Many martial arts are not actually intended for self-defense. Some are competitive sports; others are integrated with ancient spiritual disciplines that hone the mind and body. That’s not to say that these kinds of martial arts aren’t valuable or that they don’t increase your ability to defend yourself. Each discipline has its own merits and each was designed for a specific function in a certain place and time. Assuming that physical combat is always the same in every country and every century is a mistake.
If your only interest in martial arts is to learn how to defend yourself from an attacker on the street, then you need to consider which martial arts are best for this purpose. Alternatively, if you are more interested in historic techniques and ancient disciplines, then some of the more modern martial arts would be a waste of your time.
In the eighties, everyone thought karate was the best martial art around and Judo was also a very popular form of self-defence. But learning to throw an opponent who allows you to use their weight against them is unlikely to help you against an armed attacker. Traditional boxing doesn’t involve any throws or kicks, but at least it teaches the student to keep their guard up and protect themselves when striking, while karate-style punches and blocks can leave you exposed to an opponent’ s attack.
“Someone with only a year of training in boxing and wrestling could easily defeat a martial artist of twenty years experience.” – Bruce Lee
The internet and the real world are full of self-described experts who claim to know the one and only supreme Super-Saiyan martial art. Most of these people are lying and many just want to take your money. There are so many different approaches to self-defense and martial arts and so many reasons to pursue such disciplines, so the question of which martial art is best can only be answered by you. You have limited time and money and simply can’t pursue every single discipline so read through the following list to familiarise yourself with a few of the options.
It was first developed in medieval Japan after Chinese martial arts were imported to the Okinawa islands. Karate became popular in mainland Japan in the early 20th century and went global in more recent decades. Karate is all about efficiency of movement, with direct, short attacks in straight lines.
There is no denying that Karate looks cool and teaches the student to deliver quick and powerful punches and kicks. But competitive Karate is more about style and routine than any practical combat techniques. If you like Japanese culture then this is for you, but if you just want to win more fights on the street, it isn’t particularly practical.
While jiu-jitsu is the father of Japanese martial arts and has influenced aikido and judo, the most modern offshoot is BJJ. Brazilian jiu-jitsu is a more practical version which focuses on takedowns, ground fighting, and self-defense but also includes kicks, knees, and strikes. This is a great sport for those who want to be able to defeat a stronger opponent. Anyone who doubts the effectiveness of this style need only look at the Gracie family; particularly Royce Gracie who won 3 of the first 4 UFCs with jiu-jitsu.
Historical European Martial Arts are focused on reconstructing the Western fighting styles depicted in medieval manuscript pictures and the writings of fencing masters like Hans Talhoffer and Johannes Liechtenauer. Most HEMA is focused on weapons training, which is probably not very useful unless you happen to live in an area where muggers come at you with longswords. But there are also many grappling techniques and other forms of unarmed combat that have been preserved through history.
Modern martial arts are dominated by Oriental styles, so it is great that Occidental methods are being revived as these have less focus on Eastern philosophies like the negation of the self, which seem pretentious and boring to some Westerners. HEMA will keep you fit and is great fun but it’s really just a patchwork made from fragments of surviving historical methods and is not therefore as effective or comprehensive as modern mixed martial arts techniques.
This brutal Siamese discipline is focused on clinching and elbow and knee strikes to deliver swift and severe damage. Fitness is an important part of Muay Thai and most gyms will have an intense workout to prepare fighters for the ring.
Although similar styles have existed in Thailand for centuries, the term Muay Thai was first used after the introduction of British boxing to Thailand in the early 20th century. The traditional Thai styles merged with British boxing to form the highly effective style practiced around the world today.
Muay Thai fights are preceded by ceremonial dances with traditional Thai oboe music called Sarama. Many travel to Thailand specifically to train in the gyms there, but if you do this, you may require translation services if your coach doesn’t speak English. This style is a great combination of practical and effective techniques and tradition.
Despite the fact that Jews like Daniel Mendoza and Jack Kid Berg were among the most prominent East End boxers of their time, the Jews as a people aren’t stereotyped as fighters. But Krav Maga is a merciless form of self-defense developed by the Israeli military, which inherits the legacy of the hefty Hebrews.
Krav Maga focuses on practical ways of neutralising an opponent in a realistic scenario which is why the Mossad and Israeli police have developed their own versions. It’s all about efficiency and intuitive movements so it is easier to learn than other more traditional martial arts and is certainly more useful for defending against an armed assailant.
The problem with Krav Maga is that it assumes the opponent will be neutralised by a kick to the groin or an eye gouge but you can’t really practice these properly in the gym. If you take up Krav Maga, it is best to do so in a safe environment which allows students to spar and test techniques.
Systema is sometimes seen as the Russian version of Krav Maga but there are some crucial differences. Systema is not simply a style based on quickly neutralising dangerous assailants but also involves control of emotions and breathing so that you are more able to withstand and recover from attacks. Clarity of mind is important, because rather than relying on your intuitive, survival instincts like Krav Maga does, Systema requires that you remember pressure points and techniques in the event of an attack so that you can more easily execute the moves you learn in training.
If none of these tickles your fancy then you should keep researching as there is so much more available than what has been covered in this post. If you attend an MMA gym then your coach will combine techniques from various disciplines including kickboxing and wrestling, depending on which gym you attend. That might be a good way to start and later focus on a more specific style which suits your abilities and tastes.