Some martial arts were designed to kill. No rules. No mercy. Lethal intent.
But which martial art is the deadliest? Considering that we’re talking about deadly force it’s a question that can be, well… difficult to test.
This article takes a close look at the world’s most lethal martial arts – from traditional Japanese defensive methods to modern military combat systems, and plenty in between.
But first, what does it actually mean to be the deadliest? Let’s break it down…
What Counts As Deadly?
I looked it up, and the definition of deadly is…
Deadly: causing or able to cause death
That means any martial art that exists only to disarm or restrain an attacker can’t be considered here.
In addition to this, to keep things as equal as possible, I’ve added 3 simple rules that a martial art style must meet to be considered deadly.
Rule #1: No Weapons
From Pekiti Tirsia Kali stick-and-knife-fighting in the Philippines to Japanese sword fighting styles like Siljun Dobup, weapons-based martial arts are still popular today – and they can be deadly.
But as most people don’t own fighting sticks or nunchucks, and have more interest in hand-to-hand combat, they’re not included here.
For this list, weapons are a no-no. That means no ninjas – while the world-famous Japanese art of Ninjutsu (忍術) is super effective for guerilla warfare, it just doesn’t hold up without weapons.
Rule #2: A True Martial Art
The second rule is that it needs to be a recognized martial art style that has a documented history and base principles.
Deadly? Yes. Martial arts? Not exactly.
Both are brutal but they’re actually competition styles rather than martial arts systems. And while more and more people are starting to train MMA as its own discipline, at the core it’s a combination of distinct styles – so that’s out too.
Rule #3: Show Me The Evidence
It didn’t require 4K-quality fight footage, but for a martial art to make the cut, there needed to be some sort of documented history of its legitimacy in combat. After all, every martial art sounds deadly, in theory.
So, with this definition and criteria in mind, here are the deadliest martial arts in the world…
Judo is underrated as a martial art. One of the only reasons it’s not more popular in MMA competition is because many techniques rely on gripping a Gi or upper body clothing, which is missing in MMA. But outside of competition, where an attacker would (I hope) be wearing clothes – Judo is highly dangerous.
In fact in Japan, hundreds of children have died practicing Judo.
Judo throws are vicious and can very quickly disable an opponent. If you’ve ever trained this Japanese martial art, you’ll know that the most important skill to learn early is how to land correctly. A strong Judo throw will not only knock the wind out of you, it can also snap tendons and break bones.
The only reason this isn’t seen more often is that Judo practitioners are trained to land correctly, and throws are done on the mats. But a properly executed judo throw on a sidewalk – yikes. Thankfully, I can only imagine.
Need further testament to how effective Judo can be?
Ronda Rousey is an Olympic Gold Medalist in Judo, which is about as credentialled as one can get. When she decided to transition over to MMA to test her skills against other disciplines, she won her first 15 straight fights, with only one bout lasting more than a single round.
Taekwondo is a fast, Korean martial art that makes this list due to its vicious and forceful kicks.
From the roundhouse to the axe kick, there’s a wide variety of techniques that can knock you unconscious before you have a chance to blink.
In fact, there’s no shortage of brutal Taekwondo knockout footage online:
Taekwondo kicks are difficult to telegraph and can be thrown at a distance where your opponent isn’t able to reach you with their hands. So when paired with the power generated from the large muscle groups of the lower body, yep… definitely deadly.
Originating in the 1920s, Combat Sambo is a Soviet martial art that uses a combination of punches, kicks, knees, elbows, throws, chokes, and locks. And that’s not all – Combat Sambo also permits the following techniques:
- soccer kicks to the head
- groin strikes
How’s that for deadly?
UFC lightweight World Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov is a 2x World Combat Sambo Champion. He’s currently 28-0, undefeated in MMA competition. Often by total domination.
I think it’s fair to say that’s not a coincidence.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
BJJ is primarily a self-defense based grappling system, built for smaller or weaker practitioners to succeed against larger competition. But offensively it’s highly effective, even against the world’s best martial artists. It’s also been well-tested against other martial art systems for many years, and has repeatedly come out on top.
A prime example of this is BJJ legend Royce Gracie and his run in the early days of the UFC, where he fought against much larger competitors, including boxers, wrestlers, and judo athletes. Royce went on to win:
- UFC 1
- UFC 2
- UFC 4
Each time he fought multiple times in a single night.
