What is Grappling and Why Does It Matter? A Beginner’s Guide

The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) has brought many types of martial arts into the public eye. However, while we all instinctively appreciate a crisp punch to the face, many of us need Joe Rogan to explain the significance of grappling exchanges.

If you’re interested in understanding how these techniques work or learning to apply them yourself, here’s an introduction to the basics of grappling. Let’s explore what it is, why it matters, and some of the most popular styles.

What is Grappling?

Grappling refers to a broad category of martial arts and combat sports techniques that involve grabbing or holding your opponent. It’s a close-quarters approach that allows you to physically control your opponent through extended, direct contact.

In many cases, your goal as a grappler is to force your opponent to the ground and pin them from a dominant position. In some grappling sports, that’s game over, but some ground grappling martial arts also seek to apply submissions, such as strangleholds or joint locks.

Grappling styles stand in contrast with striking martial arts, which revolve around attacking opponents from a distance with techniques like punches and kicks.

The differences between the two are so great that learning one can even hinder your ability to apply the other. However, you should aim to be competent in both skill sets if you want to be a well-rounded fighter capable of defending yourself.

Why Is Grappling Important?

Grappling has risen to prominence in the United States primarily by riding the back (pun intended) of mixed martial arts (MMA) and the UFC. The skill level is now high enough that you must be able to grapple effectively to win an MMA fight at the highest levels.

However, grappling isn’t only important to would-be MMA fighters. In particular, the popularization of the sport of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has made grappling relevant to thousands of hobbyists.

There’s been an explosion in the number and availability of BJJ gyms, making it so that virtually anyone can hop on a mat and train. It’s a great way to get some exercise, join a community, and learn a valuable skill.

Even if you have no interest in becoming a competitor, knowing how to grapple is a fantastic self-defense tool. Things often go to the ground in a street fight. Training in grappling is the best way to learn to avoid that, or at least recover if it happens.

Top Grappling Fighting Styles

Like striking, grappling is a pretty wide category of martial arts disciplines. Just as there are many types of striking styles, such as boxing, karate, and Thai kickboxing, there are also many types of grappling.

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular.


Wrestling is arguably the most popular grappling art in the world and the best foundation for MMA. It employs lower-body and upper-body takedowns and emphasizes pinning an opponent’s shoulders to the ground.

However, there are many sport wrestling rulesets, which have given rise to just as many wrestling styles. For example, some of the most common include:

  • Freestyle wrestling
  • Folkstyle wrestling
  • Greco-Roman wrestling

These styles differ primarily in the type of takedown techniques they favor and their approach once things hit the ground. They’re also more or less common depending on where you live.

Folkstyle, also referred to as collegiate style, is almost exclusively American. Meanwhile, freestyle and Greco-Roman are universal, with both being included as events in the Olympic Games.

Whatever the style, wrestling is usually practiced in shoes and a singlet, which is quite different from other grappling uniforms. The shoes give you the ability to push off the ground much more effectively, and the singlet is low friction compared to a gi or kimono.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ)

BJJ is a relatively young grappling style, having only been developed in the 19020s by members of the infamous Gracie family. However, the popularity of the combat sport has surged in the United States in the last few decades.

Jiu jitsu moves heavily emphasize ground grappling, including fighting off of one’s back from the bottom position. It also places a high premium on submission holds, such as its famed triangle choke, a technique that uniquely attacks the upper body with the legs.

Though traditionally practiced in the gi, which is the pajama-looking outfit worn by mall karate experts across the country, no-gi jiu-jitsu is becoming increasingly popular. Also referred to as submission grappling, it’s typically practiced in shorts and a rashguard.

Learn More: Your First BJJ Class: What to Expect and How to Prepare


Judo is one of the older grappling styles still in popular use today. Originally developed by Jigoro Kano in late 1800s Japan, it’s actually BJJ’s ancestor, so to speak.

Mitsuyo Maeda, a student of Jigoro Kano’s student, brought judo to Brazil. There, he passed his teachings to Carlos Gracie. Carlos and his younger brother, Helio, eventually popularized what’s known as BJJ today.

Like wrestlers, judo players tend to focus primarily on grappling techniques from the standing position. In competition, referees stand players up as soon as the ground fighting stalls out, and throwing someone on their back ends the match immediately.

Judo competition rules also prohibit techniques that involve grabbing your opponent’s legs. As a result, judo players have a very upright stance and employ throws and takedowns that involve making grips on the upper body.

Unlike BJJ, judo is still almost exclusively practiced in the gi. However, many of its techniques can be applied without the kimono in submission wrestling or MMA. For example, the great Ronda Rousey used her Olympic-level judo to dominate in the cage.

What is Grappling in MMA?

In mixed martial arts (MMA), grappling has become essential for success at the highest level. Many of the most dominant champions in the UFC use grappling-heavy styles to dominate their opponents positionally and finish them with strikes or submissions.

Some examples include:

  • Georges St. Pierre (GSP)
  • Khabib Nurmagomedov
  • Charles Oliveira

Each of these fighters has their own style of grappling. For example, GSP specialized in shoot-boxing, which combines boxing with wrestling shots. Meanwhile, Oliveira has razor-sharp BJJ with excellent submissions, even off his back.

That said, effective grappling in MMA is almost always a blend of multiple styles. Each art has its strengths, and fighters need to be competent on their feet, on top of their opponents, on their backs, and up against the cage.

What Grappling Martial Art Should You Learn First?

The differences between grappling styles run surprisingly deep. As a result, the discipline that makes the most sense for you can vary depending on your circumstances and personal preferences.

Factors like where you live, how much you can afford to spend, and your reasons for training significantly impact which one makes the most sense for you.

Generally, wrestling and judo are best started at an early age. They’re both high-intensity styles that are often too much for someone who has to go to work the next day. Besides, there are relatively few gyms for adults, but kids can wrestle for their schools.

In contrast, BJJ is relatively low impact since it doesn’t emphasize the standing position. Gyms are also much more common, making that style of sport grappling much more accessible for adults looking to pick up a new hobby.

Ultimately, BJJ is probably the best place to start for someone interested in grappling for fun. Of course, the situation is totally different if you’re looking to become a professional MMA fighter, in which case you should go to your coach for advice on what skills to focus on.

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