Ranking Martial Arts for the Real World

STACK's Jon Bobel ranks the most popular martial arts for real-world, self-defense effectiveness.

You shouldn't fight. You should control your temper, settle differences peacefully, and "agree to disagree," even when someone is just plain wrong and/or being totally obnoxious. Let's be clear: by writing this article, I'm not saying you should fight. You shouldn't. Fighting is dumb.

But sometimes, even when you're not looking for a fight, a fight finds you. And if that happens, you'll be better able to defend yourself if you've done some martial arts training. Plus, practicing a martial art has plenty of other benefits: discipline, improved fitness, faster reaction time, better body awareness and the ability to stay cool under pressure.

So if you're going to study a martial art, here are 15 ranked in order of real-world effectiveness. Just in case.

15.  Tai Chi

A meditative "martial" art which pulls its roots from China, Tai Chi is a slow, deliberate series of movements. You may have seen groups of elderly people practicing it early in the morning in a park somewhere. And although Tai Chi has numerous health benefits—studies have indicated it may be helpful for medical conditions, arthritis, hypertension and breast cancer, to name a few—it delivers no self-defense skills to the average practitioner. Some would disagree, stating that ancient Chinese masters could hurt you with just a touch, but I'll believe it when I see it.

14. Capoeira

Although it's beautiful to watch, Capoeira also ranks in the useless column when the s--t hits the fan. African slave descendants in Brazil created Capoeira for self-defense; they didn't get busted for doing it because it looked like a dance. Practitioners can get in great shape and become very acrobatic, but the art itself won't win you many fights—although this dude found one of the kicks useful in a cage match.

13.  Aikido

Dudes in dress-skirts pretending their joint locks can flip you on your head. Not buying it.

12. Kung Fu

Another flashy martial art with little substance. Vintage Chinese movies would have you believe this is the be-all of fighting styles, but I disagree. I have seen Shaolin Monks walk on their fingers and throw a needle through a piece of glass; and although those feats are awesome, they would not be super helpful in an actual fight. As soon the battle goes to the ground, they're toast.

11. Tae Kwon Do

I've seen some great head-kick knockouts on YouTube, but this art relies almost solely on static kicks and punches for its effectiveness. Not diverse enough to be truly effective.

10. Karate

Probably one of the most widely known styles, Karate is a Japanese martial art that relies on quick punches and kicks. I would debate its usefulness in the street, but some in the MMA world, specifically Lyoto Machida, have had success incorporating it into their overall repertoire. Since the base stance varies from a standard boxing position, it can throw off a traditional boxer and work to the karateka's advantage. You're the best, Karate Kid.

9. Boxing

Boxing ranks among the Top 10, because while it doesn't permit kicking or ground fighting, it's been a proven fighting technique for years. Many MMA fighters incorporate boxing into their programs.

8. Judo

Now for a grappling martial art. Judo uses your opponent's weight distribution against him and allows for some devastating throws. A Judo throw can knock the wind out of an opponent, but the practice also incorporates some ground-fighting techniques, which can lead to submissions (think joint locks and chokes). Judo offers a good mix of stand-up and ground fighting. No striking, but you can close the distance between you and your opponent quickly and stop him from returning blows.

7. Sanshou

Finally, a Chinese martial art worth mentioning. Its background is in Kung Fu, but it has evolved into a combat sport, combining elements of kickboxing and takedowns that have proven quite effective in real-world fighting scenarios.

6. Muay Thai Kickboxing

Muay Thai is strictly a standing martial art, but the reason it beats out a few combination/grappling styles is its distinctive brutality. You combine every edge of your body—fists, feet, knees and elbows—to attack your opponent. Also, there's a movement called "the clinch," in which you grab your adversary by the back of the head, strike him with your knees and elbows, or throw him to the ground, so it's not just a one-dimensional art.

5. Sambo

The martial art used by Russian Special Forces (read: KGB) is similar to Judo in that it emphasizes throwing, but it also includes a wide variety of submissions—mainly leg locks—that can be particularly devastating. The combat version employs striking, while the competitive version does not.

4. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Original Jiu Jitsu has its roots in Japan in the 1500's, but in the early 20th Century, a Japenese master taught the art to a family of Brazilians (the Gracies), and they truly made it their own. Relying less on brute force attacks, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu uses leverage and an opponent's strength to his or her disadvantage. In the early UFC competitions, you can see this in action—Royce Gracie defeating much larger opponents with takedowns and submissions. People are more aware of this fighting style now. You can't know only this one practice and be successful in MMA, but it's a very useful martial art if you ever find yourself in a street fight. The only downside is the emphasis on pure ground fighting. It's helpful to also know throws and takedowns, but some gyms don't teach those skills if they're more focused on sport Jiu Jitsu.

3. Submission Wrestling

This includes a wide variety of arts (Luta Livre, Freestyle Wrestling, Folk Wrestling), so it's kind of a combination art. However, the idea remains the same: combine wrestling (which has been proven effective in MMA and street fighting) with submissions from a multitude of disciplines. What you get is a great transitional martial art in which a practitioner can get an opponent to the ground and finish him off with various chokes and joint locks, most of them pretty brutal.

2. Krav Maga

Some fight purists would scoff at this being ranked No. 2, but let me explain: Krav Maga's emphasis on completely disabling the opponent is what earned it such a high ranking. It's the Israeli Defense Forces' self-defense system for a reason. Combining strikes, throws and submissions with what many consider  "dirty" tactics (groin pulling, eye gouging, neck strikes, small-joint manipulation), Krav Maga is extremely effective in real-world scenarios. If you're fighting for your life, this is the art to know.

1. MMA

OK, I'm cheating here. Mixed Martial Arts essentially combines almost everything on this list. Throughout the evolution of the UFC and other "no holds barred" fighting series, MMA has weeded out ineffectual martial arts and kept the most effective. You won't see many Aikido masters in MMA, because it hasn't proven itself in a real-world scenario. It also beats out Krav Maga because of the extreme training it takes to be a successful MMA fighter, and because of how it merges  various practices together into a cohesive whole. A successful MMA fighter typically knows boxing (or Muay Thai), wrestling (or Judo) and Jiu Jitsu.

Disclaimer: I've been training in jiu jitsu for over 8 years and have an MMA fight under my belt. So although you could say I favor those martial arts, the proof is in the pudding. If you want to learn actual self-defense, try some of the higher-ranked martial arts on this list. If you're looking to get more of a mental workout, some of the lower-ranked ones will do the trick. Just don't go picking any fights (but that's a good rule in general).


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: MMA | WRESTLING | BOXING | THROW | MARTIAL ARTS | MMA FIGHT