This is a question as old as time; who is the best, the fastest, the smartest the most creative? Long ago it was simply a question of who was the best at survival and who was the the most successful in passing on the genes of the species. Eventually humans began to organize and grow, and we needed to develop more methodical ways to navigate and understand our world. This of course, included determining the best way to fight.
In the past, the best style was the one that kept you in power. It usually involved lethal force, applied on a regular basis, to ensure that everyone knew you were the best. Fighting styles were developed and employed for all manner of reasons, and often involved weapons, to protect your land, fight a war, or just win the latest bar fight. For most of human history specific, usually more precise, complicated, and methodical, fighting styles were limited to those in a “Warrior class” or the nobility. This, of course, would look different from society to society, but as groups clashed either because of strategy, fighting style, or technology, one would always come out on top as the victor, implying that theirs was the best way.
Enter the modern times, where power is more centralized and (at least in theory) the people determine what is what in many places. In general, simply using violence to take what you want is less and less acceptable, and the once normal lethal nature of combat has become far less palatable.
Without death, how do we establish what style is the best and why? That’s a good question. In more recent times, due to the UFC and other organizations, we have learned that yes, IN FACT some styles ARE better than others.
A basic analysis of UFC champions in recent years shows dominance by certain styles when it comes to one on one fighting. Of UFC champs past and present, 28 started in Wrestling, 17 in BJJ, 12 in boxing, 6 in Kickboxing, 4 in Muay Thai, 2 in Taekwondo, and 1 in Karate. This indicates a correlation in which grappling is dominant in one on one combat, followed by basic striking. (To be honest, it’s probably missing a few more Karate and Judo people, but it paints a general picture)
Of course, the reality is most UFC competitors MUST learn a variety of disciplines, from striking to grappling, if they expect to do well. Georges “Rush” St-Pierre (aka GSP), for example, was a Karateka originally, but ended up being one of the best wrestlers in the cage during his career, go figure. So really, the best style actually is a mix of the most effective styles out there, and, of course, whatever works best for you.
However, outside of the best-of-the-best fighting each other in the cage, any one person, of any one style (or non-style), can beat any other person; because, while there may be styles that are measurably better than others, the reality is there are many other factors that can come into play in a fight.
This is the obvious one for anyone who trains. The more you train, the better you will be and the bigger gap in skill between you and your opponent. For example, while wrestling is one of the better overall styles, as it allows you to dictate the position of the fight, a person who just started wrestling may not do very well against someone who has been boxing for 10 years and has developed amazing foot work. When skill levels are relatively similar, and the wrestler can take a punch, then the boxer may be in serious trouble. But imagine if the boxer’s foot work is so good that they are constantly moving and striking, making it difficult for the wrestler to close the distance.
So this means that if you overestimate or underestimate your skill in any one style, and you run up against someone of a different style, then you may be in big trouble. If you want to increase your skill you will have to practice with some level of consistency. If you do not, or you are unable to overcome the mental strain of periodical skill plateaus, then your lack of training will hinder your skill development.
As I have mentioned numerous times, and will continue to do so, SIZE MATTERS! You may have heard, with regards to BJJ in particular, that it allows you to beat much bigger opponents. This is true when your skill level is high enough and theirs low enough; the skill gap will allow you to compensate for the size gap most of the time. There is of course a point of diminishing return where their size is simply to big to overcome. I am sorry to say that no matter how hard you try, if they are to big they may simply need to grab hold and squeeze. How you get around this in the street is by “cheating” physics with biology, by going bat-shit-crazy and targeting points that normally are illegal in sports. Of course, sometimes it still doesn’t matter, but when the size difference is too big it’s often the person willing to use the more extreme violence that wins.
To emphasize separation between skill and size, let’s talk about two UFC champions. Daniel Cormier who earned the championship title in both the light heavyweight (204lbs) and heavyweight (205-265lbs) weight classes, and is a world class wrestler with good striking skills, versus Khabib Nurmagomedov, also a wrestler, who is the most dominant UFC Lightweight (155lbs) champion ever. Cormier, when discussing Khabib’s skill, said he “actually has to try.” What he means is that Khabib’s wrestling skills are so highly developed that the larger opponent, who is used to just playing with smaller fighters in training, has to actually “hit the gas pedal.” But, as Cormier himself is also a wrestler at a high skill level, his size comes into play. It is clear that where these two to fight, while Khabib would certainly give Cormier a hard time, it is likely most of the time Cormier would come out on top due to the relatively similar skills but massive size and strength difference on Cormier’s part. So if you want to beat bigger opponents, you need higher skill and crazier mentality.
