Way of Martial Arts (wayofmartialarts.com) is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This site also participates in other affiliate programs and is compensated for referring traffic and business to them.
In our extensive analyses of both martial arts and combat sports we have talked about a lot of different aspects, mostly concerning the technical and competitive aspects of different martial arts and combat sports. You have – we hope – managed to learn a lot and we shall certainly continue to inform you, but we have decided to dedicate today’s article to the 10 most popular martial arts and combat sports in the world. We have ranked them according to several different criteria and these are the 10 we consider to be the most popular globally.
Note: The list is ordered alphabetically, not by the popularity rank.
Before we start, we shall present you an interesting metric that might show the popularity of different martial arts. Although not 100% right metric to use, Google Trends is a good way to show how popular different martial arts and combat sports are in the terms of number of corresponding Google searches.
The graph above shows the differences between the number of Google searches for particular martial arts and combat sports (for the last 12 months in the United States). What is worth noticing, that under the term “wrestling”, WWE comes to the equation, so we expect that it is a little bit lower than presented. Also, a lot of search queries of “MMA” are replaced with “UFC”. When it comes to “jiu jitsu”, we should consider the term “bjj” as well; so the volume of the search is probably twice the size seen on the graph.
Now that we have represented you the graph. Let’s go through the list.
1. Boxing (United Kingdom)
Boxing is a combat sport in which two people wearing protective gloves, throw punches at each other for a predetermined amount of time in a boxing ring. Boxing matches are overseen by a referee and are fought in rounds, that may vary in length and number.
There is also a panel of ringside judges who may declare the winner in certain situations. A winner can be resolved before the completion of the rounds when a referee declares one of the fighters to be incapable of further fighting, by disqualification of a fighter, or when a fighter forfeits the match. When the fight reaches the end of its final round with both opponents still standing, the judges; scorecards determine the winner.
In the event that both fighters gain equal scores from the judges, the bout can be declared a draw (there are differences regarding these rules in professional and amateur boxing). Boxing is a modern form of historical one-on-one hand combat that is probably as old as humans themselves; still, the earliest evidence of fist-fighting sports date back to the ancient Near East in the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC.
The earliest evidence of some boxing rules date back to Ancient Greece, where boxing was established as an Olympic sport in 688 BC. Boxing evolved from 16th– and 18th-century prize fights, largely in the United Kingdom, to the forerunner of modern boxing in the mid-19th century with the 1867 introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules.
2. Brazilian jiu-jitsu (Brazil)
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) (Portuguese: jiu-jitsu brasileiro) is a self-defence martial art and combat sport based on grappling, ground fighting and submission holds. BJJ focuses on controlling one’s opponent, gaining a dominant position over him and using a number of specialised techniques to force them in to submission via joint locks or chokeholds.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu was first developed and modified in the 1920s by Brazilian brothers Carlos, George and Hélio Gracie after Carlos was taught traditional Kodokan judo by a travelling Japanese judoka called Mitsuyo Maeda in 1917; the brothers later went on to develop their own self defence system named Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, which is not that different from traditional BJJ, but it’s still very distinctive.
BJJ eventually came to be its own defined combat sport through the innovations, practices, and adaptation of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and Judo, with governing bodies such as the IBJJF working worldwide, becoming an essential martial art for MMA
3. Judo (Japan)
Judo (柔道, jūdō, lit. “gentle way”) is a modern martial art, which has since evolved into a combat and Olympic sport. The sport was created in 1882 by Jigoro Kano (嘉納治五郎) as a physical, mental, and moral pedagogy in Japan.
With its origins coming from jujutsu, judo’s most prominent feature is its competitive element, where the objective is to either throw or take down an opponent to the ground, immobilize or otherwise subdue an opponent with a pin, or force an opponent to submit with a joint lock or a choke. Strikes and thrusts by hands and feet as well as weapons defences are a part of judo, but only in pre-arranged forms (kata, 形) and are not allowed in judo competition or free practice (randori, 乱取り).
It was also referred to as Kanō Jiu-Jitsu until the introduction to the Olympic Games. A judo practitioner is called a “judoka”, and the judo uniform is called “judogi”. The philosophy and subsequent pedagogy developed for judo became the model for other modern Japanese martial arts that developed from koryū (古流, traditional schools).
4. Karate (Japan)
Karate (空手) is a martial art developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom in ancient Japan. It developed from the indigenous Ryukyuan martial arts [called te (手), “hand”; tii in Okinawan] under the influence of Chinese kung fu, particularly the Fujian White Crane style.
Karate is now predominantly a striking art using punching, kicking, knee strikes, elbow strikes and open-hand techniques such as knife-hands, spear-hands and palm-heel strikes. Historically, and in some modern styles, grappling, throws, joint locks, restraints and vital-point strikes are also taught. A karate practitioner is called a karateka (空手家).
5. Kickboxing (Japan/United States)
Kickboxing (Japanese: キックボクシング) is a relatively new combat sport that developed in Japan somewhere in the 1950s. It was created by Osamu Noguchi and Tatsuo Yamada somewhere during 1959, when Yamada, a karateka, wanted to establish a form of full-contact karate; at the time, competitors did not hit each other in karate matches.
