With over 170 martial art disciplines available to try, you may feel daunted by the decision of which is best suited to your athleticism, style, and goals. It may seem silly to overthink which one to start with, but it can be quite impactful, setting you up for success with other martial arts and also encouraging you to stick with it. If you choose the wrong discipline that is ill-fitted to your ambitions, you could quit before really giving it a chance and finding the best discipline for you.
BJJ vs. MMA: What discipline should you choose? MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu) are interesting to compare because one is a larger expansion of the other. MMA is ‘mixed,’ meaning it combines martial arts like Muay Thai, judo, taekwondo, karate, boxing and wrestling. On the other hand, BJJ is a groundwork martial art of floor-grappling that is more specialized.
Our goal is that by the end of this article, you understand the pros and cons of MMA versus BJJ and can determine which is best for varying purposes. You may end up loving both sports, but you’ll never know until you learn what they’re each about!
What is MMA?
You can say you’re ready to start Mixed Martial Arts – but that could mean hundreds of things! It is not nearly as specific as saying you want to begin at Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which is only one type of martial art.
MMA is comprised of hundreds of styles, and you can learn at any age! Children and grandparents alike enjoy getting in touch with their bodies, learning some self-defense, and slowing down their approach to grounding.
Some of the most popular MMA varieties include:
- Brazilian Jiu Jitsu – lots of chokes, leg locks, compression locks, grappling on the ground, submission holds, and floor-work.
- Judo – A more modern category of martial arts, this combat sport originates in the late 1880s in Japan. It is a full-contact sport that is mostly comprised of keeping your balance while your opponent attempts to throw you to the ground, flat on your back. Judo is responsible for the hip toss and other notorious throws.
- Classic Boxing – Often, people consider this MMA based on the televised format of ESPN’s MMA. And yes indeed, the kickboxing form of grappling and punching is MMA, there is simply more to it than this.
- Muay Thai – This complex sport is wonderful for those progressing in their martial arts journey, but not always the easiest place to start for a beginner. The real highlight of Muay Thai is your ability to utilize your entire body. It is called the ‘Art of Eight Limbs’ because one has to shift their knees, hands, elbows, forearms, and every small aspect of their body to control their opponent. It is very calculated and beautiful to watch.
- Wrestling- Submissions, choke holds, arm holds, mounting and jumping on, uppercuts, any of these performer-oriented defense mechanisms. Western and Televised wresting such as the WWE have transitioned the sport to be even more of a theatrical experience with the winner almost always being pre-determined.
These are just a few of the varieties that comprise Mixed Martial Arts, a wide-ranging artform indeed!
If you are looking for a comprehensive look at all martial art sports, MMA can be incredibly useful for this purpose. You will obtain clarity of what each discipline is about, and later be able to focus on the one you connect with most.
What is BJJ?
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (shortened to BJJ) is incredible to watch because it doesn’t matter the size of each opponent, as with wrestling, for example, where weights are greatly considered in each fighting class.
BJJ is inclusive and will teach anyone, any age, of any size – how to defend themselves more and feel confident in their body’s capabilities.
BJJ courses are not easy! It is an interconnected practice that will help you tap into your body and release your hold over the mind. It is a therapeutic practice like making art or running a mile. Sometimes the only way to control surfacing thoughts is to get out of your head and into your body.
You might think BJJ is from Brazil, but this is incorrect. Originating in Japan, it was formerly named the shortened, ‘Jiu Jitsu,’ and was utilized in samurai training. It moved from family to family around Japan through the 1800s until the 1900s when a man named Mitsuo Maeda traveled to Brazil.
As the History of BJJ describes, “The art of BJJ continued to evolve over the years, eventually incorporating aspects of wrestling and other grappling arts into the curriculum. However, BJJ would remain relatively unknown outside of Brazil until Hélio’s son, Rorion, immigrated to the United States to spread the art of BJJ—a move that would forever change the way the world viewed the art of fighting.”
There are 4 major pillars within the artform of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:
- Classic BJJ
- No-Gi Version
- MMA Version
There are different styles, head guards, and even garments for each style, taking their own signature approach to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
BJJ will be ideal for someone that doesn’t want to be thrown into dozens of different fighting styles at once. If you want to focus your attention on one martial art at a time, BJJ is a wonderful place to start.
