Martial arts are great as a way to get exercise, but they really come into their own when used in self-defense – undoubtedly the ultimate aim for many of them. This list looks at top ten of the best martial arts in popular use based on their practicality towards fighting. Most start out for this purpose but over time become more of a sport with restrictions that limit their effectiveness and practical use (Hello TKO).
Kung Fu (Wushu & Sanda)
Number 10 – Wing Chun/ Jeet Kune Do
Wing Chun Kung Fu is the art that Yip Man taught to Bruce Lee, and which Lee rebelled against as too slow and formal for self-defense. That’s quite misleading. He meant that it was insufficient for him when fighting against professional martial art experts, like Wong Jack Man, with whom he fought a famous duel. Lee invented his own version of Wing Chun, because of the inadequacies he noticed in Wing Chun (which we discuss this below). With this method, he defeated Wong in 3 minutes, when almost any other fighter in the world would have needed a lot more time, and would have suffered much more injury.
He won by delivering Wing Chun’s signature punches: they do not use the hips, but are instead, very fast, rapid-fire left, right punches to the attacker’s chest, not the belly, not the throat, but the sternum or solar plexus. You block the opponent’s attack with one hand and respond with the other fist straight into his chest, following with the other fist, again and again, walking into the attacker as you punch. The forward motion of your whole body adds power, which, coupled with the arm strength of the average 100 pound woman, results in about 300 pounds of force rammed repeatedly into the attacker’s chest. The only thing left is to practice your speed in doing this. 15 punches before the attacker can react are not unheard of. These punches also have the advantage of keeping the elbows close to the sides, preventing the attacker from grabbing the punching arm. Elements of Wing Chun include close-quarters trapping of hands and feet; no kicks higher than the waist, since kicking higher than this leaves the groin and standing leg vulnerable; and simultaneous attack/defense
Then there’s the centerline defense versus looping attacks, like a haymaker or roundhouse kick. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, so instead of picking up extra power by swinging around and twisting the hips, you block the attacker’s strike and simultaneously throw a front kick straight forward into his belly. This will take almost anyone off his feet the first time, if you kick as hard as possible. The closer range of this method favors a shorter person, like a woman defending herself against a would-be rapist, etc. The closer the two people are, the easier it is for the shorter person to invade the reach of the larger person, effectively penetrating his defense.
Bruce Lee one of the most famous practitioners of Wing Chun envisioned “a style without style,” which seems nonsensical. But try to understand the concept of adaptation. Lee emphasized this above all: “the worst thing you can do is to anticipate the outcome of a fight. You ought not to be thinking of anything but his attack and your response. Clear all other thoughts from your head, or they will slow you down.” Thus, you use one stance, the western fencing “en garde” stance. Remain bouncing on the toes in order to switch from left forward to right forward foot, to retreat or to advance, to be able to kick with either leg. Footwork is all-important in a real fight, as it determines how far you are from the attacker.
Number 9- Taekwondo
Taekwondo is the art of kicks. Criticised heavily for its lack of punching / practical use in a combat or self defence situation, it has nevertheless seen a transformation over the last few years as more MMA practitioners leverage its speciality in kicks and incorporate them into their arsenal. The name Taekwondo is derived from the Korean word “Tae” meaning foot, “Kwon” meaning fist and “Do” meaning way of. So, literally Taekwondo means “the way of the foot and fist”. It was developed in the mid 20th century by various Korean martial artists, as a combination of Shotokan karate and the indigenous traditions of taekkyeon, gwonbeop, and subak..
Beginning in 1946, shortly after the end of world war 2, new martial arts schools called kwans were opened in Seoul. These schools were established by Korean martial artists who had studied primarily in Okinawa, Japan.. Accordingly, the martial arts practiced in the kwans were incorporated from taekkyeon and gwonbeop, which are traditional martial arts of Korea. The umbrella term traditional taekwondo typically refers to the martial arts practiced by the kwans during the 1940s and 1950s, though in reality the term “taekwondo” had not yet been coined at that time, and indeed each kwan was practicing their own unique style of martial art.
