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What Makes a Successful MMA Fighter?

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There is no sport that has grown faster in modern society quite like mixed martial arts. The bright lights, explosiveness and incredible heart shown by its competitors has won many a fans heart worldwide. But what really makes a successful MMA fighter?

From the humble beginnings of the UFC back in 1993, MMA has swiftly become a global craze. Every year thousands of contests take place in front of packed venues and screaming fans.

It is the perfect combination of entertainment, atmosphere and athletic awe. Bouts are electric, and can easily be ended in the blink of an eye. Athletes must be ready for quite literally anything, especially those who wish to achieve success.

As with all sports, there are the inevitable weekend warriors. Many a young man and woman take up the fighters life in the hope of greatness. However, after 25 years since its inception, the athletes of today are Godlike in comparison to their predecessors.

What was once a sport of one dimensional specialists and tough as a barn nail brawlers is now completely different. Today even amateur practitioners train like full time prospects, and the elite are masters in a multitude of arts.

Tactics and Technique

Fights can be won or lost on the basis of one combatant taking a superior edge over the other. This can be done utilizing strategies such as:

ShootboxingOutside to pursuing close range
Sprawl and BrawlOutside and actively disengaging from the inside range
Clinch FightingClose
TakedownsAggressively shooting in from outside to close range
Point FightingAll ranges

It is easy to see why professional athletes must train multiple times a day across various disciplines. Today it is a rarity to find a successful MMA fighter that does not cross-train styles in order to build a complete arsenal. Long gone are the days of the purist.

The most popular core styles studied by mixed martial artists in 2018 include:

  • Boxing
  • Muay Thai and K1 Style Kickboxing
  • Karate
  • Wrestling (Greco-Roman, Freestyle and Folkstyle)
  • Submission Grappling (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Catch As Catch Can Wrestling and Luta Livre)

Because of the diversity of the sport, success isn’t always a one way street. Where one fighter might stand head and shoulders above the rest in one area, they may lack the skills or attributes in another.

Styles can often cancel each other out. Therefore, many successful fighters will prepare especially for the opponent ahead of them. Either to exploit their opponents weaknesses or nullify their attacks.

For example, the great former champion Anderson Silva was famed for his devastating style of taekwondo infused muay thai. So, when former NCAA wrestler Chael Sonnen stepped up to face him, he repeatedly used takedowns to close the distance and cancel out the strikes of Silva.

This entire process was repeated again several years later by reigning UFC champion Daniel Cormier. Although a competent striker in his own right, Cormier smothered Silva with pressure and forced the takedown in every round. Needless to say Cormier’s hand was raised.

Physiological and Psychological Traits

So, what makes a successful MMA fighter? What separates the likes of multi-national sensations such as Conor McGregor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones and Demetrious Johnson, from the rest of the world?

The demands of a complete mixed martial arts bout places incredible demands on the body. Not just physically, but mentally too. Therefore, a fighter must possess an arsenal of attributes that far outweighs those found in many other sports.

These can be summarised into easy to understand categories. Some are very easily measured whilst others can only be witnessed from the outside looking in. In the latter cases, only the combatant themselves will know how far they can exploit these traits.

Success isn’t always about being the best in each area. In fact, many of the greatest fighters haven’t always shown an equal balance across the board. However, the following criteria are an overall requirement for any fighter wishing reach the lofty heights of the elite:

  • Endurance
  • Strength
  • Power
  • Mental Toughness

All of the above can be developed by the athlete themselves. That is providing they are using the correct training tools under the right coaching and in the correct environment.

But that doesn’t mean genetics can’t play a large part in the process of building a fighter. Some are born with an innate ability to withstand incredible demands of endurance. Others naturally possess a larger amount of fast twitch fibres for example.

However the martial artists arrives at a high level of the above doesn’t matter. The simple fact is that they have these traits at hand. So, let’s take a look at why they are so important in paving the road to success…


the key to success in mma is a fighters endurance

“Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” – Vince Lombardi

A professional MMA contest can typically take place over the space of fifteen to twenty five action packed minutes. Each round consists of a standardized block of five minutes, with sixty seconds allowed for rest.

Throughout the bout athletes will undergo periods of intense activity separated by sections of active recovery. Fighting is neither a sprint or a marathon. It is very interval in it’s nature, meaning fighters must excel in both explosive energy recall and recovery.

