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Top 10 Martial Arts by Popularity

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Top 10: Martial Arts

Although martial arts has always been a popular sport but recently with the rise of the UFC the MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world.  Mostly developed as a self-defense tool encompassing mental strength, martial arts are practiced by millions of people throughout the world. And although most originated in Asia, they’re hugely popular in North America. That said, here are our top 10 martial arts, judged by the level of esteem attached to each by active martial artists.

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10, Judo


Judo was founded by Japanese educator Kano Jigoro, who was bullied during his childhood in the 1860s and 1870s. Taking basic skills from other martial arts of the day, he added his own throws to create modern-day judo. The word’s prefix “ju” means “soft method,” which, loosely translated, means using the opponent’s strength against him. Due to this method of self-defense, judo practitioners need not have overpowering strength themselves. Judo’s primary focus is on throws and work on the ground, rather than striking. Submission-style attacks such as chokes and locks are also prevalent in this martial art, which is valuable for defending one’s self.

Famous followers: James Cagney, Peter Sellers, Guy Richie, Theodore Roosevelt

9, Aikido


Created in Japan in the early 1900s, aikido’s followers learn how to use an assailant’s strength and energy against them. Students are taught to care for the well being of their potential attacker and are trained to disarm, but not seriously wound them. Weapons training is common in aikido, and followers are taught to defend themselves against staffs, swords and knives. Its founder, Morihei Ueshiba, said that in order to be successful followers of aikido must be, “willing to receive 99% of an opponent’s attack and stare death in the face.”

Famous followers: Steven Seagal, Morihei Ueshiba, Minoru Mochizuki

8, Krav Maga


Used by Israeli security forces, including the special police, this martial art is a rule-less, violent skill. Not practiced for sport, it emphasizes devastating attacks to the opponent’s vital areas, such as the groin and eyes, and encourages headbutts and the use of any available objects as weapons. This martial art features a three-step approach: Deal with the immediate threat, prevent the attacker from mounting a second offensive and then neutralize him.

Famous followers: Kobi Lichtenstein, Darren Levine

7, Jujutsu


When Japanese samurai found themselves disarmed, they turned to jujutsu, the “art of softness.” Like many of its country’s counterparts, jujutsu focuses on grappling, throws, rolls, and locks. Unlike some other martial arts, however, jujutsu is somewhat of an “anything-goes” sport. Students have traditionally been taught tactics such as gouging, biting and poking, which, if used in addition to the more standard practices, can be deadly. This martial art is popular today in North America, and valuable because it’s so effective in close-quarter combat.

Famous followers: Ice-T, Edward William Barton-Wright

6, Ninjutsu


Brought to the North American mainstream by the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the historic followers of this mysterious Japanese martial art were guerrilla warriors and assassins. Likely considered criminals today, these ninjas used the art of stealth to surprise and defeat their opponents. Born in Japan’s feudal age, ninjutsu was developed to kill. Hands and feet are used in this martial art, but followers also take weapons training, using devices such as throwing stars, staffs, spears, swords, and explosives. More valuable during its heyday, ninjutsu is not specifically taught today, yet many martial arts use some of its elements.

Famous followers: Ashida Kim, Frank Dux

5, Taekwondo


Translated as “the way of the fist and foot,” taekwondo flourished after World War II, when Japan ended its occupation of Korea. Known for its kicks, this martial art combines physical skills with mental strength, often shown when the follower breaks boards with a foot or hand. An Olympic event, taekwondo is considered the world’s most popular martial art: It’s practiced in more than 100 countries and has 30 million followers — three million with black belts. Taekwondo practitioners are skilled in strength, stamina, speed, balance, and flexibility.

Famous followers: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Criss Angel, Willie Nelson

4, Kung fu


Kung fu, a Chinese martial art that literally means an accomplishment gained through hard, long work, is one of the oldest martial arts in the world. Chinese Yellow Emperor Huangdi, who took the throne in 2,698 BC, is said to have introduced martial arts to the country during his reign; tens of thousands of forms of kung fu have existed since then. Traditionally taught by Shaolin monks, philosophy and morality are important to the practitioners of this martial art, with virtues such as humility, respect, trust, and patience being emphasized. As is the case with most martial arts, kung fu’s worth lies in its health benefits and self-defense knowledge.

Famous followers: Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan

3, Karate


Derived from a Japanese word meaning “empty hand,” karate is just that — a martial art in which no weapons are used. Karate’s early styles are believed to have originated as early as the 1300s, but the father of modern karate, Anko Itosu, wrote the “10 Precepts of Karate” in 1908, giving birth to the martial art’s code. Karate consists of weapon-less striking in which the legs and hands become spears, claimed Itosu. The martial art is supremely valuable because of not only its health benefits, but also its role as a self-defense tool. According to the precepts, it can also be used, “… as a way of avoiding a fight should one be confronted by a villain or ruffian.”

Famous followers: Bruce Lee, Dolph Lundgren, Sean Connery, Jean-Claude Van Damme

2, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu


Despite its country of origin, the founding father of Brazilian jiu-jitsu was Japanese. Mitsuyo Maeda, a Japanese fighter, winner of more than 2,000 bouts and considered the toughest man to have ever lived, arrived in Brazil in 1914, with the aim of spreading martial arts. There, he met the Gracie family, which is today regarded as the first family of the sport, with its descendants being popular in the UFC and its schools across the world. Like traditional jujutsu and judo, the Brazilian form emphasizes throws and groundwork, making it a popular tool for today’s mixed martial artists.

