Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports

Martial arts is one of the few sporting categories that transcends the sport itself. An eastern tradition, martial arts was developed prominently in China, Japan, and Korea primarily as a means of self-defense

But they have, of course, developed over time to represent a whole lot more. Spirituality has long been associated with martial arts, with the focus of many, particularly that of Chinese origin, of connecting with your inner ‘Qi’.

They are practiced competitively today and are a very popular means of achieving a full-body workout. This article is about the 10 most practiced martial arts styles in the world. 

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Muay Thai

Dubbed as the art of eight limbs, Muay Thai originates from Thailand and isn’t too far removed from the art of kickboxing. The big difference being the amount of ‘limbs’ involved in the combat, as it also involves the participant to throw elbows, clinches, knees, and punches at the punchbag. 

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Ever since its 18th-century origins, in the age of King Rama V, Muay Thai has remained extremely popular in Thailand and is even considered as their national sport today. During its infancy, Muay Thai was a lot more choreographed; however, it developed into a form of self-defense through the 19th century. 

When Did it Become Popular?

Muay Thai only made the MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) mainstream at the turn of the 21st century. It has since been recognized as the best means of refining striking discipline above all other martial arts. It is less popular in America but one of the leading martial arts styles in Europe.

Taekwondo

Korea’s Taekwondo was the nation’s first ‘modern’ martial arts following Japanese occupation during World War Two. It is based on a mix of traditional Korean martial arts, such as Taekkyon and Subak, and traditional Japanese influences. Despite its relatively short existence, it is now an Olympics mainstay

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Translating to ‘the way of fist and foot’, it is one of the martial arts seeped in spirituality, and mind-over-matter strength, featuring the famed ritual of breaking a block of wood with your flat hand or foot. 

Physically, it consists of roundhouse kicks, knife hand strikes, and straight punches, amongst others.

When Did it Become Popular?

It took off in the United States almost as soon as it was introduced to the US in the 1950s and became an Olympic sport in 1988. It is practiced today in 100 nations with 30 million participants and is one of the martial arts with a belt-based ranking system.

Judo

Judo was invented by Kano Jigoro, a Japanese teacher, in the late 19th century. Jigoro formed the martial arts style in his adolescence as a means of combating bullying and implemented moves from other popular Japanese martial arts while adding his signature moves. The aim is to pin your opponent down. 

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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The clue to what makes this martial arts style unique is in its title. ‘Ju’ translates to ‘soft method’, which refers to the idea of turning your opponent’s strength against them to your advantage. 

It also involves a plethora of throwing, grappling, and vital-point striking techniques to knock your opponent down. 

When Did it Become Popular?

Japan had failed in introducing it to the 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games due to global tension at the time, but it later became introduced in 1964. It has since grown to become one of the most popular sports in the world, with more people practicing it in France than in Japan. 

Karate 

Translated from Japanese, Karate means ‘empty hand’, which alludes to the fact it is a means of self-defense without any weaponry. It is one of the most ancient martial arts styles known to man that is still used today, with the sport being practiced as far back as the 14th century

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Anko Itosu is the founder of contemporary karate, who wrote up the ’10 Precepts of Karate’ in 1908, in which he defined karate as being the art of combining both mind and body to create a greater sense of character, through combat involving straight punches, roundhouse kicks, and front kicks. 

When Did it Become Popular? 

Japanese karate teachers saw a business opportunity in karate and decided to immigrate to America in the 1950s to teach it. Popularity grew, and by the 1970s, it had become a popular competitive sport worldwide. 100 million people practice it today in 192 countries. 

Ju-Jitsu 

Ju-Jitsu is the primal backup for when the samurai warrior is out of weaponry. Out of all the popular martial arts styles, it is the most unusual in that it features a no-holds-barred situation in terms of rules. When it is taught, ‘cheating’ is a huge part of the learning process. 

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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On top of high snap punches and front snap kicks, jujutsu also encourages all forms of grappling, which, believe it or not, includes hair pulling, hitting, biting, choking, leg sweeps, and joint locks. 

The fact that it is over 2,000 years old sort of explains why it is so primitive. 

When Did it Become Popular?

Given its extremely violent nature, Ju-Jitsu has never been included in the Olympic games; however, it is still practiced globally. Its popularity has been slightly eclipsed by that of the Brazilian Ju-Jitsu, which offers a much safer alternative, with no biting or hair pulling involved – just grappling. 

