What does it take to make a UFC champion?

28 Jul , 2019,
A. J. Riot

There is no single path to becoming a successful professional athlete. This is particularly true for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) – a relatively new sport which combines the elements of many different striking and grappling martial arts and combat sports. In this article we will examine and analyze the career paths of 81 athletes who have captured the most prestigious honor in MMA: the UFC title.

MMA is a modern amalgamation of a number of different disciplines, ranging from wrestling and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to boxing, Muay Thai, and taekwondo. There are opportunities for athletes and practitioners of many of these sports to transition to MMA, provided they are willing to round out their game and learn aspects of mixed martial arts that they may not be familiar with from training just their base art. For example, the UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway started out in kickboxing before discovering MMA. His next opponent, former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar, was a standout collegiate wrestler before making his MMA debut after just a few weeks of training. These two fighters alone illustrate some of the different routes for martial artists seeking an opportunity to compete in the UFC, where the earning potential is significantly higher than within the individual disciplines – with the exception of professional boxing at the highest levels of competition. Understanding the different aspects of MMA, including how different styles match up with each other, is crucial when placing an educated bet with a sportsbook such as Betway.

Since championship belts were introduced in the UFC in 1997, 81 fighters of different backgrounds and nationalities have managed to forge a path to the belt. Some paths, however, have been taken more often than others. For example, let’s examine the fighters’ base discipline, which can be broken up into two broad categories of striking and grappling. Most martial artists start out in a single discipline before transitioning to MMA, a sport in its infancy when compared to some martial arts, which have developed over hundreds and  in some cases thousands of years. A fighter’s starting discipline before MMA is extremely important – it dictates the way they fight in the Octagon and, according to the statistics, plays a part in how successful they can be.

Of the 81 champions crowned by the UFC to date, 53 came from a background in grappling. Of those 53 champions, 35 took up wrestling as their dominant martial art before moving into MMA. That makes up 43% of all UFC champions to date, a far higher proportion than any other discipline. The other major grappling base for MMA, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, has produced the second-most UFC champions with 17.  This may come as a surprise to some fans: even though boxing is the biggest and most established combat sport in the world, there have been only five UFC champions who can claim boxing as their base discipline.

It’s clear then, that anyone hoping to be the next Conor McGregor or Amanda Nunes would be best advised to focus on their wrestling. You cannot, however, look at discipline without also considering nationality. Mixed martial arts is a truly universal sport, with most countries and cultures having developed some form of traditional combat sport or martial arts. Even though wrestling has it’s origins in Ancient Greece, today it is a sport mostly associated with the USA. It follows, then, that 54 of the 81 UFC champions to date have been American. Not all champions hailing from the USA come from a wrestling background, but the sport’s place in American society has certainly played a part in their dominance of the UFC belts.

Brazil is second on the list with 14 champions – this is expected given that Brazilian jiu-jitsu is the second-most successful discipline in UFC history. The only other countries that boast more than one UFC champion are Canada and the Netherlands, with two each. This shows that fighters who grew up in the USA and took up wrestling at an early age have historically had an advantage in their pursuit of a UFC belt. But other factors, such as collegiate success, also come into play.

Of the 35 champions with a background in wrestling, 20 either represented an NCAA Division I school, earned All-American honors, or won a national championship at a university. This means that they competed and excelled at the highest level of university sport which, in the USA, is essentially of professional standard (since wrestling on a professional level is pretty much non-existent outside of scripted entertainment such as WWE). This shows that wrestling at a high level from a young age has helped more than a quarter of UFC champions reach the pinnacle of the sport.

A fighter’s first steps into professional MMA are also important:  of the 81 champions in UFC history, 68 either fought at least five times or won a belt for a smaller promotion before being called up to the UFC. That is 84% of all champions who took the time to hone their skills in a lower-level league before making a leap to the top promotion. That number is even higher when you only look at the last 10 years, with 46 of 49 champions crowned since 2009 having developed their career at a lower level before being called up to UFC.

Considering these facts, it’s possible to map the most likely path to success in the UFC and ultimately a UFC title.

An American upbringing is a good place to start, with an early introduction to wrestling the next step. Accomplishments in wrestling at the NCAA level follows, before a successful stint in a smaller promotion which can help catch the eye of UFC matchmakers or the UFC president Dana White. The numbers suggest that this has been the ideal path historically; however with MMA being such a young and fast evolving sport, there are some indications of changes in recent years.

Remember those five champions with a background in boxing? All five became a UFC champion in the last five years. Thanks to the success of former boxers like McGregor and Holly Holm in the UFC, MMA is finally being viewed as a viable career path for boxers who may not have the talent and skill set to become the next Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury. The same trend is present when looking at striking arts beyond boxing: Since 2015, 14 of 28 champions have come from a predominantly striking background. And of the 11 champions hailing from outside the Americas, nine were also crowned in the last five years. This makes it clear that MMA and UFC are finally beginning to have serious appeal around the world and the background of the combatants who reach the highest levels of the sport is becoming more diverse. The days of an American-centric, wrestling-heavy promotion are coming to an end, with the UFC now beginning to live up to its name as the ‘Ultimate Fighting Championship’. And as MMA evolves further, the athletes become more well-rounded, training multiple martial arts from a young age – or even forgoing a base art and training specifically for MMA competition. In another decade, the path to the top for a ‘typical’ UFC champion may be very different than what we’re used to seeing.