What is the Difference Between Grappling, Wrestling and Jiu-jitsu?

difference between grappling wrestling and jiujitsu


MMA 101: What’s the Difference Between Grappling, Wrestling and Jiu-jitsu?

Part of a series: Everything you always wanted to know about MMA*

*but were afraid to ask

You’re sitting on the couch with some friends watching the latest UFC on Pay Per View. Someone ordered a pizza and  you’ve got a couple of beers in the fridge. Like what happens every time, your buddies go rattling off about their favorite fighters, their fearless forecasts, the latest who’s-fighting-who and all that other MMA stuff. Fine, you love MMA too, but they do use lots of terms you can’t distinguish from one another. It’s especially hard to follow just what the heck they ae saying if they use terms which seems to refer to the same darn thing – like grappling, wrestling and jiu-jitsu.

You may have heard the terms grappling, wrestling and jiu-jitsu, but what does each actually mean? It’s obvious that these three terms are somewhat related they do indeed have different meaning. But the worst part is that you may feel too embarrassed to ask your UFC-crazy friends the difference between them for fear of looking like a dumbass. Or maybe you just don’t want to hear that condescending sigh which means “you don’t me to explain all of that just now, do ‘yah?”

Well, thankfully for all you guys or gals out these trying to understand the sport, we’ve put together a guide defining exactly what these terms mean, you won’t be intimidated or even intellectually pushed around when these terms are thrown around during the next time you and your buddies gather around to watch the latest UFC. So put aside those stuffy dictionaries, and take a break from those Wikipedia pages with these snazzy explanations.



grappling, sidemount

In MMA, grappling is the most encompassing word for all arts and skills that extensively employ holding the opponent to subdue him, with the ultimate objective of submitting him via submission hold, like leg locks, arms locks, chokes and everything in between. The surrender is of an opponent is usually expressed by the tapping motion of the hand (“tap-out”). Grappling is also the umbrella term for martial arts/hand-to-hand combat sports like wrestling, Russian Sambo, judo, jiu-jitsu, Luta Livre, and other similar sports that do not rely on beating your opponent with your fists and/or feet. This is opposed to the other umbrella term which is striking, which means which refers to the arts and skills that mainly employ punches, kicks, and even knees and elbows, like boxing, Muay Thai kickboxing, Karate, Taekwondo and the like.

So think of grappling for the term to describe that kind fighting without the punches and kicks – what to an untrained eyes is the hugging-fighting what goes on when both opponents are lying on the ground.



While “academically” wrestling may be considered as synonymous and interchangeable with the term grappling, in MMA, there are currently two sub-categories of wrestling that widely recognized: 1. the amateur styles of American collegiate wrestling (primarily due to the entrenched dominance of USA wrestlers in the UFC) and Olympic wrestling, and 2. the submission-holds oriented catch wrestling. Notably, they don’t wear jackets or “gis.” Instead, wrestlers of these styles wear singlets, fight trunks or shorts, and/or rash guards.

In casual MMA conversations you are almost always likely to refer to the first type of wrestling (American collegiate and Olympic wrestling).

With the amateur styles, the emphasis is forcibly taking your opponent to the ground using takedowns and ideally beating him by fall or pin, which is the ultimate finishing hold. The pin, which is controlling your opponent from the top by pressing his upper back against the mat for a second or more, is the knockout equivalent in wrestling. Notably, it is illegal both in American collegiate and Olympic wrestling to use submission holds.

It is also worth noting that Olympic wrestling has two styles: freestyle, which is akin to American collegiate allows “shoots” tackling the legs (like in football), and Greco-Roman, which holds are limited from the hips up. Current UFC champions who have prominent amateur wrestling backgrounds are, Demetrious Johnson, Cody Garbrandt, Tyron Woodley, Daniel Cormier, and Stipe Miocic.

It’s in the second category of wrestling you can lump together catch wrestling and Luta Livre.

Catch wrestling, which also gives premium to takedowns, is heavy on submission holds. These fight-ending holds can be joint locks, chokes, neck cranks, and others. Among famous fighters who hail from this style of wrestling are the legendary Kazushi Sakuraba of Pride FC, and UFC heavyweight fighter Josh Barnett.

Luta Livre is historically and essentially catch wrestling in Brazil. Prominent Luta Livre fighters in MMA are Marco Ruas, Ebenezer Fontes Braga, Johil de Oliveira, Paul Sass, Alexandre Franca Nogueira, Renato Sobral, Rousimar Palhares, and José Aldo.

Please don’t ever, ever, ever confuse the word wrestling here with the “Professional Wrestling” the scripted fights for entertainment with all those colorful characters and uniforms.

(Throw-intensive Japanese judo and Russian Sambo are forms of what sport scientists would call “jacket wrestling”, but their respective uniforms and submission holds naturally make them associated closely with our next martial art in this article.)


While jiu-jitsu is originally a Japanese martial art (and needless to say, a very Japanese word), its South American descendant is what first comes to mind as far as MMA is concerned: Brazilian Jiu-jitsu/Jujutsu or BJJ for short.

BJJ is a specific combat sport and martial art which was developed in Brazil after judo and the original Japanese jiu-jitsu were first taught there.

With these traditional Japanese arts playing a large part in its history, BJJ practitioners may wear a the Japanese style uniform or jacket called a “gi”. Practicing BJJ or even other styles of grappling is usually referred to “no-gi.” Just like in the traditional Japanese martial arts, the skill of a BJJ practitioner is signified by colored belts, with the black belt symbolizing the highest level of skill.

This pragmatic art specializes in ground fighting techniques: maneuvering into positions of control with the fight-ending goal of forcing their opponents to surrender with submission holds. While there are many variations to the positions you can control your opponent with, we can very roughly divide these positions of control into two: the guard position which involves getting on your back and wrapping your legs around your opponent, and the mount position which is getting on top of your opponent.

While BJJ allows tackling or throwing your opponent down (takedowns), some of its practitioners are known for voluntarily getting down back on the mat while pulling their opponent into their guard. Practitioners are adept at submitting their opponents from both guard and mount positions, along with few standup submission holds. But, unlike its kindred martial arts of catch wrestling and Luta Livre, it traditionally does not encourage its beginners to learn foot locks and neck cranks, which BJJ reserves usually for its more advanced practitioners.

While already popular in Brazil for much of the 20th century, the popularity of BJJ exploded internationally beginning the early 1990’s, mainly due to its representative Royce Gracie’s trailblazing achievements: winning the first events of the nascent UFC in 1993, versus oftentimes bigger opponents trained in other martial arts.

In a nutshell…

So there it is. I hope you were able to pick up some useful stuff on the difference between Wrestling, Grappling and Jiujitsu. There definitely were a lot of terms thrown around so remember in a nutshell: Grappling is the umbrella term for all these kinds of no punches and kicks fighting, especially that ground fighting where they try make each other surrender with submission holds. Wrestling usually refers to the sports and skills where you try tackle your down. BJJ or Jiu-jitsu is a specific kind grappling art which specializes in the fighting when both opponents are on the ground.


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About Duke Villanueva 18 Articles
Duke is full-time career diplomat assigned in China. He is a two-time collegiate Judo champion. He's also done quite well in Wrestling, BJJ, MMA and Fencing in his years as an athlete. Once a week, he still trains and coaches in grappling and MMA. He's married with two wonderful kids, and a couple of naughty dogs.

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