When you think of martial arts, what comes to mind? If I had to guess, I’d say: karate, taekwondo, kickboxing, boxing, the UFC, and maybe movies like The Karate Kid and Rocky. These are all great, but they’re also somewhat limited to sports and entertainment.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of martial arts disciplines worldwide, and not all of them are combat sports. Some are more self-defense-focused than for sports, and the unfortunate question of, “what is the deadliest martial art?” comes up quite a bit. The reason I say it’s unfortunate is that it tends to open the other martial arts styles to ridicule.
With that said, let’s look at some of the more brutal martial arts styles.
Let’s Address a Few Things First
Before we start, there are a few things we need to address first.
- The term ‘deadliest’ is often used as a marketing ploy to get more students. As humans, we like the idea of being able to do anything quickly and efficiently. This is especially true in cases of styles built around self-defense.
- Forbidden martial arts. There’s no such thing! Every style – unless it’s been lost to history – can be trained. The idea that there are forbidden techniques is nonsense.
- Any martial art can be considered deadly. Therefore, martial artists are cautioned against getting into fights with untrained people. The fact that they practice martial arts can be used against them in a court of law.
How Do We Define ‘Deadly’ in Martial Arts?
The term ‘deadly’ has multiple meanings. So, how do we define it in terms of martial arts? Well, the term is defined as having the ability to cause death. How do we cause death? That’s easy, we do damage. So, how much damage could a style inflict on the human body?
The criteria for the rankings here are simple:
- Popularity: how well known the style is
- Damage: the types of injuries that can be sustained
- Versatility and adaptability
There will be no restrictions as to armed or unarmed styles. With that in mind, let’s get started.
What are the Deadliest Styles?
1: Krav Maga
Krav Maga is probably the most well-known ‘self-defense’ style of martial arts.
In the mid-1930s, in Bratislava, Czechslovakia, Imre Lichtenfeld trained the residents of Jewish neighborhoods in boxing and wrestling to defend themselves and their homes from anti-Semitic attacks. He soon learned that boxing and wrestling, while being great sports, weren’t very practical outside of competitions. The brutality of street fighting was far different from the competition fighting that he was used to doing, so Lichtenfeld re-examined his ideas and thoughts on combat and began developing what would later become Krav Maga.
In 1940, he fled Europe and went to Palestine where he joined the military, and, in 1944, he started training people in the use of knives, knife defense, fitness, and wrestling to develop a strong system for self-defense and close quarters combat. When the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were founded in 1948, Lichtenfeld was made the head instructor of Krav Maga at the IDF School of Combat and Fitness. He spent the next 20 years or so serving in the IDF and refining his system before retiring in 1974.
While it was originally developed for the military, Krav Maga has been adopted by law enforcement, security, and average citizens for training.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Krav Maga
Before we discuss the pros and cons of Krav Maga, I want to show you this demo:
A common criticism of traditional martial arts is that their self-defense techniques aren’t realistic. This tends to ruffle a few feathers and bruise a fair number of egos because, well, nobody likes to be a fool. Despite this, the people that launch this criticism aren’t necessarily wrong. The theory behind many self-defense sequences in traditional martial arts is relatively sound; unfortunately, the application is over-complicated and therefore not as sound as the theory. Could you pull off five or six moves in the space of a second? Maybe, but I don’t think so. This can potentially develop an unrealistic expectation of what street combat is actually like.
This is a system that is known for its realistic approach to training for real-world violence. The techniques used are typically very simple and, more often than not, reasonably effective. One of the benefits of training in Krav Maga is that you develop a realistic idea of what real-world violence is like. You also develop the right mindset and skillset for dealing with real-world violence.
Now, there are problems with Krav Maga, and one of those problems is the marketing. I don’t think I’ve seen a style marketed as aggressively as Krav Maga. It’s always marketed as “used by military forces worldwide,” “the ultimate self-defense system,” or something similar. This leads to another big issue pertaining to the training: false confidence. Armed and unarmed combat are both practiced in Krav Maga, and the aggressive marketing setup can lead to some pretty serious misconceptions.
