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The Top Wrestling Styles of MMA Fighters

By Robert Rousseau,
Those with a wrestling background have historically done very well in mixed martial arts. However, Americans tend to have a somewhat narrow minded view of what the term 'wrestling' means.

Let's put it this way: Freestyle and Greco-Roman aren't the only varieties of wrestling out there.

According to the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles there are four types of wrestling internationally, all of which have influenced the sport of mixed martial arts. In addition, there are two lesser known styles of grappling that have found their way into MMA that must be mentioned.

To learn more about these styles of wrestling, read on.

The four varieties of grappling recognized by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles are:

Greco-Roman Wrestling

One of the three styles of amateur wrestling that is still utilized in the Olympic Games. Greco-Roman wrestling is derived from the Ancient Greeks and was practiced by Roman soldiers during ancient times. This style of wrestling sets itself apart from others in that attacks below the waist are forbidden.

Therefore, high throws are witnessed regularly in Greco-Roman competitions.

Two of the most famous MMA practitioners with a Greco-Roman background are UFC Hall of Famers, Randy Couture and Dan Severn.

Further, though he never entered into MMA competition, Russia's Alexander Karelin should be mentioned simply because he's the best Greco-Roman heavyweight practitioner in the history of the sport (a three time gold medalist).


Founded by Dr. Jigoro Kano of Japan in 1882. This sport, one which is in part derived and meshed with Japanese Jujutsu, emphasizes free sparring where half the time is spent on the feet practicing throws, called tachi-wasa, while the other half is spent on the ground ( ne-wasa ). Submissions, of course, are used on the ground. Though leglocks, wrist locks, and spinal locks are banned from competition, they are still sometimes taught in practice.

Early on, the Japanese wanted to keep the secrets of their martial arts from the western world ( particularly their jujutsu or jiu-jitsu ). Due to this, the form of Judo the Japanese divulged to the western world, at least initially, was devoid of many of the submissions that jujutsu or jiu-jitsu taught.

Even so, the secrets could not be contained forever. Mitsuyo Maeda brought the pure forms of Judo/ Jujutsu to the western world, via Brazil. In fact, Maeda taught Carlos Gracie initially, which eventually led to the development of Gracie Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Judo is still an Olympic sport today. Some popular MMA practitioners influenced by a Judo background are gold medalist, Hidehiko Yoshida, and the UFC's, Karo Parisyan ( a four time international Judo champion ).

Freestyle Wrestling

Unlike Greco-Roman wrestling, freestyle wrestling allows attacks to the entire body of the opponent. Takedowns and putting an opponent on their back are ways to score points. In addition, pinning an opponent wins a match.

Freestyle wrestling teaches single leg and double leg takedowns, both of which are highly ingrained in the sport of mixed martial arts.

Freestyle wrestlers have been extremely successful in MMA. Former UFC Champions, Tito Ortiz, Kevin Randleman, and Mark Coleman all have a freestyle background.

Russian Sambo

Sambo originated from the early work of several people including Vasili Oshchepkov, Victor Spiridonov, Anatoly Karlampiev, and I.V. Vasiliev. In short, it evolved as a result of early Russia's yearning to produce an elite fighting system for military and police personnel.

In trying to do this, the aforementioned pioneers brought together several forms of fighting with influences ranging from the Japanese arts ( Judo and Karate ) to Greco-Roman wrestling. In addition, they drew from the fighting styles of the Tatars, Vikings, Mongols, and native Russians.

Today Sambo is broken into three versions: Self- Defense Sambo ( for use in the street), Combat Sambo ( for the military but now often used in MMA ), and Sport Sambo ( for competitions ).

Sambo is known for it's outstanding takedowns ( much like Judo ), as well as its leglocks ( they allow leglocks in Sambo competitions unlike the other wrestling styles recognized by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles ).

Practitioners with a background in Sambo ( often termed Sombo by the western world ) have been highly successful in MMA. Fighters such as PRIDE Heavyweight Champion, Fedor Emelianenko, former UFC Heavyweight Champion, Andrei Arlovski, and former Ultimate Fighting Champion, Oleg Taktarov, were born from the art.

The following two styles of wrestling are not recognized by the International Federation of Associated Wrestling Styles. However, their influence on MMA has been paramount.

Catch Wrestling

Appears to have developed as a result of European styles ( catch-as-can, collar-and-elbow ) blending with jiu-jitsu. Catch wrestling is most widely known as the kind of grappling seen at carnivals across the United States in the late 1800's and early 1900's.

In short, catch wrestling is all about submissions ( often termed 'hooks' ) in the sport. Therefore, some of the most popular early catch wrestlers - Frank Gotch, Great Gama, and Ad Santel - were called 'hookers'.

In fact, Ad Santel was involved in one of the first mixed martial arts style events when he took on Tokugoro Ito, the World Judo Champion, back in 1914. Santel defeated Ito in that first encounter and had further success in such matches later on.

MMA fighters with catch wrestling backgrounds include Kazushi Sakuraba ( The Gracie Killer ) and former UFC Champions, Josh Barnett and Frank Shamrock.

Shoot Wrestling

Shoot wrestling was influenced by a host of martial arts including catch wrestling, freestyle wrestling, Greco-Roman wrestling, Pehlwani, Karate, and Muay Thai. However, it was clearly most influenced by catch wrestling through former American and Japanese wrestling great, Karl Gotch (real name Karl Istaz).

Gotch learned catch wrestling in the famous Snake Pit gym under Billy Riley. He competed and learned all over the world, but once he got to Japan, he achieved stardom. In fact, he taught catch wrestling to several famous Japanese fighters including Antonio Inoki (the man who fought Muhammad Ali in what many consider a staged match), Tatsumi Fujinami, Yoshiaki Fujiwara, Satoru Sayama, Masami Soranaka, and Akira Maeda. All of these students already had a basis in martial arts before learning catch wrestling, which in essence meshed with what Gotch taught them to evolve into something else.

Shoot wrestling.

Later, Inoki went on to pioneer New Japan Pro Wrestling, an organization that promoted these "strong style," wrestling techniques. Eventually, however, shoot wrestling found its way into Japan's Universal Wrestling Federation (1984). After the Universal Wrestling Federation broke up, shoot wrestling broke into several disciplines as outline below.

Pancrase - Formed by two of Yoshiaki Fujiwara's students: Masakatsu Funaki and Minoru Suzuki. Fujiwara had a background in Judo and Muay Thai before learning from Gotch, and these influences can be seen in the organization. Ken Shamrock, "The World's Most Dangerous Man," fought many times in Pancrase.

Shootfighting - Bart Vale (another student of Fujiwara) formed this organization.

Shooto - Sayama's style of shoot wrestling includes Muay Thai style kicks.

RINGS - Akira Maeda's style of shoot wrestling. It focuses on submissions.

Shoot Boxing - Formed by a kickboxer, it emphasizes stand up fighting, including standing submissions as influenced by catch wrestling.

Combat Submission Wrestling - Influenced by leglock guru, Erik Paulson. It is a modified form of Shooto.

Please note that these organizations continue to evolve.

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