Wrestling vs. BJJ: Which is better?

The subject of wrestling and Brazilian jiu-jitsu has been around for ages. The timeless debate of which grappling martial art is better. The exciting part is that it doesn’t just stop with BJJ and Wrestling; you’ve got Judo, Sambo, Japanese Jiu-jitsu, among others.

It’s always the same debate in martial arts: which is better, boxing or kickboxing? MMA or Karate Combat? and the list goes on…

It’s the same thing with the comparison of BJJ and wrestling. Each martial art has its’s pros and cons.

Here we break down to you the debate of wrestling vs. BJJ, the differences in techniques, training methods, and how both contribute to the world of mixed martial arts in general.

Grappling, what is it?

It is the art of controlling and possibly submitting your opponent. BJJ and wrestling are both grappling arts with differences.

In the early days of the UFC, you would see two fighters, a pure wrestler going against a pure BJJ black belt: the BJJ black belt would win nine times out of 10. Why is that? Because the wrestler doesn’t know how to submit, hence not able to finish the fight. Watch Dan Severn, a pure wrestler going against Royce Gracie, a pure jiu-jitsu master: Dan got beat even with a 100 pounds size advantage against Royce.

But there’s also the other side of the coin, with wrestlers being extremely athletic. The sport of wrestling is very tough, and this is why the cream rises to the top. Wrestlers are quick, agile, and usually have brute-force strength. All those things are essential, so a wrestler learning BJJ will better transfer into the sport. Bear in mind that wrestling roots come from catch wrestling which initially had submission holds.

This is where things get interesting. As we dive deeper into the history of martial arts, you will see and understand how rich grappling arts are!

The History and Development of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Wrestling

Understanding the history of grappling will help you understand the difference between BJJ and wrestling. As each sport grows, the clash between the two styles is seemingly inevitable. Both sports feed off each other, with BJJ-inspired catch wrestling styles such as Luta Livre to clinching and takedowns in the BJJ sport.

The Far East Grappling Schools: From Japanese Jiu-Jitsu to The Gracies’ BJJ

Takenouchi Hisamori founded the first Japanese jiu-jitsu school in the 15th century, but the earliest documentation of the techniques used in Japanese jiu-jitsu dates as far back as 711 AD. Japanese jiu-jitsu has expanded by giving birth to other grappling arts such as Aikido, Sumo, and Judo.

Japanese Jiu-Jitsu was originally intended for the battlefield during a time where Japan was divided by war. During the “samurai era,” soldiers had to fight with swords and hand-to-hand combat on the battlefield.

In the 1870s, Japan shifted to put an end to the samurai era along with Japanese jiu-jitsu. Regardless, a young disciple of martial art, Jigorno Kano wanted to keep it alive, so he modified it for the masses: It became what we call judo today.

The Inception of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Now how did this develop into BJJ? It all began with the development of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu under Mitsuyo Maeda.

Maeda was an avid practitioner of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu that traveled the world under the support of the Japanese military. He arrived in Belém, Brazil, in 1914: Gastao Gracie, who was a wealthy businessman in Belém, took his son Carlos Gracie to a demonstration of judo. As a result, Carlos expressed an interest in training judo. Maeda, later on, accepted Carlos and his younger brother Hélio Gracie as students and the rest is history.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: The Sport

Sports jiu-jitsu is the direct evolution of modern jiu-jitsu (BJJ) into a safe format with regulations and regulations steering away from its war-bound origins.

Some would even argue that the sport of jiu-jitsu is entirely different than combat jiu-jitsu. While this might be true, martial art fundamentals still make up 80% of the sport.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu hereafter developed into three niches, each feeding off of each other:

  • self-defense in street fights (unarmed techniques against armed opponents).
  • Luta Livre (Free Fighting) Competition, a.k.a MMA
  • Sports Jiu-Jitsu for grappling only with and without the gi.

Luta Livre vs Brazilian Jiu Jitsu: A Brazilian Feud

Luta Livre was born out of a rivalry between the Gracies’ Brazilian jiu-jitsu and the working class of Brazil. It was a constant power struggle to prove which grappling art is more effective.

So what’s the difference anyway? Well, traditionally, BJJ is trained in the Gi (kimono), much like its predecessors. The Gi’s goal was to help smaller athletes overcome larger opponents and submit them with pressure.

Luta Livre is similar in many ways, except for not using a Gi and emphasizing leg locks since it gets its root from catch wrestling.

The Grappling Dispute

Gis in the BJJ system, we’re very expensive back then, especially given the Gracie family’s roots; BJJ was a rich man’s sport. Going back to the lineage of the Gracie family, Gastao was a wealthy businessman in Brazil. He was the first to come in contact with Maeda. As a result, BJJ was only practiced among the wealthy, while Luta Livre was for those who couldn’t afford the Gi.

