What is the Best Martial Art?

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Which martial arts style is the best? Isn’t that something every student or prospective student of martial arts wants to know? So, what is the answer? Does the “best martial art” exist? What
constitutes the “best” martial art? In this article, I will be discussing my findings over the course of almost 40 years of martial research. The result may just open your eyes.

Drive a Car to Hawaii


“What is the most efficient means of travel?” Bruce Lee once asked Dan Inosanto; Bruce’s star student. The answer came back, “A Boeing 747.” “What if I wanted to cross the street?” Bruce asked. “Would it still be the most efficient mode of transportation?”Drive to Hawaii This philosophy applies to the martial arts as well. Wing Chun is useless for ground fighting. Aikido has no punches. Tae Kwon Do fails up close. However, every system in the world has something to offer
in terms of protecting yourself in an aggressive situation. The principles – not the techniques – of each system has merit.

Judging a Fish for its Ability to Climb a Tree


There are three (3) ways to look at a martial art. You can watch a novice student practice a highly effective system as an outsider as judge the system as useless. You can watch a master practitioner and say that the system is useless for something that the system was not meant for. For instance: You can watch the greatest cage fighter in the world and say that what the person was doing would be useless to handle someone with a weapon or against multiple attackers. Finally, you can pit two operators who practice the same system together and judge the system as great because one practitioner is very effectively defending him/herself against the attacker. But, is it the system that is great or the practitioner’s understanding of certain aspects of the system that make it appear as great? If two Kempo Karate masters of the same level of experience face off against each other, one is going to win and the other will lose. Do we say, then, that Kempo Karate is a great system? Or, is it the system or the experience of the practitioner and the way he/she trains that is responsible here?

Put an Akidoka (practitioner of Aikido) in a ring with a boxer. As long as the Aikidoka continues to use Aikido and is not restricted by the rules of boxing, the Aikido stands a chance. The moment he/she attempts to use boxing – a system he/she is unfamiliar with – or starts to limit him/herself with the rules of boxing, he/she loses effectiveness and the system will be branded as “useless” because of his/her inability to survive in a boxing arena simply because of the clothing he/she is wearing – hakama (the traditional wear of an Aikido master) and GI – and the fact that he/she is trying to work in an environment he/she has no experience in.

Don’t Hire a Plumber to Repair Your Car


I have heard many times, “Systema is useless in the ring.” “Aikido is not practical for the street”. “MMA can’t defend against a knife or against multiple attackers.” “Tai Chi movements are over-exaggerated.” Where all of these things are true, what if you combined the fluid movements of Systema, the understanding of “entering at the point of least resistance” of Aikido, the combative experience of a seasoned MMA fighter and the balance, structure and effortless movement of Tai Chi?

Don’t the ALL have aspects that are useful? Though fixing cars is not a plumber’s specialty, isn’t there hoses and fluid in a car? Aren’t the principles of plumbing applicable in some aspects of car repair? So, why not learn them? Why restrict yourself to the information only offered by one system?

Think of building a house. An architect designs the plans for the house. A cement construction crew lays the foundation. A framer builds the frame. An electrician wires the house and connects it to a power source. A plumber ensures the house has access to sewage and clean water. A roofer puts on the roof. A painter paints the walls and the exterior. All of these people have specific functions.

What if one person knew how to do all of these things as well as the masters in their respective fields? Couldn’t that person – in theory – design and build his/her own home with the same quality it took all the other people to achieve? Couldn’t that same person learn only a fraction of what the masters know in each field and – as long as the information applies to the project at hand – still be able to achieve the same quality? I wouldn’t ask that person to build a skyscraper or a bridge, but he/she would have enough information to build a small house.

The Hammer is Useless to Drive in a Screw


One could argue that each martial system serves a specific function. “Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu are for sporting events.” “Krav Maga is for battlefield tactics or the adaptive environment of self defense.” “Traditional systems – Wushu, Tai Chi, Bagua, etc – are for keeping one’s self physically and emotionally in harmony or for demonstrations.”

I submit that a butter knife can tighten/loosen in a screw. A rock can pound in a nail. Isn’t it logical, then, to conclude that the way we use one martial system today was not the way the creators
intended it to be used? Is it possible that every martial system’s intended purpose was to keep the practitioner safe from aggressors in the environment which it was created?

