I've been training in martial arts since the 1980s and consistently since the '90s. I am a 2nd-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate.
This article is intended as a basic and general guide to the different martial arts that exist. It is not possible to include every single martial art that exists; every culture and country has various martial arts and they are too numerous to list all of them in one article. However, the author has assembled the most well-known and practiced martial arts today, covering a rather diverse spectrum.
This guide is intended to satisfy interest in martial arts as well as to help those considering taking up a martial art for practice.
Striking Arts Versus Grappling Arts
So, this list is divided into two categories of martial arts, each category having varied arts within them.
The first category is that of Striking Arts: These arts involve, primarily, strikes, kicks, punches, knee strikes, elbow strikes, head-butts; these techniques are designed to stop an attacker by causing trauma and disruption to flesh, internal organs, sense organs, bones, and joints; techniques cause lacerations, contusions, breakage, spasms, blindness, unconsciousness, nerve trauma and damage, and shut down body functions. Defensive moves in Striking Arts include head and body movement (evasive techniques), blocks, and parries. Blocks involve stopping a weapon in motion, usually with the arm or leg. Parries re-direct a weapon using a riding movement and technique. Head and body movements are used to literally move the target so it won't get hit.
Grappling arts involve joint locks, chokes, throws, sweeps, take-downs, pins, holds, and pressure to tendons, nerves, and muscles. The point is to dislocate joints, break bones, render an attacker unconscious by throwing him or her to the ground, to cut off blood supply to the brain with a choke and so render an opponent unconscious; these arts, in various ways, are used to control the attacker with a hands-on approach, being in actual physical contact with the opponent to control his movement and ability to attack. Grappling arts also involve blocks, parries and head and body movement as defense.
It is important to note that Striking Arts involve some grappling and Grappling Arts involve some striking. Also, while Grappling Arts have a certain emphasis on being able to fight on the ground, you can use striking techniques when you and your opponent are on the ground. It should be said, too, that grappling techniques can be performed while standing.
Having said that, the rationale in Striking Arts is that stand up striking takes less time and energy and involves more freedom of movement. Conversely, Grapplers have more control and are able to play a "game of chess", so to speak, with attackers.
Now, on to the exploration of the various martial arts in these categories.
Here is the list of Striking Arts:
Chinese Gung Fu, or Kung Fu or Chinese Boxing, is an ancient art of fighting that goes back thousands of years. Many martial arts are derivatives of the Chinese martial arts. The meaning of the word, Gung Fu, is "hard work". This is a common theme among martial arts, that it takes hard work to get good at it, the work is the important part.
Gung Fu involves strikes and clawing with the hands and arms, high and low kicks; these arts are fluid, circular, rely on evasive limb and body movement and riding forces, and use deceptive footwork. These arts include a heavy emphasis on striking, but definitely include grappling in their techniques.
Karate has its origin in Okinawa but long ago had spread to Japan. It involves primarily linear movements that emphasize power. Use of hard blocks are combined with hard strikes and punches and low and high kicks, with a few throws and locks. There is not a heavy emphasis on all aspects of defense, the main idea is the "one-hit kill".
Kenpo is a scientific and logical study of movement and position applied to self-defense. It includes principles of physics to generate power behind strikes, correct body alignment and angle for attack and defense, and common sense and logic. It involves circular and linear movement, combining both in techniques. There is use of riding force parries as well as hard blocks. It relies on fast multiple strikes and low kicks, with some locks and throws and hands-on control of the attacker. It is an eclectic art borrowing from Asian arts as well as Western boxing; there is everything from Indonesian Silat and Eskrima to traditional Chinese arts, in Kenpo.
Tae Kwon Do and Capoeira
Though these are very different arts, I've put them in the same sub-category because of their emphasis on kicks. The main idea behind these arts is the use of the strongest weapon on the weakest target. The legs are big with big strong muscles; a kick is powerful if it reaches the right target. The head is the computer of the body and easily put out of commission; if it is put out of commission, the whole body is out.
Tae Kwon Do is a Korean art that involves high kicks, spinning kicks, and jumping and acrobatic kicks; there is minimal use of strikes and grappling. There is folklore that Tae Kwon Do makes use of high flying kicks because it was designed to fight opponents who were on horse-back.
Capoeira is a martial art from Brazil, said to be the hidden fighting art of African slaves; unable to practice their arts openly, and needing to defend themselves, they devised aesthetically pleasing dances that had hidden martial art technique. Therefore you will see much acrobatic and spinning kicks in Capoeira.
While all Striking Arts could be construed as forms of pugilism, like boxing, I'm using the term boxing here to denote certain forms of fighting that concentrate on punches, but also some which include kicks and other natural weapons, and have been used in sports. These are Western Boxing, Muay Thai Kick Boxing, Savate, and Kick Boxing.
Western Boxing exclusively uses punches, that is, striking with the front of the fist. This art emphasizes head and body movement for defense, with some use of blocking and parrying with arms and hands, covering of targets with hands and arms, and using straight-line and circular punches at varying angles.
Muay Thai, an art from Thailand, utilizes punches, elbow and knee strikes, head-butts, and high and low kicks. Known for being brutal and powerful, fighters are conditioned to withstand heavy punishment.
Savate is from France, a mixture of Western Boxing and kicks from Asian martial arts, it is graceful, elusive, and fluid.
Kick Boxing is a mixture of Western Boxing and kicks from Asian martial arts.
