Ever since the days of the ancient Greeks, men (and mostly men) have been obsessed with determining an answer to the eternal question, “If I needed to, how could I kill someone the most easily using only my bare hands?” Because, you just never know. The Greeks invented the brutal Olympic sport of Pankration to try and find out. (It also presented a unique merchandising opportunity that the organizers of this year’s Olympics would do well to consider):

the most effective martial art

Apparently, referees have looked down on eye-gouging for some time.

While the quest to identify the most effective martial art or fighting technique has thus occupied men’s thoughts for some aeons, no one has actually set about conducting a definitive study to establish what the hell the man should take up who wishes to become a God of hand-to-hand combat… And let’s face it, who doesn’t? With a year of Muay Thai, a year of Krav Maga, a month of Tae Kwon Do and a few hours of Systema under my belt, upon careful reflection, I considered myself to possess the perfect blend of experience and ignorance to carry out just such an unbiased audit, and to share my findings with anyone who cares about the truth.

Before proceeding, it’s necessary to set some parameters, as the task of deciding the most effective martial art is seemingly dependent on a variety of contexts. Is the practitioner short or tall? Do his physical attributes naturally lend themselves to speed, power or stamina? How many assailants does he face? These are all pertinent questions, yet the fact that there will be so many permutations from case to case suggests that the only way to construct an imperfect answer to our perfect question is by assuming an average guy of average build to be our guinea pig in the experiment. Something else to consider is that it is impossible to know whether, in any given scenario, one will be facing off against one adversary, two, or possibly more than two…

homer simpson running from the entire cast of mortal kombat, the video game

Since some styles cater much better to fewer attackers, it is worth assuming an average here as well, for which I have chosen 3 as the magic number. If you’d like to argue with me, feel free to do so in the comments, but 1 is obviously too few to cover a good number of possible scenarios in which one might be forced to enter into a fight, while 4 feels to me like it is approaching a Road House/The Warriors -style situation, which only happens once in a blue moon, right? And it bears mentioning that unless you’re someone like Biff from Back to the Future who actively looks for trouble, then getting into any kind of physical altercation will most likely be a blue moon occurrence, so it’s worth having other motivations for taking up a martial art than simply wishing to kick ass and take names.

So. 1 Homer Simpson, 3 thugs and 3 years of training (I just added that one): Which is the most effective martial art for Homer to begin practicing?

Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Tai Chi, Kung Fu

Picture of Kung Fu Panda

This was the best Kung Fu picture I could find. Sorry.

Yes, I am doing these in one go. While they are all worthy pursuits in their own right, they are not the disciplines I would turn to to aid in my human -> lethal weapon transformation. I would certainly not want to mess with someone who had been practicing any of them for more than a few years (except perhaps Tai Chi – an irrational bias), yet there are certain considerations that disqualify them, in this humble practitioner’s opinion, from laying claim to the grand title.

For one, they are all highly form-based, meaning they rely on the constant repetition of certain prearranged movements (termed “kata” in Japanese martial arts) to instill the practitioner with a structured series of executable techniques. The problem – as anyone who has ever watched a UFC bout knows – is that real-life showdowns are anything but predictable, such that the notion of learning a routine of 20-30 consecutive moves seems, well…A waste of time. Advocates will likely insist that the main purpose is simply to impart a high degree of familiarity with the movements, in order that performing any one of them in a dangerous situation should feel that much more natural. I would insist against them that an important quality of the perfect fighter should be adaptability, and that drilling long strings of moves in lieu of exploring useful ways to combine just a few (based on real attacks) is not an ideal strategy.

Beyond this criticism, form-based martial arts often seem to concern themselves more with aesthetic or competitive considerations than with how best to effect a brutal beat down. One need look no further than Wushu Taolu (an offshoot of more traditional Kung Fu styles) for a perfect example, or Tae Kwon Do, in which the most points in a competition are scored for flying kicks to the head – which, while very cool-looking, are very difficult to carry out in a real scrap.

Understandable though it may be, the will to preserve the core teachings of a discipline through the ages seems, in lots of cases, to have overtaken the vital (yet martial arts-agnostic) necessity to maintain a limber approach to fight dynamics. After all, it’s easier to pass on a predetermined set of movements than a complicated series of “if -> then” maneuvers involving an unpredictable opponent.

Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Muay Thai fighter

A few years of hard graft and you, too, can learn the gift of flight.

One way that some systems seek to resolve this issue is by concentrating on shorter, more practical combinations that blast through most defenses by virtue of being infused with coma-inducing levels of speed and aggression. Welcome to the world of Muay Thai – the “Art of Eight Limbs” – where a relatively small canon of techniques is compensated for by the heightened capacity of those techniques to inflict serious damage on one’s opponent. Instead of dedicating time to learning intricate choreography, practitioners devote considerably more attention than other disciplines to a key ingredient in any fighter’s regimen: conditioning. Whether pitted against a single adversary or half a dozen (especially when pitted against half a dozen), one’s ability not only to make every blow count, but to keep getting up and to keep swinging beyond all reasonable expectation, is essential to ensuring a successful outcome.

So, is it time for Homer to don shorts and a mongkol (the headgear of a Thai boxer) and begin training? Almost. While not a definitive measure of superiority, a noteworthy event took place on the outskirts of Bangkok in 1974, where a team of 5 Kung Fu masters flew from Hong Kong to challenge a group of Thai boxers to a revenge match for the recent humiliation suffered by 2 of their brothers in the form of first round knockouts. Not only were all 5 fighters yet again dispatched in the first round, but 4 out of the 5 knockouts occurred around the minute mark or earlier. FACT.

Lumpinee Stadium Fight

Showdown near Lumpinee Stadium, 1974

At this point, it might be remarked that most of the disciplines listed up till now are made up of several schools – some more focused on intense conditioning, frequent sparring and practical application than others – and that many of the techniques they teach are actually highly “street ready.” (Sanshou, for example, is a recent form of Kung Fu whose effectiveness is often compared very favorably to Muay Thai.) While I won’t argue the point, a message was sent in the early 90’s to the martial arts community as a whole that made the current debate we’re having (or that I’m having. With myself.) largely irrelevant. The message stemmed from the 3 legendary victories in the first few years of UFC by one Royce Gracie: a small man from Brazil. Using a relatively new brand of an ancient Japanese art, Gracie submission held, choke held and joint locked his way to showing the world not just that a much larger opponent could easily be overcome using the proper techniques, but that any martial art lacking a well-developed ground fighting strategy – as most of them do – could present a serious liability.

Jeet Kun Do, Krav Maga, Combat Sambo

Imi Lichtenfeld

Imi Lichtenfeld, the father of Krav Maga.

The problem with BJJ – and the reason I stubbornly refuse to adorn it with the coveted crown – is that its effectiveness is gravely compromised in situations (such as ours…) that involve multiple attackers. While the most seasoned Thai boxer or Sanshou expert could have their bones cracked by any of an array of deadly BJJ submissions, the BJJ’er in question would undoubtedly not fare as well were he to endure having his head kicked in by someone else while attempting to implement said hold.

The most effective martial art for real combat must therefore possess an adequate blend of strikes, ground techniques and general badassery to truly instill our average joe with the necessary skills to stave off his 3 assailants. One that springs to mind is Jeet Kune Do, created by one of the most famous badasses of them all: Bruce Lee. Referred to by Lee as the “style without style,” its development emerged as a reaction against the previously-mentioned rigidity of the more classic arts (he once compared practicing forms without an opponent to attempting to learn to swim on dry land.) That said, it is often considered as constituting more of a concept or philosophy than an actual fighting style, causing many who wish to practice it seriously to seek instruction in Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do, the style based on Lee’s initial teachings.