Judo (a sport) is an adaptation of Japanese Jujitsu; an unarmed system used by the Samurai on the battlefield. Brazilian Jujitsu (used in sport and self defense) is an adaptation of the system
taught to the Gracie family by a Judo practitioner from Japan. Hapkido is a combination of Tang Soo Do (the progenitor of Tae Kwon Do) and Chin Na (joint locks and structural manipulation) and is widely used in the Korean Special Forces, but Tae Kwon Do is used as a sport and Chin Na is a traditional system.

Doesn’t it make sense that any system – or aspects of multiple systems – can be used to adapt to the situation at hand? Bruce Lee thought so and that’s why he developed both the physical attributes and the philosophies that form the basis of Jeet Kune Do. Is Jeet Kune Do a system? No, not in the strictest definition of the word. Jeet Kune Do is a combination of philosophies that are translated into physical form through the medium of martial arts. The premise of Jeet Kune Do is to do what needs to be done in the simplest way with the least amount of effort that achieves the greatest and most accurate results for the situation at hand.

Become a Swiss Army Knife


What is the greatest strength of a multi-tool? It’s adaptability. Is it a hammer? It can be. Is it a screwdriver? It can be. Is it a fire starter? It can be. Is it a can opener? It can be. Depending on the needs of the person wielding it and the forethought the person puts into preparing for future events, the multi-tool or Swiss Army Knife can be anything it needs to be for the job at hand. Can you use a Swiss Army Knife to repair a semi-truck? That depends. How big is the Swiss Army knife we are using and what tools come with it?

So, what is the “best” martial art? My answer is ALL of them, but only if you combine the methods and principles needed to fit the situation at hand and train for those situations. My answer is NONE of them, if you expect any singular system to fit every possible situation. A mechanic needs multiple tools to repair or build a car. It requires many fields of knowledge to build a house from nothing. A martial artist needs train for the environment he/she expects to find him/self in. Does it matter which system he/she uses? No, it doesn’t. What matters is the ability to use the knowledge and training gained over years of experience to adapt to the situation at hand.

Author: Brent Duncan

16 thoughts on “What is the Best Martial Art?

  1. Your article brought me back to my childhood years!
    I did a few years of Tae Kwon Do when I was about 11 years old. I loved it!
    From everything you’ve presented, it looks like the things have changed a lot over the years. I didn’t even know most of the names of all those martial arts you are talking about!
    Especially connected to the last paragraph – I completely agree with you!
    Thank you so much for reminding me of the martial arts. Maybe it’s time to give it another try!

    1. Regardless of the system, martial arts offers positive aspects for every practitioner. Just make sure the system you choose offers the information you seek. Tae Kwon Do is a great sport but offers little in the way of self defense or combat techniques. You can still learn how the body moves under pressure, but you have to train for self defense if you want to use it for self defense. Something to think about.
      At the same time, any system that teaches to control and dominate will be more for the battlefield than the “make an opening and escape” strategy that self defense requires. Remember that it’s not about ego. It’s about staying alive and as healthy as possible. Please keep that in mind as you choose your next system.

  2. Hi,

    I do not know much about martial arts, but what you say is so true and I like the analogies.  Not everything can be applied everywhere.  Everything needs to be applied where it is needed.

    I am just curious while I read through your article how many different kinds of martial arts there are.  Do you happen to know that?

    Oscar

    1. Hi, Oscar!! I know of about 150  different martial systems; though I am only intimately familiar with 11 of them. Since people only have 2 arms, 2 legs and 1 head – maximum – its kind of a wonder to me how there can be that many; and I know I’m missing at least 50 or more.

      Just consider for a moment how many countries  there are on the planet. You can pretty much guarantee that each nation and every culture has some form of martial system they use. While it’s true that some borrow from others, many of them have developed their own. Egypt, for instance, has wall paintings that date back as far as 2000 BCE. That’s over 4000 years of martial history!!

  3. Bruce Lee is so awesome. I believe he was and still is way beyond everyone’s time. If anybody know how to adapt it was Bruce. He was so intelligent. He loved to read and train his mind and body passed there limits. I have his book Tao of Jeet Kune Do.

    One of my favorite quotes from the Bruce Lee is “Be water. Because it can take the shape of a glass, and it can take the shape of a tea cup, it has the power to flow, and the power to crash.” Be water.

    Water adapts to its surroundings.

    1. So very true that Bruce Lee expressed to become like the nature of water. What is left out – whether by accident or design is anyone’s guess – is that water – no matter the form it takes – never loses grasp of its own nature. The purpose of the article is to express that a person has the option – no, the responsibility to themselves – to shape the system to themselves and develop their own “style” within that system.

