Number Ten-Masahiko Kimura
Kimura was simply an amazing martial artist, and influenced the world around him as such. He was promoted to yondan (4th dan) at the age of 15 after only six years of practice. This was simply an amazing feat. In 1935, he became the youngest ever godan (5th degree black belt), after defeating eight opponents at the Kodokan Dojo. By age 20, he became the All Japan Open Weight Judo Champion, a title which he maintained in undefeated fashion for 13 years. He was known for his highly intense and difficult workouts, which at one point consisted of one thousand push-ups and nine-hours of practice daily. That plus his constant wins in fights all around the world helped show the world the arts. And for being one of the greatest martial artists of all time.
Number Nine-Yip Man
In Yip Man, we’re talking about a high level Wing Chun and Wushu expert. But here’s where his influences really took hold. Yip Man’s greatest influences can be seen in two arenas. First, many of his students went on to teach, leaving a large influence in China and beyond. Next, a couple of his students- Grandmaster William Cheung and Bruce Lee, namely- went on to absolutely great influence.
Second- we spoke about those intangibles or extras that lend to a martial artist making this list. Yip Man’s life has been told in many movies, albeit with some liberties, including in the film Ip Man (starring Donnie Yen). He has become a cult hero of sorts due to this, and as such, his influence has increased.
Number Eight-Chojun Miyagi
We’re talking about the founder of Goju-ryu karate here. In other words, a man who blended Japanese and Chinese influences into a new hard-soft style. And the Goju-ryu style on its own has been influential enough to land him on this list. But what some may not realize is that The Karate Kid, perhaps the best known martial arts movie of all time, was based on Miyagi and his style. Now that’s influence. Miyagi was also a high level martial artist.
Number Seven-Chuck Norris
Chuck Norris originally trained in the art of Tang Soo Do, achieving black belt status. He also owns black belts in Tae Kwon Do, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, and judo, and even formulated his own style of fighting, Chun Kuk Do. Along the way, Norris had an outstanding karate tournament career from 1964 until his retirement in 1974. His tournament record is estimated to be 183-10-2, though opinions often vary on this to a significant degree. He won at least 30 tournaments. In addition, Norris was the former World Professional Middleweight Karate Champion, a belt that he held for six years. Along the way, he defeated karate greats like Allen Steen, Joe Lewis, Arnold Urquidez, and Louis Delgado.
However, there is much more to Norris, as he’s better known for his acting career, which lends to his great influence on the arts. We’re talking about a guy who was once famous for fighting Bruce Lee on the screen, as well as a man who served as Cordell Walker, on Walker: Texas Ranger, for many years. Beyond the aforementioned, Norris’s background in multiple arts plus his long ago decision to bring the Gracie’s to America for a seminar for his students (see this blog post), lends to the kind of progressive thinking that allows a practitioner to make this list
Number Six-Mas Oyama
In Mas Oyama, we’re talking about an amazing karate practitioner who fought and won regularly as a youth. And this wasn’t point fighting- we’re talking about a full contact karate man, folks. In fact, Oyama is the inventor of full contact or Kyokushin Karate. Along the way, he beat up bulls, participated in multiple demonstrations in the U.S., and invented the 100 man kumite (1.5-2 minute fights against a constant flow of adversaries). Oyama completed the 100 man kumite three times over the course of three consecutive days, surviving each battle along the way. For the fame he received from these exploits, and his martial arts prowess, which included judo and boxing training as well, Oyama makes this list.
Number Five-Jigoro Kano
When you are the inventor of a martial arts style as popular as judo, it’s worth mentioning. And that’s exactly what Jigoro Kano was- a jujitsu expert who began to focus on throws and melding jujitsu styles into one form that eventually became known as ‘judo’. What’s more, his Kodokan judo style still lives on well today. But perhaps just as important, he wanted judo to be introduced into the Japanese schools, not as a fighting art by itself, but rather as something much bigger. He made efforts to remove some of the more dangerous moves of jujitsu in order to aid in this. By 1911, largely through his efforts, judo become adopted as a part of Japan’s educational system. And later in 1964, perhaps as a testament to one of the great martial artists and innovators of all-time, judo became an Olympic sport.
Number Four-Gichin Funakoshi
Gichin Funakoshi died a 5th dan in karate, which was the highest rank one could achieve at the time. He formulated his own system, Shotokan, the most widely practiced karate style in use today. But perhaps Funakoshi’s greatest influences can be seen in The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate, where his philosophies on karate and training were written down. The niju kun or twenty principles are the base by which all Shotokan karate students are guided. As is the case with many martial arts styles, Funakoshi believed that the teachings of karate certainly stretched beyond the walls of his school, and by following the 20 principles he believed practitioners could “become better human beings”. In addition, Funakoshi’s students included his son Gigo, Wado-ryu creator Hironori Otsuka, and Mas Oyama, the creator of Kyokushin (full contact karate).
Number Three-Royce Gracie
For too long to mention, people wondered aloud which martial arts style was best. Oftentimes, these conversations, at least in America, were waged over stand up styles like karate, Taekwondo, kung fu, and boxing. But in 1993, a 170 pound Royce Gracie changed the world’s perceptions, winning three of the first four UFC tournament championships. And he did so by using the grappling art of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which his father invented.
With his wins, Gracie changed martial arts mentality forever. Further, due in a great way to his influential victories, the sport of MMA was put on the map. Today, nearly every high level fighter practices his father’s art. In the end, Gracie, a 6th degree black belt in the art, was as influential as anyone could be on the current martial arts scene.
Number Two-Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee is considered by many to be the most famous martial arts movie actor ever. His influence as a martial arts acting pioneer, first as the Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, in the television series, The Green Hornet (1966-67), and next in movies like The Way of the Dragon, cannot be spoken of more. Through his acting prowess, even after his death with Enter the Dragon, Lee spoke to the masses while showing off the amazing speed and agility he would become known for.
Lee also influenced the martial arts as a whole. He was one of the first to stray from the linear this is how you do it mentality of the traditional arts to focus on utility, or what works. Though he did not necessarily look at it as a martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do became his signature style. In essence, it was founded on the principles of street fighting practicality and existed outside of the parameters and limitations of other martial arts types. Later, UFC President Dana White would say that Bruce Lee was “the father of mixed martial arts.”
Many high level fighters and martial arts actors have credited Lee with being an inspiration. On top of it all, Lee was an expert in Wing Chun, and trained in multiple other disciplines including boxing, judo, jujitsu, the Filipino arts and more throughout his life. His Jeet Kune Do thought process allowed for this, and therefore, great prowess as a martial artist. We’re talking about a guy who influenced the arts as a practitioner, was revolutionary, was innovative in martial arts movies, and was a great artist himself. What just prevents him from taking the number one spot was his lack of professional fighting bouts.
Number One-Helio Gracie
Helio Gracie was a somewhat sickly youth. He was clearly the least powerful and athletic of his brothers, whom were taught the art of Kodokan Judo by Mitsuyo Maeda. It was because of his less than stellar athleticism that Gracie began to modify what they had been taught on his own, so that the moves would be less strength based. The result was Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Gracie won many no rules or few rules matches during his lifetime. But when he managed to press judo expert Masahiko Kimura in a fight, despite losing, he truly became influential. Later, his style would allow his 170 pound son, Royce Gracie, to win three of the first four Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments, proving the style’s worth, often against bigger opponents.
Gracie died a 10th degree red belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, which is the highest belt one has received in the art. No one can ever question his skills as a martial artist, as they were proven in many real situations over time. And likely forever more, he will be influential within the fastest growing sport in the world, MMA.