There are generally 5-6 main martial arts or disciplines used in MMA, with each being adapted to work in context of a fight, though a variety of techniques and principles from other martial arts are often incorporated by some fighters as well. Adapting the discipline into the context of an MMA fight is important - simply being a good boxer doesn't mean you will be a good boxer in MMA, as the range, ability to defend and throw kicks, gloves, etc. all play a factor.
Here are the basic "styles" prominently used, and a high-level fighter today is expected to at least have a solid understanding and ability to defend themselves from the basics of these disciplines, if not effectively use them for offense as well.
The key aspect that separates MMA from other combat sports such as boxing and kickboxing is grappling. Think of it this way; you've surely seen a few fights at school growing up, as sloppy and ugly as they may have been. Now think of one of those fights, where one kid clearly came out on top and beat the stuffing out of the other kid. Chances are, at some point, the kid doing the pounding ended up on top of his opponent, raining down punches as his helpless victim flailed to defend himself or curled up into the fetal position.
Without knowing it, you've likely already seen how effective gaining a dominant position on the ground in a fight is, and generally, the person on top has a huge advantage over the person on the bottom. Of course, with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, submissions and sweeps even the playing field and make being on top a dangerous proposition even for experienced fighters, thus turning the grappling game into an intricate and multi-faceted battlefield.
Keep in mind when referring to wrestling, it's referring to the sport of wrestling, not WWE-style or "pro" wrestling which is a scripted soap opera for adolescent boys. Wrestling primarily deals with taking your opponent down to the ground and controlling them or pinning them to the ground so they cannot move.
In an MMA context, having a good wrestling base is vital as you can control where the fight takes place - if you are dealing with a better striker than you, take them down where they might not be as dangerous. Dealing with a great submission artist? Defend their takedowns and force them to strike with you.
In MMA, controlling your opponent on the ground is a great way to open them up for strikes, commonly referred to "ground and pound", and can also leave them vulnerable to submissions. Submissions are of course not used in wrestling and are illegal, however given a wrestler's familiarity with positioning and controlling their opponent submissions tend to be easily added to a good wrestler's arsenal.
There are two types of wrestling: freestyle and Greco-Roman. Freestyle is much more common and typically what is referred to when someone talks about wrestling; it deals mostly with takedowns by grabbing your opponent's legs or hips and forcing them to the ground. Greco-Roman wrestling on the other hand is focused on the upper body, with throws and trips from a clinch position used to take opponents down.
Often just called jiu-jitsu or BJJ, this is the most effective form of self-defense known to man. It can be applied even when your opponent is much bigger and stronger than you and thus it has literally saved many lives in real-world situations. Of course, if you know BJJ, then you also know how to defend it, and it becomes much less effective when your opponent is well-versed in the martial art as well.
BJJ puts an emphasis on submissions, which are various holds and locks that either cause great pain to your foe, choke them unconscious, or can break/dislocate their limbs. Despite this, it's often called the "gentle art" as practitioners very rarely hurt each other and, so long as someone taps out when in a tight joint lock, there's virtually no damage done to your opponent - you can essentially neutralize someone without ever hitting them.
In MMA, ground and pound is often used in conjunction with BJJ to soften an opponent up or get them focused on defending strikes before snatching up a submission when the opportunity presents itself. Submissions come in a variety of forms, from various chokes to armbars and kneebars which utilize the entire body to provide leverage over an opponent's joints.
BJJ is classically trained using the traditional martial arts Gi (think of the classic white baggy robe and pants worn by people doing karate) but is also trained without the gi for MMA. BJJ competitions often have separate tournaments for gi or no-gi grappling, as the gi actually does change many aspects of the sport, allowing for easier grips and the sleeves or collars can even be used to choke people out. The gi is actually a practical tool and has a place in its self-defense teachings, given that people typically wear clothing and thus being able to utilize it can help you gain an advantage over an assailant. Typically, MMA fighters will train both with and without the gi, as it is more difficult to escape positions with a gi and is thus a good learning tool even though MMA fighters aren't allowed a gi in competition.
Judo is generally less effective than wrestling, and is similar to Greco-Roman wrestling in that it is about scoring takedowns from the clinch (essentially having a hold of the upper body of an opponent, similar to a hug).