Within Korea there were five major martial art academies or Kwans. They were called Mooduk Kwan, Jido Kwan, Changmu Kwan, Chungdo Kwan, and Songmu Kwan. Within these schools lie a variety of styles such as KongSooDo, Tae Kyon, SooBakDo, TangSooDo, KwonPup, etc. The way of teaching and employing many of the techniques varied as much as the schools and in 1946 an attempt was made to unify Dojangs (training halls) and standardize instructional methods. Some of the leaders wanted to uphold the martial art character of the schools while others wished to create a combat sport. These meetings met with no success. During this timeframe taekwondo was also adopted for use by the South Korean military, which only served to increase its popularity among civilian martial arts schools. In the United States there are more than 5million practitioners of this Korean art and Taekwondo along with Judo is now an official olympic sport.
Number 8 – Keysi Fighting Method
Keysi was developed by Justo Dieguez and Andy Norman, based on Dieguez’s street fighting experiences in Spain. Dieguez and Norman have developed the style to defend against this many people. The Keysi Method has almost no kicks of any kind. It thrives on extreme close-quarters combat using every weapon the body can quickly wield in such a small space: fists, head, knees, and especially the elbows. There is only one stance to know, and when you see it one time, you can do it: “the thinking man,” with the hands clasped on the head, and the elbows raised to protect the head, neck and upper chest. It looks like a man holding his head while deep in thought.
It is designed to strike with the sharp elbows, and lots of hammer fists, which are MUCH more powerful and devastating than straight punches, because they employ the entire upper body in bringing the firm, outside muscle, from the root of the little finger to the wrist, down like a hammer against the target. This is a hybrid style, using elements of grappling from Jiu-jitsu and Aikido, ground fighting from Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, close strikes and centerline defense from Wing Chun, and trapping from Jeet Kune Do. The Keysi Method teaches its practitioners to defend themselves against any number of attackers, 5, 10, 20 and even more, with a 360 degree range of aggression, and to observe all objects in the vicinity for their potential as weapons.
Number 7 – Aikido
An interesting art that is immediately recognizable. It does have a few striking moves in it, but for the most part, it is based on the principle that when an attacker strikes, he leaves some part of his defense vulnerable. If you, the defender, do not attack him, you remain defensively invulnerable.
Do not resist his attack. Use its momentum against him. Steven Seagal is the most famous Aikido practitioner in the Western world. He may be a horrible actor, but he is a genuine 7th degree black belt in Aikido, and his signature move is absolutely essential to any self-defense arsenal: the kote gaeshi, or “forearm return.”
The attacker steps forward and throws a straight punch. You sidestep, snatch hold of his wrist, and twist around in time with his punch. Do it right, and it will fling him completely off balance, using his own momentum, while you whirl around, and twist his wrist toward the outside. He probably will not flip over like the classic theatrics in a Seagal film, but his wrist may well break. He’s unlikely to fight anymore after that. Most critics of this art point out that it is nearly impossible for the average black belt to catch a person’s punch and turn fast enough to perform this move, but that’s not true. It’s actually a very easy move to learn and perfect. Aikido thrives on joint locks, which do not require much speed to perform, compared to the kote gaeshi, and are extremely effective in immobilizing and incapacitating an attacker.
Number 6 – Karate
Here, special emphasis is placed on attack deflection. Most punches or knife lunges are performed straight toward you, not in an arc. Few fighters are stupid enough to try a looping haymaker. Thus, step to the side, creating a lateral line toward the attacker’s arm, strike the attacker’s punch or knife hand, then quickly strike his lower side, belly, or back with your other fist. This is very difficult to defend against, and most likely he will not be able to. Push forward and throw a knee into his quadriceps. This hurts like crazy.
Strikes to the face and head are important, but the attacker will expect them, so instead, block his right-handed attack with your left fist (or vice versa), and punch with your other hand straight into the soft spot below his sternum as hard as possible, twisting the hips. This target is the solar plexus, and will incapacitate him as effectively as a strike to the groin or if he charges forward, snap a front kick straight up with the ball of the foot planted as hard as possible into his stomach or solar plexus, not the groin. If one of the former targets is struck, the attacker will be forced back in agony, by means of his center of gravity. He is leaning forward while charging, and a kick to his groin will cause him to lunge into you.
