Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

The Top 10 Hand To Hand Combat Styles

Let’s face it. There are hundreds of different fighting styles out there to choose from. Whether you train in something common like Boxing, or a more traditional martial art like Karate, there is an argument that can be made for its effectiveness in hand to hand combat.

With so many hand-to-hand fighting styles out there, which one do you choose?

If you are faced with this dilemma, well then look no further my friend. In this post, I’m going to rank the top 10 hand-to-hand combat styles in order of effectiveness.

This means the best unarmed fighting style for real-life situations, where you can defend yourself without resorting to weapons. The best hand-to-hand combat style will have no rules, will take out an opponent quickly, and most importantly, it actually has to work. (Sorry Tai Chi practitioners.)

Here are the 10 most effective hand to hand combat styles.

10. Boxing

Alright, you know the drill. At number 10, we have the martial art of boxing.

Yes, I know this is kind of a boring, basic pick, but I promise it’ll pick up from here.

The sport of Boxing needs no formal introduction. Even if you aren’t a fan of the sport, you have more than likely seen a boxing match at some point in your life. Everyone knows the basics of boxing: two dudes (or girls, we don’t discriminate) get into a ring, throw punches at each other, and one walks out victorious.

But to put it formally, boxing is the martial art of punching (although there is technique involved in clinching, as I mention in Why Do Boxers Hug?). It teaches practitioners how to effectively punch an opponent without getting hit, different types of punches that differ in accuracy and power, and proper head movement and blocking to defend themselves.

Boxing isn't just about punching, but avoiding punches as well, such as the way Canelo (right) does beautifully throughout his fight against Daniel Jacobs.
Boxing isn’t just about punching, but avoiding punches as well, such as the way Canelo (right) does beautifully in his fight against Daniel Jacobs.

Honestly, there were a lot of options for the #10 spot that didn’t make the list. There’s an argument that can be made that Karate or something could have made the list.

To hell with those arguments. There are several important reasons for why I chose boxing at number 10. For one, it’s REAL. It’s an actual form of fighting that has been proven over the years.

When you see a street fight, 99% of the time, the two people involved will widen their stance, put their hands up, and move their heads. These are instincts that instruct us to use the basic maneuvers of boxing because they actually work.

The guys in this backyard street fight are clearly boxing, despite the fact that I'm 1000% sure they've never had formal training.
The guys in this backyard street fight are instinctually boxing, despite the fact that I’m 1000% sure they’ve never had formal training.

This means that if you choose Boxing as your hand-to-hand combat style of choice, you already have the upper hand against the millions of people who have never trained in anything else. This is mainly because (as mentioned) most fights are (mostly unspokenly or implied) fought as a boxing match.

So you can defeat opponents who will naturally try to box, because you are the superior boxer.

Along with boxing being an instinctive fighting style, it also has the benefit of including sparring as a part of training. Sparring is the closest you can get to an actual fight without getting seriously hurt. And as it turns out, the best way to get better at fighting, is actually fighting. Who would’ve thought.

There are tons of other reasons why boxing is a great and effective martial art. However, it does have it’s downfalls. The main issue with Boxing is that it doesn’t have any answer for grappling arts, as boxers are not taught what to do in clinch situations. This leads us perfectly into our next pick…

9. Muay Thai

Alright, so I made an executive decision to put Muay Thai at #9. I initially had Judo at #9, and Muay Thai at #8, but then I started thinking about who would win in a clinch situation, and so Judo ended up being ranked higher.

Enough with the backstory, we’re here to talk Muay Thai.

Muay Thai is a brutal martial art hailing from the nation of Thailand. It is a martial art that contains all the basic maneuvers of kickboxing, but yet, is much more than that.

Muay is a martial art known by many as “the art of eight limbs”. This is because in Muay Thai, practitioners are taught to strike with the fists, elbows, knees, and feet (hence eight limbs).

Because of the versatile striking in Muay Thai, it also contains unique ways of blocking, the block shown here being known as 'checking a kick'.
Because of the versatile striking in Muay Thai, it also contains unique ways of blocking, the block shown here being known as ‘checking a kick’.