Judo has various throws and trips from the clinch, and also does allow armbars which can give judokas a leg-up on their competition in transitioning to MMA, but they must be done quickly in judo competitions - they typically have 3 seconds to secure an armbar submission on the ground following a takedown, and if they don't, they are stood up and return to trying to take the other down for more points.
Judo practitioners are often well-versed in the clinch and many have a good armbar (see Ronda Rousey for example), though they rarely have the lower-body takedown defense that is found in wrestlers.
Every fight starts on the feet and knowing at least the fundamentals of striking is a necessity to make it far in MMA. Even the best wrestlers have to close the distance first to get a hold of their opponent, and in doing so leave themselves exposed to strikes in the process; if a grappler can't get a hold of their opponent or keep them in close, without a striking game they are completely neutralized.
The fundamental goal of striking, whether someone is throwing a punch, an elbow, a knee, a kick, or any other kind of strike, is to create collisions.
In essence, there are three main types of collisions - one in which the recipient is moving away or with the strike when it lands, one in which the recipient is stationary when struck, or one in which the recipient is moving into the strike.
If a strike is coming at you, you're of course going to want to do one of two things: move out of its path so that the strike misses you completely and thus no collision is created, or block the strike with a less vulnerable part of your body than what is targeted (controlling where the collision occurs, such as on your arms or shoulders rather than on your head).
The first type of collision is what fighters try to receive if they can't avoid a strike completely - moving in the same direction as the strike takes away from the force of the impact (the term "rolling with the punches" is derived from this principle).
On offense, a fighter will aim to create one of the latter two types of collisions. Typically, when most people think of a punch landing, they're picturing it landing on a stationary target - someone standing still and getting punched in the face, or a heavy bag getting struck. This of course can create great force and is most common.
The most prized collision however is easily the third option - this is what "counter strikers" are constantly seeking. When someone is actively moving into or toward a strike, they are vastly increasing the force of the impact - so much so, that seemingly harmless-looking and short punches can knock their recipients out cold if this kind of collision is created.
To demonstrate this philosophy, picture a stretch of train tracks. On this railroad, you have two trains, Train A and Train B. In the first instance, Train A is moving at a low rate of speed in one direction, say East. Now, Train B is also travelling East, at a high rate of speed, steadily gaining on Train A; eventually, Train B is going to collide with the back of Train A, and is going to cause some damage, but it's mitigated by the fact that Train A is already moving in the same direction.
In the second scenario, now Train A is stopped in the middle of the tracks, completely immobile; Train B is headed toward it at its same high rate of speed as in the first scenario. Train B is going to collide with Train A, and Train A is going to take the full force of B without anything to cushion the blow. The results can be catastrophic.
In the last scenario, Train A is moving West, and Train B is moving East - they're going to collide with much greater force even than in the second scenario, with both trains adding their own momentum into the resulting collision.
It all comes down to creating collisions and the simple realities of physics, and at their core that's what most striking martial arts revolve around (to varying degrees of efficacy).
The "sweet science" is a staple of any fighter's arsenal and in essence encompasses any punches thrown.
In the sport of boxing, larger gloves are used, the lower body (from the waist down) can't be targeted, and the threat of takedowns and kicks are non-existent, thus being a good boxer and being a good boxer in MMA are two different things. Still, many of the tried and true strategies and techniques remain intact and prevalent in MMA, such as the importance of footwork, timing, accuracy, punching form (to generate more power), and distance.
In a boxing match, rounds are shorter (3 minutes instead of 5 for MMA) but with more of them (ranging from 3 all the way to 12 rounds), and of course grappling is non-existent. While the rules and specifics are different, the techniques and principles at the heart of boxing translate exceptionally well to MMA.
Kickboxing is exactly what it sounds like - boxing with the addition of kicks. It follows the same round format as boxing and takes place in a boxing ring, just with the addition of kicks and knees, and the legs can also be targeted. Unlike boxing and MMA, kickboxing rules and organizations vary wildly. Typically, elbows aren't allowed in kickboxing, although some organizations do allow them.