Famous followers: Royce Gracie, Renzo Gracie, B.J. Penn, Wanderlei Silva

1, Muay Thai


The national sport of Thailand is similar to kickboxing, but unlike its close relative, blows below the belt, elbows and knees are all legal. Like many martial arts, it’s unclear exactly when Muay Thai was born, mainly because many of its elements are common in both Japanese and Indian counterparts. It gained huge popularity in Thailand in the late 1800s, but has seen a significant surge in popularity across the world in the last decade. The sport traditionally was very structured, with fighters performing strict, choreographed displays of respect before each bout. More recently, it has become focused on the body’s many weapons, including fists, feet, shins, knees, and more, to defeat an opponent. Muay Thai is valuable because it teaches its followers that almost every body part can be a weapon.

Famous followers: Ramon Dekkers, Adam Chen

What do you think?  Did we get it right?  Comment Below!!

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Category | History

20 Comments For This Post

  1. Razorstorm Says:

    I must agree with your choices, Muay Thai and Brazillian Jiu jitsu are so popular these days, have certainly taken over Karate which was very popular back in the 70s-80s

  2. thacker Says:

    Yes, back in the 80′s it was Chuck Norris for Karate and Bruce Lee for Kung Fu (most people associated what he did with Kung Fu and not Jeet Kune Do).

  3. helmi Says:

    silat is the best martial art and it was the pain to learn.

  4. thacker Says:

    How many years does it take to feel comfortable in Silat?

  5. narratoralex Says:

    really? according to who? your own personal feelings? ninjitsu is more esteemed or popular than judo? where are wrestling, boxing and sambo? really ninjitsu?

  6. Mater T Says:

    Wow, I do not understand how this study can anyway be true, Just look for yourself in your city, How many Muay Tai,BJJ, Karate or Kung fu schools are they in your town, There are more TKD styles and schools than any of the style listed above.

  7. Tony Thacker Says:

    This is not about martial arts schools it is about popularity of martial art styles. When you ask people what martial arts they would love to train what are the answers? I think you will find they are very comparable to the list we have here.

  8. Arm Chair Black Belt Says:

    Your lack of research is amazing. You depict partial truths and incomplete data based on personal bias, proven by your 3/3/11 statement – When you ask what people WANT to learn?
    That does not make it popular. I WANT to earn a million dollars playing video games, does that make video game tester the highest paid job? NO
    Also, there are many styles of TKD, you choose WTF(well WTF?) Olympic Sparring is not a martial art, it is an event at the Olympics just like running and jumping.
    I am not sure how you figured these are the “most popular” and discounted schools. Since you have to learn someplace unless your uncle teaches you “his” version of Uncle bobs mountain karate. Schools are what drives learning.
    Please do some real research aside from asking your friends what they think.

  9. Mike Says:

    Was Sean Connery well know for Karate? I thought he was James Bond???
    Bruce Lee was more known for JKD than Karate!
    Please stop using Wiki to get your facts and “famous” people. You have a dead president, a rap star and a magician as your “famous people”? Really?
    Mater T & ACBB, your dead on about the TKD stuff too!!!

  10. Mat Says:

    Totally agree with wrestling and boxing being inclluded in the list, but theyre not really considered martial arts xP i do think that judo should be higher on the list tho, so many more fighters specialize in judo than ninjitsu and jujitsu (not jiujitsu xD) or krav maga.

  11. Gopakumar Says:

    I think still karathe is more popular in India.

  12. Tony Thacker Says:

    I will have look into Karathe I am unfamiliar with it.
    Thanks for the comment!

  13. Dave W Says:

    The best martial arts is the one that works! What works for one might not work for another. Martial artists must be adaptable and fight with no preconceived ideas about what is good or bad, winning or losing.

    Maybe martial arts was just one art, maybe people took parts they liked and went off to give us boxing, grappling, kung fu etc that we now know as specific styles.

  14. Tony Thacker Says:

    Very true Dave. You are right in that the best one is the one that works. That is what I love about MMA. They don’t spend time studying movements and techniques that don’t work. However, MMA is not self defense so what works best in the Octagon probably won’t work in a dark alley getting attacked by someone trying to mug you. Thanks for the comment!

  15. Martial Artist Says:

    Kalaripayattu is an Indian martial arts originated in South India and is one of the oldest fighting systems in existence.
    It’s from which it believed that Kung fu has been evolved.

  16. Alex Says:

    Hey guys, I have been doing Karate, MMA, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu for over 8 years. I strongly agree with your top 3 on the list, however some of the others like NinJitsu and JuJutsu are far from the top ten Martial Arts. I am a Personal Trainer and a THUMPBOXING instructor and I strongly believe that boxing and wrestling are NOT martial arts. Thanks Guys!


  17. Tony Thacker Says:

    Hey Alex
    Thanks for the comment. I am not sure what Thumbboxing is, can you explain?

  18. Martial Arts Greece Says:

    Aikido is the best

  19. Cristiano Says:

    hello, actually Maeda do not developed brazilian jiu jitsu, he is a JUDO teacher by Jigoro Kano, Who really developed the art was Helio Gracie. And Wanderley Silva isnt a jiu jitsu fighter, ok, learned something about it, but he is muay thai fighter.

  20. Tony Says:

    Hey Cristiano, I was looking for some backup of your claims and am coming up empty. Can you tell me where you learned this?

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