Kung Fu 

Very vaguely translating from the Chinese to ‘an acquired skill’, Kung Fu is the oldest martial arts style in the world. It was first introduced in 2.698 BC by Emperor Huangti and, adopted as the primary means of defense by Shaolin monks, has developed into several different versions through the years. 

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Philosophy is deep-rooted in the practice of Kung Fu, so much so that to practice it competitively goes against everything it represents. In few words, Kung Fu should never be a battle against an opponent, but rather, a battle against the self, via gripping techniques, elbow strikes, and plenty of high kicks. 

When Did it Become Popular?

Kung Fu reached its zenith in popularity in the west, particularly in America, in the 1970s. This popularity was catalyzed by the first kung-fu Hollywood movie – Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon in 1973. Kung Fu is not practiced competitively, but a version called Wushu is now an official Olympic sport

Wrestling 

Given how ubiquitous and well-known wrestling is today, it may surprise you that it has its origins dates way back to 13,000 BC. It was considered as being a popular sport in both ancient Egypt and Greece. It consists of grappling to take down your opponent and hold them down.

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Often overlooked, and rarely classed as a martial art, wrestling boasts a lot of the qualities that have come to define the most prominent MMA, including that it’s a test of mental endurance, involving the need to put mind over matter, and that it is also a lesson in self-accountability. 

When Did it Become Popular? 

Wrestling developed concurrently over the millenniums in several different nations, leaving us with many different strands today. Greco-Roman wrestling has been part of the Olympics since 1896

Freestyle Wrestling joined in 1904, and beach wrestling, the newest version, is set to be included in the 2024 Olympic games in Paris. 

Sumo 

Sumo wrestling is considered a martial arts style; however, it is not technically ‘martial’ in origin, like the others included on this list. Sumo wrestling dates to the 12th century and was practiced as a form of entertainment at flea markets, as opposed to a means of self-defense. 

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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The Sumo wrestler aims to essentially remove their opponent from the ring. It is not enough, however, just for the opponent’s feet to be out the ring, as another body part must touch the outside the ring. 

This is achieved through pushing, slapping, and tripping. Kicking and punching are prohibited. 

When Did it Become Popular?

As mentioned above, it dates back to the 12th century, but sumo wrestling remains to be a massive tourist pull for Japan. The martial art has seen somewhat of a revival in recent years. 

It has not exactly picked up massively elsewhere, however. Sumo wrestling was set to be involved in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but it was unfortunately postponed. 

Boxing 

Considering boxing as a martial arts style remains to be a contentious issue, it still has all the characteristics of an MMA sport and is still very popular at that. Boxing dates to ancient times, but contemporary boxing has its origins in London in the mid-18th century under the name ‘prizefighting’. 

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Boxing isn’t just about landing punches; it is also a very tough mental game, where competitors must think of strategies in attacking and defending – Lennox Lewis famously compared it to chess. 

Boxing is a popular training exercise amongst MMA stars, who recognize its importance in brain training. 

When Did it Become Popular?

Since the Marquess of Queensberry Rules were published in 1867, professional boxing has remained popular worldwide, joining the Olympics in 1904. 

‘The Golden Age of Boxing’ was said to have occurred in the 1920s and 30s, and specifically in areas of American cities with heavy influxes of immigration. 

Aikido

Aikido is a contemporary Japanese martial arts style that borrows strands of philosophy and technique from both Judo and Ju-Jitsu. It translates to a ‘way of harmonizing energy’ and, like Judo, the aim is turning the strength of the opponent against them. The main points of attack are the nerve centers.  

Discover the Most Practiced Martial Arts in the World of Sports
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Aikido implements strikes that one would consider to be harmful to the opponent, including numerous throws and takedowns. 

However, its philosophy suggests that violence should instead be avoided, and the throws have only used a means to diffuse and neutralize the situation. Ideally, Aikido causes no pain to either party. 

When Did it Become Popular?

Having first been introduced to the US in 1951, Aikido has slowly spread in popularity throughout the country and beyond, with some dedicated gyms found scattered here and there. 

The International Aikido Federation has memberships in over 40 nations, and the Aikido Journal boasts a total worldwide membership of 500,000

Summary

The world of martial arts is vast as it is wide, with the majority originating from the east, but some, as you’ve discovered in this article, originated in other corners of the world

Each individual martial art boasts its philosophies, and each, if learned correctly, can enrich one’s mental and physical strength.