This is a more complete form of striking than boxing and allows for a more realistic fight - kicks completely change the game. Low kicks (kicks to the legs of the opponent) are also especially important; an untrained fighter's leg will shut down with just a few solid kicks to the thigh or calf, and render them next to helpless. It's a big reason why boxers very rarely transition to kickboxing (kickboxing also isn't nearly as popular in the US as boxing, thus much less money is involved), while many kickboxers have transitioned to boxing quite easily.
The American style of kickboxing typically emphasizes speed and footwork over power, while the Thai style (see Muay Thai below) employs a more methodical, power-based approach that emphasizes kicks to the legs and punishing knees and elbows in the clinch.
Dutch kickboxers (the Netherlands is a hotbed for excellent kickboxers) developed their own style of kickboxing to compete with the Thais (see Muay Thai below) which emphasized powerful boxing combinations and extensive use of low kicks along with staying more mobile than their rather stationary Thai counterparts.
If Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is the gentle art, Muay Thai is the violent art. Essentially, Muay Thai is the same as kickboxing except clinching is fully allowed as are elbows. While kickboxers generally favoured a more boxing-like approach to fighting (light on the feet, throwing quick combinations and moving in and out of range), Muay Thai is all about power.
Kickboxers generally look to land their kicks with their foot - as you often see in Hollywood movies - where in Muay Thai, the aim is to land with the shin, a much harder surface that's also less likely to break. Thai fighters tend to be more plodding and seemingly march toward their opponents, loading up on their strikes and looking for heavy shots from a strong base or landing heavy knees and elbows in the clinch.
Muay Thai fighters also like to use a "teep", pushing their opponent forcefully with the bottom of their foot (kind of like the "This is Sparta!" kick) and using the technique the same way a boxer might use a jab to keep their opponent away.
The main difference (besides the clinching and use of elbows) between kickboxing and Muay Thai can be seen quite easily in the styles of kicking - a Muay Thai fighter will step into their target, turning their entire body into the strike to generate maximum power, whereas a kickboxer will generally throw a quicker kick, turning their hips less and not stepping into their opponent when throwing it in order to maximize speed.
There’s also a more brutal version of Muay Thai practiced in some places, called Lethwei - essentially, it’s Muay Thai without gloves (just hand wraps) that also allows headbutts and it is insanely violent.
Karate has many different variations, many of which aren't very effective in a real fight. However, some of the main principles of karate can be applied with great effect in striking sports, like boxing and MMA. The concept of counter-striking is covered well in karate, and you may have heard in movies the idea of the "intercepting fist" - that is essentially throwing a punch as your opponent comes toward you. This principle is a fundamental principle in all striking arts, and is a key component of a counter striker's arsenal.
Certain Karate disciplines such as Kyokushin and Shotokan emphasize effective kicking techniques, while others focus more on single punches or chops. Generally karate kicks are very fast and not very telegraphed, but don't generate nearly as much power as say a Muay Thai kick would. Front kicks are a staple in all forms of karate - kicking straight up and landing with the ball of your foot rather than turning the hips to kick as if you were kicking a soccer ball. These can serve as very effective weapons, though generally they're harder to land and generate less power.
The biggest problem with karate in a practical application is the absence of angles - karate is all about moving in and out on a straight line. This can certainly work, but as soon as a fighter starts moving laterally (as is common in boxing), this becomes much less effective and tends to expose the straight-line attacker to disadvantageous positions. Because of the martial art's straight-line attacks, it can become very easy to anticipate where a karateka will be when they attack, especially since the concept of head movement is non-existent in karate.
Many fighters however have adapted traditional karate techniques and styles to MMA, and when combined with proper boxing knowledge, some of the techniques and principles from karate can prove to be very effective in MMA.
Other "Traditional" Martial Arts
There are hundreds of martial arts out there, almost all of them focused on striking. Generally, most of the techniques practiced are quite useless in a real-life situation, however some techniques and philosophies can still be applied and incorporated into a real fight.
Many fighters who have come from traditional martial arts backgrounds will add certain techniques from these traditional arts to their arsenal, as mostly any strike has a time and place in which it can be effective, even if that circumstance is very rare.
