Best Body Type For MMA

December 9, 2022

"We've got a height and reach advantage over them so we should win."

"They're the bigger person in the cage."

These are classic, almost stereotypical, comments heard across all combat sports by coaches, fighters, fans, and commentators alike. Indeed, body mass, height, and arm span have all been found to be highly selective for specialized skill events and positions in a range of team and individual sports.

This leads to athletes with these attributes winning more often, playing more matches, winning more medals, and making more money [9]. In combat sports, the widely held (almost cliched) belief is that if opponents are of different sizes, the smaller or shorter person is at a disadvantage and will probably lose.

Of course, there is some truth to this. A person standing 1.70m tall and weighing 72kg is going to struggle to overcome someone who is 2.00m tall and weighs 110kg. This is why we have weight classes in combat sports, to begin with - to make sure that the winner is decided by skill, technique, and fitness.

But what about within a weight class between people of similar sizes? The weight ranges between MMA divisions are quite large, much larger than seen in boxing or wrestling. As such, there is scope for athletes in each division to be more diverse in body shape and size but still be comparable in weight.

So let's look at the available evidence to determine how much truth there is in the two statements.

Height, Reach, And The 'Ape Index'

MMA Body Type Ape Index

As with many beliefs, conventions, and processes in MMA, the idea that height and reach are determining factors in performance comes from boxing. This makes sense, as if one person can repeatedly hit the other without getting punched in return, they are more likely to win a boxing match.

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This supposition has been supported by research in recent years. Data from heavyweight (HW) international standard boxing bouts show that the winning fighter tends to be taller and have longer arms than their losing opponent [2][3].

So in HW boxing, at least, height and reach do seem to matter. What about grappling sports? Well, there is precious little information for us to go off here.

In wrestling, there appears to be no effect of height on winning or losing [1]. Potentially because once you have a hold of someone, how long or short their body or limbs are compared to your own doesn't make a difference.

So what about MMA? As this is the only combat sport that has such a unique blend of all striking and grappling techniques, does the ‘best body type’ for MMA more closely resemble that of a boxer, or a grappler?

Kuhn and Crigger [4] wrote a chapter in their 2013 book about how the UFC champions at the time were all taller and with longer arms than the average in their divisions, with many being taller than the division above as well.

This was suggested to be evidence that height and reach were as important in MMA as it seems to be in boxing. The authors also discussed the ratio between a person's arm span and their height, colloquially called the 'ape index.' In sports where having longer arms is important, having a large ape index provides more chances of success.

For example, if the ratio of your height to your arm span = 1:1.06, then you have a similar body shape to the NBA players [8]. Most people are assumed to have an ape index of about 1:1. Having longer arms is very important in modern basketball, hence why so many people with a large ape index find themselves on the court.

But do any of these things make a difference in MMA? Or did Kuhn and Crigger happen to write their book at a point in time when the UFC champions were particularly lanky?

Best Body Type For MMA

MMA Body Type And Fight Style

The few published studies on this topic have some mixed results. The ape index of 474 elite MMA fighters was 1:1.024, so MMA fighters do seem to have longer arms than ‘normal’ people.

However, the anthropometric variables of height and reach were found to have negative relationships in a small number of divisions, with no effect in most divisions. For example, shorter fighters were ranked higher in the flyweight division and had more chances of winning or competing for a world championship in the featherweight (FW) division [5].

So being taller in these divisions doesn’t seem to be advantageous. It has also been reported that there was no difference in height, reach or ape index between the winners and losers of 278 MMA bouts [6].

Other research, however, has suggested that there might be a relationship between a fighter’s anthropometry (body measurements) and their win/loss%. Monson et al. [8] calculated that having a greater ape index than your opponent explained 0.8% of the difference in win/loss%.

Similarly, Richardson [10] found that having a longer arm span also explained 0.8% of the difference in win/loss%. This seems promising, but what does a less than 1% improvement to a win/loss% mean? Does this even register in a 20-fight career?

Even across a 100-fight career, this only means, at most, 1 win more. Equally, does an individual's win/loss% even mean anything regarding their fighting ability? Due to the nature of MMA’s competition structure, no two athletes share the same contest schedule or opposition standard at any point in their respective careers.

As such, two athletes with equal win/loss% competing in different organizations at different times or with different bout totals would not be comparable.

A good example is Randy Couture, who retired with a career win/loss% of 63% and was always undersized as both a LHW and a HW. Based purely on the numbers, this would support the idea that being shorter with shorter arms is related to winning and losing.

