous “eras” of fighting styles that have had their turn to dominate the sport. From the early Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu versus Shootfighting days to the more recent “wall and stall” styles, the types of fighting displayed in the MMA cage is never stagnant. Eras come and go. Many have commented that it is similar to a Rock, Paper, Scissors game. One style becomes dominant, then is replaced by those who can counter that style; eventually, those too are replaced by those with the ability to counter that style – ultimately leading you back to something like what you started with.
For the last couple years MMA has seemed to become dominated by striking specialists once again, this time, however, it may be more than another quickly replaced era. Specific unique factors that led to the current dominance of strikers may not allow it to fade away so quickly.
A Number of Eras have Come and Gone
While MMA as a concept dates back hundreds if not thousands of years, our modern conception of the sport can be said to have begun with the very first UFC in 1993. The early UFC events were dominated by grapplers, specifically the Gracie family and their Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. In fact, the first ten UFC events were centered around the ongoing rivalries of Royce Gracie (BJJ), Ken Shamrock (Shoot wrestling), and Dan Severn (wrestling, judo). Mark Coleman, Don Frye, and other notable early winners were also mainly grappling and wrestling specialists. There were some great strikers in those first events, but today the early UFC era is noted mostly as an exhibition on the importance of grappling to a well-rounded fighter – and the fact that champion fighters were made to look near helpless once you got them on the ground was a shock at the time to an entire generation of martial arts enthusiasts.
Eventually “sprawl and brawl” style fighters like Chuck Liddell were able to make waves by dominating opponents up top and stopping takedowns, but the era was still full of dominant fighters like Matt Hughes, Couture, and Dan Henderson who had their clear advantages on the ground, mainly due to strong wrestling backgrounds.
Wrestling is still considered by many to be the best base for a developing MMA fighter. Some asserted that their early dominance actually came from their expertise in weight cutting, allowing bigger wrestlers to fight in lower weight classes, but as time goes on fighters with wrestling backgrounds have continued to be a dominant force.
Eventually, overall takedown defense improved across the board, and fighters like Anderson Silva gave terrific examples of how footwork and strikes can be used to eliminate takedown opportunities. The amount of guard-bottom games slowly lessened. Other style dominant eras like the “lay and pray” or “wall and stall” saw their time and were either gradually phased out, or lost popularity.
By most accounts, we are currently in an era of striking specialists. Conor McGregor, Robert Whittaker, and Francis Ngannou are prominent examples. Others that are now making names for themselves also include Valentina Shevchenko, Stephen Thompson, Max Holloway and many more.
Grappling will always be a necessary skill set, but it seems to have evolved into a skill set mostly used only to counter itself. Many fighters just want to get back on their feet as fast as possible these days. Even fighters like TJ Dillashaw, who was a college wrestler, or Rafael Dos Anjos, a BJJ World Champion, are now known for high-level striking and spend most of the time on their feet.
Many fight fans will argue that grappling is still dominant, mainly because all the fighters use it in one form or another, but in a lot of ways asking whether stand up or grappling is more important to winning a fight is like asking which is more important for survival, the heart or lungs? There is no real denying that we are in an era of premier strikers.
It is important to note that when one style becomes dominant, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is superior to previous styles. How would Conor Mcgregor do against the wrestling skills of Josh Koscheck in his prime?
This Striking Era May Not Phase Out Like the Others
Nothing is stagnant in MMA, and grappling specialists will always have their place amongst the best fighters in MMA – but the current trend of striking may have more to do with money than merely winning. The UFC and Conor McGregor have shown that there are incredibly vast sums of money to be made by becoming a fan favorite. Fans love strikers. There is a massive incentive for fighters to concentrate more on their standup games now more so than ever before. There is also an incentive for MMA promotions to try and focus on cultivating strikers more often than not. They want to put on exciting shows, that is often priority number 1. Strikers are almost guaranteed to make something exciting happen even if it’s just a sloppy display followed by a KO.
Striker Vs Grappler Will Always be a Rivalry
Though money may be incentivizing a new generation of strikers, grappling will always be the best shot many have at winning and making a name for themselves. BJJ experts will continue to tap out the unprepared, and a few star grapplers may see a meteoric rise to dominance if the striking focused fighters continue to flood into the high-level leagues.
It is unlikely we will ever see grappling become the “best” style ever again though. The fight game has moved on from pure fighters of any form. Near-pure ground fighters like Demian Maia and Khabib Nurmagomedov will become more and more of an anomaly over time. The real debate is coming down to strikers-with-some-grappling versus grapplers-with-some-striking.
The age-old question of “what is the best style” may have finally been answered in this latest era.
“None.” or perhaps “All of them at once.”