What You Don't Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts

Mike Wood - March 4, 2018

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
Imi Lichtenfeld demonstrates a Krav Maga technique. Pinterest.

9- Krav Maga (1930s)

“Street fights are unpredictable, dirty fights.” Imi Lichtenfeld, the founder of Krav Maga

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and that certainly fits for the martial art of Krav Maga. Unlike all of the arts previously mentioned, there is no competitive aspect to it, there is no kata and no governing body: just a collection of techniques that most quickly and efficiently end a fight, preferably before it begins.

The reasoning behind the simplicity of purpose and brutality of action within Krav Maga comes from its origins. It was devised by Imi Lichtenfeld, a young Jew who grew up on the streets of Bratislava, modern-day Slovakia, during a time of high anti-semitism. His father was a policeman who taught him self-defence and he wrestled and boxed to a high level as a young man, but the training that would produce Krav Maga would be learned almost entirely on the streets.

When fascist gangs began to spring up in Bratislava in the mid-1930s, Lichtenfeld and other Jewish boxers decided to defend their neighbours from anti-semitic violence. He began to learn the stark difference between a fighting style that worked in the gym and in the ring and a fighting style that was effective in the streets, in day to day practical usage. He came to discover some of the insights that would become key tenets of Krav Maga: attacking and defending simultaneously, being physically aggressive while remaining mentally calm, attacking before one is attacked, attacking the weakest aspects of the body – the testicles, the eyes, the solar plexus and the throat – as well as using knowledge of available weapons and your direct surroundings to your advantage. It was clear from his experiences that an opponent in the street was always going to fight without rules, and thus one should not hamper oneself with chivalry.

Despite the best efforts of the Jewish anti-fascists in Bratislava, the Nazi menace continued to grow and eventually, Lichtenfeld left for Palestine in 1942. He applied the techniques that he had learned to the cause of Zionism and helped to train fellow Jews, and, on the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, was appointed Director of Physical Fitness in the nascent Israeli Defence Forces. In this position, he developed the over-arching theory of Krav Maga: self-defence based on the weaknesses of the human body, efficiency of movement – heavily influenced by judo, from which Lichtenfeld regularly drew – and spatial awareness.

In the decades since Krav Maga was first developed, it has spread and been perfected. Inside Israel, the millions of recruits that go through the Defence Forces are trained in the art and learn it, while outside of the country, it became a favourite of antifascist groups and women’s self-defence classes. Other armed forces began to train it extensively, with American and British special forces known to teach it as part of their curriculum.

In truth, it is difficult to claim that one “trains” Krav Maga specifically, as it lacks any unified set of rules or accepted techniques. Anything that works in the circumstances is an effective technique and therefore Krav Maga – whether the origins of it are in judo, boxing, wrestling or simply punching your opponent in the nuts.

The proliferation of Krav Maga skills across Israel – where almost everyone has served in the Army and therefore learned it – is huge, but it is surpassed still by the obsession that another nation has for their native martial art. That nation is Thailand, and the art is Muay Thai.

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
Two combatants perform the traditional pre-fight Wat Khru ritual in Muay Thai. Pinterest.

10 – Muay Thai (1920s)

“Bone is inch by inch, stronger than steel” Muay Thai Proverb

Given that Muay Thai is thought of as one of the most enduring aspects of Thai culture, it might be surprising to hear that the martial art is only around 200 years old. While Japan and China can trace the lineage of their national fighting styles back into the annals of history, the story of the Thai equivalent begins only in the 18th century.

The story behind the proliferation of Muay Thai begins with Muay Boran, an older form of fighting that was less codified than the current sport. According to legend, a fighter called Nai Khanomtom was captured in a war with the neighbouring Burmese and given the chance to attain his freedom by defeating a local fight in a bout. Nai Khanomtom duly won and returned to Siam, as Thailand was then known, as a hero. His example inspired thousands to take up the style of fighting that had brought him success, leading to a proliferation of martial arts devotees in the country.

