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There’s a good chance you know more about martial arts than you realize. Whether it’s wearing out a VHS copy of The Karate Kid or taking a month’s worth of taekwondo classes in elementary school, there’s something inherently compelling about how far-reaching the world’s various forms of self-defense have become in recent years and even decades. Even if you watch every UFC event, however, you might not be familiar with some of the individual disciplines that put the “mixed” in mixed martial arts. Here are four styles from across the globe worth looking into.
Karate isn’t the only form of martial arts to come from Japan. Judo was also innovated in the Land of the Rising Sun, and we have one man to thank for that: Kanō Jigorō. An educator born to a family of sake brewers, Jigorō studied jūjutsu (another Japanese form from which the Brazilian variant takes its name) while attending Tokyo Imperial University in the late 1870s. It was there that he came under the tutelage of Fukuda Hachinosuke, who taught at the Tenjin Shin'yō-ryū school of jūjutsu, as well as an older student who proved to be a formidable adversary.
Since he had difficulty besting this foe, Jigorō began incorporating techniques from other disciplines into his repertoire. This proved so effective that, by the time he participated in a jūjutsu demonstration for Ulysses S. Grant while the former President was visiting Japan in 1879, he had unknowingly begun to develop judo. Jigorō founded a dojo of his own called Kōdōkan (“place for expounding the way”) in 1872, and eventually gave his new style a name meaning “gentle way.”
Judo is unique from many other martial arts since it features no kicks or punches. Rather, the gentle way consists of two main waza (techniques): nage-waza (throwing) and katame-waza (grappling). The first thing a judoka learns is ukemi (break-falls) — the proper way to land when receiving a move so as not to be injured.
In addition to influencing the actual techniques of other combat sports, judo was also the first martial art to use colored belts as a means of signifying rank. The system is split into kyū and dan, with the former referring to the colored belts (usually white, yellow, orange, green, blue, and brown) and the latter referring to different degrees of black belts. It’s among the world’s most widely practiced martial arts, as evidenced by its Olympic presence. While karate will make its debut at the Summer Games next year, judo has been part of the Olympics since 1940.
Muay Thai: Thailand
Known as the “art of eight limbs,” muay Thai makes use of a fighter’s fists, elbows, knees, and shins. It’s especially dynamic and hard-hitting as a result, with many considering it one of the most effective martial arts in the world. Practitioners of the discipline are known as nak muays and wear distinctive, often ornate shorts that end well above the knee to allow as much freedom of movement as possible; they also look super cool.
Dating back hundreds of years, muay Thai's origins have deep roots in Thai culture in general and its military in particular. Each of the eight limbs is linked to traditional weapons: The fists are meant to model the sword and dagger, the knees act as an axe, the forearms and shins are armor, the knees are like a staff, and the elbows become a mace or hammer. Muay Thai’s ascent as the country’s national sport can be traced back to King Chulalongkorn, also known as Rama V, who took the throne in 1868 and was enamored by it. Thailand was enjoying peacetime during his reign, and so muay Thai became a form of exercise and self-betterment.
Suffice to say that muay Thai's reach extends far beyond Thailand today, not least because of the rise of mixed martial arts. Muay Thai is a key component of several renowned fighters’ repertoires from Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Edson Barboza to Jose Aldo and Anderson Silva.
The first question many have about sambo relates to the name. The answer is that it's an acronym of the Russian phrase “samozashchita bez oruzhiya” or “self-defense without weapons.” Developed throughout the 1920s and '30s by Viktor Spiridonov and Vasili Oshchepkov, the style became the Soviet Union's official combat sport in 1938. It’s immediately recognizable by its distinctive uniforms, with competitors wearing either red or blue sambovka jackets, shorts, shoes, and headgear — once you’ve seen the outfit, you’ll never be confused about which sport you’re watching.
The fact that sambo is relatively new can be considered an advantage, as it incorporates the most effective aspects of several other combat sports like freestyle wrestling and judo, which Oshchepkov studied while living in Japan, and is intended as a best-of-all-worlds approach. The two main variations are sport sambo and combat sambo, with the former bearing a stronger resemblance to wrestling and the latter being closer to what we now call mixed martial arts. It includes both grappling and striking, with fewer limitations on the strikes than you might expect — head butts, soccer kicks, and even groin strikes can be utilized.
Though not widely practiced outside of Russia and other former Soviet republics, sambo has seen its reputation grow courtesy of its most accomplished practitioner, Khabib Nurmagomedov, the UFC Lightweight Champion whose undefeated streak of 28-0 is the longest in mixed martial arts history.
Jiu Jitsu: Brazil
To say that there would be no jiu jitsu without judo would be an understatement. The popular Brazilian martial art form is quite literally an offshoot of the older practice and was developed after renowned judoka Mitsuyo Maeda (a student of Kanō Jigorō) began traveling the world to share his teachings in 1914. He settled in Brazil three years later, opened his own academy in 1921, and eventually had three very important students: brothers Carlos, Hélio, and George Gracie, who took what they learned and turned it into something new. The Gracies have been synonymous with Brazilian jiu jitsu ever since and remain the sport’s most decorated family by a considerable margin.
Like judo, jiu jitsu has no punching or kicking. While official matches start with both competitors standing, the vast majority of BJJ takes place on the mat. Its popularity has exploded since the 1990s, when it became a major part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Unlike the UFC of today, the earliest competitions featured adherents of different disciplines testing their very different skill sets against one another — meaning that you could see a sumo wrestler lose to a French kickboxer in 26 seconds. Royce Gracie emerged victorious at UFC 1, 2, and 4 — establishing BJJ and its devotees as a force to be reckoned with.
That’s not surprising, given how much dedication it takes to master. Whereas five or six years of hard work will often be enough to earn a black belt in other disciplines, jiujiteros are lucky to receive theirs in a decade. There are only five different belt colors (white, blue, purple, brown, and black), with intermittent progress denoted by stripes. Advancing from blue to purple is often the longest, most difficult part of the journey — the blue-belt blues are no joke — with some even considering a BJJ purple belt the equivalent of a black belt in other martial arts.
Jiu jitsu is also comparatively informal. Whereas practitioners of other combat sports often wear a plain white gi, BJJ has no such mandate and you’ll often see competitors adorned in all manner of different colors while sporting patches to further express themselves. There’s also a subset of the sport called no-gi, in which rash guards and spats are worn instead of a gi, the result being a fast-paced affair akin to traditional wrestling.