How to choose the right MMA school

As every beginning student sets out to begin their never-ending journey into the world of MMA, the first thing they should realize is perhaps the simplest… and in most cases goes without saying. MMA is simply an acronym for Mixed Martial Arts, which incorporates several fighting disciplines. As obvious as that statement may seem, it’s sometimes even more shocking to see how the term is so quickly thrown around nowadays. “MMA” has quickly become a buzz word that many schools and gyms are now jumping on to sell memberships. On a recent trip to a rural part of America, a good friend of mine who happens to be an accomplished black belt in jiu-jitsu, mused at this idea when he came across a small gym with a sign in the window that read: “Now offering classes in the most effective fighting art in the world: MMA”. The sign would have done their school and prospective students a lot more justice if it had instead detailed the specific martial arts classes the school offered, which make up the curriculum for their MMA program.


One sharp knife in a battle is better than three dulls ones…

That being said, the first obvious question one must ask them self, before they get started is – What discipline of MMA do you want to excel at? While it’s possible and completely reasonable for someone to want to take classes in all aspects of MMA, it’s just as understandable for someone to want to master one area or at least become very proficient in one area of MMA, before they move on to the rest. Most MMA schools offer several trial classes for free, so it would be in one’s best interest to take a class in each discipline they are interested in before deciding to specialize in one area. This is the same reason why most colleges offer “General Studies” type programs for undergraduate students, before the students decide what field they want to specialize in with an advanced degree.

By specializing in one area of MMA a student will always have that one realm of the fight game they can fall back on, when things start to get tough inside the ring. More often than not, we see fighters come and go who can be described simply as a “Jack of all trades, Master of none.” Meanwhile, the A-level fighters who go on to have the most success in MMA are a master in at least one area of fighting and really good in a second area. This point can be seen by looking at some of today’s current MMA champions. The UFC lightweight champion B.J. Penn, who is arguably the greatest lightweight fighter of all time, mastered jiu-jitsu at an early age. He actually earned his black belt faster than almost anyone to train the art. He honed his jiu-jitsu skills in pure jiu-jitsu competitions, including becoming the first American-born practitioner of the art to win the World Championship of Jiu-Jitsu in Brazil.

When Penn decided he wanted to pursue a career in MMA, he already had one area of the fight game that he was comfortable in, but knew he needed to work on the other aspects too. He rapidly began improving his boxing skills to the point where he started knocking people out in the UFC. Once Penn became comfortable with his jiu-jitsu and boxing base, that’s when he began filling in the blanks by working on his wrestling and Muay Thai. Now he’s progressed so far as a Mixed Martial Artist, that last December he used his wrestling to nullify Diego Sanchez’s takedown attempts, where he was then able to set up a vicious head kick that ended up stopping the fight. Again, these are the two areas of fighting (wrestling and Muay Thai) that Penn began working on later in his MMA career, after he mastered his jiu-jitsu game and focused on his boxing skills.


What comes first, the grappling or the striking…

Now the order of what martial arts you learn is not important and basically has no set pattern. It’s a decision based on the individual them self. Some people are put into a certain area of MMA at an early age, such as a children’s wrestling program or kid’s karate class. As MMA becomes more and more popular, this will only become more and more common. For those of us that were fortunate enough to get that early start to build a solid base in one area of martial arts, you are already ahead of the game in terms of where to start your MMA training.

Many wrestlers from some of the top college programs in the country already possess an amazing takedown ability and ground control, so transitioning into the jiu-jitsu aspect of MMA is often the first step they take. This is usually done for one of two reasons. The first is so they can use their already suffocating top control to set up and secure fight-ending submissions, while the second reason is to learn the submission game to the point where they can avoid submission attacks, as they ground-and-pound their opponents into oblivion. Once a wrestler attains a high enough level of jiu-jitsu, they will begin employing both tactics in their fights, which only makes them that much more well-rounded. This can be seen in the career of Matt Hughes, a former NCAA Division I All-American wrestler, who used to be content on avoiding submissions, slamming his opponents into the mat, and beating on them to end fights. As his MMA career and supplemental jiu-jitsu training progressed, he began submitting his opponents regularly after establishing dominant positions on the ground.

On the flip side, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who is one of the most skilled fighters in the world, began his MMA training in the striking art of Muay Thai, only later to focus on the grappling aspect of the game. His grappling has now gotten so good, that he possesses a black belt in jiu-jitsu and UFC submission victories over black belt Travis Lutter and former PRIDE champion Dan Henderson. The bottom line is there is no right or wrong answer to which area of MMA will be more beneficial to you in the long run. You need it all and that is why you need to shop around before signing a lengthy contract. Some MMA schools have world class jiu-jitsu instructors, while others have elite boxing coaches. Some have NCAA Division I wrestlers, while others have K-1 level strikers. Once you are aware of what style of fighting you want to learn first, that will help you narrow your options of schools down greatly. If you are starting from scratch with no prior martial arts background, the area of MMA you concentrate on first and the style of fighter you become will likely be determined by your personality.


Personality is everything…

The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote "Personality is everything in art and poetry." That quote couldn’t be closer to the truth, when dealing with the martial arts as well. Many instructors of every discipline of MMA emphasize camaraderie and team spirit toward the students within their schools. In most cases, this naturally happens due to the brotherhood and sisterhood forged in the mutual blood, sweat, and tears that is shed in the endless hours of training. However, this doesn’t always hold true, when there are personality conflicts between a student and his instructor or a student and his teammate. 

Many instructors, such as Randy Couture, emphasize "checking your ego at the door" as part of their school’s philosophy. This train of thought is employed to negate any conflicts of personality between members of a gym that could possibly hinder the learning process and positive environment of a school. MMA demands unwavering dedication and attention to detail, which makes unneeded distractions due to personality conflicts a crucial thing to consider when joining a gym. Make sure you do not join with an overly inflated ego due to past accomplishments and keep an open mind to new ideas.

Likewise, bring a friend or make new friends with your new sparring partners. It’s not uncommon to see friends who are training partners, push each other to the top. Many elite fighters got to where they are today by training with a group of people they can call friends. This can be seen with many top-level fighters and schools: Anderson Silva-Lyoto Machida-Nogueira Brothers (Black House), Jake Shields-Gilbert Melendez-Diaz Brothers (Cesar Gracie), Johny Hendricks-Jake Rosholt-Shane Roller (Cobra Kai), Jon Fitch-Josh Koscheck-Mike Swick (AKA), and Rashad Evans-Keith Jardine-Nathan Marquardt (Jackson’s MMA). So make sure you join a gym that suits your personality, because that means your personality will likely mesh with the team and your MMA learning curve will be sent into over-drive!

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