Debates over the deadliest martial arts have existed for decades, if not centuries, and it’s hard to declare a definitive answer. One reason for this is our current understanding of what martial arts are and the deviation many have taken from their original forms to be accessible to the masses. ‘Martial arts,’ ‘combat sports,’ and ‘systems of self-defense,’ can be and are used interchangeably, but unfortunately, dismiss the subtle differences that separate them.
In the most real sense of the word, martial arts are systems of combat that were and are used in warfare to subdue, disarm, maim, or kill an opponent as quickly and effectively as possible. The training and use of weapons or using body parts to mimic weaponry are typical defining factors. For the most part, martial arts is associated with East and SouthEast Asia and tend to be influenced by Daoism, Zen Buddhism, or traditional myths and legends.
In comparison, combat sports are fighting sports that abide by a ruleset with the safety of the fighter considered to be of the utmost importance. These one-on-one competitions use points-based scoring systems and allow light to full contact. Combat sports are usually martial arts adapted for a competitive setting by adding a ring, protective gear, timed rounds, and the omission of deadly or debilitating strikes. Examples include taekwondo, karate, and muay Thai.
Martial arts are self-defense systems, but not all self-defense systems are martial arts. Again traditional arts are usually the inspiration here, but they have adapted for modern times and more realistic situations. Designed to defend oneself from violent perpetrators in the street or in the line of duty, students train to attack and protect themselves in everyday circumstances, using firearms, knives, everyday objects, and various striking techniques to sensitive areas and pressure points. The most renowned self-defense system is krav maga, used by the Israeli Defence Forces.
This list will focus solely on authentic martial arts systems, but that is not to negate the prowess of specific combat sports and self-defense systems.
Considered to be the oldest martial art in the world, and the basis of countless others, Kalaripayattu originated in Southern India thousands of years ago, dating back to at least the 3rd century B.C. Oral traditions state that it was created by an incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu, but others believe it emerged when a war broke out between the kindoms of Cera and Cola. This battle lasted for one hundred years and called on citizens to join the army. It is thought during this period Kalaripayattu was developed as a system of warfare.
Students learn essential striking such as punches and kicks before they move on to stick fighting and weapon training. Spears, knives, axes, and shields are all taught as well as grappling and preset forms. What is unique about this martial art is the inclusion of healing methods before and after training.
Although India’s British invasion almost eradicated the practice in the 18th century, a few warriors managed to escape and retain the teachings. Now experiencing a revival, it is still currently taught much as it was centuries ago, although you will have to travel to India to learn.
Check out this video on the world’s first martial art.
Roughly translating to ‘skill for fighting,’ Silat is the collective name for indigenous martial arts originating from headhunting tribes that spanned Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The origins are steeped in myth and legend and are attributed to a woman who created the martial art after observing a tiger fight a hawk. Based on the movements of wild animals, Silat encompasses many forms of fighting, from striking and weaponry to grappling and throws.
Silat deviates from East Asian martial arts in that there is no focus on spirituality or humility; it is merely about executing violence. Practitioners seek to identify and exploit the opponents’ weaknesses as quickly as possible before incapacitating them. Strikes include the use of the elbows and knees, as well as finger jabs, headbutts, and kicks (including to the groin).
Like Muay Boran, there are a variety of styles, in this case spanning several countries. One of the most known variations is Pencak silat, from Indonesia, which seeks to develop precision, timing, ruthless attacks and counters, and even more brutal finishing techniques. However, a competitive version has been established and can be found worldwide, albeit on a small scale.
Watch a demonstration here.
Muay Boran is the collective name attributed to Thai fighting styles that existed before the 1930’s. Tracing back to at least the 1700s, this ancient martial art was a form of barehanded and unarmed combat used to fight against the Burmese invasions of what is now Thailand. Muay Thai, which is often considered a martial art in its own right, is largely based on Muay Boran. Modern Muay Thai is merely Muay Boran with a ring, protective gear, and a ruleset that omits more dangerous strikes.
The most durable parts of the human body are used for most striking systems- elbows, knees, and shins, although the hands were also incorporated. One stark difference is the use of the skull to headbutt the opponent (like Lethwei, a Cambodian martial art). Muay Boran also included far more flying techniques such as the ‘flying knee’ and ‘flying elbow’.
Indeed, it has even been adapted into other self defence systems and martial arts including Muay Lerdrit (or simply Lerdrit) which is a close contact fighting style adapted for the Royal Thai Army. Different variations include Muay Chaiya, Muay Korat, and Muay Thasao.
Muay Boran is far less prevalent than Muay Thai, but it is still possible to learn in Thailand. Alternatively, Muay Thai is still an incredibly effective and devastating system found quickly in most countries.
This demonstration, although choreographed, highlights some of Muay Boran’s most exciting techniques.
Filipino Martial Arts
Filipino martial arts (FMA) covers 3 styles of fighting: kali, escrima, and arnis. In this fighting tradition, weapons are taught first, before striking is introduced. This is because the hand-to hand combat techniques are built upon the systems trained with weapons. Students practice stick fighting, which is at the core, due to the ideology that the stick is merely an extension of the hands. However, the staff can also be replaced with real weapons or even everyday objects.
Here, they focus on simple techniques and movements that are quick to use and potentially deadly to the opponent. Elbows, knees, grabbing, poking, and biting are all allowed in FMA.
An interesting aspect is that instructors teach students to be aware of the attack angle, not just the attack itself. This allows you to adjust your base so that it is as formidable as possible.
Although still relatively obscure, it is still possible to find a school with FMA on the schedule in larger cities.
Check it out here.
Easily one of the world’s most renowned martial arts, kung fu is a Chinese discipline with many forms, including Shaolin, Wing Chun, and Tai Chi. Brought into popularity by Bruce Lee, it was initially intended as an unarmed combat form, dating back to the Zhou dynasty (1111 BC). Kung Fu is also based on the study and movements of animals.
Although it has been watered down heavily over the years for movies and appeal to mass audiences, it was once considered one of the deadliest martial arts known to man. Buddhist monks and nuns would train to unite their bodies and minds while instilling this self-defense system to protect their monasteries.
Kung Fu is easily one of the most widely available martial arts. Here are some basic self-defense techniques by the legendary Master Wong.
It's important to understand the distinctions between martial arts, combat sports, and self-defense. Many of the martial arts on this list are inaccessible to most people, but for good reason, they are nothing short of deadly and are not generally suitable for the average person.
In terms of accessibility and practicality, Krav Maga is one of the best self defense systems, Muay Thai is a highly respected striking system that has plenty of applications to the real world, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) offers some of the best grappling instruction out there. These are highly recommended alternatives should you wish to try something similar to any of the martial arts on this list and cultivate a warrior spirit.