Unfortunately, this is probably one of the most annoying aspects of combat and comparing styles, and is when our egos often get in the way of reality and truly underestimating ourselves. I have no shame in admitting that I am no athlete and unless I train like a professional 4-6 hours a day, 4-7 days a week (which I usually don’t have the time or will for), I will struggle against a naturally gifted athlete. In BJJ for example, I have trained for at least 8 years and I still run into white belts who either wrestled or engaged in other sports all their lives, and if I am having an off day or they turn on the Athlete dial, I will struggle. It’s just a reality.
A 1000 years ago I probably would not have lived this long had I been me, as I wore glasses and was not very fit. (Granted I didn’t have the healthiest childhood, but that wouldn’t have fixed the glasses thing). In the past if you were not athletic and healthy, you could never have been a Spartan. Many could have been a for-hire-peasant frontline soldier, who was really just there to die in order to tire out the enemy force. Again, this is just a reality. If you are not physically gifted, it is going to be much, much, much harder. If you expect to get good at fighting, you will need to train, train, and train some more, while living healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people want to hide or lie about that fact there are natural physical differences between people. Our individual genetics and upbringing are so wildly varied that some people will have an advantage over others when it comes to athleticism and physicality. So get over your ego, and work harder if that’s what you want. Otherwise, I am sorry, but it’s time to accept reality.
Okay, this is another super important factor as to why some styles are “better” than others: the training style. The reason grappling is currently dominant is because grapplers can put in the training time and technique repetitions, in a fairly realistic fashion, without risking sever head trauma. You can also go close to 100% most of the time fairly early on (at least with people who aren’t spastic), on a fairly regular basis. Getting the reps in, under duress, and in realistic scenarios, allows you to develop your skills rapidly for real world combat. This is similar to Krav Maga, where we are not just training the technique but the nervous system’s ability to act and react in real life at a faster rate. This is how you develop high skill, and practical application.
Compare this to boxing or kickboxing. In training “sparring” you cannot go 100% all the time or most people would get so messed up they cannot continue to train, let alone fight in the ring. This is because those styles focus on head strikes and, while in life or death combat head strikes are usually needed, it is not conducive to training that simulates a real fight. In boxing, this is why the focus on hand speed, power, accuracy, footwork, and CARDIO. They drill these so much that the ability to fire rapidly, for a long time, can compensate for the lack of practical sparring. If your training means you will always be injured, you are not in fact training very effectively. Take the other side of training, the methods of the traditional martial arts where they employ katas instead of regular resistance training. While this trains the movement, it does not train the nervous system to fight properly. It is why, while largely unless, someone from these styles may possess amazing physical ability, attitude, etc, (like GSP or Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson). Though most people practicing these styles may struggle in a real fight, especially when the aforementioned size factor kicks in.
Sorry to your ego, but some styles ARE better than others. It could be because of how they train or the fact that they simply give you more options against a variety of opponents, or perhaps they are just more effective as a matter of fact. But know that any one person, in any one style, can beat another if things are either equal or you have a certain advantage over the other person. For example, a 15 year old who has been doing martial arts for 10 years and holds a “black belt” (or two), is unlikely to beat a 250lb NFL linebacker who has a significant size, strength, and athletic advantage. It is just reality.
If you are training professionally and you lose, you have to put your ego aside and ask, is this really for you? If it is, then you need to train harder, train smarter, and diversify your skill set.
If you are training casually or for self-defence, then understanding different styles is the best way to maximize your ability to defend yourself. But mastering one or more effective styles may be more time efficient. Of course you could just learn Krav Maga, where we learn a little bit of everything (Not Biased at all…). But, no matter your style, you must remember on the street there are many unseen factors. Size, skill, athleticism, training methodology, the environment, the element of surprise, a willingness to do violence, your mental state, etc.. Meaning more things can go wrong even if you think you have the advantage.
So whether on the street or in the ring, just know some styles are better, but there are many factors to consider beyond that for your own needs. So long as you keep your ego in check and make smart decisions, barring running into a Jon Jones or Khabib in a fight, you will usually come out on top, even if that means you had to run away. Just be honest about your own skill, style, size, and athletic ability, for overestimating yourself and underestimating your opponents will only ever lead to a less desirable outcome.
Written by: Jonathan Fader