There are many different types of Karate (Shotokan, Hayabusa, Kyokushin etc)and its somewhat unfair to lump them under one catagory as some are more effective than others in self defence situations and in MMA fights while others are more traditionally rooted and less applicable modern day scenarios.
Number 5 – Boxing
You’ve heard stories of would-be muggers picking the wrong old man to mug. The fight typically ends with one swing. That’s all a boxer needs. In fact, boxers have been imprisoned (wrongfully, in my opinion) for defending themselves from muggers, murderers, bank robbers, etc., on the grounds that their hands are lethal weapons. Boxers throw punches faster, harder and more accurately than any other trained fighter on the planet.
This is because boxers train on average for 4 years to do just that: punch properly. They are not allowed to kick, so their hands are all they have. Consider that Rocky Marciano knocked out Rex Layne with an off-balance, out-of-reach right hand, covered with a 16-ounce leather glove. This punch knocked Layne’s mouthpiece 10 feet across the ring, out of clenched jaws, and sheared off four of his teeth at the gum line. Boxers also toughen their bodies religiously, every day, to strengthen their muscles for endurance and durability. They don’t look as hulkingly large as bodybuilders, but their muscles are as powerful and hard as a farmer’s.
They punch, block, bob and weave going forward, and punch, block, bob and weave going backward. They are drilled relentlessly with the maxim, “Always protect yourself”. The hands stay on both sides of the head, the posture crouched so that the whole body is ready for explosive power, and that the front of the torso is protected by the forearms. Your target is the side of the chin, which will wrench the attacker’s head sideways and shut off his brain by pinching the spinal cord in the neck. His strength and rage do not matter. He will black out instantaneously.
Number 4 – Judo
Judo meaning “gentle or yielding way”, is a modern Japanese martial art and combat sport, that originated in Japan in the late nineteenth century by Jigoro Kano and anyone who has experienced a judo throw knows there is nothing gentle about it! Practitioners of judo are called Judokas and the martial art teaches the principle of flexibility in the application of technique. This is the flexible or efficient use of balance, leverage, and movement in the performance of Judo throws and other skills. Skill, technique and timing, rather than the use of brute strength, are the essential ingredients for success in Judo. Its most prominent feature is its competitive element, where the objective is to either throw or takedown an opponent to the ground, immobilize or otherwise subdue an opponent with a pin, or force an opponent to submit with a joint lock or a choke. Strikes and thrusts by hands and feet as well as weapons defenses are a part of judo, but only in pre-arranged forms. Judo’s history is derived from Japanese Jujutsu. It was created by Professor Jigoro Kano who was born in Japan on October 28, 1860 and who died May 4, 1938 after a lifetime of promoting Judo. Mastering several styles of jujutsu including Kito-Ryu and Tenjin-Shinyo Ryu in his youth he began to develop his own system based on modern sports principles. In 1882 he founded the Kodokan Judo Institute in Tokyo where he began teaching and which still is the international authority for Judo.
Kano emphasized the larger educational value of training in attack and defense so that it could be a path or way of life that all people could participate in and benefit from. He eliminated some of the traditional jujutsu techniques and changed training methods so that most of the moves could be done with full force to create a decisive victory without injury. The popularity of Judo increased dramatically after a famous contest hosted by the Tokyo police in 1886 where the Judo team defeated the most well-known jujutsu school of the time. It then became a part of the Japanese physical education system and began its spread around the world. Dr. Kano, President of the University of Education, Tokyo, dedicated his life, studying this ancient martial art of Jujutsu and integrated what he considered to be the best of their techniques into what is now the modern sport of Judo. Judo was introduced into the Olympic Games in 1964 and is currently practiced by millions of people and is probably one of the more popular martial arts. Many modern MMA fighter practice and learn at least some elements of Judo.
Number 3 – Kickboxing/ Muay Thai
Firstly, and this is true for all these entries, if you’re on the street and a stranger attempts to mug you, or worse, he most likely doesn’t know any particular fighting style, other than “swing for the fences and keep moving forward.” There are quite a few offshoots of kickboxing, the most famous of which is Muay Thai, which roughly translates to “art of the eight limbs.” Kickboxing for self-defense concentrates on its version of punches, knees, and kicks: fast-paced, distracting, and aimed at all available openings. If the attacker has a knife or gun, and is within arm’s reach, he will use the weapon. The defender is thus armed with more weapons, hands, feet, knees, elbows, head.