Muay Thai is a brutal sport due to the amount of damage the fighting style can generate. Thai fighters are taught to pivot their hips into their roundhouse kicks, driving their shin through their opponent with immense power.

The addition of knees and elbows to the head can quickly turn fights into a bloody brawl. Of course, this is in your favor! The more techniques you know, the more effective you will be at defending yourself.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, Muay Thai combatants work the clinch extensively. Muay Thai teaches how to fight effectively through the clinch through the use of elbows and knees, as well as how to trip your opponent in order to get them to the ground.

Muay Thai fighters know how to effectively fight inside the clinch, giving them an advantage over boxers.
Muay Thai fighters know how to effectively fight inside the clinch, giving them an advantage over boxers.

For all these reasons, it easily surpasses boxing in terms of effectiveness. The boxing stance is very susceptible to leg kicks, which are common in Muay Thai.

Unfortunately, Muay Thai’s main focus is on striking. This is good, as striking is the most difficult part of fighting, for me at least. Not because striking is hard, but because striking can induce emotion that grappling can’t. Does that make sense?

What I’m trying to say is, a punch can piss you off in a way that an armbar really can’t.

Anyways, the point is that striking is very important, but grappling is superior in terms of success in fights. So let’s look at the next fighting style to see why it is superior to Muay Thai.

8. Judo

At #8 on our list, we have the beautiful and majestic martial art known as Judo.

So I kind of already gave away the fact that I think grappling beats most striking, but I want to assure you that there are more striking styles higher on this list.

The reason I chose Judo at #8 is because I think the average Judoka can beat the average Thai fighter. That’s basically the logic behind this entire list, if you couldn’t tell already.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. I haven’t even explained Judo yet.

Judo is the martial art of throwing. It places emphasis on getting your opponent to the ground in the most efficient manner possible, making it a useful art for smaller or weaker people.

Although Judo teaches submissions, it is not as extensive as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Although Judo teaches submissions, it is not as extensive as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Judo also teaches a variety of submissions to subdue your opponent once they are on the ground. However, the ground fighting is not as extensive as that of Jiu-Jitsu, and hence it is ranked lower than Jiu-Jitsu.

That’s not to say Judo is ineffective by any means. Judokas work the clinch game extensively, and could easily take down and submit an opponent who has no formal training in grappling.

Even against a Thai fighter, who has knowledge of the clinch, a Judoka would likely manage to throw and then submit them. Of course, this wouldn’t be an easy task, as the Thai fighter has much more experience striking, and so it would not be a one-sided fight.

However, there is one aspect of fighting that could make the fight more competitive for a Thai fighter…

7. Lethwei (Burmese Boxing)

…and that would be the use of headbutts.

Lethwei, otherwise known as Burmese Boxing (due to its origination from Burma) is a style of fighting very similar to Muay Thai, in that it is an advanced style of kickboxing allowing strikes with knees, shins and elbows.

However, there is one huge difference between Lethwei and Muay Thai: the use of headbutts.

The allowing of headbutts in Lethwei competition leads to insane headbutt knockouts that change the fighter’s style to fit the ruleset. In a defensive hand-to-hand situation, practicing under this ruleset is advantageous to you.

The addition of headbutts to the sport adds a new dynamic, and also makes it more dangerous.
The addition of headbutts to the sport adds a new dynamic, and also makes it more dangerous.

This is because headbutt knockouts are fairly common in clinch situations in the sport of Lethwei. A Muay Thai fighter would look to elbow you or trip you to the ground. A Lethwei fighter simply breaks your nose with a headbutt. It’s all downhill from there.

This is why I chose Lethwei over Judo, as a Lethwei fighter could easily disengage from a Judoka through headbutts.

Funnily enough, because of its similarity to Muay Thai, Lethwei is referred to as “The Art of Nine Limbs”. The only other difference between Lethwei and Muay Thai is that Lethwei competitors don’t wear gloves (just wraps), which is why it is also commonly referred to as Burmese Bare-Knuckle Boxing.

Not much else to say here except that Lethwei is absolutely brutal, and therefore an excellent choice in terms of hand-to-hand combat styles.

6. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Next up on our list is a martial art derived from Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is a grappling based martial art. That means there are no strikes involved. Its primary focus is on subduing opponents on the ground via submission through the use if various chokes and joint locks.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu originated in Rio De Janeiro, when a Brazilian named Carlos Gracie was taught Judo by a prizefighter Judoka from Japan named Mitsuyo Maeda.

The Gracie family began forming their fighting style into a martial art more focused on ground fighting, compared to the emphasis on throwing in Judo.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu pioneer Royce Gracie was the winner of the UFC 1 tournament, proving BJJ's effectiveness.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu pioneer Royce Gracie was the winner of the UFC 1 tournament, proving BJJ’s effectiveness.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu proved its effectiveness through prizefighting, with its defining moment being when Royce Gracie (nephew of Carlos Gracie) won the very first UFC event.

Since then, BJJ has been recognized as one of the most effective hand-to-hand combat systems in the world. It has gained recognition for its usefulness in subduing larger opponents are for being effective in real fight scenarios.

Now of course, BJJ is an incomplete fighting style, as the addition of strikes could only enhance a styles effectiveness.

For this reason, other combat systems were placed above Jiu-Jitsu.

5. Wrestling

At number 5 on our list, we have the sport of wrestling.

Most of you probably know what wrestling is, but if you don’t then here’s the breakdown. Wrestling is the martial art of takedowns, and teaches various different kinds of takedowns, as well as pins and chokes.

Wrestling is an extremely effective combat style because if you are able to get an opponent pinned on their back, the fight is basically over. This is why so many UFC champions have extensive training in wrestling.

Once on the ground, it is easy to finish an opponent with punches or some type of submission. It is a very simple concept that is not particularly easy to learn, as many high school and college wrestlers have described the grind that is going to wrestling practice every day.

Unless you have trained in some form of wrestling, it is difficult to defend a takedown from an experienced one, which is why this combat system is so high on the list.

4. MMA

Now I know: MMA is kind of a copout choice for the list. It isn’t really a style right? It’s more of an amalgamation of styles.

Well simply put, the fact is, MMA works. And an MMA fighter would beat any other style of fighter so far on this list.

Anyway, #4 is MMA. MMA stands for Mixed-Martial Arts, and the sport is exactly that. Competitors are allowed to use any style of fighting in competition, as long as it doesn’t break any rules.

And the rules aren’t many. Minus eye-gouging, groin strikes, and strikes to the back of the head, almost anything goes. Over the years, MMA has really given authority to many of the styles of fighting that have been mentioned so far on this list.

In MMA it is illegal to knee a downed opponent, such as when Eddie Alvarez kneed Dustin Poirier at UFC 211.
In MMA it is illegal to knee a downed opponent, such as when Eddie Alvarez kneed Dustin Poirier at UFC 211.

These are the hand-to-hand combat styles that actually work, and it turns out the best style of fighting is a combination of these styles.

Knowing a bit about several different styles of fighting is much better than knowing only one, and MMA has continued to prove that over the years.

Now you may be wondering: If MMA is a combination of styles, then doesn’t that inherently make it the best style?

That’s a very good question my friend!

Unfortunately, the issue with MMA is that at the end of the day, it is a sport. As a sport, the competitors are limited by the ruleset, and as such, train in preparation for competition under that ruleset.

The choices on this list above MMA are not limited by a strict ruleset, although the next pick does have a competitive aspect to it.

3. Combat Sambo

At number 3 on this list, is one of the most effective martial arts in the world, Sambo.

Sambo is a full-contact combat style that is very similar to MMA in that it doesn’t have many rules. It was created in the Soviet Union in the early 1900s as a way to combine the most effective martial arts, into a combat system to train servicemen.

Sambo, which in Russian is written са́мбо, is an acronym for самозащита без оружия, which literally translates to “self-defense without weapons”.

However, here is where I make the clear distinction that the specific style I’m referring to is Combat Sambo, and not Sport Sambo.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is the undefeated UFC Lightweight Champion. He is a Russian fighter who also happens to be a two-time Combat Sambo champion.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is the undefeated UFC Lightweight Champion. He is a Russian fighter who also happens to be a two-time Combat Sambo champion.

Sport Sambo is a grappling art, and very similar to catch wrestling, with no striking involved. However, Combat Sambo is more of a military combat system, with its prime focus being survival.

