If You Could Only Practice One Martial Art

As I’ve begun to spend more time with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I am realizing that my opportunities to practice are limited.  I have two small children, a full-time job, and I need extra time to recover from workouts now that I am in my 40s.  For most of my early life I had the tendency to think in all-or-nothing terms.  For example, if I couldn’t become a black belt in every martial art, then I wouldn’t make time to study any of them.  This is a completely self-sabotaging attitude, and it is one that has taken time (and doses of reality) to adjust.

This whole entry is one of those “If I only had time to practice one martial art, what would it be?” thought experiments.  Bret Contreras has a terrific article along these lines regarding strength training.  https://bretcontreras.com/if-you-could-only-do-one-lift/.  My conclusions with the martial arts are certainly up for debate.  I’m not a professional, or even amateur fighter.  However, martial arts have been a significant part of most of my life, and I have trained and sparred with professional fighters over the years.  I won’t be inside the UFC cage anytime soon, but everyone has their own path.

This isn’t necessarily written for those with UFC aspirations.  It is written for those with time and budget limitations who would like a good command of some practical, effective aspects of martial arts training.  So, here is my ranking of martial arts combinations in the style of Bret Contreras.  Feel free to tear this whole thing down with your own opinions.  After all, it is purely my own hypothetical experiment.  Ultimately, it is the martial artist, rather than the martial art, that wins a fight.

If you could only do one and you start young…

Wrestling:  This is the art that can branch off into anything else rather easily.  The transition from Wrestling to BJJ is much easier than the transition from Taekwondo to BJJ.  I added the qualifier “and you start young” because it is challenging to find a gym focused exclusively on Wrestling that caters to adults.  Most kids start and compete in school settings.  There is something other-worldly about wrestlers who start as children that is hard to articulate — this immense speed and power that you just can’t develop if you start in your 30s.  You can learn to wrestle at any age of course, but a lifelong wrestler is just going to put you wherever he or she likes in most cases.  They will take a boxer with no grappling experience to the ground with ease.

While there aren’t any submissions in the type of wrestling that kids learn as a sport, the concept of “ground and pound” has been used by a number of decorated mixed martial artists at the highest levels.  The transition into a mixed martial arts journey has, in my opinion, a shorter learning curve when you start here.  *Note…I am not a wrestler, and this is why I am convinced it should be #1 if you are young and looking to start a martial arts path.  I’m also not a powerlifter, but I am rather strong at 195 lbs and I have over a decade of experience with Muay Thai, along with a couple of years of BJJ.  Lifelong wrestlers 40 lbs lighter can throw me around like a ragdoll.  I honestly don’t understand how it happens.  The physics don’t seem to make sense.  But they do it every time.

If you could only do one and you start after age 21…

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu:  Most street situations eventually end up on the ground.  It is entirely possible for a much smaller person to completely incapacitate a larger person with this highly technical martial art.  It is particularly good for women in self-defense situations.  In fact, I recommend that if women could only pick one form of EXERCISE, this should be it.  The two limitations here are 1 — If someone is punching you in the face, and you are unable to take them to the ground, you will have a problem.  Luckily, most BJJ gyms are incorporating some kind of takedown practice now.  2 — You ideally don’t want to stay on the ground for too long in a self-defense situation, because bad guys can multiply on you.  But in most circumstances, dedicated BJJ training will give you a significant advantage over any (unarmed) attacker with no martial arts training, regardless of size and strength.

If you could only do 2:

Muay Thai and Judo:  The first question you might ask is, why not Muay Thai and BJJ, or Boxing and Wrestling?  Those are a terrific combinations, and the former is actually the combination that I spend most of my time training.  We also get some practice with Wrestling and Judo along the way.  However, when I factor in my general time constraints, if I could go to one gym that focused exclusively on Muay Thai and Judo, that would honestly be my dream team.  The rationale is that both of these martial arts combined create the most well-rounded approach if a person doesn’t have the time or opportunity to effectively train what I would consider to be the “Big 5” when it comes to MMA style training:  Boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Muay Thai, and Wrestling.