Taekwondo for instance does little to prepare someone for a real fight, but some of the unique kicks used can actually be very effective. Even something like Kung Fu, which many people view as useless, can still have applications in a real fight, such as their concept of controlling an opponent's wrist in the clinch (trying to literally catch someone's wrist as they're throwing a punch at you however, is not very feasible in practice). The Brazilian martial art Capoeira is a combat style that's meant to look like dancing, and actually has several kicks that not only look really cool but can be devastating if they land.
A fighter will always be in a stance - this can vary wildly, but essentially it's how they're standing during the fight.
For instance, a boxing stance may have a fighter standing very upright, with their hands up and ready to throw punches, while a wrestler in MMA may have a lower stance, standing with a hunch and with their knees bent to get down lower to attack their opponent's legs for a takedown.
If your feet are parallel and you simply stand straight, looking directly at someone, and they push you, what happens? Either you fall onto your ass, or you take a few steps back to stabilize yourself. Notice that your feet are no longer parallel as you regain your balance; this is what a stance is for.
Essentially, to create a strong base, to generate power in your strikes, to drive forward into a takedown, or to move with any agility, you'll want to turn your hips to the side, one foot out in front of your body, the other slightly behind you.
Getting into the minutiae of fighting stances would be extensive, but here are the two most general stances that you'll need to know.
This is the standard for most fighters, with the right side of the fighter being their power side. As most people are right handed, your right side is your power side, and thus your left foot should be out in front, with your left hand closer to your opponent than your right. This allows you to turn your hip more into punches or kicks from your right side.
Your left side however is actually closest to your opponent, and though you may not be able to generate as much power, if you punch or kick from this side, your strike doesn't need to travel as far to reach your opponent, making attacks from your left side faster and less predictable.
Above is an image of two orthodox fighters. Notice how one fighter is clearly in defensive posture and is preparing to block his opponent's punches, while the other is looking for an opening to throw his right hand with power, yet both are in the same overall orthodox stance.
This is simply the opposite of the orthodox stance, called southpaw and is typically used by left-handed people. Your right hand and right foot are forward of your base, with your left side back and further from your opponent; essentially it's just a mirror image of the orthodox stance, with your right side now being closest to your opponent and the left side ready to generate the most power.
Another thing to note are the changes that occur when two fighters with opposite stance fight. When two fighters have the same stance (orthodox vs orthodox, or southpaw vs southpaw), as in most cases, you have your normal openings (in orthodox vs orthodox for example, your opponent would look to block your right hand with their lead hand, as you would theirs, and landing a right kick to their upper body would be more difficult, as their back is slightly turned to you and it can be easily deflected).
In an "open guard" encounter, where one fighter is orthodox and the other is a southpaw, a variety of new variables are in play. Now, your lead hand is right next to their lead hand, your lead foot right near theirs. Thus, landing a jab is much more difficult, as their lead arm can easily block its path. This makes both fighter's power side much more effective, as your power side's path is no longer obstructed. You will often see fighters pawing at each other's hands when they are in opposing stances since their lead hands are so close, and will even see fighters grab their opponent's hand on occasion in attempts to try and pull their hand down and land a shot over top.
You'll often hear commentators and analysts talking about how being a southpaw is an advantage for a fighter, but in reality the openings presented to a southpaw are the exact same as those presented to the orthodox fighter - the southpaw however, typically has spent more time training against orthodox fighters given that they're more common, and are often more adept at exploiting those opportunities as a result.
This image illustrates an open stance engagement; the boxer on the left is standing orthodox, the one on the right is a southpaw. Note how close their lead hands and feet are, and their stances are mirror images of one another.
Types of Guards
There are four main types of "guard" in boxing. This is different of course from a guard in grappling terms (see The Techniques page for more on that), but both were developed on the same principle - the basic form from which to defend yourself and to launch attacks from. The boxing guards can be applied to all striking sports including kickboxing and MMA.
The Basic Guard
The basic boxing guard is the tried and true, standard form everyone is taught to begin with. The lead hand (left for most people) is slightly extended at around shoulder height, with the rear hand up near the chin or relaxed in front of the chest.
This is more of a one-size-fits-all guard that's well rounded and the standard for a reason - the hands are up and available to defend the head, while also being in good position to strike from.
