When MMA was first getting popular, around about the time The Ultimate Fighter debuted on TV, there was a lot of talk about what the best ‘Base’ for MMA was. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s the idea that before taking up MMA it’s preferable to have a martial art already under your belt that serves as your home base. For example, if you used to box, you don’t have to worry too much about learning to strike as it’s already there, and you can focus on defending kicks and grappling in your training.
As MMA has grown more and more into its own sport, rather than a novelty style vs style contest, we now know that you don’t really need a ‘base’ for MMA at all. Rory MacDonald was an early example of a fighter who just went to an MMA gym and started training striking and grappling together and developed into a fine fighter.
That being said, there are plenty of fighters who got their start in a different martial art and then crossed over. When it comes to striking styles the most common style used in MMA is Muay Thai. Pretty much every MMA gym you will go to teaches at the very least a watered down version of Muay Thai and that will serve as your striking base.
There is of course a world of difference between this and proper Muay Thai used for actual in-ring competition. Which raises the question, how good is Muay Thai as a base for MMA, and is it the best base?
The Old Days
In the Zuffa Era of the UFC, we used to say that the best combinations for MMA were either a combo of boxing and wrestling, or Muay Thai and BJJ. The reason being that wrestlers need to stay on their feet, so focusing on boxing and wrestling could turn you into a fine sprawl and brawler. Muay Thai and BJJ was favored in concept because BJJ’s use of the guard, which at the time was very common meant that you could kick without much fear of being taken down, as if you were good off your back, you weren’t necessarily in more danger.
Amusingly enough, this era of MMA had very little traditional Muay Thai to speak of. We were a long way from the Khalil Rountree’s and Matt Brown’s using the art of eight limbs fluidly in the cage. Which meant ‘Muay Thai’ essentially meant ‘you know how to kick’.
This is quite frustrating for Thai purists like myself, as the main benefit of Muay Thai is not the kicks at all but the clinch.
The Clinch in MMA
I’ve talked at length about how Matt Brown uses the clinch to maul opponents, and it bares repeating. When you’re doing Muay Thai right, you’re making use of the clinch, if you don’t have a good clinch game you can’t succeed in Muay Thai. The art’s pummelling style of clinching, build around posture control, and off balancing the opponent to land elbows and knees fits a sport with literal cage walls you can push people against like a glove.
Training in Muay Thai makes you more sensitive and observant to holes in your opponents clinch, and makes it much easier for you to find an opening for an elbow or a knee, or detect if your opponent is off balance.
Fighting against the cage is probably the most important skill to have in MMA outside of ground game. More and more the cage has been used to pressure opponents or take opponents down, as fighters have become better and better at stuffing takedowns out in the open. So having a background in Muay Thai gives you more options in the most important area of MMA.
So what are the downsides?
Muay Thai vs Sanda
The other striking art, which everyone universally agrees is great for MMA, yet no one really trains, is Sanda. The Chinese kickboxing style most notably employed by Muslim Salikhov in the UFC. Sanda is a powerful, kick heavy style that focuses extensively on wrestling.
Fighters from Sanda are always very confident kickers, as they have been kicking within a wrestling context for years. If they’re caught on one leg, they’re able to keep themselves from falling, and if they are having trouble with a tricky striker, they’re able to shoot in and slam opponents to the mat.
In this regard, Sanda is superior to Muay Thai for MMA, because all Sanda fighters need to learn to adjust to MMA is ground game, and fighting against the cage. As opposed to Muay Thai fighters who need to learn how to defend basic takedowns as well as ground game
A Muay Thai fighter might be perfectly decent on the ground, but they’ll ideally be winning the fight if they’re standing, and even if they’re competent fighting off their back it’s still not where they want to be. Sanda fighters don’t have this issue as much because even if they’re not as strong on the ground, it’s much harder to get them there.
The real question would be, does Sanda’s lack of clinch work put them as a disadvantage vs Muay Thai, when they’re not really going to be looking to use it anyway?
The Russian art of Sambo, which is itself derived from Judo is probably the best martial art for most purposes. It teaches you how to strike, how to wrestle and how to fight on the ground. I’d argue that this is actually the best art to translate to MMA, purely on the basis that when you get into the cage all you need to do is adjust to fighting in a cage as opposed to an open mat, and gain experience against the more varied array of fighters you’ll be against in the cage.
Sambists are usually not elegant kickers, nor are they technical boxers, but they’re a strong jack of all trades that train in a setting that breeds toughness. They’re always going to be at least ready to fight wherever it takes place.
So is Muay Thai the best base for MMA? Probably not. Is it the best striking base for MMA? I’d argue yes. While Sanda offers clear advantages over Muay Thai, the reality is that Sanda is so hard to find training for outside of China, whereas Muay Thai has spread across the globe and is readily available in the majority of MMA gyms.
There’s no clear cut answer – but you’re better off training Muay Thai than not.