Judo or Wrestling?

A teenager is interested in becoming a professional mixed martial artist. This person has a background in striking arts, has just started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), and wants to add a grappling art that focuses on takedowns. They ask, “What should I practice, Judo or Wrestling?”

A civilian walks into a Judo dojo off the street, informs the school’s head instructor that they have no prior experience in martial arts but want to learn self-defense. They ask, “Would it be better for me to learn Judo or Wrestling?”

A professional MMA fighter who is known for their striking but lacks sufficient takedowns and takedown defense asks their coach, “Who should I train with, elite wrestlers or elite Judoka?”

Finally, a visitor of judonogi.com e-mails me and asks, “Isn’t no-gi Judo just wrestling?”

All of the above scenarios seek to compare Judo to Wrestling in different ways, for different people and purposes. As such, the answer depends on the person and their circumstances, including factors like country and zipcode.

Having been around a combination of judoka, wrestlers, karate and BJJ practitioners who strafe between the two worlds, I’ve heard a plethora of questions and answers regarding this subject that range from the informative to the idiotic. There are no shortage of people in both the Judo and Wrestling communities who hold block-headed, ill-informed views of the other, and often times, one of these block-headed views has lead the person caught in between (either the BJJ player, striker, or average civilian) with an incomplete basis for whatever opinion they have formed on the topic.

I’d like to draw on my own expertise and provide the most complete answer that I can to each question.

I am not an expert in wrestling, by any means, but I have trained, observed, and studied enough about it that I am comfortable outlining some basic differences between wrestling and Judo.

Some try and equivocate by stating, “It’s all just different forms of wrestling. Train everything.” Well, sort of, but not really. That’s like telling a Japanese tourist who wants to learn a Western language,”German and English, it all just different forms of Anglo-Frisian dialect brought to Europe by Western Germanic invaders. Learn everything.” Great, but that doesn’t help anyone. This is not the Matrix, where we choose to upload expert-level information at will. Just like a foreign language, we learn martial arts for different reasons, under a multitude of circumstances, with unequal banks of time to commit.

What are the prime differences between Judo and Wrestling, then?

From the Judoka’s perspective, our motto is “Maximum efficiency with minimum effort.” That remains the best root explanation of Judo. It is manifested through a system of throws, pins, holds and submissions that utilize the concept of “kuzushi” or balance-breaking (in the case of throws) and leverage (in the case of pins and holds).

Quick history lesson: Judo was developed by Jigoro Kano and his associates at Kodokan Judo (founded in 1882) from prior forms of Japanese Ju-Jutsu. As Japan became more westernized in the late 19th century, the Samurai were weeded out as Japan’s prime military force and replaced with modern soldiers. This is important to the development of Judo, because the older ju-jutsu forms were practiced by Samurai who utilized wide throwing movements that were effective against opponents wearing suits of armor. With big body armor and sword fighting no longer a combat reality in Japan, many older Ju-Jutsu forms were left behind. Judo adapted the best of old Ju-Jutsu (along with forms of wrestling) to make them more efficient and realistic to an attacker wearing a kimono (or gi) rather than wearing armor and carrying a sword.

This history is important, as it accounts for the modern use of the gi in Judo and BJJ practice, and lends perspective that helps us understand the transition from gi to no-gi. Simply put, combat attire evolves to meet the criteria most relevant to the times we live in. The gi is still important in that it helps students develop grips and more technical defense that does not just rely on sweat or lack of cotton clothing friction to escape holds, and opens up submissions that can be used on people wearing collared shirts, as well as throws against those wearing belts, but that’s a topic for a different day.

So the gi is the biggest, most noticeable difference between Judo and Wrestling. In a street combat scenario, against an attacker wearing a shirt and pants with a belt, Judo provides for a range of attacks and grips that just don’t exist in wrestling. Belt grips and Georgian belt grips would be the best examples of that.

The second big difference is the presence of submission attacks. This is a good time to point out the many different forms of wrestling, like Greco-Roman, freestyle, folkstyle, and catch. Catch wrestling actually does involve an array of submission holds, but its availability is rare to the point of extinction. Its legacy is upheld by a handful of influential people, such as Erik Paulson and Josh Barnett.

Another quick history lesson: catch wrestling came to prominence in late 19th century Britain. It became a popular form of entertainment at carnivals and fairgrounds. Eventually, professional catch wrestlers figured out that they could draw bigger crowds by “working” their matches, a friendlier give-and-go style that allowed participants to show off the more entertaining aspects of submission wrestling. You could compare this to kata demonstrations in Judo and Karate, where partners work together, or flow rolling in BJJ, when combatants “go with” any attempted technique. The outcome of these catch wrestling matches were predetermined to avoid any single wrestler looking too weak by losing all the time. As catch wrestling become more popular, its organization began to resemble boxing, where promoters would book shows around crowd favorites who consistently win and defeat villainous cheaters, or villainous strong-men who would eventually lose to beloved underdog. These shows evolved into what we know as modern day professional wrestling, best exemplified by Vince McMahon’s WWE.