The Peek-A-Boo Guard
The peek-a-boo style gets its name thanks to the way a fighter is holding their hands - both are placed right in front of the boxer's face, creating a defensive shell with their gloves.
This is a style that is suited much more toward boxing and kickboxing where large gloves are used; in MMA, this guard can be effective, but is generally much less so thanks to the small gloves.
Typically the hands are turned in with the knuckles pointing away from the boxer's face exactly like the children's game the guard is named after, though some fighter's will have their palms forward and attempt to "catch" their opponent's punches with their hands as they come in.
This style is often combined with bobbing and weaving of the head and is very effective to launch strikes from in the pocket or at close range.
Possibly the greatest in-fighter in combat sports history, Mike Tyson is the perfect example of the peek-a-boo style in action, which he combined with stellar head movement and level changes.
The Cross-Arm Guard
This is a much more rare guard to see, but you'll see fighters occasionally use it if their opponent is only targeting the head or to mix things up and make their opponent think.
The arms are held out from the body and the forearms are "stacked" on top of each other (though not actually touching, as that would limit the space they are blocking). This is a very effective guard in defending oneself from head damage, as when done properly the only part of the head that's exposed is the forehead/top of the head, which is the most durable part of the skull and receiving a strike there is more likely to break an opponent's hand than to hurt the recipient.
It is however a terrible guard to attack from, as both arms are not in a position to throw punches.
Some fighters will use a variant of this by having their lead arm across but their rear hand up vertically with their hand in front of their chin, thus blocking the uppercut and straight punches with their lead arm but still having their right arm free for offense.
The cross-arm guard is generally used as a purely defensive guard and typically you will only see it for a brief time before the fighter returns to one of the other more standard guards. George Foreman in his later career made great use of the cross-arm guard to avoid taking damage against faster opponents.
Philly Shell/Shoulder Roll
The Philly shell is a popular guard that emphasizes head movement and a clear line of sight. The rear hand is held up in position to block on the right side, but the lead hand is relaxed with the hand held low by the waist.
Rather than blocking the left side with the arm/glove, the left shoulder is brought up when punches are incoming to hide the chin; this guard is typically only used by fighters who have excellent head movement and are good at reading incoming strikes.
The low lead hand actually makes throwing a quick jab much more effective as it's harder for the opponent to see the strike coming. It also serves an additional purpose for MMA - the low hand gives the defending fighter an advantage if their opponent shoots for a takedown, as they instantly have one underhook on their opponent which makes defending the takedown easier.
Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather are excellent examples of fighters who use the Philly shell extremely well, and Floyd will even use the modified cross-arm guard at times (lead arm across, rear hand up to the chin).
Floyd Mayweather in his iconic philly shell, a right hand glancing off his shoulder as he leans back before throwing a crisp counter shot.
The Types of Boxer
Each boxer has their own style and form of fighting, but all will fall in one or more categories of styles as described below. There are three primary types of boxer which forms the “holy trinity” of boxing promotion, though there are various other styles as well.
These "types" of fighter also apply to MMA in the striking realm, and you'll notice virtually every fighter's standup game in MMA falls into one or more of these categories.
The Boxer (or Out-Fighter)
The boxer (and yes all boxers are called boxers, but in this case it's referring to the classical boxing style, or "out-fighter") is a fighter who maintains distance from their opponent using quick, long range strikes.
To be effective, they generally need to have good footwork, speed, and ringcraft, and they often make up for a lack of raw power with speed, volume, and accuracy. Out-fighters tend to win more often on points than by knockout, or wear their opponents down over the course of a fight and earn late stoppages through volume rather than single-shot knockout blows.
The style generally lends itself well to a fighter that is tall and/or has a long reach. Out-fighters tend to cross over into other subtypes, particularly the counter puncher, as the long range they keep regularly inspires their opponents to chase and get over-aggressive, leaving them open to counters.
Some famous classical out-fighters include Muhammad Ali, Floyd Mayweather, and Sugar Ray Leonard in boxing, while examples of out-fighters (that also employ kicks in much the same way) in MMA include Holly Holm (also a former boxing champion), Dominick Cruz, and Lyoto Machida.
Swarmer (or In-Fighter)
The swarmer or in-fighter is a fighter than looks to overwhelm their opponents through constant pressure, taking away their opponent's space and ability to settle in to a rhythm.
