Wrestling vs. BJJ is an often-discussed debate, and for good reason. There’s something awe-inspiring about full contact sports that always draws a crowd, and when you match up opposing combat styles, the fight is even more dynamic. Even just watching two combatants face off in a ring in a bout of strength, speed and skill is invigorating and gives you a surge of energy.
It's no surprise then, that since its introduction into the world of fitness in the 1990s, the popularity of mixed-martial arts (MMA) has grown to a worldwide audience. The number of MMA practitioners in the United States alone is nearly 980,000.
Among the various styles of martial arts demonstrated in MMA circuits, there are two that often stand out from the crowd: traditional wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ). Although they are outwardly very similar, they differ sharply in history and technique.
Which one is more effective in MMA?
Which one makes you a better fighter?
How do they differ?
We’ll explore all of these questions and examine the benefits and drawbacks of each fighting style.
A Brief History of BJJ
Many of the most popular martial arts and fighting styles have roots going back thousands of years, but not BJJ. While Jiu-jitsu history dates back to feudal Japan, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is relatively recent, introduced within the last half century.
It’s also one of the fastest growing martial arts today, practiced by nearly 3 million people.
It’s not hard to see why. BJJ practitioners consistently rank among the most prominent UFC fighters, including Brian Ortega, Charles Olivera and Demian Maia.
Martial arts are often thought of as an Eastern tradition.
So how did they come to Brazil?
Jiu-Jitsu was originally developed in feudal Japan for use by Samurai. It was intended as a way for Samurai noblemen to defend themselves if they were disarmed and dismounted, unable to use swords and lances and relying on bodies and fists.
In 1882, Jiu-Jitsu master Jigoro Kano founded the Kodokan Martial Arts Academy and developed what we know today as Judo, a martial art that features throws, takedowns, and locks. It was designed to use your opponent’s strength against them.
One day, Jigoro Kano asked his top students to travel the world and demonstrate the efficacy of Jiu-Jitsu against other fighting styles. Mitsuo Maeda, one of his top instructors, made his way to Brazil in 1914.
In the city of Belém, Maeda would challenge local fighters and capoeiristas almost twice his size and take them down with ease. Eventually, he made friends with a prominent businessman named Gastao Gracie. Together, they reached an agreement: Gracie would help Maeda secure Brazilian citizenship in return for teaching his sons martial arts.
Carlos Gracie, one of those sons, went on to develop a style of Jiu-Jitsu appropriate for his smaller stature, which favored joint locks and choke holds over throws and takedowns. He went on to develop Brazil’s first Jiu-Jitsu academy.
Half a century later, in the 1970s, Carlos Gracie’s descendent Rorion co-founded a new martial arts tournament, the Ultimate Fighting Championship, that demonstrated the value of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu over other fighting styles. He appointed his son Royce to be BJJ’s representative.
And so, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu thrives today.
A Brief History of Wrestling
Compared to BJJ, a fairly recent phenomena, wrestling has roots going back thousands of years.
Wrestling, also called submission wrestling (also known as submission grappling) or combat wrestling, is recognized as the world’s oldest sport. Its origins date back to 3000 BC, where it’s depicted on cave drawings in France.
It was popularized by the Ancient Greeks with its introduction into the Olympic Games in 708 BC. In those days, wrestling was intended to help train soldiers in the art of hand-to-hand combat.
The rules were simple. The first person to throw their opponent on their back, hips, chest, knees or elbows, or throw them out of the ring altogether, was the winner.
The traditions of wrestling were carried on by the Roman Empire until 393 A.D., when emperor Theodosius I prohibited Pagan practices after making Christianity the state religion. He also outlawed the Olympic games.
Centuries later, wrestling was revived by aristocrats and noble houses in Medieval and Renaissance Europe. It was reintroduced into the Olympic Games in 1904, and gained international popularity when the International Amateur Wrestling Federation was established shortly after.
There are eight disciplines of wrestling globally, which include:
- MMA and Combat Grappling
- Beach Wrestling
- Oil Wrestling - Turkish
- Sambo - Soviet Union
There are also regional versions of wrestling in Tajikistan, Iran, India, England, Italy, Switzerland, China and Korea.
Wrestling vs. BJJ Rules
Most competitive fighting styles and martial arts have ranking systems to denote experience level, as well as rules and a point system for matches.
In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, there are three ways you can win a match:
- Make your opponent submit
- Win by scoring enough points - earned by moves such as takedowns, sweeps, and guard passes
- When your opponent does something illegal, which disqualifies them
The scoring system in BJJ is as follows:
- 2 points: Takedowns, sweeps, and knee on belly
- 3 points: Guard pass
- 4 points: Mount or back mount
Belts are earned via time on the mat and your instructor’s recommendations. The more you show up to class, train, fight and compete, the faster you’ll progress.