      Another famous Bruce Lee quote is, “Learn the principle, follow the principle, dissolve the principle.”

  4. Some great points about martial arts here, I particularly like your idea of combining different disciplines.

    Personally, I did Shotokan Karate and that’s one form of martial art that can be used defensively in a wide range of scenarios. That said, my reasons for taking to the sport were more to keep fit and challenge myself to see just what I could achieve.

    To be honest, I was never a big fan of the more fluid forms of martial arts, as it seemed a lot of (graceful) movement without too much outcome at the end of it. However, each to his or her own. Some decent research reading and articles like yours helps a lot – thanks!

    1. It all boils down to the practitioner and what they are wanting to accomplish with their studies. The more fluid and flourishing systems don’t work for you; that’s perfectly fine. I find that I don’t want to expel much effort to achieve the same – or better – results as someone who is “giving it their all”.

      I, personally, have been a personal protection specialist for almost 40 years. I’ve studied hard external systems, soft external systems and some internal systems. I  found that they are all good, but I also realized that a tailored suit fits better than one “off the rack”. It’s something to think about.

  5. I totally agree with your assessment.  Each style has its own merits but none of them covers everything nor do I think any discipline can.  Do you have reviews of the more “popular” options and what scenarios they excel at?  A strengths and weaknesses comparison if you will?  Maybe a synopsis covering the levels and general time commitment to obtain them? I know each person is different but a ballpark guesstimate would be helpful.

    Thanks again

    1. Those are some excellent suggestions and I will look into the research to provide for your request. As far as training periods go, they not only depend on the student, but also the instructor. I know of one particular instructor – not me this time, ha ha – that kept his student learning one specific principle for over 6 months before he showed him something else. Other instructors pump out black belts and false confidence like they are candy on Halloween.

      I think the strengths and weakness comparisons idea will be something I follow as I review the different martial arts. I think it’s about time people start learning about the more obscure systems and what they have to offer. Thank you for the wonderful ideas.

  6. You are right. There is no best system. Each one was develop for a specific situation and time. Grappling martial arts are not intended to handle multiple attackers and Karate was not built for ground fighting. I guess each one should figure out what he appeals to before studying any martial art.

    1. This might be a mind-blower, but there are aspects of ground-fighting you can use in Karate or other stand-up systems and vice-versa. People get too hung up on techniques and start ignoring principles. When in action, techniques will fail you. Principles – like leverage, kinetic linking, etc – are stable, reliable and constant; like gravity. When you can find the principles in grappling that match the needs of stand-up systems – and the reverse – you will truly have something that is usable under stress.

  7. Hi Brent. What an interesting discussion. I never looked at martial arts that way before. I have many family members that practise different styles of Martial Arts, and one that became a successful boxer in the veteran level. He didn’t start boxing until he reached middle age and ended up World Welterweight champion. The reason I mention him is because he came from a family of people that practised martial arts, any thing from Judo to Karate. They all seem to have several things in common, patience, Calm natures and discipline. After reading your blog I wonder if the diversity they learned within there family unit helped them to become successful. One thing is for sure. The better the Swiss Army knife the more likely you will have the tool you require. Thanks for your thought provoking article. All the best. Jim

    1. What an amazing success story!! I’m certain your boxer relative used some of the tools learned from his immediate surrounding had a profound impact on his success in the ring. Having knowledge of multiple systems – even in part – is like having a toolbox full of tools. Just because you have that tool box doesn’t make you a master mechanic, but it does provide you with the materials to do so if you wish.

      We learn things throughout all our lives that we do nothing with, but then we find that one thing that drives us and we start applying the knowledge from other areas – sometimes seemingly unrelated – to augment our passions. I – personally – know of a professional football coach that has his players practice ballet techniques. They have won the Super Bowl repeatedly because of that and other unique training techniques that are employed. There is no reason that martial arts can’t be the same or that martial arts can’t influence other areas of our lives positively.

  8. Brent, I really enjoyed reading your article on techniques and how to make adjustments depending on what your opponent is doing, so that you can offset your opponent’s moves. Your site looks really professional with an abundance of great information. Thanks.

    1. Expecting an opponent to go along with something that can land them in trouble is like eating a small meal off a large plate without looking. The first few moves will probably get desired results, but after that is anyone’s guess unless you are paying attention to what is going on.

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