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Most Popular Martial Arts: 9 Defensive Forms To Learn Today


Last Updated on May 22, 2024

There's a vast array of martial arts styles around the world today. Martial artists or those who consider becoming one seek self-improvement, explaining their engagement in combat sport.

Some engage in it for self-defense, joining competitions, mastering self-discipline, or getting fit.


You might wonder what the most popular martial arts have been throughout time. If so, please keep reading as we find out more about them.

Despite maintaining the ancient heart of martial arts, it is rapidly and constantly evolving. Hopefully, this article helps you choose what combat sports to participate in today.

Overview Of The Most Popular Martial Arts

Unlike in the early twenty-first century, when martial arts are complex and straightforward all at once, many styles are already gaining significant profiles nowadays.

Primarily, one may categorize martial arts into traditional, sport-based, and weapon-based. However, regardless of how much it constantly evolves, studying martial arts meets our need to enhance self-confidence in a society full of violence.

Identifying the most popular martial art can be subjective, as everyone has different standards of what is famous for them. Besides, there can be a well-famed combat sport for Chinese martial arts and a different one for Japanese martial arts.

Nonetheless, check out the overview of the world-renowned martial arts today and see which one suits you best.

1.  Muay Thai

Muay Thai

If Lethwei is well-known as the science of nine limbs, martial experts refer to Muay Thai as the science of eight limbs. Generally, it's the only fighting style that utilizes the entire body as a weapon; hence, using eight limbs with the hand as the sword.

Unlike other martial arts practitioners, Muay Thai fighters have a more challenging training regime, focusing on speed, accuracy, and power. It plays a significant part in Thailand's tradition and culture; nowadays, many individuals practice the art worldwide.

It is a grappling-based combat sport requiring dynamic strength to finish a fight and defend against takedowns efficiently.

During a Muay Thai fight, practitioners keep traditions alive by performing a dance-like ritual to protect themselves and hex their opponents. The physical training also includes mental discipline in utilizing fists, knees, elbows, shins, and feet to the practitioner's advantage.

In addition to stand-up striking, various clinching techniques are part of Muay Thai's fighting techniques. Many practitioners consider Muay Thai a way of life more than a sport.

This sport is the claim to fame of world-renowned Anderson Silva. Anderson first learned tae kwon do when he was seven and started learning Muay Thai from his brother and watching fights in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

2. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Brazilian jiu-jitsu training includes rigorous training for aerobic conditioning, flexibility, strength, and balance. In contrast, you can expect moderate-intensity training for anaerobic exercise, power, speed, and agility.

Most mixed martial art teams have weekly high-priority discipline training, like striking, wrestling, and Brazillian jiu-jitsu, with one or two sparring days per week.

Shawn Chitwood, a black belter and law enforcement tactical trainer, studied and trained extensively for jiu-jitsu since the 80s. Shawn has won numerous National Sport Jiu-Jitsu Championships throughout his entire career. 

Additionally, this combat sport had a more significant impact than any other combative style in early mixed martial arts competitions.

As a result, Brazilian jiu-jitsu went from anonymity to international prominence in a staggeringly short period because of its unanticipated success against other combat sport styles.

BJJ practitioners dominated many MMA events in North America, including the UFC, Extreme Fighting, and the World Combat Championship.

It surprises many spectators how BJJ fighters are considerably smaller than opponents most of the time and are well-known for almost bloodless wins.

3. Kung Fu

Kung Fu

Kung Fu or Gong Fu, another term for kung fu, is an early Chinese martial art. One of the basic steps in learning kung fu is understanding its philosophy for better insight and understanding.

Physical fitness is necessary to endure long fights, so it's essential to have an effective kung fu training regime that works out all muscle groups. Back in the day, many people referred to martial arts as either kung fu or karate, and there weren't many training schools then.

However, due to the global success of kung fu films, China opened the Shaolin Temple as a tourist destination in the 80s.

As a former Wing Chun Kung Fu practitioner for many years, Bruce Lee found the art incomplete as a fighting system. Motivated by his interest in the defensive techniques of martial arts, he developed a new fighting system.

Lee advocated learning different styles in martial arts and only utilizing techniques suitable for you. Moreover, traditional kung fu styles such as Wing Chun do not aim to teach practitioners to fight. 