For the purposes of this blog post, we will only examine the difference between Judo and any combination of Greco, Freestyle, and Folkstyle wrestling (aka collegiate or scholastic wrestling).

The debate on differences gets interesting when we factor in BJJ, because many of the people who ask about Judo versus Wrestling practice BJJ, where gi gripping and submissions are already present. BJJ schools do in fact practice takedowns, but it is not a systematic study, merely a supplement to their study of “newaza” or ground fighting. There are some BJJ schools that train Judo on a daily basis, but they are few and far between, and vice versa. Judo schools for the most part do not train newaza to the extent that BJJ schools do, except in the rare occasion that the head instructor is a black belt in both (and even then, the school tends to focus on one or the other). There are always exceptions to the rule, but I am focused on the typical experience.

As such, people tend to break down the elements of combat into striking, takedowns, and submissions. For the middle category, we are still left with Judo vs. Wrestling (and Sambo, which we will get to).

In terms of takedowns without the gi and gi grips factored in, there are still some fundamental differences between wrestling and Judo. I have practiced wrestling on many different occasions, and it never felt like the same thing as Judo. Why? For me, the difference has always been one of strength and athleticism versus balance breaking and efficiency.

A proper wrestling room is full of athletes who exhibit strength, speed, and explosiveness at above-average levels or better. The techniques themselves predominantly focus on reaping out the legs, tripping, and vertical or arching lifts. To execute them, a certain degree of athleticism must be achieved.

In a Judo dojo, you will notice people of various sizes and levels of strength and athleticism. With “maximum efficiency, minimum effort” as the guiding principle, Judoka are focused on balance-breaking whereby we are not just initiating but reacting to commitments of momentum from our opponents and using that to our advantage.

When an opponent comes forward, we do not stop the attack and initiate anew – we continue the momentum in the direction to which it is committed, and use our hands, hips, shoulders or legs to turn a throw and create a positional advantage upon landing.

That isn’t to say that none of these factors are present in wrestling, or that strength and athleticism aren’t present in Judo (they are, more now than ever), but the guiding principles of both are not completely alike.

Wrestling is geared towards the athletically inclined, but Judo is geared for everybody. A weaker person who joins wrestling must become an obsessed workhorse to become an effective practitioner. But Judo can be casually practiced by a weaker person, and still be effective enough that they can defend themselves. This is a principle that was also handed down to BJJ, which evolved from Judo. Jigoro Kano and Helio Gracie were not the spitting images of strength and dominance, and that says a lot about Judo and BJJ as self-defense systems for the average person. The athletic individual can look to Masahiko Kimura and Rickson Gracie as examples of what Judo and BJJ can be when technique and strength are combined. But can the weak person use wrestling to defend themselves?

Last but perhaps the most important difference between wrestling and Judo, is the concept of Ukemi (falling). Wrestlers do not learn how to properly fall the way that Judoka do. Rolling, back breakfalls, side breakfalls, forward breakfalls and free falls will all save a person from piling up injuries both in practice and in combat. Judo can be safely practiced in this regard. That isn’t to say all Judo dojos practice ukemi to the extent that they should, and in fact the opposite has become an alarming trend, but at its core, Judo teaches a multitude of ways to fall without getting hurt, and is safer to practice than wrestling. This feeds into my point about Judo being for everybody, not just athletes.

I also want to make quick mention of the respective time in development between both wrestling and Judo. The Greco-Roman and Freestyle traditions of wrestling have been around for more than a thousands years, maybe longer if you want to count more primitive forms. Judo as a practice separate from Japanese JuJutsu has only been in practice since 1882. While both are incredible popular on the international stage but significantly less so in the U.S., it does say something about both sports/arts that one has had more time to evolve and standardize its practice. If Judo can survive and eventually thrive again for a even hundred more years, I have no doubt that its overall proficiency would increase. Judo’s development in just over 130 years has been incredible. But that is all the more reason why we must pay respect to the effectiveness of wrestling, which has fine tuned its techniques for centuries upon centuries.

So which is better for the civilian off the street looking to learn self-defense?

For the reasons outlined above, I would undoubtedly recommend Judo to the average civilian who wants to learn self-defense. It is safer to practice, more widely available to people who are not in middle or high school and therefore cannot practice for free in scholastic wrestling facilities, and includes submission fighting and (often) weapons and street-specific defense techniques, something that the wrestling team will not teach you.

