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
Two Jui-Jitsu fighters in action. Bundesarchiv Bild.

5 – Jiu-jitsu (14th century)

“The mountain-sea spirit that it is bad to repeat the same thing several times several times when fighting the enemy. There may be no help but to do something twice, but do not try it a third time. If you once make an attack and fail, there is little chance of success if you use the same approach again. If you attempt a technique which you have previously tried unsuccessfully and fail yet again, then you must change your attacking method.” Miyamoto Musashi, Japanese martial artist and philosopher.

Before discussing any Japanese martial art, it is vital to understand the martial history of Japan and the profound effect of Japanese culture that martial arts have had. Few countries can be said to place their martial arts so centrally to the development of their national identity as Japan and the array of fighting styles that have been produced by the Japanese is astounding. From grappling arts like aikido, jiu-jitsu and judo to striking styles such as karate and kempo, weapon-based methods such as kendo, ninjitsu and kyudo and, of course, the national sport of sumo wrestling. As we will spend the next few sections in Japan, it is worth discussing the origins of Japanese martial culture.

To understand them all, we must go back to mediaeval Japan and attempt to understand the culture that produced them. The way in which society was organised dictated that the use of weapons was limited to just one section of society, the famed samurai class, whose lifestyle was entirely orientated around combat. With such a class, a system of honour developed that still pervades many Japanese martial arts to this day, while their dedication to training methods also saw a huge variety of fighting styles, as well as a very high level of technical expertise. Furthermore, Japan’s geographic position as an island often insulated the country from foreign interference and produced a more in-depth, studied approach to martial arts, as they were rarely invaded or faced with outside threat.

The first major style to emerge after Japan’s Sakoku period – in which all foreign contact was cut off between 1633 and 1853 – was jiu-jitsu. Once, jiu-jitsu had incorporated many weapons and anticipated adversaries wearing armour, but by the mid-1800s, it was predominantly based around an assailant in street clothes, without weaponry. It prioritised locks and chokes, attained via throws, rather than strikes, although they did still play a role, as did small weapons. There were an estimated 2000 jiu-jitsu schools in Japan in the late 19th Century, all with varying teaching methods, which eventually merged into what we know today as jiu-jitsu.

The concept behind the style emphasises using the weight and anger of an opponent against them, with the idea that a smarter practitioner would prevail over a clumsy one. There is a theory that this emerged because, after the opening up of Japan from 200 years of isolation, there had been influx of foreigners into the country, the vast majority of whom were larger than the genetically small-statured Japanese. Thus, a fighting style in which weight can be an active disadvantage was one that would be preferable.

As a non-lethal martial art, especially one based around restraining an opponent rather than wounding them via strikes, jiu-jitsu has long been favoured by law enforcement and indeed, is taught to most police around the world in some form. The breadth of jiu-jitsu styles is still vast – two of the world’s most popular martial arts, judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, are direct offshoots that have outgrown the original – and the variety of techniques is almost endless. It represents the fundamental starting point of most Japanese fighting style. Most, of course, because there is one that developed almost totally independently of jiu-jitsu: karate.

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
Guichin Funakoshi, the man who brought Karate to the world. Shotokan Karate of America.

6 – Karate (14th century)

“Some young enthusiasts of karate believe that it can be learned only from instructors in a dojo, but such men are mere technicians, not true karateka. There is a Buddhist saying that “any place can be a dojo,” and that is a saying that anyone who wants to follow the way of karate must never forget. Karate-do is not only the acquisition of certain defensive skills but also the mastering of the arts of being a good and honest member of society.” Gichin Funakoshi on the purposes of Karate

Karate is a Japanese martial art, but it might more properly be called an Okinawan martial art. Okinawa is found well to the south of the main islands of Japan and was, until the mid 19th Century, separate from the Japanese nation. Sandwiched between Japan and China, influences on Okinawan culture came from both, as well as indigenous aspects: karate is thus a fusion of various Chinese martial arts, developed in isolation from modern Japan but the filtered into the wider world via Japan.