Pros of MMA
The tried and true tactic of pros and cons never fails! Yes, overused. And yes, effective.
By offering you the pros and cons of each, you should instinctively know which direction sounds more appealing for you to move in.
The pros of MMA include:
- MMA offers you a taste of every flavor! If you’re undecided, you can sample them all and then move forward with a clearer concept of each practice. Just because you walk into a Martial Arts facility, does not mean you have to know what you’re seeking to learn about. Just as you can walk into an ice cream shop and sample the rainbow, MMA will give you a snippet of each.
- It is a very athletic sport that involved striking – so you will learn to fight. It may cause you some pain depending on the discipline you are working with, but you will see some degree of improvement over time in your ability to defend yourself.
- You will recognize danger more easily – Again, with this being a more physical and fighting-oriented sport compared to BJJ, which is more about grappling, you will have a heightened radar for situations of conflict. They will train you on surprise attacks. If someone dangerous tries to harm you in public, and of course, self-defense. All of this will lend itself to you being a more instinctual human that is able to recognize harmful situations and environments.
- MMA is believed by many to be the purest form of combat.
- You don’t have to pay for multiple memberships for Judo, BJJ, Kickboxing, etc. You only have one membership with everything all in one place.
- May be best for self-defense, being that it is so versatile.
- Will be more concentrated on standing-combat rather than ground-fighting.
- Weight loss is common
- Increase in focus is common
Cons of MMA
Everything is a double-sided coin. Along with the wonderful positives, there are, of course, noteworthy negatives to consider.
Some of the cons of MMA you should consider include:
- Most Importantly – You’re a jack of all trades, master of none.
- It is a more violent sport.
- Many argue not as good for self-defense as BJJ. Many argue better than BJJ, but this is a debatable point.
- Not always recommended for young children due to its high-combat orientation. It is great for children to be offered a start to self-defense, and most classes for young children are adapted for each age group.
- You will learn some of each combat methodology which can lend itself to future combat, but also could affect your long-term approach or ability to adapt to other disciplines. MMA is argued by many to be the best place to start, yet, others say it will affect your style too much due to it being so versatile.
- MMA is more expensive because you are paying for the versatility and oftentimes, multiple coaches/trainers.
- You may end up paying for more than you want. If you only want BJJ, Judo, and Muay Thai, yet you are paying for wrestling, kickboxing, and karate – you could be losing money in this deal.
- Starting off with MMA will almost certainly impact your approach to other martial arts sports. This can be good, and oftentimes, this can be bad because you are not starting out on an even playing field to absorb the foundations of those smaller niches.
- Some say to start with MMA only if you want to end with MMA. If you don’t want to get trapped in that mentality or approach, practice each discipline independently and then later come to MMA.
Pros of BJJ
More and more people are starting to recognize the incredible value of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with more than 13,000 per capita rate of, “BJJ practitioners, divided by 13,000,000,’ offers, ‘a total of 324,000 people doing BJJ in the U.S. alone,” according to The Martial Arts Stack Exchange.
Some of the pros to consider about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu include:
- You can compete with any opponent of any size! This is one of the most unique aspects of BJJ. As compared to MMA and forms like wrestling where you will have an opponent similar to your size and weight class, BJJ will permit any two people to grapple.
- Since the sport is not about your size, only your strength, and ability, it does not discriminate in height or weight.
- Great for all ages!
- It is more heavily-focused on close-combat, and grappling on the ground, instead of striking or self-defense combat that we see with MMA.
- You don’t have to pay for classes you’re not even taking. As with MMA, where you may only enjoy 3-6 out of the 10 classes offered, it may be more feasible for you to only pay for the specific courses and disciplines that you favor, instead of all.
- Frequently cheaper than MMA, depending on the instructor’s reputation, skill-level, and the geographical location.
- It is considered a more submission-based art that teaches you to get your opponent to submit, less violence being required. Some of the things you will be taught include chokes, sweeps to known someone down, ankle-locks, head locks, bars, and other submissive-movements. Practices never get violent because the student simply taps the ground when they are ‘tapping out.’
- It offers the champion power but not in a disturbing way as some violent MMA’s can be perceived. It is often more powerful for an audience to watch someone win for strength without blood, rather than watching someone whale mercilessly on a weaker opponent.
