If you want to take up a grappling martial art but want to know which ones are best for self-defense then you are in the right place. Some grappling styles are great for self-defense while others are focused more on sport or have become outdated.
Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, Sambo, Catch wrestling, BJJ, judo, and wrestling are the best grappling martial arts for self-defense. Of course, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is a form of BJJ, but GJJ has kept more of a focus on self-defense whereas most BJJ schools have shifted almost entirely to sport jiu-jitsu.
In addition, Catch wrestling is a style of wrestling but unlike folkstyle, freestyle, and Greco-Roman, it still contains its original submissions. Catch wrestling is a better grappling martial art because it simply has more to offer.
But more on that later. For now, let’s look at these grappling martial arts and talk about why they are good for self-defense. In addition, we will also look at where they might not be the best fit for self-defense.
#6 Wrestling: Why It Is a Good Grappling Art For Self-Defense
If you know anything about MMA then you probably know that wrestlers dominate in the ring. If fact a study on the background of UFC champions from the last 25 years shows that wrestling is the most dominant grappling style as a base for MMA.
Four-time All-American Rutgers wrestler Sebastian Rivera investigated the previous careers of every UFC champion from 1997 to highlight wrestling’s dominance in MMA.
His research shows that out of the 70 UFC champions at that time, 28 had a wrestling background. The next closest is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with 17 and boxing with 12 winners in those years. So then why is it not considered the best grappling art for self-defense?
Well, it is simply because wrestling is not a complete martial art for self-defense. It does not contain submissions or teach you how to avoid them. That said, with a little bit of cross-training and the use of strikes wrestlers can quickly develop a winning game plan.
On its own, however, a wrestler would likely do very well in a self-defense altercation. After all, a nice takedown on a sidewalk might be lights out or worse for their opponent. In other words, you would not wanna pick a fight with a wrestler in the same way you would not wanna pick a fight with a pro boxer.
But what I am saying is that like boxing, wrestling is not designed for self-defense and for those reasons, it is not my top pick for best grappling styles for self-defense.
#5 Judo: Great Throws and Submissions For Self-Defense
Judo like wrestling can be great for self-defense. However, like wrestling it has become more of a sport than a grappling martial art focused on self-defense. Of course, like a wrestler one powerful judo throw to the concrete can be very dangerous.
Obviously, in one way this can easily win a fight for a judoka or wrestler but it can also be a problem. After all, if you seriously injure someone even in a self-defense situation you might get in a lot of trouble. Or more practically, you might simply not want to hurt someone worse than you need to.
At one point in time, more judo dojos had a larger focus on self-defense. However, after becoming a sport many dojos started to focus only on the techniques used in sport judo. That said, if you are lucky you can still find some Senseis that will teach a more self-defense-focused judo style.
If you are lucky enough to find one in the area then Judo would certainly more up on my list of best grappling styles for self-defense. However, most people are not so lucky but can still benefit from judo for self-defense.
Judo by itself beats out wrestling simply because it also incorporates submissions. But if a wrestler had submissions too then I would put it above judo. Of course, there is one wrestling style with submissions but more on that next.
#4 Catch Wrestling: An Underrated Grappling Art For Self-Defense
Catch wrestling is not only an underrated grappling art for self-defense, it’s simply an underrated grappling art period. Catch wrestling is the parent art of modern-day folkstyle and freestyle wrestling. However, it is much more brutal and still contains submissions.
When looking to introduce wrestling in high schools and colleges it only made sense to make the sport a bit safer.
In pure catch wrestling, the only way to win is either by pin or by submission. There are no points or other ways to win. Catch wrestling has some unique and even brutal submissions you cannot find anywhere else.
Folkstyle and freestyle wrestling did come from catch wrestling but they changed the rules and took out the submissions. Catch as catch can wrestling was in and out of some of the early modern Olympic games.
The problem was that as great as catch wrestling is, many people saw the sport as too violent. Some would even go on to compare it to dog fighting. So they recreated a safer style of wrestling that is more popular today.
That is of course freestyle wrestling and folkstyle. However, if you are lucky you can still find places to learn catch wrestling but it is rare. Thankfully, there are still places to learn catch wrestling online.
If interested in learning catch wrestling check out my article: How and Where to Learn Catch Wrestling!
#3 BJJ: Both Traditional and No-Gi Jiu-Jitsu
If you asked most people these days what the best martial art for self-defense is they would probably say BJJ. After all, it is the fastest-growing martial art and has a long history for both self-defense as well as in MMA.
Though most people know of BJJ through MMA, it was originally taught for self-defense. Historically, BJJ evolved from Judo. However, Helio Gracie modified the art to be more effective for someone without as much size or strength.