George Gracie, Helio’s uncle, decided then to meet Euclydes “Tatu” Hatem, the founder of Luta Livre, issuing a challenge against him. Unfortunately, George Gracie ended up losing to Hatem via wrist lock. This event would spark a decades-long rivalry that only started to fade away during the early days of the UFC, with Royce Gracie dominating the tournaments, making BJJ the more dominant style.

Gi vs. No-Gi: The Technicalities

No-Gi is faster in the transitions and more technical because your opponent can slip from one position, so you have to transition faster. Holding someone in side control in No-Gi is a lot harder than with the Gi because you can’t hold on to Gi. The Gi has more options in terms of chokes and submission, and it’s harder to escape from them: neither are superior to one another.

Wrestling in Ancient Greece

There’s a reason it was one of the original ancient sport of the Olympics. It was first introduced in the ancient Olympic games back in 708 BC and evolved into different styles—two of the biggest styles, Greco-Roman wrestling and freestyle wrestling.

The Rules of Ancient Greek Wrestling

What makes wrestling very interesting to crowds? Well, every culture has some form of wrestling. It showcased athletic abilities as well as high social status. Most importantly, it was the manifestation of strength and balance combined.

Ancient Greek wrestlers had to be strong and maintain their balance on both their feet. Wrestling was based on survival because back then, fighting, hunting, and running required individuals to be on both their legs. Any fall could result in bones being broken or joints getting dislocated.

This is why it has become a staple rule in modern grappling arts in that a fall could result in a disadvantage.

Wrestling: A Tough Sport

Wrestling requires a lot of work. The intensity is just different, demanding athleticism, as we’ve said before. The grind of wrestling using brute force and explosiveness all the time makes it very competitive.

The nature of the sport of wrestling weeds out any relenting athlete, and those who come out on top usually have to sacrifice a lot to win.

Wrestling vs. BJJ: What’s the Difference?

Wrestlers will give up their back all day in BJJ because it’s tough to break the wrestling rules to succeed in BJJ. Essentially, takedowns are the bread and butter of wrestlers.

The takedown in BJJ is not a threat because you can submit and defend from the guard: This is why there isn’t much emphasis on the takedowns. You can pull guard, and you can sweep; you don’t have to do takedowns.

Wrestling was founded in a much more time-sensitive context because you’re competing for a very short duration. Whereas jiu-jitsu was developed under Vale Tudo regulations, Portuguese for anything goes, including no time limit.

The Rules of wrestling

We break down the different game plans, scoring systems, and Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling rules in the following segment. While both of those sports share similarities, they also have differences.

Why should you know them? Well, as a BJJ fighter, you will meet wrestlers transitioning into Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so you should be aware of their tendencies and capabilities. It wouldn’t hurt to know them if you decide to take up wrestling to enrich your grappling game.

Freestyle Wrestling

Freestyle wrestling incorporates many elements of control from sambo, judo, and traditional Greco-Roman wrestling.

The goal of freestyle wrestling is to tackle an opponent and pin their shoulders on the mat for a couple of seconds.

Freestyle wrestling allows the athlete to pick the leg and ankle to defend or attack his opponents. If one of the wrestlers is considered passive, he will be placed under a 30-second shot clock; if he doesn’t score any points, his opponent is awarded a point.

Greco-Roman Wrestling

Greco-Roman wrestling forbids holds below the waist and forbids leg trips, kicks, and knee strikes. This puts the focus on throws. It also doesn’t have single or double-leg takedowns, emphasizing throws, locks, and slamming.

Each match round is divided into three parts: one 60 seconds for a neutral position and two 30 seconds segments for ground combat on the mat. The goal is to accumulate as many points as possible to win.

To win, most wrestlers will attempt a pin: the wrestler has to firmly grab his opponent’s shoulders and lock them on the mat for 1-2 seconds.

A takedown is scored for 2 to 5 points when the wrestler is defensive and can reverse into an offensive position; he gets 1 point. If a wrestler exposes his opponent’s back for several seconds, he gets 2-3 points.

The Rules of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

In BJJ, not all the takedowns come from wrestling; some come from judo, sambo among other styles.

And as a side note, just because jiu-jitsu doesn’t focus on takedowns doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn them. You need to learn takedowns for self-defense, especially if you want to practice MMA.

Vale Tudo regulations were the old rules of BJJ competition, which inspired the new EBI (Eddie Bravo Invitational) rules minus the striking and time limit.

What are EBI regulations? They’re tournament regulations that are very similar to the old vale tudo rules, except for the time limit

  • 10 minutes match
  • No point scoring system
  • To win, you need to end it by way of submission

There’s also the classic rules of the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) score points as follows:

  • 2 points are awarded for a takedown of an opponent
  • 3 points for passing an opponent’s guard
  • 2 points for sweeping an opponent
  • 2 points for a knee on belly position
  • 4 points for full mount control of an opponent
  • 4 points for full-back take and control of an opponent

The winner can win on points or by submission.