Simply walk toward the attacker (who has any weapon but a gun), and throw a front kick straight up against his chin as hard as possible. Kickboxing thrives on this sort of move, and teaches the practitioner to execute it with such extreme speed, faster than the attacker can react, that it virtually rules out the risk of “fancy kicks.” Do it correctly and it will almost always break his jaw, crush his larynx, shatter his teeth, force him to bite off his tongue, etc. He will not fight after this. This sort of kick is well trained to the point that it can, in fact, be delivered efficiently, that is, quickly and powerfully, without being telegraphed. Alternatively, step to the side, grab the attackers weapon arm, and sling your forehead into the his nose. This will not hurt you nearly as much as you think. The attacker’s nose, on the other hand, will shatter like a firecracker.
Well trained kickboxers practice something called “combat qi”,which is the physical conditioning of any part of the body through repeated damage, until it no longer sends sufficient pain signals to the brain to bother the person. Kickboxers will roll a baseball bat handle up and down the shin firmly enough to cause aching, for about an hour a day for 2 years. The tibia is repeatedly damaged and rebuilds itself stronger and thicker. Eventually, the kickboxer can kick the baseball bat in half with his or her shin, and not feel pain.
Number 2 – Brazilian Jiu-jitsu
This hybrid mixes Jiu-jitsu’s standing throws and strikes with ground fighting, which emphasizes joint manipulation and overall control of the opponent, effectively ending a fight very quickly. The larger the attacker, the more easily he can be grappled off his feet, using his center of gravity against him, and forcing him to submit (or pass out). Once on the ground, the first thing Brazilian jiu-jitsu teaches is to seize a limb and break it at a joint: kneebars for snapping knees or ankles, armbars for snapping elbows and wrists, chokeholds and the use of the powerful legs to immobilize the attacker’s torso while the defender ends the fight with fists or elbows to the face.
This is the most universal style on this list. It is a true hybrid, incorporating elements of grappling, hard striking, eye gouging, choke holds, biting, joint locks, as well as the awareness of the defender’s center of gravity versus the attacker’s center of gravity. You throw your attacker by lowering your center of gravity under his, and jerking him over you, or around you. It’s simple and effective. If he attacks with a weapon, you trap this arm, then deliver a knife-hand strike to his collarbone, while shoving him backward and down, locking the weapon wrist and breaking it. If he throws either a front or roundhouse kick of any kind, he must stand on the other leg. You sidestep his kick, trap the leg, and deliver your own kick into his standing knee, breaking it backward, then whipping him around by his raised leg. He will go down and will be unlikely to be capable of much retaliation. If he charges forward and grabs your shirt, you do not move backward. You move forward and bend down, ram your hip into his midsection, grab one of his shoulders with one hand, and with the other grab him around his back, and whip him over your own shoulder, shoving upward with both legs. A 100 pound woman can do this very easily to a 250 pound man. You can then trap one of his arms and lock one of its joints while he is down.
Number 1 – Krav Maga
It is Israel’s national martial art, developed largely by Imi Lichtenfeld, and dedicated to no-holds-barred incapacitation for the purpose of street survival. No quarter is expected or given. It incorporates Western boxing punches, Karate kicks and knees, Greco-Roman wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu ground fighting, Jiu-jitsu throws and grappling, and most importantly, “bursting,” adapted from Wing Chun. This is a simultaneous defense/attack: instead of blocking an attack and then delivering a response, you block the attack and deliver a response at the same time, i. e., block with the left arm and push forward with the legs, striking with the right fist to the throat, all simultaneously. Also stressed are attacks to vulnerable body parts: the eyes, throat, and groin. Attackers can expect testicular ruptures. Emphasis is also placed on disarming attackers with both knives and handguns, and turning these weapons on the attacker. It also exclusively trains hand-eye coordination, until defense becomes second nature and does not require thought. And a good Krav Maga instructor can teach all of this to anyone, regardless of athletic prowess, in only 3 to 6 months.