The “te” in karate comes from the original Okinawan style, which was split between different cities, different clans and different schools within the thousand-mile long chain of islands. It wasn’t until Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan master, travelled to Japan in the 1910s that the style began to take hold outside of the island. Funakoshi had learned the ancient arts of Okinawa as a child and developed his own hybrid, which became known as Shotokan karate, the style that is most popular today.

His style took hold quickly, especially once he had changed the name from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand”, written differently but pronounced the same in Japanese. The name had originated during a period in the Ryuku Islands, of which Okinawa is a part, in which Chinese was in vogue, but he decided to change it to assist with popularisation in Japan. He also added the suffix “do”, meaning “way” (see also Aikido, Judo and Kendo), and the name had suddenly changed from “Chinese martial art” to “The Way of the Empty Hand”, the name by which it is often known today.

He built the style up through universities and gained recognition as a Japanese martial art in 1933. It was a perfect time for karate to find popularity: Japan was sending migrants around the world and they brought karate with them, leading to schools forming in neighbouring countries such as Korea and China (which was at the time under Japanese occupation) as well as further afield in the United States, Canada and Europe.

Later, as the United States occupied Japan in the wake of the Second World War, huge troop numbers were stationed on Okinawa. Even to this day, Okinawa is the centre of the American military presence in Japan, and many of those who have found themselves there have fallen in love with the local martial art. As a result, America took to karate in a huge way, with it becoming almost synonymous with Japanese martial arts for many there. The fad for Asian culture that took hold of many in the late 1970s, centred around martial arts movies such as The Karate Kid series, grew the sport massively and by the 1980s, there were karate tournaments and dojos everywhere across the country.

The growth of competitive karate – something to which Gichin Funakoshi was always opposed – has been considerable and in 2016, the sport was voted into the Olympic Games for the very first time. As the next games will be held in Tokyo, perhaps it can be seen as a homecoming for one of Japan’s most enduring martial arts. Of course, it is not the first Japanese martial art to feature in the Olympics: the first, and arguably most popular, is Judo – about which we will talk next.

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
Kano Jigoro – on the right – with an opponent. Wikipedia.

7 – Judo (1882)

“In Randori (judo sparring) we teach the pupil to act on the fundamental principles of Judo, no matter how physically inferior his opponent may seem to him, and even if by sheer strength he can easily overcome him; because if he acts contrary to principle his opponent will never be convinced of defeat, no matter what brute strength he may have used.” Jigoro Kano, on the purposes of Judo.

Of all the Japanese martial arts, judo is probably the most widely practised around the world. It is relatively safe – no strikes, and therefore less potential for injury – as well as being a widely accepted Olympic sport with decades of participation behind it. From its origins in Japan, it has spread around the world: while Japan has dominated Olympic medals, countries as widely spread as France, Cuba, Brazil and Russia are also in the top 10 for medals.

The competitive acceptance of judo was not always the intention of the founder, Kano Jigoro. “I have been asked by people of various sections as to the wisdom and possibility of judo being introduced with other games and sports at the Olympic Games,” he said in 1932, on hosting a demonstration of the sport for the Tokyo Games. “My view on the matter, at present, is rather passive. If it be the desire of other member countries, I have no objection. But I do not feel inclined to take any initiative. For one thing, judo in reality is not a mere sport or game. I regard it as a principle of life, art and science. In fact, it is a means for personal cultural attainment. Only one of the forms of judo training, so-called randori or free practice can be classed as a form of sport.”

This view on competitive judo is largely in line with that of the jiu-jitsu tradition from which Kano, and thus Judo, sprung. Kano had been bullied at school and thus attempted take up jiu-jitsu to defend himself from his abusers. Jiu-jitsu was somewhat out of fashion at the time and he struggled to find a master to teach him, eventually learning from Fukuda Hachinosuke, a master with an emphasis on competitive practice rather than demonstration. When Fukuda died, he passed the dojo onto Kano, who eventually founded the Kodokan, the birthplace of judo.

