The martial arts are a collection of combat systems, strategies, and philosophies stemming from ancient techniques of war. Almost all the martial arts were borne from the need to survive; Capoeira was the African slave’s answer to enslavement by Portuguese colonists, while Kali evolved by Filipino natives to repel the Spanish conquistadors from invading their country.
In recent history, when countries were taken over, the occupying countries tended to outlaw martial arts in order to prevent uprisings, creating a defenceless population. For this reason, arts like Ninjitsu formed to make use of everyday items found on farms, such as sickles, sticks, and homemade weapons, such as the sickle on a chain, which could be used as a throwing weapon.
The world has evolved many different styles of martial arts, from the grappling arts of Judo and Jiu Jitsu, the striking styles of Karate and Muay Thai, to the weapons-based arts of Kendo and Iaido. We’ll be exploring 10 of the most fascinating styles and their origins in today’s top ten.
Loosely translated as “the way of harmonious spirit”, Aikido is considered a relatively new martial art, having been developed some 100 years ago in Japan. Aikido’s founder, Morihei Ueshiba, entered the world of combat as a result of watching his father getting attacked and beaten by local thugs for his political ideas. Morihei’s idea was to develop a form of fighting which could be used in self-defence while at the same time protecting the attacker from injury.
Derived from a number of different Asian martial art styles, Hapkido was developed in Korea and literally meant “The art of coordination and internal energy.” The style has its roots in another martial art called Daito-Ryu, and slowly developed by incorporating strategies from other fighting styles, mainly Taekwondo and Judo. Hapkido is unique in the sense that it incorporates a mainly defensive style of fighting, utilising kicks and punches aimed at the lower regions of the body, and can also be fought with weapons such as the sword, nunchucks and staff.
Known as the “art of eight weapons”, referring to the feet, fists, elbows and knees, Muay Thai was developed in Thailand as a full-contact, unarmed martial art that was meant to give Thai fighters skills in dealing with armed and armoured opponents. The style incorporates punches, kicks, and knee and elbow strikes and is renowned for its deadly striking ability. Today, Muay Thai is popular mainly as a competitive sport as the style lends itself to beautiful body motions, almost like a dance.
Founded by Takenouchi Hisamori, a Japanese military strategist, Jiu-Jitsu was formed primarily as a form of combat for battlefield warfare in situations where weapons were ineffective, mainly against well-armoured opponents. The word “Ju” can be translated to mean gentle, flexible, or yielding, and “Jutsu” means art or technique; the name represents a fighting style that seeks to manipulate an opponent’s force against himself as opposed to applying force without.
Jiu-Jitsu is used as the base for many other martial arts, such as Hapkido, Judo, Jeet-Kune-Do, Ninjutsu, and Aikido, to name a few.
Developed in Okinawa, Japan, Karate is one of the most well-known of the striking arts. Combining many styles of combat, such as Wado-Ryu and Shotokan, Karate uses mainly punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes, as well as lightning-fast hand techniques like palm-heel strikes and strikes to vital points. The martial art started developing around the 1600s at a time when Japan had banned its citizens from the use of all weaponry, except for the Samurai. This led to the rapid development of fighting styles which would enable non-Samurai to defend themselves. Even today, the Japanese military and police forces use Karate for their non-armed combat.
This style was developed mainly as a striking art with techniques such as the sidekick, roundhouse kick, and certain submission methods used for knife and gun defence. The lack of close-combat grappling techniques means that fighting multiple opponents is possible but disarming and ultimate submission of opponents is very difficult. Unfortunately, Karate is not considered a very diverse martial art because of its lack of close-combat abilities, but it still provides a strong base for the well-rounded martial artist.
Being the Russian answer to Kung Fu, Systema literally means “the system” in Russian and refers to the various systems of the body, namely the nervous system, muscular system, respiratory system, et al. It’s a style tailored to the harsh Russian weather conditions and excels in dealing with exotic weapons. When Stalin came to power, almost every national tradition was suppressed, and Russians studying Systema were severely punished, leading to the practice becoming a secret art. Once the government realised its combat effectiveness, they decided to incorporate the fighting style into Russian special forces units like Alpha, GRU and Vympel.
Having no enforced rules, limitations or even a real structure in its techniques, Systema is designed to boost the fighter’s instinctive reactions, individual strengths, and character. Because of this lack of structure, Systema is usually complimented with another martial art; in the Russian Special Forces, Samba is the preferred choice. Excelling in knife and gun defence strategies, Systema nevertheless lacks a distinctive, striking style, relying more on the natural instincts of the fighter.
Wing Chun was 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. During that time, the Shaolin monks supported the Ming dynasty, leading to the inevitable demise of their own temples. Many legends were spread by the Shaolin as to the origins of the art in order to confuse their enemies, which is why not a lot is known about its origins and creator.
Considered one of the most well-balanced martial arts, Wing Chun combines both striking and grappling skills and specialises in close-range combat. It’s used as a foundation for many offspring arts, such as the Israeli Krav Maga, and enables the fighter to both attacks and defend at the same time with the ultimate goal of closing the distance to the foe as quickly as possible, as close-quarter combat is preferred. The style is well suited for fighting multiple opponents as it has fast blocking and intervention strikes.
Sambo was developed by the Soviet Red Army in the early 90s in order to improve the army’s hand-to-hand combat abilities. In fact, the word Sambo is a Russian acronym which means “self-defence without weapons”. The martial art attempts to take the most effective techniques of other martial arts and combine them into a deadly mix, lending strategies from Judo, Karate and international wrestling styles.
Often paired with Systema for a more balanced combat style, Sambo is considered a great art for both striking and grappling, making it effective both from a distance and in close-combat and ground-combat situations. Similarly to Judo, Samba makes use of throws, leg locks and arm locks and relies heavily on upper body strength.
Kali is a weapons-based art originating in the Philippines around the 8th century AD, according to records held by the Malay Sri Vishaya Empire. The Spaniards encountered martial arts during the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines. At that time, Magellan the pirate wreaked havoc on the Philippine country-folk, whose chieftain Lapu Lapu helped lead the rebellion against the Spanish pirate using homemade lances, pieces of rattan, and fire-hardened sticks. Magellan was defeated, and a statue was created to honour the great chieftain for defending his people.
Being primarily a weapons-based martial art, Kali is well suited to fighting multiple opponents while still retaining a strong striking and grappling foundation for unarmed combat. Sticks, knives and other bladed weapons are the weapons of choice for Kali fighters, although they’re also trained in empty-handed combat. Today, Kali is used as a combat art to defend against weapons-based attacks in the Philippine’s special forces and military, as well as the US military.
Developed for the Israeli army by Israeli-Hungarian fighter Imrich Lichtenfeld, Krav Maga is considered an extremely efficient martial art, combining brutal attacks and aggressive threat neutralisation 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 Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Krav Maga came about as a way to deal with anti-Semitic groups in Eastern Europe during the early days of World War 2 when Imrich would set out with a group of fighters to defend Jews who were being threatened or hurt.
Having been developed out of necessity 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. Using Wing Chun as its primary base for defending against weapons gives Krav Mega an edge against armed opponents. The grappling from Jiu Jitsu and Judo helps establish a balance between striking and takedowns while also enabling high-power submissions to defeat the foe.