Instead, you will learn to enhance self-defense techniques through this fighting system. Nevertheless, it will take years of practice to see the notable impacts of Chinese kung fu training in combative situations.

4. Mixed Martial Arts

Mixed Martial Arts

The purpose of martial competitions in ancient times was to test the skills of warriors before battle. Ancient Greece hosted the first known event resembling modern martial art as part of an Olympic sport; MMA is a contemporary combat sport.

These early Olympic games combine boxing and wrestling elements with minimal rules, no time restrictions, and no weight classes.

In MMA, "mixed" refers to interdisciplinary competitions allowing a vast range of grappling and striking techniques. Such a style will enable you to shift from one maneuver to another in seconds, like dynamic throws, ground grappling, powerful strikes, and submission attempts.

Other references to this combat sport are no-holds-barred, extreme fighting, cage fighting, submission fighting, and ultimate fighting. Meanwhile, modern MMA striking moves include hand and elbow strikes, while grappling consists of throws, takedowns, chokes, and joint locks.

The UFC began in 1993, just as the fame of MMA occurred with its combining techniques from different forms of martial arts. Many trace MMA's origins to the Gracie family and their work in Brazil since 1920.

It has also become a popular modern form of entertainment and sport in Japan, where people call the players "shoot fighters." As grappling and groundwork have become more prominent in MMA, curricula in many martial arts schools now include these techniques.

5. Krav Maga

Krav Maga

If Thailand has Muay Thai and Koreans have tae kwon do, the Israeli commandos also have their Krav Maga. It is an aggressive form of self-defense, utilizing kicks, punches, and throws.

Imi Lichtenfeld, an immigrant to Israel from Bratislava, Slovak, first developed Krav Maga in the 1940s for the Israeli military and intelligence services.

Nowadays, Krav Maga is the official fighting art of the Israeli Defense Forces and has gained worldwide acclaim for the efficiency of its fighting styles. It is exclusively a combative art and not a sport.

Unlike other traditional martial arts, the design of this relatively new martial art is explicitly for battlefield use and urban combats. As a proven warfare combat system, its training emphasizes principles rather than techniques.

Part of Krav Maga's principles is that since no two attacks are identical, every individual can react to the same threat differently.

Furthermore, its principles rely on techniques based on instincts, addressing immediate danger, defending and counterattacking simultaneously, and that one defense maneuver can work for various attacks.

The core of its training includes deflecting incoming attacks, protecting the center line, and armed and empty-handed attacks. Krav maga practitioners must be able to attack and defend all at once.

6. Karate


Throughout history, karate has experienced dynamic change and adaptation, passing down self-defense skills from generation to generation. Martial practitioners from Okinawa adapted valuable practices from Japanese, Chinese, and Southeast Asian fighting styles.

Like in most martial arts, people engage in karate for different reasons; many individuals practice karate for its unparalleled self-defense techniques, aside from its intrinsic accessibility. 

It became widely popular due to a 1984 film, The Karate Kid. Who wouldn't want to learn from Mister Miyagi and become his next apprentice?

The karate style focuses on striking techniques involving punches, kicks, knee, elbow, and palm strikes. Like most martial arts, karate evolved into different types; such diversity offers every practitioner varying perspectives.

Kyu is the modern grading system in Shotokan karate; the practitioners use colored belts to represent their grade levels. Advancement to the next grade level occurs when a student demonstrates progress in skills and behavior.

While every karate learner starts with a white belt, earning a black belt is the highest goal of every karate student. Judo and Shotokan Karate were the two primary Japanese forms that adopted this ranking system during the 20th century.

7. Judo


Whether you choose to learn judo, wrestling, or BJJ, being physically strong and fast does not guarantee you victory. Martial arts mean more than a combination of athletic skills, such as jumping high, running fast, and heavyweight lifting.

While these skills matter, it will be impractical to rely on them entirely. It's more about winning when you're not supposed to win. Tracing back its origin to Jigoro Kano, judo's combat fighting style focuses more on the throwing, grappling, and striking techniques of different jujutsu styles. 

By standardizing judo as a coherent system, Jigoro contributed to developing judo as a sporting phenomenon; such developments resulted in the widespread fame of judo.

Many of these techniques were already prevalent in the arts worldwide, but the standardization of the judo training syllabus made it easier to teach.