I’ve also heard that the training is focused too much on groin strikes. The reason this is a problem is quite simple: they don’t always work. The usual effect of a groin strike is that the victim or recipient collapses in a heap. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. If someone is drunk or high on drugs; they don’t have the full control of their faculties – meaning they don’t feel the strikes so much. Focusing too much on groin strikes is therefore not conducive to a good self-defense system.
Unlike most styles of martial arts, Krav Maga doesn’t have a competitive circuit. There are no tournaments for medals. The reason for this is that the system is geared towards real-world situations, and many instructors feel that adding a competitive element may dampen the style’s efficacy. I have mixed feelings about this. Competition is where we really get to go all-out and push our limits, but, on the other hand, the idea of someone repeatedly kicking me in the groin isn’t really appealing, so I understand the kinds of injuries that can be inflicted.
MCMAP is an acronym for Marine Corps Martial Arts Program and it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s a martial arts program developed for the USMC. The MCMAP is an upgrade of the LINE system, which was the system originally used for training by the military.
History: From LINE to MCMAP
LINE is another acronym for Linear Infighting Neural Override Engagement. The system was used by the Marine Corps from 1989 to 1998 and in the Special Forces from 1998 to 2007. Design-wise, the LINE system had set parameters for training (i.e., Low visibility, extreme fatigue, etc.), and it was meant to be very user-friendly – easy to learn and remember through constant repetition. It was consistently being revised and reviewed for the better part of 20+ years. Of course, as the years went on; the needs of the Marine Corps changed, and the system was deemed too inflexible for use by the USMC. This system was replaced by MCMAP in 2002.
Technique: Flexible Fighting
One of the parameters for the LINE system was that the techniques, when executed correctly, must cause death to the recipient. Now, killing unarmed civilians – even by accident – tends to get a lot of negative attention. This is one point that was addressed in the transition to MCMAP. The arsenal of techniques trained in MCMAP come from several styles including Taekwondo, Aikido, Hapkido, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Krav Maga, Bujinkan Budo Taijutsu (Ninjutsu), Eskrima, and Kali.
The lethality varies between techniques, from restraining someone without pain or damage, to choking, and, in extreme circumstances, killing. This gave Marines more options regarding how they could approach a situation.
MCMAP vs. Krav Maga
There are a couple of similarities between MCMAP and Krav Maga. The two big ones are: they both draw from a variety of systems, and both are designed for use in combat. They’re both similarly designed and trained with a flexible system that can be used reasonably well in high-pressure situations.
Considering this, it wouldn’t be fair to try comparing the two or deciding which is the superior art. These are two different animals, and they have their own special requirements to live. There are things may suit Krav Maga more than MCMAP, and vice versa.
3: The SPEAR System
The SPEAR (Spontaneous Protection Enabling Accelerated Response) system was developed in Canada by a man named Tony Blauer in the 1980s. This system relies on turning the natural flinch response caused by a sudden assault into a counterassault. As far as self-defense goes, this is a good concept because it builds your situational awareness.
Sadly, real-life situations are never quite the same as they are in the training hall. You won’t get a partner who’s doing a pre-determined sequence that you have to counter. The whole point behind the design of the SPEAR system is to make you react in the way you would in real life. This makes the style very versatile and easy to use. That said, from what I’ve seen, you can potentially get some nasty injuries.
The Younger Brother: SCARS System
SCARS stands for Special Combat Aggressive Reactionary System, and it is basically the proverbial little brother to the SPEAR system (SPEAR started in 1982 and SCARS in 1988). Like its older brother, the SCARS system is built on psychology and physiology The theory is that everyone reacts the same way to specific injuries. This theory guided the system’s development to focus on reflexive actions caused by different stimuli (i.e., causing the body to react in specific ways) and using those reactions to one’s own advantage.
