Wrestling 101: Wrestling in Mixed Martial Arts

Becca Borawski Jenkins


Coaching, Strength and Conditioning, Martial Arts


MMA, crossfit, wrestling


Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a complicated sport to watch and there are many nuances for a newcomer to the sport to learn. A couple weeks ago I introduced you to “MMA 101” and went over the three basic arts that comprise MMA: submissions, striking, and wrestling.



Each of these arts can be broken down further into many sub-categories. For example, there are three primary styles of wrestling: Folkstyle, Freestyle, and Greco-Roman. Each has different rules and scoring and different application in the sport of MMA.

Here in the United States, when most of us hear of wrestling, we think of people we knew in high school or college, or the occasional Olympic athlete. But, what are they really doing and what do you need to look for to increase your understanding when watching MMA? 


To help me answer this question I enrolled the help of Darryl Christian, a two-time Greco-Roman Wrestling National Champion who also works with MMA fighters, to walk us through the styles of wrestling.



Folkstyle exists only in the United States and Canada and is practiced on the collegiate level. Unlike the international styles, Freestyle and Greco-Roman, Folkstyle is not as flashy. “No high amplitude throws exist within this style of wrestling,” said Christian. “Scoring is slow paced and less technical. Sometimes a strong wrestler with strong positions can dominate.” But even college level folkstyle wrestlers bring a special skill set to fighting. It is not just their physical aptitude they have developed, but their mental strength, as well. “A good collegiate background will bring a solid training schedule and mental toughness that has been refined over years of matches and seasons of wrestling,” said Christian.



Examples in MMA of fighters with a Folkstyle background are Matt Hughes and Kevin Randleman.



Unlike Folkstyle, Freestyle wrestling is practiced throughout the world. The two are related, however, and you could look at Freestyle as an evolved version of Folkstyle. “Having a Freestyle background is the same as a collegiate background,” said Christian, “but with the ability to be more technical and refined than a typical collegiate background.” Freestyle has more scoring opportunities than Folkstyle, allowing for an athlete to attack the entire body in a variety of ways. Freestyle does not put as big an emphasis on control as Folkstyle, but instead emphasizes explosiveness and risk. Throws will be more dynamic and of higher amplitude than Folkstyle.


Examples in MMA of fighters who incorporate Freestyle wrestling are Mark Kerr and Mark Coleman.



Greco-Roman wrestling may be one of the more foreign styles for a viewer in North America to watch, but it also offers the most reward as it incorporates more high amplitude throws than any other style of wrestling. Unlike Folk- and Freestyle, you can only attack from the torso up in Greco-Roman wrestling. You cannot use the legs at all to score points, so the emphasis is on upper body engagement. Because of this, a fighter with a Greco-Roman background brings something unique to the game of MMA. “Greco will bring an aspect to MMA that no other background can create,” said Christian. “In Greco, position is everything, unlike the other forms of wrestling. In Freestyle, wrestlers shoot a ways away to take someone down. Closing the gap and controlling underhooks, body locks, and attacking the body is what Greco is about.” In this way Greco has direct application to MMA and having the ability to get in close and do damage through wrestling or striking to an opponent.


In addition, Christian also feels Greco-Roman wrestlers have spent more time developing their hip power and have that as an advantage, as well. “Power is generated through the hips, like an Olympic lift. Greco-Roman wrestlers usually have more power in their punches or ability to generate it, than any other discipline.”


Examples in MMA of fighters who incorporate Greco-Roman wrestling are Randy Couture, Dan Henderson and Matt Lindland.


While wrestling is a complicated sport, you don’t have to understand all the rules and nuances to understand the basics of how it works when applied to MMA. Once you, as a new viewer, start discerning the differences between the wrestling styles and knowing which style a certain fighter is practiced in, it will give you more ability to predict action in a fight and to understand the strategy that fighters are employing. 

See more about: 
Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Breaking Muscle Newsletter

Get updates and special offers delivered directly to your inbox.