On average, the newaza and submission training in Judo will not match what is available in a good BJJ school, but as long as your Judo dojo is at least a good newaza school, you will become proficient enough in submissions for self-defense purposes. In effect, Judo provides a well-rounded self-defense program for the average citizen, whereas wrestling is not concerned with all areas of combat and is mostly geared towards competitive student athletes.

As for the techniques themselves, Judo throws tend to be more dynamic and high-impact than the highest percentage wrestling takedowns. It is one thing to be thrown on a mat or MMA ring canvas, but in a street self-defense situation, you can literally finish your opponent with even the most basic Judo throws. Aside from the suplex, the average wrestling takedown is designed simply to put your opponent in a position where they can be pinned. Judo throws are outright destructive on the road or concrete.

What would I recommend to the young, aspiring MMA fighter who wants to learn takedowns?

The answer to this question depends on a variety of factors. If the person asking is still in middle or high school but wants a base for future MMA fights, I would without hesitation direct them to their school’s wrestling room.

We can debate wrestling versus Judo techniques all day, but one thing that is not up for debate is infrastructure. And wrestling’s infrastructure in the United States is far and away superior to that of Judo. Wrestling is in almost every middle and high school, and despite it being in less colleges and universities than years past, wrestling is still infinitely more available on the collegiate level than Judo.

Of course, my answer might change depending on where the person lives. If the person lives close to a major Judo center like Jason Morris or Jimmy Pedro, there is no question I would tell them to choose Judo. Again, it’s a matter of infrastructure. You will receive a much higher level of grappling learning under world champion level coaches, practicing with national team and Olympic hopefuls and/or medalists, with the ability to compete on a regular basis, than you would on some local watering town’s high school or college wrestling team.

Unfortunately for Judo, this is not the average scenario. Judo schools are rarities, even in major metropolitan areas, and the instruction you get is likely to not be on the level of Jimmy Pedro or Jason Morris Judo Centers. You won’t have the same competitive opportunities, and will lack for a diverse array of training partners. That doesn’t mean you can’t attain a very high level of Judo. I have met many excellent Judo players who were not molded in nationally funded Judo training centers. That probably accounts for 98% of Judoka, to be honest. That’s OK. But the average high school wrestling team will, at the very least, provide you with more training partners and a regular competition schedule. This experience has valuable crossover to the MMA world, and best of all, it’s free of cost.

Interestingly enough, wrestling’s infrastructure gets turned on its head in favor of Judo in the case of female athletes. Both wrestling and Judo are actually bad examples of female athletic participation, and compared to BJJ neither wrestling or Judo have nearly enough females in the average class. But despite having its own problems in this department, Judo still provides far more opportunity for women than wrestling. The state of women’s competitive Judo is actually quite good now in the United States, when simply looking at who is on the competition circuit.

Olympic Women’s Judo has more competitors per bracket and one more weight class (6 Weight Classes, about 22-26 competitors per class in the Round of 32) than does Women’s Freestyle Wrestling (5 Weight Classes, 18-19 competitors per class). The number of elite world events for female wrestlers is dwarfed by the number of IJF World Grand Prix tournaments that are held nearly every month and include fairly large women’s brackets. Women began competing in the Judo World Championships in 1980 compared to women’s freestyle wrestling that began in 1987. Olympic women’s Judo started in 1992, whereas women’s Olympic freestyle wrestling did not begin until 2004. From the elite levels down to the club level, the reality is that women have been active and integrated participants in Judo for decades, and women’s freestyle wrestling has survived on Title IX statutes that require colleges to provide them with a team.

That’s not a knock on Title IX or women’s wrestling, but a clear indicator of where women’s wrestling is at in 2016 compared to women’s Judo. If you put the Olympic and World Champion Female Judoka against their Freestyle Wrestling counterparts in a mixed rules grappling competition that gave no clear advantage to either style, I believe the female Judoka would have an easy day. You could say the same thing about world women’s Muay Thai kickboxing versus women’s Boxing.

There’s a reason why elite male Judoka take some time to work their way up in MMA, whereas Ronda Rousey entered women’s MMA and was God from Day 1 despite the presence of many female wrestlers. It’s all about infrastructure and opportunity. Judo provides more of it for women than wrestling. This goes back to Judo having broader appeal as a complete martial art.

Should an established pro fighter with resources and coaches at their disposal choose wrestling or Judo?

This is where the “just train everything” motto gains more credence. An individual with the resources to create his own environment is only facing one variable in regards to this question: region.