BJJ vs. Wrestling: The Major Differences

The differences don’t just come to the rules, yes they’re both grappling arts, but they have developed in two completely different sports. Three things stand out: the technical aspect, the community, and the training.

The Technique

Jiu-Jitsu is continually evolving: look at what John Danaher accomplished with leg locks and guillotines. A technique that was usually ignored is brought to light, and, in return, it transformed not only for the sport but also for the mixed martial arts world.

Any BJJ instructor has likely competed, which is proof jiu-jitsu is a legitimate sport that weeds out any McDojo culture within its community.

It offers submission-only tournaments for those still eager to learn the better version of Luta Livre. BJJ also developed into a sport with point-scoring tournaments such as IBJJF, among others.

In terms of techniques, BJJ practitioners get to work on offense and defense with chokes and submissions from the guard and mount position (something not found in wrestling). BJJ stands out in terms of dominant positions.

The Gi also plays a major difference since you can use it to do chokes like the cross-collar choke. Whereas in wrestling, it’s a little more explosive and slippery with the singlets.

BJJ is more geared towards the conservation of energy: which makes it accessible to a bigger crowd instead of wrestling. It provides positioning and submissions, feints, and baiting techniques, proving to be richer with technique than wrestling.

BJJ for self-defense? Of course! Brazilian jiu-jitsu is about problem-solving. You learn to relax and conserve your energy to defend yourself.

The Community

The BJJ community builds the comradery and humility of the culture within the gym. It will also build up your confidence, ironically, by empowering you mentally and keeping you sharp. There’s a lot of truth in BJJ because you’re humbled when you get tapped out; you can ask any jiu-jitsu practitioners how it changed their life. In wrestling, it’s the same comradery, but you build more grit.

In BJJ, you acknowledge that if it was in a real situation, the person submitting you could have ripped your shoulder or put you to sleep. The irony is you will roll again with that person, facing the danger every day but in a safe and controlled environment. It gives you courage, and not to sound cheesy, but it does teach you a lot about people and life.

The Training

Over the years, some drawbacks of BJJ have manifested themselves with the entry of wrestlers into the sport. Many jiu-jitsu practitioners aren’t good with their takedown skills, and they mostly focus on their ground game. And as much as BJJ empowers the weak, most schools don’t implement programs to develop athleticism in the youth as wrestling does.

Wrestling schools train in a more intelligent matter than most jiu-jitsu schools. Why? They have a conditioning program embedded in the program, and they train the stand-up game and the ground game. Some start as early as grade 6. By the time they’re wrestling in college, they’ve got 10 to 12 years of wrestling experience, which equates to a BJJ Black Belt. A high school wrestler is equivalent to a BJJ blue belt, except a lot more athletic.

Wrestlers are athletic because they’re training like a world-class athlete from a very young age. This is also why wrestlers transition well into the UFC and adapt to the striking component faster because of their athleticism.

Wrestling vs. BJJ: The Self Defense Aspect

Now even though Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is very effective in street fights, wrestling is built on the premise of defending takedowns and controlling the stand-up game. If you’ve attended any self-defense class, you likely know that keeping the fight up rather than on the ground is wiser, especially against multiple attackers. Most of these classes teach a stand-up game to allow the victim to escape without facing an attack.

There are still some drawbacks to exclusively training as a wrestler. For starters, the rules are stricter and harder to understand, especially at a high level. Then there’s the issue of lack of submissions, making it hard for wrestlers to win a submission-only event.

If you one day find yourself in a street altercation, know that you will be able to defend yourself with both. You have to master at least one grappling art. Whether it’s wrestling, judo, jiu-jitsu, sambo, or freestyle, if you master any of these, you will be very efficient at one-on-one self-defense.

BJJ vs. Wrestling: Who Wins?

Jiu-jitsu has exploded in the last two decades because it is a lot less intense than wrestling. On the one hand, BJJ offers a place to anyone regardless of their age, gender, or physical attributes. On the other hand, many jiujitsu practitioners avoid the intensity that wrestling brings: the tough takedown and the strength that comes with it.

Wrestlers usually do very well in BJJ tournaments because they understand the intensity of jiu-jitsu; they can control the pace better than BJJ athlete’s first tournament.

That’s not to say that you don’t have those “grinding BJJ athletes that train at a much higher pace; look at Gordon Ryan, Jeff Glover, etc.

The mentality and athleticism of wrestling breed many champions, such as Jon Jones and Henry Cejudo, but the highest submission/ finishes techniques are all from BJJ. In the end, there’s no definitive answer to the BJJ vs. wrestling debate, and you have to find a middle ground.

The ideal thing is to train both, learn the takedowns, be athletic, and learn how to finish and submit. The vastness of grappling makes it easy for someone to learn takedowns without learning wrestling.

Photo of author


A black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, owner and writer of BJJ Bear.

Leave a Comment