Swarmers apply that pressure by constantly moving forward and having a high offensive output and tend to require a good chin to be successful, as constantly moving forward will inevitably lead to them being hit in return.
To be effective, a swarmer needs to have tremendous conditioning - pace is their biggest virtue and thus if they get tired before their opponent, their style becomes their own undoing.
Swarmers also need to have good ringcraft (ie. the ability to cut off their opponent's retreat and corner them or back them into the ropes) in order to do well at a high-level. Swarmers are often shorter or have a shorter reach than other fighters, thus the constant forward pressure allows them to take the fight in close where a longer fighter's reach advantage can be nullified.
While footwork and positioning is key to effective pressure, being smart with strike placement is also a great way to force an opponent into corners or lead them into a power shot.
For example, swarmers will often "herd" their opponents into their power side, by repeatedly throwing strikes from the other side - for instance, if a swarmer is orthodox and has a big right hand which their opponent is avoiding by circling to the left, the swarmer may throw multiple left hooks in a row to force the opponent to circle the other way, right into the power hand.
This can also be done to great effect with kicks - want to set up a heavy head kick? Keep spamming kicks at the body and legs from the lead side, forcing the opponent to circle away from your lead leg and into the power side. Kicks are even more effective than punches in "herding" opponents as they have longer range and the opponent generally needs to stop moving in order to block the kick without taking damage.
Some famous examples of swarmers include Mike Tyson, Joe Frazier and current pressure king Gennady Golovkin in boxing, along with Rafael Dos Anjos, Daniel Cormier, and Justin Gaethje in MMA.
Dos Anjos with his forward pressure, throwing volume as his opponent retreats into the cage. He fakes a punch before throwing his right hand, leading his opponent to move right into his subsequent power left.
Slugger (or Brawler, Puncher)
The name says it all. The slugger is the antithesis of the boxer - someone who foregoes finesse and crisp technique and instead looks to lure their opponents into a brawl or knock them out with a single strike.
Being a good slugger demands a fighter to have knockout power along with a sturdy chin as defense typically isn't a slugger's strong suit.
Sluggers tend to lack mobility and can have trouble finding fast opponents. They are often drawn toward throwing extremely hard single strikes when at range rather than throwing combinations. Sluggers love to engage in the pocket however, which is where they thrive and are willing to eat a few punches to land one of their own, where their knockout power gives them an edge.
Many swarmers can also cross over into being sluggers should their opponent meet them in the middle rather than try to move away and create range, as almost any swarmer will have had fights that would put them into the slugger category - most sluggers however lack the ringcraft and finesse required to be a swarmer.
The late Canadian warrior Arturo Gatti was a brilliant slugger; despite having the technique and skill set suited for a boxer, he preferred to slug it out until someone fell down instead. Other examples of sluggers include George Foreman, Sonny Liston, and the fictional Rocky Balboa of movie fame; in MMA, some examples include John Lineker, Justin Gaethje (both are also great swarmers, Gaethje in particular), and Shogun Rua.
The "Trinity" in boxing refers to the three main types of boxers explained above - swarmer, slugger, and boxer - and how they match up against one another.
There's an old adage in boxing that "styles make fights" and it remains true to this day - based on the fighters' styles, one can make many predictions as to how a fight between two athletes will look.
Typically, if you have fighters at a similar skill/experience level, it is assumed boxing matches will play out like a game of rock/paper/scissors: the swarmer beats the boxer, the boxer beats the slugger, and the slugger beats the swarmer.
Stylistically, this makes sense (of course there are always exceptions and many fighters are hybrids of multiple styles/substyles, but as a general rule it still holds true today) - the swarmer overwhelms the boxer with constant pressure, which is the opposite of the type of fight a boxer wants to have. The boxer picks apart the slugger, whose lack of craft makes them the perfect target for the boxer's long range attacks. The slugger beats the swarmer, whose aggression and pressure puts them right into the slugger's wheelhouse and sets them up for the slugger’s power shots.
In addition to the three main types, there are also several subtypes of boxer as explained below.
A boxer-puncher has all the characteristics of a boxer, but also carries the heavy one-shot knockout power more befitting of a slugger.
