Starting a Combat Sport

Looking to learn some self defense, get in shape, or simply let off some steam every once in a while? Taking up a combat sport might be the thing for you. Besides being one of the best sports for building muscle mass and getting in shape, combat sports are fun, exciting, and also, in hopefully very rare instances, can help save your life. Plus, you’ll definitely win the “most bad-ass hobby” award among your friends and the ladies.

In the United States, there are four popular combat sports proven to be effective in minimal rules combat that you can easily pick up at any age: Boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and MMA (mixed martial arts). In addition to these popular choices, dozens of other options exist, wrestling, judo, Krav Maga, and many traditional martial arts such as Karate or lesser known ones such as the Filipino martial art Eskrima. Our focus is on the initial four we listed, due to a combination of their effectiveness in actual combat and the easy access to instructors and schools across the entire United States. Which one is right for you? Keep reading.


Originating nearly four thousand years ago, boxing has been around for almost as long as civilization itself. Modern boxing as we know it today likely originated with the ‘Queensbury Rules’ published in 1867. Since then, despite an uneasy relationship with the law, the sport eventually gained legitimacy and continued to grow in popularity. Today it is arguably the most popular combat sport in the United States (though MMA is rapidly gaining).

If a high paced cardio workout that involves explosive full body movements, finesse, and technique interest you, boxing might be a good fit. Finding a boxing club is quite easy in a major city, and even a lot of rural areas in the US have a decent boxing gym in the area. You’re looking for combat, not cardio kickboxing, so do your research on the school before just showing up one day.

Getting Ready For Your First Boxing Class

You’ve decided to try a boxing class. You’re probably nervous and unprepared. You’re asking: “Do I need to bring anything?” “Do I need to buy anything?” “What should I wear?” Relax. We’ve got you covered.

Most boxing gyms have trained staff that will tell you (and usually sell you) anything and everything you’ll need to participate. All you have to do is show up in a pair of shorts, comfortable sneakers to start. Also, bring a water bottle: you’re going to sweat a lot!

We don’t recommend shelling out for boxing gloves or shoes before your first day: consult with your instructor first, but if you want to come a little more prepared and avoid a typical gym markup on products, consider buying wraps in advance.

Muay Thai

If you want a more complete striking based combat sport than boxing, consider Muay Thai. This martial art originating in Thailand is the gold standard when it comes to striking arts, employing strikes with hands, feet, elbows, knees and shins. It also involves plenty of clinch work, which is a nice segue into grappling arts and MMA.

A Muay Thai workout involves a significant amount of cardio, a variety of technique work given the various available weapons in a Muay Thai practitioners arsenal, and a fair amount of shin conditioning as you get more advanced to get the nerves used to hard strikes with the shin. (Don’t worry, most of the time you’ll be wearing shin guards)

Getting Ready for Your First Muay Thai Class

Like boxing, wear comfortable athletic wear and bring plenty of water. Don’t worry too much about shoes; you won’t be wearing them most of the class. Class will often involves some jump rope, other calisthenics, shadow boxing, and other warm up. Technique will follow, and later on even live sparring, but not on your first day. You’ll eventually need wraps, a pair of gloves, shin guards, and ideally, Thai boxing shorts. But like boxing, you can figure that stuff out later with the help of the instructor. Also like w/boxing, most gyms have a markup on products, so consider buying the easy things, like wraps, a water bottle, and shin guards, in advance.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Originating in Brazil by Japanese Judo practitioner Mitsuyo Maeda and refined by his students Carlos and later Helio Gracie, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, often abbreviated BJJ, evolved from Judo roots to one of the most formidable grappling arts in existence today. The Gracie family, largely credited with the early development and popularization of BJJ, showcased the sport in the US by organizing the first Ultimate Fighting Championship. UFC 1, which took place in Nov 11, 1993 in Denver, would forever change combat sports.

At that event, Royce Gracie, an unassuming 6ft, 175lbs, was pitted against significantly larger and stronger opponents. Despite the size disadvantage, Royce Gracie dominated his competition with ease using Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He went on to repeat as winner, again, easily crushing his opponents in UFC 2.

Besides being an extremely effective form of self defense, BJJ is a good cardio and strength workout. One thing that sets it apart from many combat sports is that sparring comes into play very early in the training process. If you like to test yourself in combat against another competitor in a controlled environment, BJJ could be the sport for you. It’s also very technical; smaller, more skilled practitioners often easily defeat larger, stronger opponents with less experience. If you’re a smaller person, BJJ is a great way to build confidence.

Getting Ready for Your First Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Class

Like the other sports on the list, expect to sweat a lot. Every school is different, but for beginners, often an instructor will work with you one on one your very first class, guiding you through warm up drills, technique, and in many schools, sparring. (Yep, you can often spar your very first class!)

Most beginner classes are “in the gi”, which means you’ll need to wear a gi during class. Some schools require you to wear their school’s gi, but if your school is not one of them, you can save some money and order a beginner gi (always choose a white one to start) online. In addition to the gi, make sure you have a t-shirt, or ideally, a rashguard, to wear underneath your gi. Not every school requires it, but since you’ll be very close to other students in the class (it’s grappling, after all), it’s more hygienic to wear a rashguard underneath your gi. Lastly, sparring comes very early in BJJ, so we recommend a mouth guard on day one.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)

Want to get the best of all worlds? The ultimate modern day combat sport is MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). As the name suggests, MMA is a multi-disciplinary combat system that combines boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, and any other combat sport that has been shown to be effective in no rules or limited rules matches.

MMA came about as the UFC and other no or limited rules fighting matches grew in popularity. Initially, grapplers dominated these matches, with BJJ practitioners like Royce Gracie winning the early UFCs, and wrestling power houses like Mark Coleman and Mark Kerr smashing hapless kick boxers and traditional martial artists with devastating ground and pound.

However, the sport evolved, and those who were primarily kick boxers and muay thai practitioners started to learn how to defend against wrestlers’ takedowns and BJJ fighters submissions. Similarly, the grapplers learned how to kick-box well enough to close the distance and get the fight into their domain. “Cross training” as it is called, became the norm. Today, virtually every top mixed martial artist is skilled at all aspects of grappling and striking.

If you’re up for the challenge, want to have a well rounded combat skill set, and want to be able to say yes when people ask you “Do you train UFC?”, MMA is for you!

Getting Ready for Your First MMA Class

Going to an MMA class without a background in another combat sport can be quite intimidating. Wear comfortable tight fitting clothing (ideally a rashguard and fight shorts) and bring flip flops or slides since you’ll be barefoot most of the time on the mat. Your instructor will probably have MMA gloves and shin guards for you to use on your first day, but you’ll want to get your own pretty early on.

Class will likely involve strength and conditioning based warm ups, drills, and technique lessons across one or more of the many disciplines under the MMA umbrella. These classes are pretty intense and tiring, so bring plenty of water with you.

Starting a combat sport can be intimidating. Unlike other workout classes where you can usually just show up and pick it up by the first class, mastering the skills taught in any of the sports above takes years of dedication and hard work: you’re going to be terrible on your first day. You also might feel uneasy sparring, even in a friendly and controlled way. It can be quite frightening sparring for the very first time. Fortunately, the rewards are well worth it.

As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.

You may like