Despite the fuzziness surrounding their status as a comprehensive system, some things that can be said for certain about Lee’s principles are that they placed a firm emphasis on sparring and recreating real combat situations (versus the “game of tag” Lee considered the more traditional styles to engage in), the value in adopting only the highest-impact techniques from other martial arts while discarding the rest, and the general need to remain highly flexible in one’s approach. These traits are also echoed in such disciplines as the Israeli Krav Maga or the Russian Combat Sambo, which are renowned for the lethal aspects of many of their techniques, including their extensive use of knife and gun defenses:

It seems, then, that we’ve finally reached a worthy showdown, although a point worth mentioning (and which I might have neglected to do in the case of Muay Thai…) is that it is debatable whether either of these styles should properly be called a “martial art.” While the term is not well-defined (the Oxford English Dictionary puts forward the contentious definition: “any of various fighting sports or skills mainly of Japanese origin”), the reason I’m acknowledging this is a) Because the title of this article is “The Most Effective Martial Art,” so I didn’t want anyone to begin crying, and b) Insofar as it can be defined, the association most people have with the term is of a highly codified fighting system, whereas styles like JKD, Combat Sambo and Krav Maga represent an important shift away from dogma towards a more open framework, including techniques from an array of disciplines to allow for appropriate responses to a greater variety of scenarios.

So, which is it? Krav Maga or Combat Sambo? While a large number of popular fighting systems didn’t make the cut for this article in the interests of keeping it readable, these two are considered by most to be amongst the most practical and deadly of them all, as evidenced by the fact that both are routinely taught to military and law enforcement agencies at all levels. Since Combat Sambo maintains a greater focus on grappling to Krav Maga’s emphasis on striking, however, the title ultimately must fall to Krav Maga, for its greater usefulness against multiple attackers. It also involves eye gouges, groin kicks and sometimes attempting to rip your opponent’s throat out.

MMA And The Ideal Fighting System

And now for the real winners: an outstanding instructor, the right kind of school, a great deal of practice and a solid amount of cross-training.

That’s right – the only way I could lead you guys to the harder truth was by dangling the promise of a much simpler (but ultimately, not very truthful) truth in the article title. The fact is, a seasoned BJJ pro could easily destroy a handful of less-practiced Krav Maga experts, as hand-to-hand combat is an extremely volatile and spontaneous activity in which years of hard work, discipline and good instruction are the most important keys to success. While its compatibility with other systems and excellent adaptability to a fighter’s individual strengths and weaknesses do contribute to Krav Maga’s status as a highly effective fighting system for outside the ring, one would arguably be better off seeking to build a customized solution based on one’s natural abilities by cross-training in a variety of disciplines.

This is the world of MMA. While mixed martial artists are not as brutal a bunch as the Pankrationists of yore, this is mostly because we, as a society, no longer seem quite as bloodthirsty. Regardless, many a submission hold or chokehold could easily be turned to deadly advantage should a situation require it, and the benefits gained by intense training in both ground and strike-based disciplines – whether Muay Thai and BJJ, or even wrestling and boxing – are enough to make even Homer Simpson a force not to be toyed with.

4 Responses to Is There a Most Effective Martial Art?

  1. ML says:

    Good analysis. Fifteen years of martial arts — traditional karate, TKD, kickboxing — and American Combato-type style and some university wrestling experience.
    I’m sure that there are some karate / kung fu masters who could kick my ass but while they spent three or four decades at it, I’m probably 80% as capable with three years of intensive Combato experience.
    From a Return on Investment perspective, if straightforward street defence is you goal, better to go with a self-defence system rather than a MARTIAL ART system. If your goal is spiritual development, pursuit of perfection in form then stick with MA.

    • Sol says:

      ML,

      If you are attacked on the “street”… you will not have any clue as to the experience level of the attacker; your personal effectiveness rating of “80%” is meaningless against the unknown assailant. While working in Adult Probation many years ago; I witnessed a Convicted Felon Parolee brought in on violation ( was on PCP) take six center mass 38 slugs and still managed to inflict great bodily harm, AFTER being shot, to the police officer who shot him. The Felon died of his gunshot wounds… the Police Officer survived, but had two broken arms, 4 broken ribs, and a crushed left eye socket and cheek bone, all of which required much medical attentions and months of recovery before the Officer could get back to work

  2. Zak Gottlieb says:

    Thanks for the feedback, ML! I’m glad we’re on the same page.

  3. Sol says:

    Zak,

    The “answer” is always dependent upon the goal.
    For some the Traditional Martial Arts are it. For others the MMA is it. But really, if you goal is to survive “real world” violence, you would need both TMA and MMA skills; PLUS improvised weapons knowledge, “Situational Awareness” training, and some actual experience in dealing with “the street” .

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