Background This study aimed to investigate the competitive history (the age when training and competing started), training habits and patterns of winning and losing of competitive combat sports athletes across different combat sports as well as the level of competition (e.g. amateurs, state-level and elite). Methods Competitors ( N = 298) from mixed martial arts (MMA), Muay Thai/kickboxing, boxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), wrestling, judo and traditional striking sports (TSS) completed an online questionnaire. Results Most athletes began competing in their mid-teenage years and competing soon after except for wrestlers who began earlier. Elite athletes began training earlier than amateurs (13.75 ± 7.75 years and 16.2 ± 7.45 years, p <0.01, respectively). Training habits were similar across sports (~4 combat and ~3 non-combat training sessions per week), except for MMA and wrestling which did more combat sports-specific training than Judo and TSS. Wrestlers did more non-combat sports-specific training than all other sports. Elite athletes completed more combat sessions per week than their lower-level contemporaries (4.64 ± 2.49 and 3.9 ± 1.44, p =0.01, respectively). Patterns of winning or losing were consistent across sports, except for amateur athletes who were more likely to report all their victories by points and none of their victories by submission or pin. Additionally, elite athletes are less likely to report none of their victories coming by knockout. Conclusions Results may indicate that finishing ability is a key distinguisher of competitive level. The present study provides normative data for training and competing habits for athletes, support staff and regulators to use. Supplementary Information The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1186/s40798-021-00345-3.