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How to Transition from BJJ to MMA

BJJ is one of the best bases for MMA… if used right.

Unfortunately, it’s also too easy for a BJJ  blue or purple belt to stroll into MMA competition, thinking they’ll easily submit this cocky boxer, just to find themselves held down and beaten up for 10+ minutes.

If you go into an MMA fight thinking you can win by using pure Jiu Jitsu, you’re going to have a bad time. As the saying goes, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. 

Your plan might be to take your opponent into deep waters and drown them. After all, you’re a shark, and the ground is your ocean. Right?

Adapting BJJ for an MMA fight is the key to having success. Here are seven things to focus on if you’re a BJJ fighter getting ready to fight MMA.

Fight for top position

In BJJ, having someone in your full guard is great for you. There are many attacks available to you, and very little available to your opponent. You might even feel like you’ve got the advantage in bottom half guard.

In MMA, top position trumps all. If you’re used to being a bottom player in Jiu Jitsu, change your focus for MMA. Always stay on top where possible. Being in your opponent’s full guard is better than any bottom position. More advantageous positions, like half guard and mount are even better.

The person on top is almost always the one winning, in the judges’ eyes. Plus, you can strike, and you’re fairly safe from strikes yourself. So fight hard to get, and keep top position.

Prioritize defense and escapes over attacks from guard

You might find yourself on the bottom, and that’s okay. Just don’t make the mistake most people with more BJJ experience than their opponent makes.

Too many people stay on their back and try to attack, like they would in a Jiu Jitsu match. This might result in a win by armbar or triangle every now and then, which will trick you into thinking you’re Brian Ortega. T-City baby.

More often, it won’t come off, especially if it’s later in the fight, when you’re both sweaty and it’s easy to slip out of submissions. Your opponent can strike to defend, and they can slam as well. The success rate of guard attacks is low, and the danger is high. Even if you don’t get beaten up, you’re losing the fight while you’re on your back.

Instead of trying to hit submissions, battle to escape bottom position, and either get a reversal or get back to your feet.

Also, think defense over attack. You need to defend and avoid strikes before thinking about hitting an armbar or gogoplata (Nick Diaz did it, but he’s just really damn good). Your sweet setup won’t work if you get knocked out first.

Utilize strikes on the ground

Flipping it around, if you’re the one on top, make sure you use the tools available to you. This means striking. You’re wasting your advantage if you don’t inflict damage when you’re on top.

Make your top position count by landing ground and pound. Use strikes to open up opportunities, such as guard passes or submissions. Use strikes to discourage your opponent from trying submissions of their own. Don’t let them make it a BJJ fight.

Learn to jab

Of course, if you can perfect your boxing, muay thai, kyokushin karate, that’s awesome. But for most BJJ athletes making a transition to MMA, you won’t have time to get your striking on the same level as your opponent, if they’re been training in striking their whole martial arts career.

That’s why you need to be smart and efficient with what you learn. Especially at the lower levels, where you may have zero prior boxing/kickboxing experience.

If you only learn one strike, learn the jab. This will help you control the distance, score points while on the feet, and keep your opponent from generating their rhythm. A steady jab is the most effective strike in MMA, and will open up so many opportunities for you to use your grappling.

Train wrestling

You might think you’ve got the advantage in grappling, so no need to train anything extra there, right? But a lot of BJJ fighters aren’t used to trying to take down someone who doesn’t want to fight on the ground.

Your BJJ advantage means nothing if you can’t get the fight to the ground. Think about whether or not you’re confident in your takedown game, and if not, make sure you train some wrestling.

Even if you do have decent takedowns, it can’t hurt to put some more effort into your wrestling. The ability to control where the fight takes place ends up deciding a lot of fights.

Defend takedowns

Again, you might not be thinking about takedown defense as a priority. Surely your opponent should be scared to take you down, right?

Not necessarily. If they never grappled before in their life, maybe. But most fighters have some kind of grappling knowledge. And it’s instinctive for MMA fighters, especially lower level fighters, to go for a takedown.

Your BJJ may be really good, but you still don’t want to be taken down. It’s points scored for your opponent, for one thing. Second, you want to go to the ground on your terms. A lot of fighters with great BJJ struggle because they just get taken down and spend the whole fight on their back.

Guillotine is not takedown defense

Let’s follow that last point with one more connected tip. Going for the guillotine when your opponent shoots is not a form of takedown defense.

You’ll pull it off every now and then. But it’s more likely that you won’t, and if you don’t get the submission, you give your opponent the takedown, and a dominant position.

Instead of lighting up at the thought of finishing the fight, the safest route is to push the head down, rather than grabbing it. Defend the takedown, and then look to counter, rather than getting greedy and grabbing for a guillotine.

Summing Up

Here we discussed seven things to focus on when you go from BJJ athlete to MMA fighter:

  1. Fight for top position
  2. Prioritize defense and escapes
  3. Utilize ground and pound
  4. Learn to jab
  5. Train more wrestling
  6. Defend takedowns
  7. Don’t greed for the guillotine

To have a successful MMA career, you’ll want to put the work in to becoming an effective striker as well as grappler, but if you’re just starting out or taking an MMA fight out of the blue, these tips will help avoid having a rough time in your first “real” fight.

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