Techniques were focused on affecting specific parts of the body (nerves, organs, bones, etc.) and there were no defensive tactics. Yes, you read that correctly. Every ‘defense’ was delivered as a strike to vulnerable areas of the body to disable an attacker and neutralize an immediate threat.
The system was first introduced to the US Navy in 1988 and was largely practiced by government agencies (i.e., military and the secret service). It wasn’t until 1993 that the public gained access to the program through the release of training videos, and even then they only got part of the program.
Lethwei is a Burmese style of bare-knuckle boxing. It is also called the Art of 9 Limbs. As the name suggests, the fighters use bare fists when they fight. They also employ the use of their knees, elbows, feet, and, unlike in Muay Thai (the Art of 8 Limbs), they are allowed to head-butt their opponents. This is a combat sport in Myanmar, and it’s a very dangerous style of martial arts that often results in serious injury.
The Early Days of Lethwei
There are records dating back to antiquity regarding the use of Lethwei. The style was both a self-defense system used to protect the borders of Myanmar and a combat sport that, drew quite a crowd. Fights were open to any men who wanted to try their luck – this made it crucial to have good endurance and technique.
Fighters would wrap their hands in hemp (a type of rope derived from a Cannabis Sativa plant) or gauze and climb into a sandpit to fight. The rules were simple: the winner was the last man standing. There was no time limit. You won the fight if you knocked your opponent unconscious or they were too badly injured to continue. These rules didn’t change much until after the 1952 Olympics when a boxer, Kyar Ba Nyein, got the idea to bring a modern ruleset to Lethwei. These rules were drafted in 1953, and Kyar Ba Nyein travelled across the country promoting fights with these rules and training new fighters.
Lethwei wasn’t very well-known internationally until around the end of the 20th century. So, what changed? Well, there were two bouts with two different sets of international fighters. The first lot was a group of American kickboxers who challenged a group of Lethwei fighters. Things didn’t go well for them; each one was knocked unconscious within the first round. A second group, comprised of four Japanese fighters, tried their luck in 2004. It was at this second fight that the mixed martial artist Akitoshi Tamura became the first foreigner to beat a Burmese lethwei fighter. Tamura knocked out his opponent with a powerful knee to the face – ouch!
Similarities with Muay Thai
Lethwei draws constant comparison with Muay Thai, this isn’t too surprising as Muay Thai is referred to the art of eight limbs and Lethwei the art of nine limbs.
The two styles share a few similarities. Striking is done with the fists, elbows, and knees; kicks are performed with either the shin or the foot. This is true in both styles. Also, part of both styles is clinch-fighting, which is basically grappling and holding onto your opponent to land devastating blows – usually to the head and body.
Unlike Muay Thai, however Lethwei allows the use of head-butts and has less strict grappling restrictions, allowing for a variety of takedowns.
The Risk of Brain Trauma
Even with modern rules and all the training in the world, you can still get some very nasty injuries. In addition to the usual sprains, dislocated joints, and brutal fractures, there’s a serious mutual risk of severe brain trauma. This is what makes Lethwei so dangerous for both practitioners. Your brain is floating around in your skull. Getting your head slammed around, your brain is getting slammed around the interior of your skull. Severe brain trauma can be fatal, and this leads to short careers.
5: Muay Thai
A national sport in Thailand, Muay Thai is a rough sport to get into. In addition to the use of your hands and feet, you can use your knees and elbows to damage your opponent.
Training: What makes Muay Thai Deadly?
Since its inception a few 100 years ago, the sport has seen an extensive evolution. In the early days of Muay Thai, fighters would use banana trees to practice kicks, knee strikes, punches, and so on. Why banana trees? Well, because banana trees were hard enough to enable solid strikes and kicks but soft enough to not damage their bodies. In fights, they would wrap their hands in twine/hemp/ and dip them in water. The water would cause the wrappings to harden, resulting in severe injuries.
