What Makes a UFC Champion?

Conor McGregor Admits
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There have been countless blueprints to winning a UFC title. Most have been wrestlers, but many of them came from other backgrounds as well. Though wrestlers have historically been successful in MMA and the UFC, that of course doesn’t mean that every one of them will be. It takes a special individual to become UFC champion.

Not only does it take the skill set, anyone could train and become technically sound by listening to their coach(es) and showing up to practice every day. But what you also need is grit, toughness, fight IQ, and a mean streak. It takes a special breed to be okay with taking damage and handing it right back. Not to mention being able to think under pressure and make the correct choices right when they need to be made.

The first effective martial art we found that really works against any other is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Then we learned that you need Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with other tools as well, and eventually we’ve come to realize that you need to know a little bit of everything. Most of our previous UFC champions come from wrestling backgrounds. We learned back in the 1990’s that wrestling with submission defense can be very effective, and we’ve learned in the 2000’s that a blend of everything is needed in order to win a championship at the highest level. The below graphic was taken from Betway MMA

Not all UFC champions have been wrestlers of course, there are other special talents we’ve had. To name a few, we had Jose Aldo, who ruled the featherweight division for years and years with his beautifully destructive muay thai and impeccable takedown defense. Another is Max Holloway, the current UFC featherweight champion, who has a wrestlers pace but in the striking department. A guy who has incredible boxing and incredible takedown defense, that picks up the pace as the fight goes on and just drowns his opponents with a wide array of punches.

Or how about Georges St-Pierre? A guy that became universally considered the best MMA wrestler ever and started out doing karate. He didn’t wrestle a day in his life until he got into MMA, but he’s a special athlete. St-Pierre’s strength and athleticism helped with that a lot, but what also helped was doing karate since such a young age. It helped him with going into range, then out of range, and in a split second. He’s just genius enough to turn that into a double leg with the right timing, but he also had other takedowns he was proficient at.

Then we have others, like Henry Cejudo, like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones, or Kamaru Usman that all started out with a form of grappling, that learned how to strike. The tough willpower and grit that wrestling will teach you is one of the main reasons that wrestlers have historically been so successful. They’re tougher than most, they’ve had to go through more than most. That, along with the fact that you can dictate where the fight takes place as an elite wrestler, often times.

Of the 81 champions that have been crowned to date, 53 have come from a grappling background, 35 of which were wrestlers. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the next best grappling art as far as crowned UFC champions go, with 17 coming from that background. Surprisingly enough, boxing has only produced five UFC champions, and all five since 2015.

What martial art these fighters started out in also depends on where they’re from. Though wrestling was founded in Ancient Greece, it’s most associated with the USA. Of the 81 champions the UFC has had, 54 have been American. Not every one of them have come from a wrestling background, but a good majority have. Brazil has the second highest number of UFC champions at 14. The only other countries that’ve had more than one UFC champion are Canada and The Netherlands, each have had two front-runners.

It’s been evident that kids that grow up wrestling in the USA generally have the advantage when getting into MMA, but that may be changing. Now Russia is getting pretty well recognized for their wrestling/grappling, and we’re finally starting to see the results of kids that grew up doing MMA. Not kids that grew up wrestling and transitioned to MMA, or boxing, or kickboxing, but starting out with MMA. Zabit Magomedsharipov is a good example, Rory MacDonald was a good example, we’re starting to see well rounded skill sets from so many new up and coming talents.

The days of stellar wrestling with good submission defense seem to be coming to a close. As MMA continues to evolve, we’ve had a few major changes. Such as starting out we knew how important Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was, then either wrestling with submission defense or striking with takedown defense was important. Then we had guys like Vitor Belfort and later on BJ Penn, that had great Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and great striking, particularly with their hands.

Then over the years we had some guys that were somewhat one-dimensional that were on top such as Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who was mainly a boxer with heavy hands and good takedown defense; now we’re starting to see just special talents that know how to blend everything together win titles. History always tells us the future, and things changed in this sport in the past, they will continue to.

It depends who you are and what you started out doing, let alone your mindset and putting it all together. It takes an almost irrational amount of belief in yourself, and countless hours of drilling literally everything to become great. Some people can do it, and some can’t. That’s what makes UFC champions.