20 of the Most Popular Martial Arts

Ancient people of all types engaged in fighting, war and hunting. The martial arts are a collection of combat systems, strategies, and philosophies stemming from ancient techniques of war.

Martial arts have always been popular, mostly developed as a self-defense tool encompassing mental strength, martial arts are practiced by millions of people throughout the world. The world has evolved many different styles of martial arts, from Judo and Jiu-Jitsu (grappling), Karate and Muay Thai (striking), to Kendo and Iaido (weapons-based).

Since there is no consensus on which ones are the best martial arts, here is a list with 20 of the most popular martial arts in the world, by alphabetical order.

1. Aikido

Aikido was created in Japan in the early 1900s by Morihei Ueshiba, and is often translated as “the Way of harmonious spirit”. Ueshiba’s goal was to create an art that practitioners could use to defend themselves while also protecting their attacker from injury.

Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. Aikido is performed by blending with the motion of the attacker and redirecting the force of the attack rather than opposing it head-on. Aikido requires vert little physical energy.

Morihei Ueshiba has said that the Aikido practitioner “must be willing to receive 99% of an opponent’s attack and stare death in the face” in order to execute Aikido techniques properly, without doubt or hesitation.


2. Boxing

Boxing was originally nothing more than bare fist fighting between two willing and sometimes unwilling competitors. As a sport, fighting has been around for thousands of years where it first arose in parts of Africa, including Ancient Egypt before spreading to parts of Southern Europe. The Ancient Greeks believed that fighting was a game played by the Gods on Olympus, thus it became part of the Olympic Games in about 688 BC.

Boxing is a martial arts style that is focused solely on powerful punches, and does not allow kicking, elbow strikes or grappling.Boxing teaches the proper way to punch, which most people don’t know how to do.

3. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

The founding father of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was Mitsuyo Maeda, also known as “Conde Koma”, a Japanese fighter, winner of more than 2,000 bouts and considered the toughest man to have ever lived, arrived in Brazil in 1915 with the aim of spreading martial arts.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, although obviously similar in many respects to Judo and other traditional systems of Japanese Jiu-Jitsu, differs in some fundamental ways from all other related systems. The overall fighting strategy of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is designed to equip a physically smaller or weaker individual with an effective method of defending against a larger and stronger attacker.

4. Capoeira

The true history of this martial art is unclear, but it is known that Capoeira was created nearly 500 years ago in Brazil by African slaves (mainly from Angola). Taken from their homes against their will and kept in slavery, they began developing fighting techniques for self-defense. To cover their inside combats from their prisoners, the African slaves used their traditional music, singing and dancing.

Capoeira is a martial art that combines elements of fight, acrobatics, music, dance and rituals in a very elegant and magnetic way.

5. Eskrima/Arnis/Kali

Eskrima, also known as Arnis and Kali, is a weapons-based art originating in the Philippines. Documentation indicates that Filipino Martial Arts styles were used when the Spanish conquistadores arrived in the 1500s.

This Filipino Martial Arts is known for their weapons, which include rattan sticks, knives, and swords. Fighters in the very effective fighting styles use intricate footwork, stances, blocking and disarms to take out opponents. Today is used by the Philippines special forces and military, as well as the US military.

6. Greco-Roman Wrestling

The origins of Greco-Roman wrestling should not be sought in ancient times, since the style practiced by the Greeks and the Romans was actually similar to freestyle wrestling. This style has its origins in the 19th century and was created by a Napoleon soldier named Exbroyat.

Greco-Roman Wrestling is a style of wrestling that is practiced worldwide. It confronts two male competitors who try to gain control over their opponent through the use of throws, locks, and clinching techniques.

Wrestling was introduced to the program of the ancient Olympic Games in 708 BC. Greco-Roman wrestling was then the first style registered in the Modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896 and this form of professional entertainment became a first class amateur sport during the 20th century.

7. Jiu-Jitsu

Jiu-Jitsu (the oldest form of all martial arts), also known as “the Mother of Martial Arts”, can be tracked back to India where it was invented by Buddhist monks. These monks developed movements based on balance and leverage, in a manner that would avoid reliance on strength and weapons.

Centered around a number of core values including loyalty, justice, manners, purity, modesty, honor, self confidence, and respect the Japanese named the smooth techniques Jiu-Jitsu “the Gentle Way”.

8. Jojutso

Jojutso is a Japanese martial arts using a weapon known as Jo staff. A Jo is a wooden staff about 4 feet long.

It was founded in the early 17th century by Muso Gonnosuke Katsuyoshi, and it is said to be the oldest style in Japan for using a stick in combat.

9. Judo

Judo was founded by Japanese Kano Jigoro, in the late nineteenth century.

Judo’s primary focus is on throws and work on the ground, rather than striking. Submission-style attacks such as chokes and locks are also prevalent in this martial art, which is valuable for defending one’s self. Strikes and thrusts by hands and feet as well as weapons defense are a part of judo.

10. Karate

Karate is a martial art developed from the indigenous martial arts of the Ryukyu Islands in what is now Okinawa, Japan, under the influence of Chinese martial arts.