Helio Gracie was not as big as some of his other family members were. Because of this, he put much more focus on how to master the art of leverage. That way a much smaller person who understood leverage could defeat a stronger opponent who only utilized strength.
However, the reason BJJ is not my favorite grappling art for self-defense is that most BJJ schools ( pretty much all of them at this point ) focus almost entirely on sport jiu-jitsu. Of course, this is not always true and there still are some great BJJ schools that focus on self-defense.
Also as you can probably guess I am separating Gracie Jiu-Jitsu from BJJ. Yes, I understand that the Gracies actually invented BJJ but learning self-defense is a must at a true Gracie Jiu-Jitsu academy.
You can find out more about the differences between BJJ and GJJ here! Or Check out this video from Kama Jiu-Jitsu.
Sport BJJ For Self Defense
Even sport BJJ is great to learn for self-defense. BJJ still has a lot to offer such as takedowns, pins, and submissions. So you still don’t wanna pick a fight with a BJJ player even if their main focus is sport BJJ.
Both gi and no-gi BJJ are great to learn and I think learning how to grapple with or without the gi is important. That said, I think that gi BJJ is even better for self-defense if you can only train one.
This is simply because you will likely come across an attacker in a self-defense situation who is wearing some sort of clothing. So learning how to use your opponent’s clothing even if it is just their pants, can come in very handy.
But if you do happen to get attacked by someone in a thick jacket or collars then you will have a massive advantage over them.
In no-gi BJJ you are not allowed to use your opponent’s clothing at all. So you naturally learn to grapple without it. That said, anything you can do in no-gi you can do in the gi but not the other way around. So for best results train both.
#2 Sambo: Debatably The Best Grappling Art For Self-Defense
Sambo is debatably the best grappling art for self-defense. If Combat Sambo was to be considered then I would say that it is definitely the best. However, since combat sambo incorporates striking I think it would be cheating to consider it a grappling art.
In the same way, I will not consider MMA a grappling art even though it incorporates grappling. That said, sambo on its own is an amazing grappling style for self-defense. This is because it is truly a complete grappling art.
It has strong takedowns, pins, control, submissions, and more. Sambo fighters have also done extremely well in MMA and have some of the best fighters of all time. Khabib and Fedor alone are enough to make Sambo stand out.
The martial art and sport of sambo are among the most modern wrestling styles, with a history dating to 1920s Russian combat. It combines the stylings of Catch Wrestling, Jujitsu, Judo, and a variety of others to create a form of self-defense.
So in many ways, it is a combination of many different grappling styles. I also like that in sambo you can use your opponent’s jacket to take them down. After all, there is a good chance ( I hope ) that your attacker is wearing clothes in a self-defense confrontation.
The only reason it is not number one is that like other arts it is more focused on sport than it used to be. But its base is still for combat and self-defense. Specifically, Combat sambo might be the best option for self-defense but it’s not a pure grappling art.
#1 Gracie Jiu-Jitsu: The Best Grappling Art For Self-Defense
Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is the best grappling martial art for self-defense because it still has a major focus on the self-defense aspect of jiu-jitsu. In fact, it is the first thing you learn before you get to focus more on the sport.
In other words, you cannot skip the self-defense program and still level up to a blue belt like you can at many BJJ academies. Combat is still the base at a Gracie Jiu-Jitsu school. Of course, it should be noted that not every school with Gracie in its name is a GJJ school.
GJJ aims to teach self-defense, while Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) might focus on self-defense but may or may not focus more on sport jiu-jitsu. Sport BJJ aims to win matches in competitions by using submissions or points.
On the contrary, GJJ aims to teach self-defense. The techniques are designed so that you can use them in a practical way in a real-life situation. It is a complete grappling art that has a focus on self-defense.
It also teaches you how to control your opponent while possibly not even injuring them. I’ve seen countless videos of people using jiu-jitsu to simply control an attacker until the cops get there.
So if your goal is self-defense and you want to grapple then I would go with GJJ. Or better start with GJJ and then learn self-defense from all these grappling styles.
Bonus: The Real Best Grappling Art For Self-Defense
The best grappling martial art for self-defense is learning all of the grappling arts. Better yet, if you want to learn self-defense then learn from all different kinds of martial arts.
Grappling is great and can be the base for MMA or self-defense. However, adding a striking martial art such as boxing, Muay Thai, Karate, or another striking art will only make you more able to defend yourself.
That said, you gotta start somewhere, and grappling is a good place to start. But you don’t have to limit yourself to it if you want to become a more complete martial artist.