But his entire legendary career was spent only fighting the absolute elite, with half of his fights being world championship bouts. Can someone like Couture’s win/loss % be compared to someone who is undefeated in regional contests?   

We can be reasonably comfortable saying that height and reach are not determining factors in MMA. But does it have any influence on technique used?

Best MMA Techniques For Different Body Types

Best MMA Techniques For Different Body Types

One study has examined the relationship between body size to technique used in MMA [7]. In this study, only three divisions displayed any relationships between technique occurrence and height/reach advantages.

Fighters at HW who were taller or had a longer reach than their opponent also landed more significant strikes. In the welterweight (WW) division, taller fighters attempted more strikes but didn't land any more strikes than their opponent.

For FW, being taller or having a longer reach was related to the number of knockdowns achieved. No other relationships were found in any other division. Another finding reported by this study might be a potential explanation for the paucity of influence.

At HW, the only distinguishing techniques between winners and losers were strikes landed and knockdowns, with no influence of grappling. As such, this means that MMA HW mirrors boxing HW, where being able to punch your opponent without being punched is very important.

Knockdowns were also a key determining factor in success at FW, meaning that height and reach differences might also be important in this division. Importantly though, knockdowns were just one factor out of seven that distinguished between winners and losers at FW.

These 7 factors included submission attempts and guard passes, with no other determining factors relating to body shape or size. In the WW division, attempting more strikes did not affect winning or losing.

As such, the differences in height or reach didn’t affect winning or losing at WW, despite being related to strikes attempted. 

Based on these results, height and reach might be important if you're competing in a division where stand-up striking is the determining factor (i.e., at HW).

In most other divisions, however, it doesn’t seem to be significant. The only caveat is that it might provide some advantage at FW. But this needs to be viewed alongside the equally important grappling actions that are not affected by height or reach.   


Overall, if we had to decide whether there is evidence of height and/or reach being important for MMA, we'd have to say no, it isn't, unless you're a HW. It seems that the range of skills and techniques in both standing and grounded positions negates any advantage that height or reach might provide in the boxing element of the sport.

The problem of your opponent having a longer reach than you can be overcome by using a strategy that avoids boxing exchanges. This would involve mixing up kicks with punches and (of course) using takedowns and clinch work to remove the effect of long arms.

So don’t get caught up worrying about whether or not you have a height or reach advantage/disadvantage, as it probably won't make a difference. Focus on maximizing your skills and optimizing your MMA fitness, as this will give you the best chance of winning in the cage.

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1. Demirkan, E., Koz, M., Kutlu, M., & Favre, M. (2015). Comparison of physical and physiological profiles in elite and amateur young wrestlers. the Journal of Strength & conditioning research, 29(7), 1876-1883.

2. Finlay, M. J. (2022). World Heavyweight Championship boxing: The past 30+ years of the male division. Plos one, 17(1), e0263038.

3. Han, T. S., Callis, T. G., Sharma, P., & Lean, M. E. (2020). Secular trends in adiposity and musculoskeletal dimensions of elite heavyweight boxers between 1889 and 2019. Sport Sciences for Health, 16(2), 249-255.

4. Khun, R. and Crigger, K. Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers in Mixed Martial Arts and Why There’s No Such Thing as a Fair Fight. Graybeard Books, 2013.

5. Kirk, C. Does stature or wingspan length have a positive effect on competitor rankings or attainment of world title bouts in international and elite mixed martial arts? Sport Science Review 25, 5-6 (2016), 334–349.

6. Kirk, C. The influence of age and anthropometric variables on winning and losing in professional mixed martial arts. Facta Universitatis, Series: Physical Education and Sport 14, 2 (2016), 227–236.

7. Kirk, C. Does anthropometry influence technical factors in competitive mixed martial arts? Human Movement 19, 2 (2018), 46–59.

8. Monson, T. A., Brasil, M. F., & Hlusko, L. J. (2018). Allometric variation in modern humans and the relationship between body proportions and elite athletic success. Journal of Anthropology of Sport and Physical Education, 2(3), 3.

9. Norton, K., & Olds, T. (2001). Morphological evolution of athletes over the 20th century. Sports Medicine, 31(11), 763-783.

10. Richardson, T. Is arm length a sexually selected trait in humans? Evidence from mixed martial arts. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences 15, 2 (2021), 175.

About the author 

Dr. Chris Kirk

Dr. Chris Kirk is a PhD graduate from Liverpool John Moores University and is now lecturing sports science at Sheffield Hallam University. He is also an applied physiologist working with athletes. His specialisms include training load assessment and management, S&C, and I’m currently starting research into concussion management in combat sports training.


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