- You will learn more about body balance, coordination, and physics through BJJ than most other MMA practices. You will learn the foundations of physics on a physical level (no pun intended) because you are constantly practicing knocking someone to the ground.
- Continuing that point, BJJ is considered more intellectual than many disciplines within MMA, more strategic with step-by-step methodologies that incorporate physics and balance. This is a matter of debate and will also depend on the trainer you select.
- Perfect for self-defense in an unarmed 1-1 combat.
- It can be less overwhelming than MMA to start with.
- Great exercise! If you’re just looking for a good work out or to burn off some physical energy, BJJ is sure to do that.
- You are focusing on one style, therefore able to be a master of one instead of a jack of all trades.
Cons of BJJ
Now that you’re getting the hang of each, a synopsis on the cons for BJJ include:
- Fighters like Mackenzie Dern that practice both MMA and BJJ, say that both are indispensable. Dern says that after starting with BJJ, she moved to MMA once she felt all of her goals had been reached in BJJ, and there was nowhere else to grow to. We list this as a con against BJJ because MMA is broader and, therefore, can take you further.
- Less violent – which could be a negative-quality for some people.
- Not the best for cardio or striking. As we’ve covered, striking will be covered in MMA.
- It does not teach you protection as deeply as other comprehensive MMA sports. It is more focused on what you’re putting out to grapple, not positions to protect your groin, weak spots, etc.
- Not ideal for combat that is not one-on-one. If you are attacked by a group, BJJ training will not be as helpful as MMA training.
- Not always applicable to real-world scenarios because there won’t be a cozy, soft mat there to land on. It can offer you a false sense of confidence from practicing in a cushioned arena.
- It can increase skin-infections and issues because you are rubbing directly with sweaty opponents, direct contact that can cause skin irritations, rashes. Etc. It is also linked to conditions such as Hematomas (known as cauliflower eyes), and Polyarthralgia (joint weakness).
- Some feel BJJ is only worthwhile when you combine it with other skills such as Wrestling, Muay Thai, or Judo.
Questions to Consider Before Making Your Choice
Some questions to ask yourself in determining the best martial arts discipline for your needs is to consider the following:
- Do you thrive learning through versatility or narrowed-focus?
- Do you have specific practices you want to learn more about (Judo, BJJ, Karate, etc.)? Which practice would offer you the most of what you (technique-wise) are seeking to do?
- Do you want to strike or avoid striking?
- Are you learning self-defense because you were recently attacked or harassed? You want the best approach for self-defense in a non-gym environment.
- Would you prefer to set your attention on one discipline at a time, or do you thrive under the pressure of being thrown into all?
- Do you want to be a jack of all trades or a master of one?
- Would you prefer to be a master of one, and then progress to other disciplines?
- How much time will you have to master a martial art? Will narrow focus fit into your schedule better?
Weighing and Comparing the Differences?
Now taking what we know about each discipline, consider the differences:
- MMA is like going through a large-scale school, while BJJ will be more akin to a single class.
- You will probably have multiple teachers in MMA (one for Jiu Jitsu, one for Striking, one for Kickboxing, one for Judo, etc.) With BJJ, you won’t be shifted around to multiple instructors, so perhaps it is easier to find one that you connect with most.
- Learning everything all at once can be daunting. At the same time, there are scientific studies behind how our brains shut down with stability. If it becomes too consistent and predictable, we literally stop learning. In this piece called, “Science Has Just Confirmed That If You’re Not Outside Your Comfort Zone, You’re Not Learning,” they describe that stability is the murderer of learning. Due to this, perhaps you should choose the discipline that is most challenging and overwhelming for you, as a methodology to approach it and stick with it longer. If you’re unstimulated, you may give up prematurely.
- It is usually easier to take on one discipline at a time, especially under the condition that you are brand new to both Martial Arts and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
- If you start with one, you can build upon that later, which tends to be easier. This is the framework for elementary school even (think, addition, then multiplication, then division). It all builds upwards instead of throwing each technique at you all at once.
- If you’ve wrestled before or have some kind of physical-contact-sport experience, perhaps BJJ will be a great contract to the work you’ve already done in standing-combat.
