There are five individual sports/martial arts which comprise Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I tell my students that the first four are: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, freestyle wrestling, Muay Thai, and boxing. (Or variations of these. For example, one can be a karate practitioner instead of a kickboxer, a Catch wrestler instead of a Jiu Jitsu expert, or a Greco-Roman wrestler instead of a freestyle one). Then I usually ask them: which one is the fifth art?
Answer: It is the art of MMA-specific techniques. Those are hybrid techniques which do not originate from other specialized arts. Techniques like grinding and pummeling against the cage, and ground and pound strikes.
Definition of MMA
MMA is a sport that includes techniques from totally unrelated arts of striking, wrestling, submission grappling, sport-specific techniques that do not derive from the aforementioned sports and the combination of all of the above as a way to counter or complement individual arts like the use of wrestling to set up punches, striking attacks to set up takedowns, and strikes to set up submissions.
Kostas Fantaousakis, Embracingthegrind.com
The best pure MMA fighters of the modern era are Georges St-Pierre and Demetrious "Mighty Mouse" Johnson. They are pretty good at every individual discipline but their strength lies in that they are masters of combining these skills into an art which can beat all other fundamental disciplines.
One way to examine how MMA-specific techniques evolved is to study Randy Couture’s career. Randy was a pioneer who combined techniques of his sport of origin (Greco-Roman wrestling) with strikes, to make them effective under Octagon rules, thereby making them MMA-specific. Examples of these techniques are his famous single necktie to dirty boxing and his underhook control while delivering punches.
Mark Coleman is another example of a fighter who modified the advantages of his discipline for MMA. Coleman used his top wrestling game to deliver devastating ground and pound strikes.
MMA is a melting pot which forces all competitors to evolve and modify their game one way or another. Sparring has a lot to do with this transformation. For example if you come from a karate background and you spar with kickboxers, you will learn how to deal with low kicks, the Muay Thai clinch, jabs, and hooks. Eventually you will become a kickboxer yourself although fans will still identify you as a karate fighter.
Champions from other fighting sports, on the other hand, put different challenges on the table when they start competing in MMA. Mark Coleman, Lyoto Machida, and Mirko Cro Cop had great success in the beginning of their careers until MMA trainers and athletes adapted to their fighting styles. I do not care who you are, if there is enough fighting footage for them to study, your opponents will train specifically for your strengths and weaknesses and will eventually be able to counter you. As a result, this changes the MMA game by enriching it with new tactics and skills. But keep in mind that specialists are always dangerous and well-rounded fighters should never underestimate them. A BJJ world champion only needs to secure a takedown to beat an MMA fighter. A kickboxer only needs to land once.
In order to expand and sharpen your MMA arsenal, you need to train with specialists of other sports any chance you get. GSP, for example, had training bases in Greg Jackson’s and Firaz Zahabi’s gyms, but also had a boxing coach, a Muay Thai coach, a wrestling coach, and others. This provided him with the opportunity to raise his level way above the average MMA sparring partner’s. Rolling with a BJJ world champion is not the same as grappling with your average MMA grappler. Finding good sparring/grappling partners is always a difficult task but is worth the effort.
The way I look at it, an MMA coach is an architect trying to build a house using the best materials and methods provided by specialized craftsmen. Individual sports are rivers of wisdom that join in the ocean which is MMA. So, in order to get better in MMA we should appreciate and study all effective forms of fighting in their own sport rules, and at the highest levels. But it takes a true MMA coach to know what works in MMA and what does not. To know, for example, that an overhook in the clinch will save you from getting knocked out in boxing but in MMA it will give an underhook to your opponent, and probably a takedown opportunity. Same techniques under different rules may produce different results.
A follower asked me on Twitter how he can identify a specialized MMA coach instead of the common BJJ or kickboxing coach teaching MMA. Unfortunately, this is no easy task. Our sport is relatively new and everybody seems to be learning through trial and error. There are not many MMA masterminds out there. It seems to me that coaches who have a grasp of the MMA game are Javier Mendez, Greg Jackson, and Matt Hume. Their fighters apply gameplans and tactics that go well beyond your traditional kickboxing or grappling game. For example, they combine the use of the cage, wrestling, and grinding to make opponents carry their weight and work harder.
These coaches’ conceptual framework is the “study of the game”. I first heard about the “game” concept from BJJ legend Marcelo Garcia. He focuses on teaching and understanding the grappling game as a whole rather than a list of individual techniques. Each move is a part of a puzzle, creating opportunities or countering attacks. What comes before and after every move is important, but the game is not just comprised of techniques in chains or combinations. Tactics and objectives are also very important.