Fights can be won and lost simply on endurance alone. Elite level fighters should always have the gas tank to be able to push the pace until the final bell. Occasionally an early stoppage cannot always be achieved, which requires a combatant to last the entire duration.

Therefore, due to the explosive nature of the required movements and extensive round duration, fighters must be able to call upon multiple energy systems.

According to an article published by Strength and conditioning journal, “If a fight goes the full 15 minutes (or 25 minutes in a title fight), it can tax all the 3 bio energetic pathways.” [1]

These three systems can be seen in the table below:

Energy SystemActivityAvailabilityRecovery
Creatine Phosphate SystemMaximum or near maximumApprox 10 seconds5 minutes
The Lactate SystemHigh intensity60-180 seconds20-120 minutes
Aerobic SystemLow to mid intensityIndefinite depending on fuel sourcesTime to eat and/or drink

As it is called upon for near maximal effort the powerful CPS is called upon in a knockout inducing overhand right or blast double leg. Due to its long recovery period, it can only be used sparingly. The best of the best know when to exploit this power at the perfect moment.

The lactate system provides ATP a fast burst of energy but cannot be sustained. This energy system will be used in persisting exchanges such as a gruelling cage wall battle or hunt for a submission.

Finally, the aerobic base of a fighter must be highly developed to enable optimal recovery between rounds. This system will also play a huge part the longer a fight goes on as more stand offs and circling take place.

Strength & Power

MMA athlete trains power for success

Fighters must have the strength to lift, carry or overpower an opponent at any point during a bout. Although technique is always paramount, incredible strength can never be underestimated.

Many a technical, successful MMA fighter has found themselves out muscled once fatigued or trapped. Everything from grip to leg strength can play an important role in victory or defeat.

Alongside conditioning every high level competitor takes part in some kind of strength building program. This is because studies have shown that increases in strength and power can improve athletic performance in sports involving high velocity activity. [2]

Strength forms the foundation of an athletes power and is an important factor in developing greater overall velocities. [3] Studies have also shown there is a direct correlation between increases in lower body strength and better striking force in boxers.  [4] force is a factor in what makes a successful mma fighter

However, power may possibly play a greater role in fight success than strength alone.

This is because power translates into explosiveness. After all, it is the combined result of strength (force) + speed (velocity).

Former number one contender Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson was an expert in employing explosiveness.

He would overwhelm opponents by delivering heavy powerful blows at lightning speed, often with fatal results.

Successful fighters should be the owners of powerful hips, trunks and shoulders. These are the primary muscle groups for delivering both strikes and take downs. [5]

The fighter with a greater level of power should in theory be able to control the distance and deliver the more effective blows. For example, a fighter with inferior power will it increasing difficult to a more powerful opponent down.

But, as we have already mentioned, endurance plays a massive role in keeping a powerful athlete effective. Just like an engine with an empty gas tank, all the power will be lost if a fatigued fighter runs out of fuel.

Therefore, it is important that successful MMA fighters can consistently deliver powerful movements round after round. One of the greatest exponents of this theory is the highly ranked Demetrious Johnson – famed for his ability to remain explosive over five rounds.

Mental Toughness

a successful mma fighter must be mentally tough when they train and fight

In order to make it amongst the greatest a mixed martial arts fighter must possess a mind of steel. They must be able to push through pain barriers, self motivate themselves and remain calm under extreme pressure.

According to a review published by the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology; “Athletes, coaches, and applied sports psychologists have consistently referred to mental toughness as one of the most important psychological characteristics related to outcomes and success in elite sport.” [6]

Just like the physiological traits, mental toughness can be both genetic and developed. Multiple division champion George St. Pierre, for example, works with a sports psychologist.

In the world of elite level MMA hiring a mental coach becoming increasingly popular. Even the best feel the fear, stress and anxiety of a big fight-night. But, the truly elite have developed methods of how to handle these sensations effectively.

Three important psychological traits that constitute towards mental toughness include:

  • Motivation
  • Self Belief
  • High Pain Tolerance


Motivation is important not only in the fight but across all the hard weeks leading up to it. Therefore, it is important they stay motivated to train in order to maximize their preparation.

Every elite level competitor will enter a camp before heading into a scheduled bout. These are often between five to twelve weeks long, and are solely focused on the fight ahead.

Athletes must be able to handle the heightened workload and stay motivated throughout this process.

Also, once in the contest, a combatant must have the motivation to push hard when things do not go to plan. A lack of motivation can see a fighter fail in attempts to attack, which usually leads to an easy counter from their opponent.