It was at this point, in the mid-1880s, that judo would start to diverge from jiu-jitsu. “In short, resisting a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him,” wrote Kano. Efficiency was seen as paramount – “maximum efficiency, minimum effort” is famed Kano quote – and an all-encompassing philosophy and manner of teaching, the pedagogy of judo, was as important as the ends itself. Kanos decision to change the name from jiu-jitsu – “the gentle martial art” – to judo – “the gentle way” – was intended to emphasise that judo was not just about the techniques.

The growth of judo was rapid. The Kodokan was extended several times and within a decade had gone from just 9 mats to over 300. By Kano’s death in 1938, their headquarters boasted a thousand mats on which judoka could train. Kano, an educator, saw the sport embedded in Japanese schools and soon the number of participants had grown from a handful to a thousand dan-level experts within 30 years. Kano was a polymath and spoke English well, so international expansion was also possible. It was exhibited worldwide and a campaign began to take it into the Olympics, which was successful in 1962.

Judo would become so popular worldwide that it created offshoot sports, just as it had once sprung from jiu-jitsu. In Russia, sambo would become a major martial art, while in Brazil, a whole other style would emerge that would go on to dominate: Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

What You Don’t Know About the Origins of these 12 Martial Arts
Carlos Gracie, one of the founders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. BJJ Heroes.

8 – Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (1920s)

“I am a shark, the ground is my ocean, and most people don’t know how to swim.” Jean Jacques Machado, pioneer of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

As judo is inseparable from its founder, Kano Jigoro, so the art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) is almost impossible to mention without talking about the Gracie family. The Gracies are the first family of the sport and the people who have done the most for it in terms of making BJJ one of the most popular martial arts around the world, but they were not actually the founders of it.

The roots of BJJ are in the first judo trainers ever to come to Brazil. The first missionary was Geo Omori, who arrived in South America in 1909 having learned the art in his native Tokyo, at the original Kodokan. He brought his skills with him to Brazil’s huge expatriate Japanese community and opened up a dojo in Rio de Janiero. Following Omori was Mitsuyo Maeda, a former sumo wrestler who had been sent by Kano to Brazil to teach ground-fighting. The Japanese community in Brazil had heard of the new style of jiu-jitsu and many were eager to learn.

In 1917, one of the new students of the style was Gastao Gracie, a circus owner, who introduced his son Carlos to Maeda. He, in turn, invited his brother Helio to join him and between them, they began to develop a style that focussed on ground-fighting, where any weight advantage could be even more easily negated. It is Carlos and Helio who are considered to have invented BJJ, though with much assistance from the original Japanese judo missionaries.

Almost as soon as Helio and Carlos had taken up judo, the rules began to change and BJJ began to emerge as a separate fighting style. Judo was well on its way to becoming an Olympic sport and thus neglected the ground fighting aspects in favour of more spectator friendly, safer practices. In Brazil, however, the sporting public were going in a different direction. As Maeda had spread the gospel of judo through Brazil, the circuses at which he had demonstrated had often hosted fights in the “vale tudo” style – the name meaning “anything goes” – in which almost any move was allowed. Maeda had shown the effectiveness of judo in this fighting, and had beaten a capoeira fighter with a knife as well as wrestlers and boxers.

The Gracies, however, thought differently. Carlos claimed that he had offered to fight anyone, from any background, of any size, in order to prove the effectiveness of the new, “Brazilian” style of jiu-jitsu that he was pioneering – jiu-jitsu being what Brazilians called Maeda’s judo. He even faced Geo Omori, the original bringer of judo to Brazil, in several gruelling bouts. Helio, a much smaller fighter than Carlos, was even more intent on perfecting his game on the ground and studied Maeda extensively, eventually become a vale tudo fighter himself and a hero across all of Brazil.

Living to the ripe age of 95, Helio’s children popularised BJJ – then known as “Gracie jiu-jitsu” in the United States, leading to the growth of the sport and its eventual incorporation into MMA, as seen by the success of Helio’s protege Royce Gracie, the winner of the first four UFC tournaments.

The competitive nature of BJJ has been there from the very start, and the vale tudo fights that proved the practical applications of the form showed how effective it could be when there were no rules in a fight. One style, however, stands above all others in terms of brutality, lack of rules and viciousness: the Israeli martial art of Krav Maga.

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.