The minimum time required to earn each belt is described in a ranking system, with the listed time referring to the amount of time you must have the previous belt to advance:
Blue: 2 years
Purple: 1.5 years
Brown: 1 year
Black: 31 years
Red and Black (Master’s belt): 7 years
Red and White (Master’s belt): 10 years
Red (Grandmaster): Undefined
Wrestling has no official progression system like BJJ or other martial arts. It’s more similar to traditional sports like baseball and football in that it’s based on stats and winning averages: the more bouts you win, the better wrestler you are.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has three wrestling divisions: Divisions 1, 2 and 3, with Division 1 being the most competitive.
There are two types of wrestling practiced internationally: Greco-Roman Wrestling, where grappling is allowed above the waist only, and Freestyle Wrestling (AKA catch-as-catch-can), which allows grabs both above and below the belt. The two competitors start from a standing position and grapple each other to the ground. The goal is to get your opponent to a take-down position and pin them on their shoulders or back from a top-dominant position.
Wrestling matches happen in three rounds. You win either by pinning your opponent to the ground for at least two seconds or scoring the most points in the three rounds.
The scoring system is as follows:
- Takedown: 2 Points
- Reversal: 2 Points
- Near Fall for 2 seconds: 2 Points
- Near Fall for 5 seconds: 3 Points
Wrestling and BJJ Uniforms
In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, there are two types of classes and competitions you can attend: Gi or no-Gi.
Which type is best is a matter of debate in BJJ circles. In Gi training you wear a traditional Gi kimono and belt signifying your ranking. In no-Gi, you wear board shorts and a compression shirt.
Competitors can also be distinguished by their team patches and corporate sponsors.
Proponents of no-Gi BJJ argue that its similarity to a street fight makes it more realistic, compared to Gi training which allows you to grapple your opponent’s collar or lapel. They also argue that the lack of a Gi forces more reliance on strength and speed.
The two uniform types also differ in respective rules; for example, heel hooks are allowed in no-Gi competitions but forbidden in Gi bouts.
In wrestling, the uniforms are much more standardized. All uniforms consist of ear protectors, a singlet, a mouth guard and wrestling shoes.
Wrestling vs. BJJ: Injuries
The intense takedowns and chokeholds involved in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu would lead you to assume that people are constantly breaking bones and losing teeth.
However, the academic literature on the topic proves the opposite is true. BJJ is actually one of the safest martial arts in terms of sustained injuries.
A 2014 Study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine showed that BJJ practice has a substantially lower risk of injury than wrestling, as well as other martial arts such as taekwondo and MMA. It has an incidence rate of just 46 in every 5022 risk exposures. The most common injuries are orthopedic, with an incidence rate of just 0.7%.
Should You Learn BJJ or Wrestling?
Both wrestling and BJJ are noteworthy fighting styles with unique advantages and disadvantages. Many wrestlers cross-train in BJJ and vice versa to make them into more versatile fighters.
Instead of asking which one is better, consider what each has to offer.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Advantages and Disadvantages
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is beginner-friendly and designed for all body types. It has a global audience with schools and academies all over the world.
It’s also highly effective for self-defense - particularly in situations where you find yourself on the ground - and will get you into peak physical condition.
However, BJJ is very difficult to master, particularly at competitive levels where the high ranks can take years or decades to attain.
Is BJJ harder than wrestling? That question depends entirely on the devotion and skill of the athlete, but the technical techniques involved in BJJ are certainly challenging to master.
Wrestling Advantages and Disadvantages
Wrestling is notorious for having some of the most physically demanding conditioning and workouts of any competitive sport. Stick with wrestling for long enough and every muscle in your body will be honed to its peak.
However, wrestling doesn’t have much of an audience outside of the United States. Its demanding workout routine also means it has a steep learning curve. Another disadvantage of wrestling when it comes to MMA success is that it doesn’t include many finishing techniques- instead emphasizing the initial takedown.
Wrestling vs. BJJ in MMA
Both wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu have interesting and colorful histories with a slew of experienced fighters and combatants within the UFC and other martial arts circuits. Each of them has something to bring to the table in terms of technique, philosophy and fighting style; As such, when trying to definitively choose between wrestling vs. BJJ for MMA fighting, it unsatisfyingly depends.
It depends on the opposing fighter’s style, the fighter’s skill, and how the respective techniques are deployed in the fight.
The intense physical conditioning required for wrestling is well-suited to intense, long bouts in the ring, but Jiu-jitsu’s emphasis on stance and leverage are great for taking on opponents of any fighting style.
Comparing the two is a bit like comparing apples and oranges- each have their own merits, and can be devastatingly effective if used correctly. Your best bet, if choosing between Jiu-jitsu and wrestling for MMA fighting, is to not only master your own martial art, but learn the advantages and disadvantages of the other in order to counter them in the ring.
If you want to prepare yourself for training in either wrestling or BJJ, it’s important that you protect yourself with the right equipment and gear, as in any martial art. Be sure to check out our line of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu equipment, and set off on the path to being the best fighter you can be.