A successful Japanese businessman, martial expert, and Kano's top student named Mitsuyo Maeda even took part in challenging matches around the world to test his abilities. That is besides Maeda's mastery of judo and jujutsu.

Since judo is a Japanese martial art, Ju, which judo and jiu-jitsu came from, is a Japanese word meaning soft or gentle. Therefore, many practitioners of the traditional arts refer to judo and BJJ as gentle art, although some would define Ju as flexible or yielding.

8. Taekwondo


Taekwondo incorporates karate and kung-fu styles, especially various kicking elements. Despite the claim that they are comprehensive systems, most forms of martial arts only concentrate on a few of these areas and pay minimal attention to the rest.

Judo focuses on clinching and grappling maneuvers, BJJ emphasizes grappling, and boxing is all about punching. In contrast, karate specializes in transitions between striking ranges, whereas Muay Thai combines all striking moves without grappling.

In addition, tae kwon do is an unarmed combat method that has origins of more than 2,000 years now. After Choi Hong Hi modernized it in 1955, taekwondo received influences from other arts in the late 20th century, which earned it recognition as a sport and a self-defense martial arts.

Despite its emphasis on kicks for attacking adversaries, such a dynamic art also utilizes a combination of hand and foot maneuvers. It is among the few martial arts that focus on kicking above the waist.

Its practitioners wear a uniform they call the "dobahk," which looks like a long-sleeved shirt. Unlike the karate gi, dobahk is a lightweight one-piece top that the wearer doesn't need to tie from side to side.

9. Boxing


Boxing is many artists' choice for striking techniques; even Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do and Israeli's krav maga adapted heavily from the influences of boxing.

Despite its straightforward philosophy, boxing as an art and science continues to develop its strategic moves and training techniques. A boxer's thought process is comparable to a chess player's since they must think ahead of their next steps.

As chess players sacrifice a piece to obtain a positional advantage, boxers use feints and gambits to deliver a knockout blow. Physical conditioning is crucial in boxing, but psychological preparedness is as important.

Being mentally prepared for a boxing match means having the ability to think clearly and maintain self-control. In addition to punching, boxing likewise develops strong footwork and core muscles.

Moreover, the boxers attempt to gain leverage over their adversaries by faking fear or breaking eye contact. It takes them a lot of practice to make their faces seem void of emotions by shadowboxing in front of a mirror.

Knock-Out Point: Tough times require tough means to fend off wrongdoers! Sometimes, you even have to employ deadly tactics to evade harm and protect yourself. Here are a few martial arts forms that many consider lethal -- Deadliest Martial Arts.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Which martial arts is the most popular?

Several considerations are at play when identifying the most popular martial art. Different cultures, lifestyles, needs, and preferences determine what the highly-favored combat sport is for every individual. Mixed martial arts remains the most popular martial art form worldwide.

Meanwhile, karate and judo are famous martial arts in Japan, while Kung Fu and Wushu are reputable Chinese martial arts. It's a Korean martial art, but taekwondo is a popular sport in the US, as much as boxing and jiu-jitsu.

Who is the top-ranking martial artist worldwide?

Bruce Lee, also a famous actor, is the top-ranked and the most influential among martial artists worldwide. Bruce Lee was a well-respected American-Chinese martial artist whose philosophy influenced the eclectic Jeet Kune Do that focuses on self-defense.

What martial art is the easiest and the hardest to learn?

Many martial arts practitioners, newbies, and experts find Brazillian jiu-jitsu the hardest to learn. It is especially true if you aim to master jiu-jitsu ground fighting and join competitions, as this art requires self-discipline and years of practice.

Contrarily, boxing is one of the most straightforward combat sports, as you only need to throw punches and learn proper footwork. Further, anyone can engage in boxing, but it can also be competitive and a popular sport that demands timing and precision.


Despite technological advances, quality information, air travel, scientific knowledge, and electronic communication, martial arts and associated cultures are still widely misunderstood.

Many myths and disinformation surround the art as we live in these changing times.

It's best not to be overly clinical in understanding martial arts, as that is unnecessary and takes away the pleasure of it all. The entire process is more about the journey than the destination.

Learning the art is not to harm but to heal, enhance, and preserve life, either as an offensive art for combat or self-defense. May this serve as your handy guide in choosing among today's most popular martial arts.

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