Eskrima is an art from the Philippines, emphasizing wooden and bladed weapon techniques that are translated into empty-hand techniques. The Filipino arts include kicking arts, boxing, grappling, but many emphasize striking with man-made or natural weapons. The flavor of it is fluid with continuity, elusive, circular, deceptive. Primarily using low kicks and rapid strikes, the emphasis is on in-tight brutal technique. It should be noted that grappling is done with the stick in Eskrima, an art which Doce Pares Grandmaster Cacoy Canete has developed extensively and has termed Eskrido.
Military Commando Arts
I use the term "Commando" because it's well-known as the fighting art taught to military special forces in years past. But in this subcategory, I'm including all of the military fighting arts, including those taught to the Green Berets, the Navy SEALS, and other branches of the military and police forces.
I guess if we go far enough back in history, we could examine Ninjitsu, the art of the Ninja, a group of spies and assassins in feudal Japan. Their fighting art included the use of weaponry, smoke bombs, climbing devices, projectile weapons, grappling, and striking arts.
In more recent times, an art called Defendu was developed by British Shanghai Policeman William E. Fairbairn who would also end up training British military personnel during World War Two. Techniques involve close-quarters combat, locks and throws borrowed from Judo, Karate strikes, dirty tactics, and forms of assassination. Colonel Rex Applegate of the American Army trained under Fairbairn and passed on his skills to Army Rangers, the Marines and the FBI and CIA. The method is that of dirty, hand-to-hand combat.
Krav Maga is a system of combat, hand-to-hand fighting, used in the Israeli military, by both regular and special forces, and has recently become a popular martial art taken up by people across the globe. It was originally developed by Imrich Lichtenfeld, who had trained in wrestling and boxing. He used this art to defend the Jewish population of Bratislava, in Europe, against Fascist attacks in the 1930s. He escaped Europe because of the animosity of authorities in Bratislava, and settled in Israel where he trained citizens and military personnel in the art of self-defense. Krav Maga incorporates Asian Striking and Grappling Arts, as well as boxing and wrestling, into a reality-based self-defense system that emphasizes the practitioners own natural tendencies. Disarms, close-quarters combat, attacks to extremely vulnerable targets are taught, making use of hard natural weapons and various dirty and effective tactics.
These military arts, of course, involve the use of weapons, including knives and guns.
Rough and Tumble or Gouging
Rough and Tumble or Gouging is an American fighting form from the Southern backwoods of the US. It is a form of fighting used in contests to settle disputes and involves a rather minimal amount of wrestling and then generally culminates with biting, hair pulling, and gouging out the eyeball of the opponent with fingers or thumbs. This form of fighting dates back to the 1700s in the American South, and eventually spread to the north, east and west of the US; it was a popular fighting form of early street gangs in 19th century New York City. It reflects the struggle for status and survival in the American environment.
Here is the list of Grappling Arts:
Ancient Japanese wrestling art, it is the empty-hand art of the Samurai. It involves throws, take-downs, sweeps, joint locks, chokes; techniques can strain muscles, dislocate joints, break bones, cause unconsciousness, and create severe pain. The idea is to control and manipulate the opponent, with the use of leverage.
Maybe the epitome of the "soft arts", arts that use fluid, circular movements to redirect attacks and use the opponent's force against him: That's what Aikido is: Techniques make use of riding force to redirect the energy of attacks so that the attacker is taken away by his own force, thrown, locked up, and in various ways manipulated. The idea of Aikido is that you use no aggression but use the attacker's aggression against him.
Ancient wrestling arts of Greece and Rome, Greco-Roman Wrestling involves throws, take-downs, pins, and holds.
Sambo is a Russian fighting art emphasizing grappling from Jiu Jitsu and Eastern European and Eurasian wrestling arts. It involves throws and various locks and chokes
Shoot Fighting, in its current and popular form, is a grappling art which was developed by an American wrestler who trained wrestlers in Japan. It involves some unique and effective locks, including ankle locks and knee bars; it also involves chokes, tendon and nerve trauma, and throws.
The Hybrid Arts
MMA, or Mixed Martial Arts, is the new trend in martial arts. MMA is a hybrid system involving the grappling effectiveness of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and the brutal strikes and kicks of Muay Thai. It's gained popularity largely due to the advent of the Gracie family onto the American martial arts scene, bringing their unique brand of reality-based Jiu Jitsu; the family's Jiu Jitsu was found to be very effective in the no-holds barred, bare-knuckle, full-contact fighting tournaments known as the Ultimate Fighting Championships which were first introduced to America in the mid-1990s. The Gracie's success has inspired martial artists to explore both grappling and striking as viable and effective combinations for fighting.
Use of this Guide
I am calling this article a guide because it discloses very general information about the martial arts, though in enough detail to give the reader a good idea about what is involved in each art. It is expected that this guide will be helpful in a purely educational sense but also as a means for the aspiring practitioner to choose an art he or she would desire to practice.
Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 26, 2020:
This was a cool article so thanks for sharing it with the community. You should feel good about this hub, I can see that it must have taken a lot of work.
Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on June 05, 2013:
I totally agree, jpcmc. Eskrima is the most fluid, very relevant and always evolving as you say. It's one of my favorites, I consider it fun. I did a little Kali early in my training and eventually started training in Doce Pares and also training in Decuerdas for a awhile. It's fun, fluid and develops attributes. To me, the movement feels natural and fits in with different styles. Thanks for stopping by!
JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on June 05, 2013:
Eskrima is continuously evolving. From it's roots in pre-Spanish colonization to the present, much have changed. Some comment that the Filipino Martial Arts is too complicated for actual combat, but it has not let me down so far.