Today it’s practiced with the use of modern equipment (i.e., heavy bags, focus mitts, etc.) which makes things much safer training-wise. That said, some teachers prefer the older, traditional training methods. Fighters start training (in Thailand) around 8 years of age and start competing by age 10. In light of this, the Thai authorities are trying to raise the age of competition to 12. They typically fight several times a week, making a few hundred dollars per fight and retire when they hit their early twenties. This isn’t a surprise considering the amount of damage that fighters take in their fights.
The use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet makes Muay Thai a fantastic style that’s great for physical fitness. The training matches are done with light contact and the competition matches are then done at full contact. This obviously brings certain risks to the competitive scene. Soft tissue damage, sprains, fractures, concussions, and so on are common injuries in the sport of Muay Thai.
Some of these injuries can be quite severe and, if left untreated, can lead to serious problems down the line. Skull fractures can cause brain trauma, and fractured ribs can puncture vital organs, leading to a rather unpleasant death. The worst part is that often injuries aren’t reported because the fighters don’t realize how badly injured they are until later, which only further complicates the problem.
Boxing is one of the best arts if you want to learn striking. It’s relatively simple style when compared to the other styles listed here. Boxing is a style frequently recommended for people looking to learn self-defense, and it’s easy to see why.
Your sparring is done with light to medium contact, but your competitive bouts are all full contact and last anywhere from 27 to 36 minute (9 to 12 rounds of 3 minutes each). As a result, you get used to taking hits to your face and body, your endurance and stamina improve, and you learn about range and timing, which improves your ability to fight.
It’s also easy enough to learn. After 6 months of boxing classes you’d be able to hold your own fairly well in a one-on-one street fight. The reason being, you’ve been conditioned to take shots to your face and body, so they don’t scare you as much. You also learn to punch properly and add your full weight to each blow, making a knockout very possible.
Health and Safety
Boxing provides a few health-related benefits to athletes, including improvements to your core strength and stability, co-ordination, and endurance. You develop a sense of body awareness (i.e., you gain a better understanding of your body and its limitations). Your confidence and self-esteem get a nice boost, particularly considering the development of muscle tone.
There are, however, some significant risks associated with boxing. In addition to the usual risks of sprains, torn ligaments, and dislocated joints, concussions and brain damage are also a serious possibility.
Judo is a Japanese style that is heavily focused on the use of gravity – that is to say, throwing and grappling. The idea is to combine the force of gravity with momentum (handily supplied by a training buddy or opponent). Ironically, the name means ‘gentle way,’ the ironic part being that you usually hit the mat pretty hard, and the joint locks are pretty painful.
The training is divided into forms (Kata) and Free Practice (Randori). Each of the katas focus on a particular skill, there are 10 recognized forms of competitive Judo, some focusing on throwing, and others on grappling.
The style was founded by Jigoro Kano in 1882 as a derivative of Jujutsu, the founder having studied under a few different instructors over the preceding years. Kano focused on the use of energy – maximum efficiency with minimal effort.
The Practicality of Judo
One point that doesn’t really get much attention when looking at styles like Muay Thai or MMA is the practicality of the style for self-defense. These are combat sports they are very easily applied to self-defense situations. MMA teaches chokes, submissions, grappling, and striking, which provides a skillset that you can use to protect yourself. Of course, if you take flying knee from a Muay Thai fighter. Well, you get the idea.
Traditional styles typically have the exact opposite point; self-defense is typically something that everyone kind of looks at. So, how practical is judo for self-defense? Grappling is a great self-defense tool because being able to control a confrontation and restrain an attacker is an important advantage. However, this is a style that’s built around patience, feeling out your opponent, and taking them down at the right time. Patience is, unfortunately, not always a virtue in cases where your life is on the line.
So, why is Judo on the list?