For this reason, Combat Sambo is extremely effective in hand-to-hand combat scenarios. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the less rules a combat system has, the more effective it will be in hand-to-hand combat.

That applies to the top 3 systems on this list. Combat Sambo not only includes most of the techniques used in MMA, but also allows for groin strikes, headbutts, and soccer kicks. The less restrictive ruleset means that in a real-life hand-to-hand combat confrontation, a Combat Sambo fighter will usually beat an MMA fighter.

However, there are other less restrictive and more effective fighting styles out there. In fact, the next one on our list is considered the parent system from which Combat Sambo descended…

2. Pankration

So I’m going to preface this by noting that Pankration is an ancient martial art that doesn’t really exist in its original form anymore. However, the basic concepts of the system still exist, and it is possible to find people who practice a modern form of Pankration that is very similar to the original.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the important stuff. What the heck is Pankration?

Pankration was a sport that started in Ancient Greece for the 648 BC Olympic Games. It was a sport in which two competitors sought to beat the other through a combination of Boxing and Wrestling techniques. However, many more techniques (such as kicks and submissions) were used, and there were very few rules in these competitions.

The name Pankration is written παγκράτιον in Greek, which literally translates to “all the power”, in reference to the fact that it combines techniques from both boxing and wrestling, plus others.

Demetrious Johnson (now competing in ONE Championship) is a former UFC Flyweight Champion, and considered by many the greatest MMA fighter of all time.
Demetrious Johnson (now competing in ONE Championship) is a former UFC Flyweight Champion, and considered by many the greatest MMA fighter of all time.

It was a very advanced system of fighting for its time, holding many similarities to modern-day MMA.

Even the modernized system of Pankration holds tremendous fighting value, despite its modified rules. MMA fighter Demetrious Johnson describes himself as a Pankration fighter, and his style has secured his victory in twelve consecutive UFC Championship fights.

However, the are several reasons Pankration didn’t make the #1 pick. For one, it is an ancient sport (that is too brutal to be continued anyway). Secondly, some of its most effective techniques were banned over time, such as eye-gouging. And the last reason is simply due to its inferiority when compared to the next combat system I’m about to show you…

1. Krav Maga

At #1 on our list, we have the military self-defense system knownas Krav Maga.

Some of you may have heard controversial things about Krav Maga, such as people debating its effectiveness. Here’s why I chose Krav Maga at #1:

The first, and most important factor is that it is a self-defense system, and not a sport. The system was literally created through the founder’s (Imi Lichtenfeld) use of boxing and wrestling training to defend himself and his fellow Jews from Fascists in Czechoslovakia.

Lichtenfeld’s years of street fighting were refined into a specific hand-to-hand combat system that is the most effective for self-defense, when taught in its original form.

Imi Lichtenfeld (right) was in many street fights in his youth, and combined his fight experience with his formal training to create Krav Maga.
Imi Lichtenfeld (right) was in many street fights in his youth, and combined his fight experience with his formal training to create Krav Maga.

The second reason I chose Krav Maga relates in some way to the first, and that is that Krav Maga has no rules. If there is a technique you can use that will hurt your attacker, you are encouraged to use it. This means groin strikes, headbutts, eye-gouging, and anything else that comes to mind.

And lastly, the original form of Krav Maga was recognized for its simplicity, and how easy it was to learn. It focused on learning the basic forms of the most effective techniques, which will allow the student to win the majority of combat situations.

The issue with Krav Maga today is that it has become a watered-down version of the original. This is what gives Krav Maga a bad name. The original Krav Maga was closer to modern MMA training, which is real, with sparring and grappling sessions being a normal part of it.

MMA is very similar to Krav Maga, because it uses live training and focuses on techniques that actually work.
MMA is very similar to Krav Maga, because it uses live training and focuses on techniques that actually work.

Due to the difficulty it would take to find a genuine Krav Maga instructor, I would recommend anyone who is interested in it simply go to an MMA school.

90% of the content is transferrable, as the disciplines are very similar. The only difference is that MMA is a sport, and you should remind yourself that in real-life combat scenarios, you (and your opponent) are not confined to the rules that apply to the sport.

Thanks for reading!