As more and more people took up Muay Boran, there became a public demand for organised fights at large events, and a set of practices and rules were adopted. These became the building blocks of Muay Thai, the art as we know it today. They prioritised the use of fists, knees, elbows and kicks – giving rise to the nickname “the art of eight limbs” – and enshrined the cultural values that also go hand in hand with the martial aspects. There is an elaborate set of bows and greetings that show respect to the sport, the opponent and the referee, as well as a repertoire of traditional Thai music that accompanies every fight and a clothing style that incorporates aspects of the national dress of Thailand, such as designed shorts, a Mongkol (headband) and Pra Jiad armbands.

Once the Thai public had caught onto the idea of their national sport, there was to be no holding back. In 1909, the King of Thailand formalised the rules and began a system of awarding prizes to the best fighters, which was extended in 1913 with the arrival of British boxing in the region to complement the local style. The pair began to be offered in schools soon after, along with Judo, and by the 1920s, there were major stadiums constructed to cope with the public demand for high profile fights. Referees, boxing gloves and hand-wrapping became commonplace and the sport began to resemble what we know today: it was also at this point that it became known as Muay Thai, rather than Muay Boran.

Now, Muay Thai is Thailand’s most popular sport and has millions of adherents around the world. Alongside the national cuisine of Thailand, it might be considered the greatest export that the nation has on a global scale. Thai boxing, as it is often known outside of Thailand, is seen in Hollywood films – Only God Forgives, starring Ryan Reynolds and Kriston Scott Thomas, featured it heavily – and video games.

Muay Thai might have spread well beyond the borders of Thailand, but it is still on the fringes as far as martial arts go. Unlike Judo, Boxing and Wrestling, it is still not at the Olympic Games, the pinnacle of world sport. As recently as 2000, however, the Olympics incorporated their newest martial art, and one that, like Muay Thai, is nowhere near as old as many think it is. To learn more, we must travel now to South Korea and talk more about the art of Taekwondo.

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
Servet Tazegul of Turkey (left) kicks Great Britain’s Martin Stamper during the Olympic Games in London. Taekwondo Wikia.

11 – Taekwondo (1940s)

“The most difficult part of traditional taekwondo is not learning the first kick or punch. It is not struggling to remember the motions of a poomsae or becoming acquainted with Korean culture. Rather, it is taking the first step across the threshold of the dojang door. This is where roads diverge, where choices are made that will resonate throughout a lifetime.” Doug Cook, Taekwondo Master

There are several crucial points that are shared between the two histories of Muay Thai and Taekwondo. As Muay Thai is considerably younger in an organised form than many expect, so is Taekwondo: despite enjoying a meteoric rise to the Olympics, the sport has only been in existence since the middle of the Twentieth century. Similarly to Muay Thai, however, the roots of the art of Taekwondo do go back well before the codified version of the current techniques came into existence.

Taekwondo might only have been formulated in the last century, the roots of martial arts in Korea go back far further. The traditional wrestling of the Peninsula, Ssireum, dates back into antiquity, while the striking style, Taekkyeon, can be traced to slightly later, although still over two thousand years. As the martial history of Korea advanced, weaponry was added to the unarmed fighting styles, adding to their potency, with a commensurate set of rules and values that ensured the laws of war were adhered to.

As Korea fell prey to its near neighbours – mostly from China and Japan – huge influences from the martial arts of their conquerors became integrated into their styles. The anticidents of Taekwondo lie as much in the traditions of Karate and Kung Fu as they do in Ssireum and Taekkyon. Organised Ssireum first began in the period of Japanese occupation in the early 20th century, around the time that Judo was spreading around the globe, with many practitioners taking part in both disciplines. Thus was the hybrid art of Hapkido born. It was in this period that the use of gi clothing and ranking belts also entered Korea.

When the Japanese were finally ejected from Korea at the end of the Second World War, martial arts clubs known as Kwans began to spring up all over the Peninsula. They did not form one unified art, but rather had their own club style. At a display of martial arts in 1952, the Korean President Syngman Rhee decreed that all the kwans take on the same style to create an authentically Korean martial art, and it was through this that Tae Soo Do – as it was originally known – as born. The name was changed soon afterwards and in 1959, the Korean Taekwon-Do Association was inaugurated.