A simple change of scenery will answer this question nicely. If you’re in a dojo, you’re typically training on foam mats, which will absorb the worst of the impact and cushion your fall. Switch the foam mats with concrete and, suddenly, the ground isn’t flexing beneath you to absorb the shock of the impact. Welcome to the Judo smorgasbord of injuries, concussions, fractures, joint dislocations, tissue damage, and much, much more!
8: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a martial art that focuses on grappling, and it is a fantastic starting point for an aspiring martial artist. You learn about chokes, but you also learn about submissions and joint locks, which are useful tools to know. BJJ is also one of the only styles where you can go all-out on the mat right from the start with minimal risk of injury to yourself and your training partner. This makes it a great style for those who want a challenge but are worried about damaging another person.
The types of injuries that you can get aren’t any less severe than what other styles will give you, but you’re not likely to go home with a serious fracture and a months-long recovery period. This is largely because you repeat the same techniques at full resistance every time you step on the mat; although, a choke hold can be very dangerous. Chokes, when applied correctly, are relatively painless, but if you hold on for too long, the person will asphyxiate. Incorrectly applying chokes can also be dangerous; putting pressure in the wrong place can lead to serious problems.
Usually when one thinks of ninjutsu and ninjas, it’s in relation to films (American Ninja, 3 Ninjas, etc.) or books (i.e., Eric van Lustbader’s The Ninja). This is because that’s how we were first introduced to the concept of a ninja – through popular culture.
In general, Ninjutsu borrows elements from other styles and covers the strategy and tactics around unconventional warfare – espionage, guerilla warfare, and so on. Ninjas were the spies of their day, and they were trained to use a variety of weapons in various espionage methods.
Now, apart from being cool, why is this style on the list? Well, the ‘lethality’ of ninjutsu comes out of the training. You train in grappling, striking, kicking, and weapons. The types of weapons vary from staffs to swords to nunchaku, kamas (scythes), throwing stars, and a few others. Between the unarmed techniques and the weapon work, you can and do cause some nasty injuries, including fractures, concussions, lacerations (when working with live blades), joint dislocations, bruising, and sprains.
This is what ninjutsu looks like:
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that started in the 1950s, and it has been an Olympic sport since 2000. It has since become one of the most popular martial arts in which to train. There are numerous organizations and variations of taekwondo in which you can train and compete, and each one is slightly different which makes training with other practitioners from different schools and organizations an interesting learning experience.
Focus on Kicking
Taekwondo is an interesting style in that the bulk of the technical focus is on kicking. You have more reach and muscle in your legs, meaning you can generate more powerful attacks with your legs than with your hands. These kicks range from simple front, side, and roundhouse kicks, to spinning, jumping, and jump-spinning kicks. They’re very flashy and super cool to watch, but they can do a number on your balance and co-ordination!
Sparring is used by taekwondo fighters to see what they can or can’t do and why. It also provides a couple of interesting ways to surprise your opponent. As a side note, don’t try something crazy at a tournament unless you’ve tested it on the mat in training first!
Is Taekwondo Actually Deadly?
Your legs have more muscle than your arms, and so kicks can be powerful – the faster the kick the harder the impact. These kicks can do a lot of damage, especially when it’s to the head. In tournaments, a kick to the head is worth 2 points and a jump kick to the head is worth 3 points.
Head kicks are very disorienting and can lead to dizziness, knockouts, and concussions among other things. In tournaments helmets are used to absorb the impact a little better than your head would. Without a helmet you’ve got a greater risk of injury. Kicks to the face and throat are also a serious possibility, and I can tell you from experience that you don’t want those kicks to land! It’s painful, it’s disorienting, and you can get very seriously hurt.
It’s important to note, as I close out this article, that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of martial arts styles from all over the world. I can’t get to all of them, so this is a list of styles that I would consider to be ‘deadly’ martial arts.
I hope you all enjoyed reading this article and found it informative. Thanks, and I’ll see you in the next one.