Plus, after 20+ years of MMA fights, despite the evolution of many fight styles, BJJ remains one of the dominant styles in mixed martial arts. Oh and here’s a video of BJJ savant Rener Gracie, when he was only 19 years old, sparring with 5 US Army Soldiers, in a row.
The bottom line? A chokehold is capable of cutting off your blood and oxygen supply in a matter of seconds – deadly stuff.
The Linear Infighting Neural-Override Engagement (or LINE) system was used to train over 750,000 US Marine Corps for combat.
The system includes:
- head stomps
- eye gouges
- knee strikes
- groin grabs
These are the exact techniques that are outright banned in sporting competition and certainly help a martial art to be considered deadly. In terms of lethality and the capability to produce deadly force, it scores highly. But there are some drawbacks.
LINE was actually removed from standard US marine training due to its inflexibility, and replaced by the Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP).
‘Inflexibility’ here essentially means that it wasn’t always effective in the context of real combat. So while certain techniques may be able to kill effectively – it’s a little hit-and-miss. And while the MCMAP is said to be a more balanced and well-rounded discipline, it’s not quite as ferocious as LINE.
The MCMAP includes skills borrowed from other disciplines, like the grappling of BJJ and the striking of one of the world’s most popular martial arts… Muay Thai.
Muay Thai is widely considered to be the world’s most effective striking art. This fighting style is commonly referred to as the “Art of Eight Limbs.” Why? Because it draws on the use of all 8 extremities:
This, unlike many forms of martial arts, makes it effective at all striking ranges. Like Taekwondo, kicks can be used to keep an opponent at range, but if an opponent gets into grappling range, sharp elbow strikes, and powerful knee strikes both come into play.
Muay Thai is built to deliver versatile and devastating attacks that can batter the human frame at ease. Think broken ribs, and shattered orbital bones. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Muay Thai fighters to have blood in their urine for days after a fight. For them, it’s just another day in the office.
Brutal stuff, and absolutely a lethal martial art. There have been a multitude of deaths in the Muay Thai ring documented in recent years.
Lethwei is a brutal Burmese martial art that is an answer to Muay Thai. It’s known as “The Art of Nine Limbs” and there is quite a bit of crossover between Muay Thai and Lethwei fighters.
One of the most famous Lethwei fighters is Dave Leduc, the self proclaimed King of Lethwei. Watch this highlight real from Leduc and try to tell me that Lethwei isn’t truly a deadly martial art:
You can think of Lethwei as a more brutal, raw form of Muay Thai. It is certainly legit, and the KOs you see in a Lethwei fight are pretty epic.
Kung Fu is one of the ancient Chinese martial arts. It was developed primarily to be used for hunting and self defense. Bruce Lee popularized Kung Fu in the western world, where he dazzled audiences in his martial arts films.
There is clear evidence that Kung Fu is effective as a modern day fighting style too – many UFC fighters have a Kung Fu background. Some notable pro MMA fighters that train Kung Fu include Roy “Big Country” Nelson and Cung Le. Here are some of Le’s jaw-dropping knockouts:
Kyokushin is a martial art that was developed in the 1960’s by a Korean martial artist, Masutatsu Oyama. It is a full contact, stand-up fighting system that involves plenty of sparring.
Modern day Kyokushin is more of a sport martial art, but at it’s roots it was designed with self defense in mind. Kyokushin sparring sessions are known as “kumite” and are a serious test of martial arts strength and endurance.
Ever heard of the term dirty boxing? Well, Silat is an Indonesian martial art that involves dirty everything from strikes to joint manipulation.
Silat sparring sessions are traditionally done with no protection at all, and almost always involve one of the fighters walking away with injuries. Defense forces across Southeast Asia still use Silat as part of their training.
Wing Chun? You might be surprised to hear me mention this martial art on a deadliest martial arts list. But it’s true! Some high level UFC fighters have called for the Chinese martial art of Wing Chun technique’s to be banned in MMA competition.
When practiced all-out, Wing Chun’s techniques are brutal. They’re not designed for sport, and instead are supposed to incapacitate an attacker. In particular, many Wing Chun hand strikes aim to cause eye and throat damage. Rampage Jackson and Wonderboy Thompson are just two of the big names in MMA that have called for a ban on Wing Chun techniques.