Successful fighters are able to consistently maintain motivation, even after they dominate their division. Many such as Conor McGregor and BJ Penn look towards another weight class. Others offer rematches and rack up immense defending streaks in the process.

The previously mentioned Demetrious Johnson made 11 title defences between 2013-2017. Following closely behind is the retired Anderson Silva with 10 and then Georges St. Pierre with 9.

Self Belief

One thing that is common amongst every champion is the world is that they believe they deserve their crown.

Whilst it is easy to call these athletes arrogant, what they actually show is self belief.

This is incredibly important as self-doubt can quickly lead to self-sabotage. Which, of course, is a massive hindrance for anybody wishing to rise through the ranks.

Fights can be lost before both martial artists even step in the cage. As a lack of self belief can demotivate an athlete to train or to engage during the fight.

However, the power of self belief shown by the likes of former champion Jon Jones should never be underestimated. It serves as a powerful tool to motivate fighters during training, keep them calm before the fight and allow them to dominate inside the cage.

In a study carried out in 2005, it was shown that male cyclists possessing high levels of self confidence outperformed more anxious opponents in the Tour de France. [7] Also, in the same year, a second study showed that strong self belief was also present in elite level English cricketers. [8]

High Pain Tolerance

Science has shown that people who participate in contact sports typically have a higher pain threshold than those who don’t. [9]

This is said to possibly be the result of learning how to cope with pain and experience feeling unpleasant sensations.

A mixed martial arts bout is an extremely physical, confrontational and aggressive experience. Therefore, top fighters must be able to cope with the pain of contact with another human being for up to 25 minutes.

Again, as mentioned before, it isn’t just under the bright lights where athletes must perform. Constant hard work inside the training room will also push the limits of a fighters pain tolerance.

Those who are able to break through these mental barriers are the only ones able to return day after day. This trait is said to be part of the “champions mindset”, which is glorified by many as an answer to success. Wrestlers call this process, “embracing the grind”.

Forging A Champion

champion mma fighter wraps his hands

Without writing a complete library we can only scratch the surface of what it takes to become a champion. Each elite player in the game of MMA has their own unique traits, characteristics and backstory.

What we have outlined in this article is the cold hard facts that contribute towards a fighters success. Not all the traits have to be equally aligned as there will always be an anomaly. But, none can deny the importance of the above.

Take a look at the greatest in the sport today and break down what it is that makes them special. They’re strong, powerful, and conditioned both physically and mentally.

True champions show athleticism, skill and heart above all else. The key to their success is sometimes genetic but seems to be mostly forged. Therefore, prospective fighters should look to them for inspiration and follow their positive habits.

They are after all the most successful MMA fighters on the planet.


  1. La Bounty, Paul & I Campbell, Bill & Galvan, Elfego & Cooke, Matt & Antonio, Jose. (2011). Strength and Conditioning Considerations for Mixed Martial Arts. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33. 56-67.
  2. Taber, C., Bellon, C., Abbott, H., & Bingham, G.E. Roles of maximal strength andrate of force development in maximizing muscular power. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 38 (1): 71-78. 2016.
  3. James, LP (2018). Order from chaos: unravelling the determinants of mixed martial arts performance 
  4. . Stanley, E. (2014) The effects of 4 weeks of contrast training versus maximal strength training on punch force in 20–30 year old male amateur boxers [thesis]. Chester: University of Chester.
  5. La Bounty, Paul & I Campbell, Bill & Galvan, Elfego & Cooke, Matt & Antonio, Jose. (2011). Strength and Conditioning Considerations for Mixed Martial Arts. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 33. 56-67.
  6. Crust, L (2007) Mental toughness in sport: A review, International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5:3, 270-290.
  7. Dunn, A. L., & Dishman, R. K. (2005). Anxiety and performance on the tour de France
    and tour de France feminin. International Journal of Sport and Exercise
    Psychology. 3(4), 410-427.
  8. Bull, S. J., Shambrook, C. J., James, W., & Brooks, J. E. (2005). Towards an
    understanding of mental toughness in elite English cricketers. Journal of Applied
    Sport Psychology, 17, 209-227.
  9. Thornton, C., Sheffield, D. & Baird, A. (2017). A longitudinal exploration of pain tolerance and participation in contact sports. Scandinavian Journal of Pain, 16(1), pp. 36-44. Retrieved 29 Jun. 2018.