They tend to be less defensive than a traditional boxer,and unlike said boxers, tend to match up well with swarmers because their knockout power discourages a swarmer's aggression.
Boxer-punchers also match up well against traditional boxers if they can match their speed and mobility, as the added power gives them a huge advantage over their less powerful counterparts.
This type of boxer can be hard to spot as they can be similar or cross over into any of the 3 main types.
Some high-profile examples include Roberto Duran, Roy Jones Jr., and Sugar Ray Robinson in boxing, alongside Robbie Lawler, Eddie Alvarez, and Junior Dos Santos in MMA.
A counter puncher is exactly what they sound like; a fighter who defensively adept and looks to counter their opponent's mistakes or openings with strikes of their own.
Being a good counter puncher (or counter striker as it's referred to in MMA) requires good reflexes and speed as well as the ability to read an opponent's body language and predict the paths of incoming strikes.
Many traditional boxers can fall into this category at times, though pure counter strikers tend to avoid leading with their own offense (their reluctance is often due to their knowledge of how devastating being countered can be) and instead force their opponents to come to them. This tends to involve throwing non-committal jabs or light kicks in MMA and avoiding their opponent through footwork, flustering their foe into chasing them and becoming more aggressive, which in turn opens up opportunities for the countering fighter to capitalize on.
Examples of counter punchers in boxing include Evander Holyfield (the king of sneaking in headbutts when fighters would come toward him), Andre Ward, and James Toney, while in MMA Anderson Silva, Lyoto Machida, and Stephen Wonderboy Thompson are all prolific counter strikers. Conor McGregor is also a counter striker but is one of the rare few who chooses to lead and pressure his opponents, then counters with his straight left hand when they look to return fire.
Lyoto Machida's counter striking greatness - frustrating his opponent into charging at him, then stepping in to meet him with a short right hand that knocks the victim dead.
A switch hitter is a very tricky fighter to compete with, as they regularly change their stance from orthodox to southpaw throughout a fight (often mid-combination) to confuse and overwhelm their opponents.
Switching in the middle of or to start combinations can have great benefits (especially if the opponent doesn't notice the switch) as the different stance presents new angles to attack from and opens up new opportunities to get past an opponent's defense before they can adjust or even recognize the switch.
There is a danger in switching during a combination or in range of an opponent however, as for a moment the switching fighter's feet are parallel to their opponent. Getting hit at this time can easily result in a knockdown or hurt the switching fighter as they aren't in a proper position to absorb a strike.
A truly ambidextrous switch hitter is very dangerous and a true puzzle for their opponents; though a fair amount of fighters can switch stances to open up new opportunities , most can't fight as well from one of the stances which makes it less effective.
Some notable examples include Andre Ward and Miguel Cotto in boxing, while Dominick Cruz, Max Holloway, Demetrious Johnson, and TJ Dillashaw (perhaps the finest example of an offensive switch-hitter ever) are all proficient switch-hitters in MMA.
TJ Dillashaw's switch hitting in action. Notice his leg position - he starts off southpaw with his right foot forward to throw punches, shifts to orthodox to throw a heavy high kick that hurts his opponent, then is back in a southpaw stance to land a left straight that shuts the lights off.
The Basic Types of MMA Fighter
A fighter whose primary focus is grappling. Any strikes thrown are almost always thrown just to set up takedowns and get the fight to the mat where they can implement their gameplan.
These fighters consist mainly of wrestlers who either aren't good strikers or are still developing their striking skills, or jiu-jitsu experts who similarly aren't good strikers or are still developing that aspect of their game.
There are also specialists, who even if they round out their skillset, are supremely talented on the ground and thus nearly always have an advantage there - therefore they try and get it to the canvas as much as possible to use that skill set, even if they are more than capable on the feet.
Many grapplers who can't take down their opponent will settle for staying in the clinch, as it limits their opponent's offense and reduces the risk of eating shots from a better striker.
Some prominent examples include Demian Maia, Jacare Souza, and Khabib Nurmagomedov.
SImilar to the grappler, the striker's primary focus is on one area of the game, this time being striking.