A Muay Thai Fighter is not likely to outpunch a boxer.  But Muay Thai offers tactics from the clinch that deliver significant damage to an opponent, along with incorporating takedowns and trips to send the opponent to the ground, while keeping the Muay Thai fighter on their feet.  A Judo practitioner will likely have a tough time on the ground with a BJJ practitioner at the same level of experience.  However, like Wrestling, Judo’s takedown and throw defense makes it possible to keep a fight standing up should the Judo practitioner want to avoid ending up on the ground.  Unlike Wrestling, Judo incorporates submission moves from the top position that can quickly be executed following a brutal slam to the ground in a self defense situation.  With a foundation in Muay Thai and Judo, the addition of any of the other “Big 5” arts will not be terribly foreign.  Muay Thai fighters already know how to punch, and Judo practitioners already know how to grapple.

If you could only do 3:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu…PLUS…Boxing OR Muay Thai…PLUS…Judo OR Wrestling.  There is really nothing that replaces Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when it comes to ground fighting.  There are other grappling arts that incorporate many similar movements (Sambo, Shootfighting, Catch Wrestling), but when was the last time you drove by a Sambo gym?  While it is true that seasoned wrestlers have dominated BJJ champions in mixed martial arts fights at high levels, the important thing to note here is that the wrestlers are using BJJ in conjunction with, rather than instead of, their wrestling background.  A strict wrestler with no knowledge of BJJ defense will eventually run into trouble if the fight ends up on the ground.  Let’s look at some other scenarios:

If a Muay Thai fighter is getting blasted by a boxer’s left hooks over and over, the Muay Thai Fighter can use Judo or Wrestling to take the boxer to the ground, and then use BJJ to finish the fight.

If a boxer is totally comfortable with BJJ, but is fighting on barroom floor covered with broken glass, then the boxer would rather use Wrestling or Judo skill to keep the fight standing up to avoid injuries unrelated to the fight itself.

There is no question that any legitimate martial arts training can give you a fighting chance in a self-defense scenario.  UFC fighters have incorporated Taekwondo, Karate, and even Aikido into their skill-set.  In my experience, however, I have found that with the “Big 5” you either know it, or you don’t.  You can’t fake wrestling.  While there are plenty of YouTube videos showing Taekwondo practitioners beat up big bullies, many of the more “traditional” martial arts schools often focus too much on the tradition part, and not enough on the fighting part.  As a yellow belt in Taekwondo at age 16 I was out-sparring a few of the senior belts at the TKD school in the local Kroger shopping center.  That never happens in BJJ.  Without any martial arts experience, it is often hard to know whether the martial arts school you are attending is any good at all.  One thing is certain, however…if you walk into a Boxing gym, Muay Thai gym, BJJ gym, Wrestling gym, or Judo dojo, you will see people fighting.  Not pretending to fight…fighting.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say you wanted to develop a mixed martial arts approach using only traditional Japanese martial arts.  If you spend enough time with Karate, Judo, Aikido, and Japanese Jiu Jitsu, there’s no reason you can’t win an MMA fight or protect yourself on the street.

You may decide, for whatever reason, to focus only on martial arts featured in the Olympics:  Boxing, Taekwondo, Judo, and Wrestling.  Again, you really can’t go wrong with this combination either.

To sum up…Royce Gracie took the world by storm with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when he decimated the practitioners of virtually every other martial art back in the early 90s.  Then wrestlers and kickboxers starting learning BJJ and used it to beat other veteran martial artists.  Then boxers learned enough wrestling to keep themselves out of the vice-grip of a BJJ black belt.  Then Royce Gracie was beaten by a wrestler with BJJ skill.  Same goes for the Judo practitioners in Japan who learned to strike and go on to have stellar MMA careers.  “The Big 5” are no joke, and either of the striking arts combined with any of the three grappling arts becomes a dangerous combination.

What do you think of these rankings, and how would you rank them if you could only choose 1, 2, or 3 martial arts to practice at any given time?


5 thoughts on “If You Could Only Practice One Martial Art

  1. I regularly think about taking a martial art. I don’t want to roll around with sweaty guys though and I don’t want to get punched in the head. I signed up for a Japanese Jiu Jitsu class a few years ago. I hurt myself practising falls…lol. Most of the martial arts schools around here are MMA and Muay Thai because of popularity. I’m really just making excuses. I just don’t want to get beat up by a girl in class.

    For self-defence I recommend sprinting and diplomacy.


    1. I am not extremely familiar with Krav Maga, so I can’t really comment on it, but unless it features a great deal of fighting practice that take place on the ground, then you would definitely want to add either Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, or a Judo school that emphasizes submission techniques.


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