What is the Best Martial Art?

There are countless articles online and in magazines ranking martial art styles or claiming this style or that style is the best or most effective.  While I enthusiastically read all of these articles, I also cringe nearly every time.  The reason I cringe is because it is impossible to rank or claim which martial art is the best.  This article will explain why.

So, if you are reading this hoping to get another top 5 or top 10 martial art list, you will be disappointed.  I hope, however, that despite this, you stick around and read this post.  You might just get some additional insight for the next time you read a “best martial art” article.

It is in my opinion that there is no such thing as a best or most effective martial art and here’s why.

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First of all, what is the definition of “best”?  What is the definition of “most effective”?  There are millions of restaurants around the world that claim to be the best in ads.  There are 1000s of dads that sport shirts that say, “World’s Best Dad”.

In order to get somewhere with this, we need to define further this statement.  Some will say “the best martial art for self-defense”.  I will argue that this is also too vague and impossible to answer.  All martial arts are good for self-defense.  If you can effectively defend yourself, what does it mean to defend yourself better?  It is like comparing two dead people and saying one is more dead.

People will argue that UFC/MMA demonstrates which martial art is the best for fighting or self-defense.  This is a flawed statement.  More on that later though.

The fact is, you will likely never need to use the physical self-defense skills you’ve learned in martial arts and, if you ever do, it will be against an untrained person, not someone trained in another martial art.

The only valid comparison questions we can ask are very specific.  For example:

  • Which martial art is best for foot speed?
  • What style is best for self-defense on the ground?
  • Which martial art is best to learn throwing techniques?
  • What style is best for improving height of kicks/leg flexibility?

I don’t claim to know the answer to these questions or if there even are answers to these questions.  I only feel that these types of questions are valid for debate.

Another flaw in the statement “best martial art” is, who is qualified to make that assessment?  In order to make a confident judgment, one would have to be an expert in every martial art and used every martial art in a real self-defense situation with an attacker of similar size, skill, and intent.  In other words, impossible.  No one is qualified to say which martial art is the best for self-defense.  It takes a lifetime to master one style let alone many.  I have done Tang Soo Do for 33 years now and still feel like I have a lot to learn.  I have done Jiu Jitsu for 10 years and feel like I know the basics but that’s about it.

Many consider MMA or BJJ to be the best martial arts.
Many consider MMA or BJJ to be the best martial arts.

Some will say, ok, you don’t need to have someone declare they know what the best martial art is, just have a no holds barred tournament between the best fighters from all the martial arts styles.  Wait.  That sounds like the original UFC.  There you go, you have your answer.  These early UFC tournaments showed Jiu Jitsu is the best/most effective martial art, right?  Not so fast.  Here’s why.

In order to have a true, accurate analysis, you need a sample size that is more than one.  For instance, if you want to compare Tang Soo Do and Jiu Jitsu, you can’t just have one fight and declare the best.  You need a larger sample size of say 5 to 10 fights with different fighters of each style.  You would then need to repeat this analysis with every combination of styles.  This would give thousands of data points and would clearly indicate which style had the most wins.

Also, the original UFC tournaments were organized by the Gracie’s in order to showcase Jiu Jitsu’s effectiveness.  They hand-picked the fighters that would make their case.  I’m not saying Jiu Jitsu is not an effective style, on the contrary.  I have sparred against some of the Gracies and they are legit.  I did not stand a chance.  I’m just saying that the early UFCs had the deck stacked in Jiu Jitsu’s favor.

If you watch MMA today, all fighters train in several areas now. They have striking skills, throwing skills, and ground skills.  If there was one best style, wouldn’t they all just train in that one?  The truth is every style has effectiveness in certain situations which is why MMA fighters train in multiple styles.

Silly monkey doing martial arts
Silly monkey doing martial arts

Even if you deem one martial art better than another, it is not universal.  There are good and bad instructors and studios in every style.  I have trained in really good Tae Kwon Do schools and really bad ones.  I have trained in outstanding Jiu Jitsu schools as well as terrible ones.

Now that you have read this article and I have convinced you there is no best or most effective martial art, I am going to pull a 180 and tell you there is a best martial art!  The best martial art is the one you train hard in.  If you are looking to start martial arts, don’t base your decision on some random internet list.  Go to different schools.  Determine what you want to get out of training and see which school is a good fit and meets your needs.

Now I have convinced you which martial art is the best.  I’d like to introduce you to the worst:

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2 Comments

  1. There are so many martial arts out there.
    Traditional martial arts, like Tang Soo Do, Karate, Tae Kwon Do and Wing Chun.
    Sporty Martial arts like boxing, muy thai, and bjj.
    Hybrid martial arts that do a little of both

    I think teachers of traditional martial arts should be honest with people about how long it will take to learn how to learn the basics of a martial arts system, let alone how long it will take to become a good fighter. And even then, some people are just naturally better fighters than others. I have seen it many times. Say something like, we will teach you how to fight, but don’t expect to be winning street fights after a couple of months of training. Come to think of it, if that is your goal, maybe martial arts teachers should tell people to look elsewhere, since the goal in life it to avoid street fights, if you can. (because outside of maybe the schoolyard, a person who regularly gets into street fights is a thug, which is about as far from a martial arts ideal as one can imagine) But if push comes to shove, so to speak, we will give you tools which, if correctly applied should allow you to survive such a situation. That doesn’t mean you will overpower 10 bad guys with some cool Chuck Norris or Jackie Chan moves. It means if someone trys to hurt you and you have no choice but to fight, you stand a better chance of walking away not getting seriously hurt than if you had no martial arts training. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is more honest and realistic than what untrained people expect to hear from a martial arts teacher.

    That said, there might be something to the argument that full contact styles that regularly practice strikes to the face, like boxing and Muy Thai, might get you more prepared to fight, since you will be getting hit a lot initially, and so you may go through that learning curve quicker with those styles over ones that don’t regularly hit full force to the face.

    But given the concern over head trauma, there is something to be said over emphasizing safety over realism when it comes to fighting in a controlled setting, since head trauma is cumulative. Put another way, you never know when you might experience a head trauma, and so maybe it isn’t a great idea to voluntarily put yourself through that in combat sports like boxing. And in that regard, traditional martial arts such as Tang Soo Do are better for safely practicing the art over boxing or muy thai.

    Having a good ground game is important to being a complete martial artist, so I don’t really see a downside to grappling arts like judo or bjj. Except this. Only knowing grappling is just as incomplete as someone who only knows striking. So it is not a bad idea for someone trained a grappling art to learn a striking art as well, or vice versa.

  2. Good post. I’d also suggest adding a school that instills values. I’m sure that’s a given for folks coming from a traditional background, BUT it’s not always the case. Some MMA gyms have a “Cobra Kai” mentality, and so do some “traditional” schools.

    Dillman… Wow, he went off the deep end when I wasn’t looking. Pressure point fighting can be effective, but the dirty secret is the more you practice, the more sensitivity you develop in those vital spots as they’re repeatedly hit. If you’ve never trained in it and you’re built like a gorilla with muscle blocking those nerve clusters, you’re likely to feel nothing extra from a strike. It’s why his students go down so easy in demonstrations. This whole long distance chi knock out stuff though?!? WTF

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