Fundamentals vs Basics: What’s the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

In combat sports, people rarely differentiate between fundamentals and basics. The terms are generally used interchangeably, but I believe in making a distinction. Basics are simple, specific skills that form the foundation of a fighter’s game; stance, footwork, individual punches, takedowns, guard passes, submissions and other core skills. Beginners always start with the basics—boxers learn to jab, kickboxers learn to teep, BJJ practitioners learn to shrimp, wrestlers learn penetration steps—then advanced skills are introduced later on.

Fundamentals, on the other hand, are not skills at all. Fundamentals are the concepts behind every technique, whether basic or advanced. They establish the conceptual framework that explains the “why” behind everything in fighting. There are three main fundamentals; distance, timing and positioning. In theory, they are very easy to understand. Distance is how close or how far away you are, timing is when specific actions are performed, and positioning is where each part of your body is. On such a broad scale, fundamentals seem stupidly simple. However, each of these concepts can be broken down into smaller, more specific principles. For example, distance can be closed, created, measured and manipulated. Positioning is composed of principles like balance, stability and leverage. Timing breaks down into rhythm, initiative, pace, and so on. 

As mentioned previously, fundamentals and basics are usually not separated. This is because they are so intricately related that it can be difficult to see the distinction. This is especially true in the case of one of the first basics everyone learns; stance. A good stance should be based on good positioning concepts. It should leave the fighter balanced and mobile in all directions, aligned correctly with his opponent and with good posture. There are also aspects of distance control built into a good stance as well. Fighters may position themselves to make it easier to close or maintain distance depending on their style. Even elements of timing can be incorporated into stance, such as leaving specific openings to draw out predictable attacks from the opponent. Or, let’s consider jabbing. A jab can be used to measure distance, to put the fighter in better position to initiate other attacks, and to disrupt the opponent’s timing. Basics are so important specifically because they give a fighter so much control over fundamentals.

Now that we understand the difference between fundamentals and basics, the real question is who cares? Why does it matter? Isn’t this just an annoyingly semantic and theoretical argument? The significance becomes clear when considering fighting in different contexts. In short, basics change but fundamentals don’t. The exact same principles are relevant even in combat sports as different as boxing and BJJ. A solid understanding of fundamentals allows one to find the common ground between different arts, which is extremely valuable to an MMA fighter striving to combine skillsets from so many different disciplines. Fundamentals bridge the gap between arts and explain the differences in basics when applied in different arts.

For example, every art looks to improve positioning through the use of angles. A fighter can sidestep to line up his punches:

Pivot in the clinch to pull his opponent into knees:

Turn the corner to finish a takedown:

And hip-escape to finish a submission or sweep from the bottom:

Controlling distance is crucial at every moment of every fight. On the feet, a fighter may be looking to keep his opponent at distance to pick him apart, or he may want to step inside and close distance.

In the clinch, he may want to create space to land knees and elbows, or remove space to initiate trips and throws.

Similarly, on the ground, he needs to find the balance between creating space to strike and removing space to improve control.

Good timing is also just as vital for all techniques. A strike needs to be timed just like a takedown or guard pass does, and a boxer might drop his hand to bait a punch that he wants to counter:

The same way a grappler might leave an opening so that he can counter the escape.

Fighters are always striving to be in control of fundamentals. The man who is better able to dictate where and when the fight takes place is the man who will win the fight. This is true among individual arts, and becomes even more important when combining arts. There are so many variables in an MMA fight that it’s easy to become overloaded and get lost in the details. Having a firm grasp on the fundamentals, and developing the basic tools to control them, is the key to controlling the fight overall and achieving synergy between the different components of your game.

James Stapleton1 Comment