Karate is a striking art using punching, kicking, knee strikes, elbow strikes and open hand techniques such as knife-hands, spear-hands, and palm-heel strikes. In some styles, grappling, throws, joint locks, restraints, and vital point strikes are also taught.

The martial art is supremely valuable because of not only its health benefits, but also its role as a self-defense tool. According to the precepts, it can also be used, “… as a way of avoiding a fight should one be confronted by a villain or ruffian.”


11. Kendo

Kendo, “Way of The Sword”, is a modern Japanese martial art, which descended from Kenjutsu and uses bamboo swords, and protective armour. Today, Kendo is widely practiced within Japan and many other nations across the world, and it continues to build character, self-discipline and respect.

12. Kickboxing

Kickboxing is based on the combination of several different striking or stand up fighting styles. Though the term kickboxing was specifically initiated in Japan and evolved from full contact karate, its history and roots are in many ways tied to the Thailand martial art of Muay Thai Boxing as well.

Kickboxing is a martial art that readily lends itself to self-defense. Along with this, the goal in kickboxing is to utilize any number of combinations of punches, kicks, elbows, and sometimes throws to disable an opponent.

13. Krav Maga

Krav Maga was first brought to the Bratislava by founder Imi Lichtenfeld, born in Budapeste, in order to help the Jewish community there protect themselves from Nazi armed forces. Imi was a successful boxer and wrestler with national and international championships to prove it.

Krav Maga is considered an extremely efficient martial art, combining brutal attacks and aggressive threat neutralization in a style that is a combination of boxing, Muay Thai, Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling.

It is used extensively in the Israeli army as well as special forces such as Shin Bet and the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Developed for real-world situations, Krav Maga focuses on bringing combat to an end as quickly as possible by attacking the weakest parts of the body.

14. Kung Fu

Kung fu, a Chinese martial art that literally means an accomplishment gained through hard, long work, is one of the oldest martial arts in the world.

Traditionally taught by Shaolin monks, philosophy and morality are important to the practitioners of this martial art, with virtues such as humility, respect, trust, and patience being emphasized. As is the case with most martial arts, kung fu’s worth lies in its health benefits and self-defense knowledge.

15. Muay Thai

Muay Thai, the national sport of Thailand, is known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” for its heavy inclusion of elbows and knees strikes. Muay Thai is also known for its powerful kicking techniques.

A practitioner of Muay Thai thus has the ability to execute strikes using eight “points of contact” used in the primarily sport-oriented forms of martial arts. The sport traditionally was very structured, with fighters performing strict, choreographed displays of respect before each bout. More recently, it has become focused on the body’s many weapons, including fists, feet, shins, knees, and more, to defeat an opponent.

16. Ninjutsu

Born in Japan’s feudal age, ninjutsu was developed to kill. The historic followers of this mysterious Japanese martial art were guerrilla warriors and assassins. Likely considered criminals today, these ninjas used the art of stealth to surprise and defeat their opponents.

Hands and feet are used in this martial art, but followers also take weapons training, using devices such as throwing stars, staffs, spears, swords, and explosives.

17. Sambo

Sambo is a Russian martial art and self-defense system that was established in the former Soviet Union during the early twentieth century. The word “Sambo” is an acronym for “SAMozashchita Bez Oruzhiya”, which literally translates as “self-defense without weapons”.

Sambo has roots in several different martial arts drawing from many of the older styles and combine them into a deadly mix, lending strategies from Judo, Karate and international wrestling styles. Sambo practitioners are known for three things: takedowns that combine wrestling and judo maneuvers, ground control skills, and leg locks. It is primarily a grappling art.

18. Sumo

Sumo is a Japanese style of wrestling and Japan’s national sport. Many ancient traditions have been preserved in sumo, and even today the sport includes many ritual elements, such as the use of salt purification, from the days when sumo was used in the Shinto religion.

The rules are simple: the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body besides the soles of his feet loses. There are no weight restrictions or classes in sumo, meaning that wrestlers can easily find themselves matched off against someone many times their size. As a result, weight gain is an essential part of sumo training.

19. Taekwondo

Taekwondo or “the way of the fist and foot”, flourished after World War II, when Japan ended its occupation of Korea. An Olympic event, taekwondo is considered the world’s most popular martial art, practiced in more than 100 countries and has 30 million followers — three million with black belts.

Known for its kicks, this martial art combines physical skills with mental strength, often shown when the follower breaks boards with a foot or hand. Taekwondo practitioners are skilled in strength, stamina, speed, balance, and flexibility.

20. Wing Chun

Wing Chun is a Chinese martial art developed in 17th century China during the Qing Dynasty, and was one of the more complex martial arts taught in the Shaolin Temples of Southern China.

Wing Chun is a very unique and scientific form of martial arts. Wing Chun’s specialty is in close contact combat, using quick punches and kicks with a tight defense, coordinated through agile stances and footwork for a quick advance.

The effectiveness of this fighting style is achieved by well coordinated attacks with simultaneous defense. Due to its effectiveness this martial art makes for an effective form of self defense.


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