American fighters are better off basing the takedown portion of their training around wrestling, for all the infrastructural reason listed above. There are simply more quality training partners available, and because the US dominates the MMA market in terms of number of overall fighters, wrestling is also the takedown style that a fighter is most likely to encounter in the cage. American wrestlers face a tougher competition grind than the average competitive American Judoka, and that matters when it comes to conditioning, weight cuts, mentality, etc. Olympic US Judoka are obviously exceptions to this, but again, we are talking averages not exceptions, and there aren’t enough Travis Stevens in the country for top MMA camps to rent.

As more Europeans, Asians and Eurasians enter the US MMA market, you will see more Judo, Sambo, and hybrids of both these styles and freestyle wrestling.

On that note, let’s talk about one region in particular: Eurasia, or more broadly, Russia and the former Soviet states. (Eurasia can be used to define all of Asia and Europe, but I am using the geopolitical definition of Russia and Central Asia)

When it comes to both wrestling and Judo, Eastern Europe and Eurasia have always been the dominant powers. Double that for Sambo and Combat Sambo, which is perhaps the most well-rounded style of grappling in the world.

“Don’t the Asian countries dominate Judo?” Yes and no. When you combine the World and Olympic medal count of the former Soviet states, no. When you consider what those medal counts would look like if international Judo didn’t nerf its ruleset to disallow alternative grips and throws that were retained and evolved by Sambo, then I think Russia by itself would dominate the medal count, let alone the inclusion of Central Asian former Soviet states. Some theorize that this is exactly why the rules were changed in the first place.

So how do people living in these countries decide which to train, Judo, Sambo, or Wrestling? The answer is they don’t: they train a hybrid of all three.

The best example I can give is the man that many, if not most consider to be the best wrestler in MMA: Khabib Nurmagomedov.

When you watch him fight, he doesn’t look like your typical wrestler, but not quite a Judoka either. It makes sense when you consider his background. Khabib, hailing from Dagestan, Russia, is a black belt in Judo, a Master of Sport and World Champion in Combat Sambo, and learned freestyle wrestling under his father who himself was a successful wrestler.

While the three forms are distinct in terms of competition circuits, there appears to be interplay between the three, and awareness of the strengths of each. This is in stark comparison to the US and other regions, where people love engaging in stupid arguments like “Bro, wrestling beats Judo 9 out of 10 times. Judo sucks, fuck wearing that stupid gi!” or “Wrestling is inferior because it wasn’t created by a mystically wise Japanese man who ate slammed his back into a tree one thousand times a day until it was raw to perfect his uchikomi!”, or “Sambo leglocks wouldn’t work on Rickson, my friend!”

It isn’t about cross-training between different systems and never fully mastering any of them, but integrating lessons from those systems to make your own stronger.

To answer my own question, then, I think MMA fighters looking to improve their takedowns who live in Eastern Europe or Central Asia can’t go wrong training with Judoka, Sambists, or Freestyle Wrestlers, because those countries have a proper infrastructure to support all three, and each practitioner is generally aware of or trained in the other’s style. If there was one thing the Soviet Union got right, it was their support of sports and sciences, not just financially but the idea that effective is effective. This willingness to embrace a variety of techniques led to good creativity not only in martial arts (Sambo) but in other sports as well (hockey – the Red Army hockey team was noted for its dynamic, revolutionary approach). This open, creative approach to martial arts, bereft of stale tradition and spooky “ancient wisdom” was retained in the martial arts culture of the former USSR.

Venturing outside of this region, I think that Cuba is an excellent example of a country that has good infrastructural support for wrestling and Judo with medals to show for it (interesting that they modeled their national sports program after the Soviet system).

Brazil would be an example of a nation that has better Judo infrastructure than wrestling (though both are secondary to BJJ). The same can be said for the UK and Western Europe, which is known for its lack of wrestling, but has such a devotion to Judo that most of their Judoka don’t crossover to MMA (this is sadly true for the Judo community at large).

So what’s the point?

Judo, with or without the gi, is tangibly different from wrestling, but they are both effective and similar enough that learning either one will give you excellent takedowns and pins.

To decide on which is right for you, consider your own goals. Then consider the availability and cost of both sports, and their capacity to help you reach those goals. The latter three factors depend on variables such as gender, age, and region.

Among the most effective martial arts, whether we are talking Judo, Sambo, BJJ, Wrestling, or Boxing, infrastructure matters. That’s why, as a Judo enthusiast, I advocate that more people with expertise open up Judo clubs and explore new and creative ways to expose the general public to this great martial art. Be open minded to using the lessons of rival arts to enhance what we teach from our own system. Stagnation and evolution cannot co-exist.

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