Most strikers have a base in boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai, or another striking martial art such as karate or taekwondo and have taken their martial arts base and adapted their striking game to suit MMA.
Takedown defense is essential for the striker to have success in MMA - no matter how good you are on the feet, if you can't stop a takedown, more often than not a competent grappler or well-rounded opponent is going to put you on the canvas and your striking won't mean squat.
Most high level strikers in MMA therefore train extensively on takedown defense or getting back to their feet immediately when taken down, thus limiting the amount of grappling they have to do in a fight and maximizing their advantage on the feet.
In the age-old matchup of striker versus grappler in MMA, typically the grappler wins, unless that striker has developed a strong enough ground game to nullify their opponent's grappling.
Some examples include Anthony Pettis, Anderson Silva, and Lyoto Machida.
This is a very common style in MMA as for collegiate amateur wrestlers, once their collegiate career is over their time in wrestling competition is largely done (unless they are good enough and decide to pursue the Olympics) - as many wrestlers are fiercely competitive, MMA then becomes the best option to fill the competitive void, as well as being an option where they can potentially make good money to boot.
A wrestle boxer is an amateur wrestler that uses their wrestling acumen to provide a strong base (wrestling is often described as the best base for MMA, as with good wrestling you can dictate where the fight takes place) and added striking to their arsenal as they develop into mixed martial artists, typically focusing on their hands via boxing.
Wrestle-boxers tend to mix their striking and wrestling together well, landing shots on the feet while adding in takedowns and ground and pound for a multi-tiered offensive. A high level wrestler who also has great striking is a huge threat and matches up well against most styles of opponents, and unlike a more pure grappler, they're rarely hopelessly outgunned if they can't get their opponent to the mat.
Some examples of wrestle-boxers include Frankie Edgar, Tyron Woodley, and Ryan Bader.
The Sprawl and Brawler
Very similar to the wrestle-boxer, the sprawl and brawler has great takedown defense (either through an amateur wrestling career or just extensive wrestling training for MMA) but opts to use their wrestling entirely to keep the fight standing.
Often, as a wrestle-boxer gets more and more confident in their striking, they'll use takedowns and grappling less and strike more, with many falling in love with stand-up fighting and using their wrestling "in reverse", ie. rather than using their wrestling to take opponents down, they use their wrestling pedigree to stuff their opponent's takedowns and force them to strike with them.
Someone who does this is often referred to as a "sprawl and brawler" - a sprawl is a defense to a takedown, which means they essentially just defend takedowns and look to trade on the feet.
As such, a sprawl and brawler can be either a wrestle-boxer who prefers their striking and thus turns into a sprawl and brawler, or a striker who has learned great takedown defense.
Examples of sprawl and brawlers include Wanderlei Silva, Chuck Liddell, and Justin Gaethje.
The Mixed Martial Artist
Of course every MMA fighter is a mixed martial artist, but in this case it is used to refer to a fighter who is well-rounded and well-versed in every area of MMA, ie. wrestling, jiu-jitsu, clinch-work, and striking.
Typically, these types will utilize the area of their game they believe their opponent isn't good at - for instance, if they're fighting a grappler, they'll strike with them, or if they're fighting a striker, they'll grapple them.
Being well-rounded is a great tool especially in the lower and mid-tiers of fighter ranks as most other types will have notable weaknesses in one or more area. At the top end of the talent pool however, most fighters will have a specialty - if a fighter is good everywhere but doesn't excel in any one area, and they meet a specialist who is great at striking and good everywhere else, the all-rounder may not have the tools to take their opponent out of their element and are thus overmatched in the specialist's area.
Some examples include Georges St. Pierre, Rory MacDonald, and Jon Jones.
Since there are so many styles and martial arts that together form MMA, there are tons of "types" of MMA fighters, but most can be boiled down to one of the four above types (and their striking styles can similarly be broken down into one of the types of boxer above).
There are lots of subtypes however, such as the Lay and Prayer (a pure wrestler/grappler who primarily just lays on top of their opponents rather than looking to do damage or submit them), the Submission Striker (a striker who also has a great BJJ game and is thus not afraid to get taken down), or the Clinch Fighter (a fighter who primarily works in the clinch, tiring out their opponent by making them carry their weight and landing short shots).