most popular martial arts

10 Most Popular Martial Arts (Combat Sports) in the World – Updated 2024

In 2024, the landscape of martial arts and combat sports has seen a significant shift, with wrestling emerging as the most popular martial art globally, surpassing all others in terms of fan base and engagement. This resurgence can be attributed to its dynamic nature and the global appeal of professional leagues. Following closely behind, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), particularly the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), has solidified its position as a close second, captivating audiences with its blend of techniques and high-octane competitions. Boxing, with its rich history and high-profile bouts, holds the third spot, while karate, known for its discipline and technique, ranks fourth.

Given the evolving popularity of these combat sports, I’ve decided to dedicate an article to the ten martial arts and combat sports that stand out as the most popular worldwide. This list encompasses not only the modern variants but also includes an ancient Chinese martial art, showcasing the diverse range of combat disciplines practiced around the globe.

Before we delve into the list, let’s consider an intriguing graph from Google Trends as a reference point for the popularity of different martial arts and combat sports. While Google Trends may not provide a perfect metric, it offers a valuable glimpse into the relative interest in these disciplines based on the volume of Google searches from 2004 to 2024.

It’s important to note a few nuances in the data: the term “wrestling” includes searches related to WWE, which might slightly skew its perceived popularity. Similarly, many searches for “MMA” are often specifically looking for “UFC,” indicating the brand’s dominance in the MMA world. For “jiu-jitsu,” incorporating searches for “BJJ” (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) could potentially double the search volume indicated by the graph.

Now, bearing this context in mind, let’s explore the list of the top ten martial arts and combat sports, presented alphabetically to highlight their unique contributions to the global sports landscape rather than to rank them by popularity.

The list is ordered alphabetically, not by the popularity rank.


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, sambo, 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 is a wide range of styles with varying rules 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.


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Boxing, an exhilarating combat sport, pits two competitors against each other in a test of skill, strength, and strategy. Clad in protective gloves, fighters exchange blows within the confines of a boxing ring, each seeking to outmaneuver and overpower their opponent within a set duration. The battle is meticulously regulated by a referee and unfolds over a series of rounds, whose length and number can vary, adding layers of complexity and endurance to the contest. This is a lot like traditional martial arts competitions.

The oversight of the match extends beyond the ring, with a panel of ringside judges poised to declare a winner under specific circumstances. Victory can be clinched before the scheduled rounds conclude, either by a referee’s judgment deeming one fighter unable to continue, through the disqualification of a competitor, or by a fighter’s concession of the match.

Should the contest reach the final bell without a knockout, the judges’ scorecards become the arbiters of fate, determining the victor based on points accumulated throughout the fight. In instances where the judges’ scores are evenly matched, the bout may be declared a draw, though the criteria for such an outcome can differ between professional and amateur boxing.

Boxing’s roots are deeply entwined with human history, tracing back to ancient fist-fighting sports documented in the Near East during the 3rd and 2nd millennia BC. Its journey through time saw it become an esteemed Olympic sport in Ancient Greece by 688 BC. The sport underwent significant evolution from the prizefights of the 16th and 18th centuries in the United Kingdom to the precursor of the modern sport we recognize today, largely shaped by the introduction of the Marquess of Queensberry Rules in 1867. This set of guidelines heralded a new era for boxing, transforming it into a disciplined, regulated, and globally revered athletic contest.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), or jiu-jitsu brasileiro in Portuguese, stands as a pinnacle of martial arts, emphasizing self-defense through the mastery of grappling, ground fighting, and submission holds. This combat sport is distinguished by its strategic focus on control, aiming to secure a dominant position over an opponent and compel submission using precise joint locks and chokeholds.

The genesis of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu dates back to the 1920s, crafted by the visionary Gracie brothers—Carlos, George, and Hélio. Their journey began when Carlos Gracie received instruction in Kodokan judo from Mitsuyo Maeda, a renowned Japanese judoka, in 1917. Inspired by these teachings, the Gracie brothers refined and adapted these techniques, giving birth to Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. While closely related to traditional BJJ, Gracie Jiu-Jitsu is marked by its unique characteristics and emphasis on self-defense.

Through continuous innovation and adaptation of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu and judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu evolved into a distinct combat sport, laying the foundation for modern mixed martial arts (MMA). Today, organizations such as the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation (IBJJF) champion the sport on a global stage, underscoring BJJ’s critical role in the MMA arena and affirming its status as an indispensable martial art. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu’s rich heritage and its profound impact on the world of combat sports celebrate the art of technique, strategy, and resilience. Not to mention it is also now one of the most popular combat sports and martial arts disciplines.



Judo (柔道, jūdō, lit. “gentle way”) is modern martial art, which has since evolved into a combat and Olympic sport. It has a place in modern Olympic games and is overseen by the World Karate Federation.

The sport was created in 1882 by Jigoro Kano (嘉納治五郎) as a physical, mental, and moral pedagogy in Japan.

Many believe its origins come from jujutsu; judo’s most prominent feature is its competitive element, where the objective is to either throw or takedown 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 defenses, 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). 


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Karate (空手) is a martial art developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom in ancient Japan. It is overseen by the professional karate association and is one of the most popular combat sports among youngsters.

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).

Muay Thai vs Kickboxing: What Are the Differences?

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.

Kung Fu

10 Most Popular Martial Arts (Combat Sports) in the World

Kung fu, actually an umbrella term, encompasses a wide variety of Asian 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, a town, or a 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.

Mixed Martial Arts

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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 utilized 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 historians) 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 to 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. [1]

Muay Thai

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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 sport practiced around the world and is internationally governed by the IFMA.


ITF and WT Taekwondo. What Are the Differences?

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.

And that’s it for today, guys. I’ve covered all the most popular martial arts and combat sports and I hope you’ll find this information useful!

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has been training in the art of kickboxing for over seven years, holds a Taekwondo black belt, and has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. He's a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster.
Article by

Vladimir Vladisavljevic

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He has been training in kickboxing for over seven years and holds a Taekwondo black belt. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. Vladimir is a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster. He was known as The Bulgarian Cowboy in the Western world. In addition, he has a YouTube channel where he talks about his love of esports, one of the fastest-growing fields in the world. Our testing and reviewing method.
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