There were still hiccups: as the kwons were growing, the country was ravaged by the Korean War, and once the Korean Taekwon-Do Association had been decided upon, there was an immediate backlash from inside South Korea against anyone from a North Korean background having anything to do with the rules of this new sport. The International Taekwondo Federation (ITF), however, which had been founded in 1966 to develop a globally-recognisable style, insisted that the North Korean be allowed to take part. South Korea left the ITF and developed their own governing body, the World Taekwondo Federation, with the ain of getting the sport into the Olympics. They were successful in the year 2000, with the first medals for Taekwondo awarded at the Sydney Games.

Taekwondo is not the youngest of our martial arts yet. The last in our list comes from as recently as the 1990s and forms the logical consequence of all of what we have covered so far: mixed martial arts.

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
One MMA fighter chokes another on the ground. Jiu-Jitsu Times.

12 – MMA (1990s)

Dinosaurs were huge and powerful; they could not adapt and they died out. And so the big difference between dinosaurs and cockroaches is adaptability: one is able to adjust, while the other, apparently, couldn’t… The same analogy applies to fighting, and probably any other sport. It’s not always the strong that survive. It takes brains, guts, tolerance and forward thinking. We’ve seen this since the beginning of mixed martial arts.” Georges St-Pierre, UFC legend.

Mixed Martial Arts is by far the youngest of all the fighting styles that feature in this list, but, as with so many others, it has antecedents that date back centuries. We have spoken at length about Pankration, which might be known as Ancient Greek MMA, and about the importance of Vale Tudo fighting in the growth of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in the early 20th century: both are major influences on modern mixed martial arts.

The name Mixed Martial Arts is newer still than the sport itself: it was first used to review the first ever Ultimate Fighting Championship, held in 1993 in the United States. Prior to that, there was no accepted term for what was happening, though there was plenty of it taking place, and no unified rules for what the martial art might be, let alone a canon of techniques. Mixed Martial Arts wasn’t so much as a mix of martial arts, but more of a coming together in which experts in various disciplines came to dispute which was the best.

At the inaugural UFC in 1993, there were fighters representing American Kenpo, a form of karate, Taekwondo, French Savate, Sumo wrestling, kickboxing, regular boxing, shootfighting and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. What was learned from this – and from the next four repeats of the UFC tournament – was that, under the rules that they fought, BJJ was by far the best style. Well, the BJJ as practiced by Royce Gracie, who won UFCs 1, 2 and 4, was the best.

What is noticeable, looking back on the early days of MMA, is that BJJ was the best suited to the almost total lack of rules. Whether this was because Gracie, as a BJJ practitioner, was the most accustomed to the rule set, in the sense that he had partaken in Vale Tudo fights along similar lines, is up for debate. His style, which essentially removed all stand-up fighting, was perfect for the task at hand and proved as much. As soon as the fight went to the ground, all other fighting styles were inadequate to beat someone with solid – or in Gracie’s case, spectacular – Brazilian jiu-jitsu skills.

As the UFC grew, and other promotions began to take on MMA, this was negated. The more styles that entered the cage and the more experience that fighters garnered, the more a hybrid style developed that was tailored to the needs of mixed martial arts. It was at this point that the martial art of mixed martial arts began to come into existence, as opposed to simply a mix of martial arts. New techniques adapted to the demands of the MMA cage grew and no fighter could expect to win solely on mastery of just one or two preexisting styles: a boxer would have to learn to fight on the floor and defend kicks, a judoka must learn to avoid getting struck and a Muay Thai fighter would have to learn to move around to avoid takedowns.

The UFC, the flagship of MMA, has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry, but beyond that, the sport has ballooned. There are amateur competitions, countless gyms and a culture that has developed around the sport that has seen it progress to a level that none could ever have expected.