Yamada soon acquainted Noguchi, who was the manager of Thai fighter Nak Muay and found out that both shared an interest in Muay Thai. They decided to pursue that even further and so – kickboxing was established. But it wasn’t until the 1970s, when kickboxing came to the United States, that the sport truly became popular.
Today, it is considered to be a hybrid or mixed combat sport, as it combines elements from several other sports and martial arts. As is Muay Thai, kickboxing is today practiced throughout the globe, but unlike its main influence, it does not have a single governing body.
6. Kung fu (China)
Kung fu, actually an umbrella term, encompasses a wide variety of martial arts and it is a thoroughly complicated process of classifying them all. There are several ways and criteria available for classifying all the styles of kung fu. The first possible classification is based on geography.
Within this system, the two dominant groups are the northern and southern styles, but there is also a possibility of classifying styles based on a more specific location like a village, town of province. Another classification is the one that divides the styles into external and internal, but most commentators agree that this division is obsolete and doesn’t really stress out the difference between the styles.
Styles can also be classified based on religious influences present within their philosophies; here, we talk about Buddhist, Taoist and Islamic styles. These are all contemporary systems of classification. There have also been several older systems, which can now be described as historical.
Some of those systems are the legendary and historical styles, family styles, imitative-styles and styles based on the main style attacking style.
Some of the most popular styles are Shaolin kung fu, Wing Chun, Tai Chi, the Northern Praying Mantis, Baguazhang, Xing Yi Quan and Bajiquan.
7. Mixed martial arts (United States)
Mixed martial arts originated as mixed combat sports in Ancient China and Ancient Greece. The Chinese combat sport of Leitai is one of the first mixed combat sports and utilised elements of different kung fu styles, boxing and wrestling. In Ancient Greece, such an example can be found in the art of pankration, a very specific martial art that combined boxing – which was very popular in Ancient Greece – and wrestling – which probably originated in Mesopotamia or Ancient Egypt.
Pankration was extremely popular (even the most popular sport, according to some historian) in Ancient Greece and there is vague evidence that similar mixed combat sports were practiced in Ancient Japan, Egypt and India. Different hybrid martial arts developed as centuries passed, but despite a large number of historical influences, modern MMA is considered to stem from Brazilian jiujitsu and vale tudo; the latter is yet another full- contact hybrid combat sport that originated in Brazil.
Vale tudo events date back from the 1920s. MMA events continued to develop as decades passed until 1993, when the first official global MMA event – the UFC 1 – was held in Denver, Colorado. This is the official “birth year” of MMA and one of the most important events in the evolution of mixed and hybrid combat sports. UFC 1 was televised and it was in a review by critic Howard Rosenberg that the term “mixed martial arts” appeared for the first time.
8. Muay Thai (Thailand)
Muay Thai (Thai: มวยไทย), literally “Thai boxing”, is an Oriental martial art and combat sport that originated in Thailand somewhere during the 18th century. It is a full-contact discipline that is also known as the “art of eight limbs” and is heavily reliant on the use of fists, elbows, knees and shins. It originated as a fighting technique to be used in wars, Muay Thai soon became a fighting sport used outside its original setting.
After more than a century of development in the Far East, Muay Thai became extremely popular in the West during the 20th and 21st centuries, when Western practitioners that came from Thailand started using the discipline in kickboxing and MMA competitions, thus introducing and popularising Muay Thai in the West. Muay Thai is, today, a global combat sports practiced around the world and is internationally governed by the IFMA.
9. Taekwondo (Korea)
The martial art of Taekwondo (alternatively spelled Tae Kwon Do or Taekwon-Do) is of South Korean origin, dating from the 1940s, i.e. shortly after the conclusion of World War II. The art has its origins in Japanese and Chinese martial arts, but is today a clearly distinct art and sport in itself.
It was originally called Tae Soo Do (or Tae Su Do), which is a phrase that consisted of the words “to stomp” (Korean: 跆 tae), “hand” (Korean: 手 su), and “way, discipline” (Korean: 道 do). However, South Korean general and martial artist, Choe Hong-hui, advocated a different etymology, replacing the word “hand” with the word “fist” (Korean: 拳 kwon or gwon), thus creating the modern name of South Korea’s most famous martial art.
10. Wrestling (Greece)
Wrestling is a modern combat sport that involves grappling techniques such as clinch fighting, throws and takedowns, joint locks, pins and other grappling holds; the aim of wrestling is to pin your opponent down on the mat, thereby winning the match. The sport can either be theatrical for entertainment purposes (professional wrestling), or genuinely competitive; competitive wrestling has several styles such as folkstyle, freestyle, Greco-Roman, judo, sombo and others, although some of them are now distinct martial arts and/or combat sports.
A wrestling bout is a physical competition, between two (occasionally more, although seldom) competitors or sparring partners, who attempt to gain and maintain a superior position. There are a wide range of styles with varying rules with both traditional historic and modern styles. Wrestling techniques have been incorporated into other martial arts (especially judo, Brazilian jiu- jitsu and MMA) as well as military hand-to-hand combat systems.
And that’s it for today, guys. We’ve covered all the most popular martial arts and combat sports and we hope you’ll find our information useful. See you next time!