Other Martial Art Practices to Consider
If these two are already starting to feel like the wrong fit, let us offer you more alternatives!
Some great martial arts to consider (in tandem with BJJ and MMA, or as a substitute), as well as their core-strengths, include:
- Aikido – Not the best for self-defense but very fun! It teaches you things like wrist-locks and controlling your opponent into submission, similarly to BJJ. Used to train swordsmanship, it is very focused on grabbing the wrists and limbs of your attackers.
- Muay Thai – A form of boxing, Muay Thai has always been greatly recognized for its self-defense value. You will see lots of knee-strikes and hits that really disorient your opponent. There are large repercussions in this sport and a higher likelihood of injury, so perhaps this practice is best suited to older teenagers or adults, less-suited for young children. One thing to note about Muay Thai is that it won’t teach you ground sparring, grappling, or the key takeaways that BJJ will offer you, so maybe it is best to learn both!
- Karate – How can we leave this off of our list of alternatives? One of the most popular disciplines in the United States and Globally, with over “100 Million people on five continents and 192 countries,” currently practicing Karate, it is undeniably a global phenomenon. Karate is recommended for young children and even adults as an ideal starting place for beginners.
- Wing Chun – This lesser-known style of kung Fu has been used since the early origins of Buddhism. Created by a woman that wanted a self-defense style that would transcend her gender, Wing Chun is a meditative practice that is focused on balance primarily. The inspiration for the martial art form came from animals like the Crane, displaying poetic balance and grace.
- Judo – Since it comes from a rich history with the samurais, this ancient practice will teach you about choking, armlocks, and blocks. It will not focus on strikes, so it may not be best for self-defense, but of course, this is all useful and fluid information that applies throughout MMA.
- Krav Maga – This is a Hebrew term that literally translates to ‘Contact Fighting.’ If you’re looking to strike, this is the place to learn, while also combining aspects of kickboxing and wrestling. It is often considered the best practice for self-defense.
This list from Home Alarm Report ranks BJJ as #1 for self-defense, Muay Thai as #2, and MMA as the last on the list at #5. This is only one perspective but add it to your cultivated list of research.
Final Thoughts on Each Discipline
As you can see, it is a subjective matter and highly dependent on your own personal goals for martial arts. Both MMA and BJJ offer great value to any fighter and will contribute skills to your life that can ripple into everything you do.
For each discipline, you will see the commonalities of:
- Getting stronger
- Becoming more balanced (physically and emotionally)
- Finding a community of like-minded individuals
- Learning respect for your opponent, and therefore, other people.
Most gyms will offer you a free lesson or complimentary consultation. Take advantage of these to determine which practice you’d prefer to start with. You really won’t know until you experience the difference for yourself. Each is a martial art practice that demands immersion and engagement.
Beginning with either MMA or BJJ are wonderful moves to make, and neither could be considered ‘wrong.’ You can only determine which is calling to you most, which offers the tactics you want to learn the most, and which seems to give you the best foundation.
Verdict: MMA or BJJ?
No matter what decision you make, the gym won’t matter more than your mentality and confidence going into a new discipline. Your attitude will determine your success.
Some final tips to help simplify the above research are:
- If you don’t want to be hit in the face – Choose BJJ
- If you want to learn how to strike/punch/hit – Choose MMA
- If you want to learn more balance and coordination – Choose BJJ
- If you want more real-life applicability – Choose MMA
- If you are younger (or a parent) and want the less violent practice – Choose BJJ
- If you are older and prepared for strikes – Choose MMA
- If you are shorter/larger/taller/smaller, etc. and don’t want that to determine your opponent – Choose BJJ
- If you want your opponent to match your height/weight class and not be 5xs larger or smaller than you – Choose MMA
- If you want a taste of everything – Choose MMA
- If you want to master one skill before moving forward – Choose BJJ
Clearly, it’s not a one-size-fits-all. Our overall goal for this guide is to encourage you to try both!
Both of these practices will offer you community, confidence, and discipline that can be applied to every aspect of your life.
Your gym will become a home away from home find a place you truly connect with as this will help you stick with it longer, creating an environment where you can learn about multiple MMA practices.
No matter what you’re seeking from MMA, there is a discipline for you.
For more martial arts comparisons check out our BJJ vs. Everybody Section.