Top 10 Martial Arts and Their Origins

Added by Edan Barak on Apr 26, 2021
top 10 martial arts

"Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win." - Sun Tzu, master strategist and author of "The Art of War", regarding the human warrior spirit.

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 Porteugeuse 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 defenseless population. For this reason arts like Ninjitsu formed to make use of everyday items found in farms such as sickles, sticks, and home-made 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-defense while at the same time protecting the attacker from injury.

Aikido combines sword-play (Kenjitsu), spear-play (Sojitsu), and Jiu Jitsu, and is considered one of the deadliest martial arts in the world. It relies on powerful pain control locks such as wrist locks and arm locks to submit an opponent quickly. The idea behind this martial art is to blend with the movements of the opponent and redirecting the force of their attack, thereby using their force against themselves.



Derived from a number of different Asian martial art styles, Hapkido was developed in Korea and literally means "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, nunchuka and staff.

Today Hapido is taught to US special forces called the Green Beret, as well as CIA operatives and Korean special forces. It's a well-balanced style whose main goal is to breech the distance to an enemy fighter in order to be able to control the opponent's balance by manipulating the head and torso, and quickly take them down.


Muay Thai

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 armored opponents. The style incorporates punches, kicks, knee and elbow strikes, and is reknowned 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.

According to Thai folklore a number of Thai kickboxers where taken prisoner to Burma when the Siam capital of Ayutthaya was invaded by Burmese troops. The Burmese King, curious to see how the martial art would fare against the Burmese boxing style of Lethwei, selected one of the Thai fighters to fight against the Burmese champion, each in his own style. The Thai fighter ended up not only beating the Burmese champ, but also 9 other fighters who were sent at him one after the other, with no rest in between. The Burmese King was said to be so impressed that he declared, "Every part of the Thai is blessed with venom. Even with his bare hands, he can fell nine or ten opponents. But his Lord was incompetent and lost the country to the enemy. If he had been any good, there was no way the City of Ayutthaya would ever have fallen."


Jiu Jitsu

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-armored 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 opponents force against himself as opposed to applying force from without.

Since this fighting style was developed in the days of the samurai, whose body armor protected against most striking techniques as well as weapons, Jui Jitsu typically places more emphasis on immobilizing the opponent, pinning, locking, and choking. The style also makes use of very practical knife and gun defense skills, as well as using the opponent's own body against him. A glaring disadvantage of this fighting style is when faced with multiple opponents, as it's more of a close-combat, one-on-one style of fighting.

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 perhaps 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 lightening-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 lead 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 defense. 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 most every national tradition was suppressed, and Russians studying Sytema were severely punished, leading to the practise becoming a secret art. Once the goverment realized its combat effectiveness they decided to encorporate the fighting style into Russian special forces unit 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 defense strategies, Systema nevertheless lacks a distinctive striking style, relying more on the natural instincts of the fighter.


Wing Chun

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 attack 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 at around the 8th century AD according to records held by the Malay Sri Vishaya Empire. The Spaniards encountered the martial art during the Spanish colonisation of the Philippines. At that time Magellan the pirate wreaked havoc on the Philippine country-folk, whose cheftain 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 honor 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 Phillipines special forces and military, as well as the US military.


Krav Maga

Developed for the Israeli army by Israeli-Hungarian fighter Imrich Lichtenfeld, Krav Maga is considered an extremely efficient martial art, combining brutal attacks and aggresive 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. Krav Maga came about as a way to deal with anti-semetic 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 opponent. The grappling from Jiu Jitsu and Judo help establish a balance between striking and takedowns while also enabling high power submissions to defeat the foe.

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