Strange name, but deadly and effective martial art. Kajukenbo is a blend of martial arts that was developed in Hawaii in the 1940’s. It’s name is a derivative of the 4 martial arts that compose the bulk of the techniques:
- KA: Karate
- JU: Judo / Jiu Jitsu
- KEN: Kenpo
- BO: Boxing
Hawaii in the 1940’s was a very dangerous and violent place. Any martial art that was developed in this area, at this time, truly had to have been deadly to be effective and stand the test of time.
The reason I chose Kajukenbo for my list of the deadliest martial arts, is that it was developed for the streets. Not for the octagon, not for competition – just for what would be brutally effective in a street fight.
Keysi Fighting Method
Is Batman deadly? Of course. Well, the martial arts system that Christian Bale based his fighting style around in the movies is called The Keysi Fighting Method.
The deadly fighting style originated in Spain in the 1980’s. It was founded my a martial artist name Justo Dieguez and was specifically designed to help the creator in street encounters.
In addition to the Batman series, Keysi was one of the main fighting styles featured in Mission Impossible 3 and numerous other Hollywood action movies.
Bojuka’s motto is: Fast, Brutal, Effective. With a philosophy like that, it’s no surprise that it is a truly deadly martial art.
Focused on both unarmed and weapons training, Bojuka incorporates boxing, BJJ, and karate into a fighting style that is supposed to be truly effective in violent encounters (not designed to score points or look flashy).
The founder of Bojuka is a martial artist named Tom Schrenk, who has trained everyone from military personal to federal law enforcement officers. His fighting style is focused on incapacitating your attacker, and his academy’s logo is a clear homage to the deadliness of his martial art.
Another martial art developed in Hawaii, Kapu Ku’ialua focuses on brutal bone breaking and joint locks.
The translation of Kapu Ku’ialua is “two hits,” and just a couple of strikes from a Kapu Ku’ialua expert should be enough to prove to you that it is a deadly martial art.
Kapu Ku’ialua masters emphasize that the key to this discipline is inflicting maximum pain on your opponent. Certainly sounds deadly, right?
Wrestling is one of the oldest martial arts, and for good reason – it is highly effective. Many of the UFC’s top fighters base their MMA strategy around wrestling.
While the effectiveness of wrestling in an MMA setting can be controversial, there is no disputing that wrestling is absolutely a deadly martial art. It was one of the martial arts used by gladiators in Roman fights to the death.
Even in professional wrestling, there have been deaths in the ring. Owen Hart for example died after falling into the cage during a WWF pay-per-view event. Mexican luchador ‘Oro’ died from a head injury during a match.
Krav Maga is not based around martial arts sporting competitions in any way.
It’s a fighting style that was originally developed for the Israeli Defense Force – to inflict the maximum amount of pain possible. It’s highly aggressive, fast-paced and often uses techniques that can deliberately end the life of an opponent.
There are no clear fighting rules with Krav Maga. Instead, there’s one goal: neutralize the enemy. That might sound pretty intense, and well… it is!
Check it out for yourself:
‘But if Krav Maga is so dangerous – why isn’t it used in MMA?’
It’s true, Krav Maga’s unique techniques are not often seen in MMA. One reason is that certain Krav Maga strategies (like eye-gouging) are not permitted in MMA competition.
But the context of the skills is very different, too. In Krav Maga, you may be looking to quickly disable a gun-wielding attacker or fend off multiple attackers simultaneously. In these situations, Krav Maga is a deadly tool.
Of course, that doesn’t mean Krav Maga is ‘better’ or that its practitioners could become UFC champions. It all depends on your goal.
Here’s what Joe Rogan has to say about Krav Maga:
Krav Maga is frequently part of United States military and law enforcement training programs as well. It is truly one of the deadly martial arts.
Wrapping Things Up
Are you considering training in a martial art for general self-defense? If so, then MMA training is perhaps your best option. But if you want the skills to inflict lethal force on an attacker in a short-time frame, I think Krav Maga comes out on top.
What do you think? Do you agree with my list of deadliest martial arts or is there another one I should consider?
If you want to learn one of these martial arts and become more proficient in self-defense, I recommend heading over to my post on “which martial art should I learn first?”