13 Best Martial Arts For Self Defense (Ranked!)

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Updated on November 14, 2022

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There are many martial arts, and many of them are typically designed for competition than self defense.

You might have imagined yourself in a street brawl, and questioned yourself, which martial art is best for self defense?

The best martial art for self defense is Krav Maga. It is a martial art adopted by various countries for their soldiers to use in the field. This martial art is a mixture of Judo, Boxing, Aikido, Karate, and Wrestling. It also includes knife handling and gun handling skills. 

Tired of the unending debate about this topic? While there are many different types of martial arts to choose from, below I’ll give you my list of the best martial arts for self defense.

13. Taekwondo

Male and female Taekwondo fighters practicing kicks

Taekwondo deserves a spot on this list because it focuses on speed and accuracy when it comes to the blows that you can throw. What makes it less effective is its hands-down stance leaving the fighter’s entire head wide open. 

In a street fight, the most common strikes that are thrown are punches to the head. With your guard down, you could easily get smoked by others. 

Moreover, the possibility of getting taken down in a street fight is scary for a Taekwondo martial artist. It will cause your main weapon, which is your legs to be totally useless unless you stand back up. 

Adjustments you can make to Taekwondo to make it better for self defense

In a street fight, all sorts of blows can come out from any direction, so better tighten your stance, and keep your hands up while setting up your kicks.

It’s okay to use the wide, hand-down stance to defend yourself in a tournament or in the Taekwondo gym where you will go against fellow Taekwondo martial artists. 

12. Kali

Kali stick fighter performing movements

Kali is a traditional Filipino martial art that uses Kali sticks, which are hard bamboo sticks. In a fight, it is a major advantage to hold a weapon rather than just relying on your fists or feet. However, you can’t guarantee to find a Kali stick in every place that you go. 

Swinging a piece of wood instead of your arms or legs is a much safer way to fight in real life. In a fist fight, you need to land your punches on certain body parts to inflict damage to your enemy.

In Kali, you have the freedom to hit any body part and inflict a guaranteed pain every time you land even if they block it. Plus, you can also use the Kali stick to deflect incoming attacks. 

Can you hold more than one Kali stick while fighting?

You have the choice to hold one or two Kali sticks at once. One stick will give you a faster time to swing while holding two will allow you to hit more targets at once or defend against attacks better.

Despite the advantage that Kali can give, we have to acknowledge the reality that Kali sticks are not always available anywhere we go. We can’t also bring it outside because it’s a weapon and it is illegal to hold it in some places; it’s also weird carrying a stick around just in case of a fight. 

11. Kendo

Kendo sword fighters practicing in tandem

Kendo is another weapon-relying martial art. It utilizes a bamboo Katana. What makes it deserve a higher spot than Kali is the weapon size. Kendo uses a longer and thicker bamboo sword. The flaw is the same with Kali, you can’t really bring your sword anywhere you go. 

What makes Kendo an effective martial art to learn than Kali is the much larger weapon that you can use. A longer weapon means you can damage your opponent with further distance which will make you safer for counterattacks and takedowns.

With the increased weapon size, the possibility of it being brought anywhere you go will decrease. It is also heavier making you much slower in swinging it which will cause your moves to be predictable.

10. Karate

Karate martial artists practicing together

What makes Karate belong to the top 10 is its focus on faints, counterattacks, fast reaction time, and some in and out movements. Karate also combines punches with kicks more often making it more effective in a brawl. Its flaw is its wide, hands-down stance.

Power alone is not enough to win a fight. You must also have speed and the ability to be alert to be able to counter incoming attacks.

Karate is more on sudden blows using your fist and foot. Using this style in a real fight will gain you a speed advantage making you illusive. However, just like other stand-up martial arts, a quick transition to the ground might cause you to lose the fight.

Karate is just like Taekwondo when it comes to the stance. This is the only major flaw that Karate has that makes it deserve a lower rank on this list.

9. Wing Chun 

Wing Chun master teaching a student

Wing Chun is a martial art that specializes in close-quarter combat. Here, martial artists close the distance and deflect incoming attacks using their arms while simultaneously countering the opponent with a hard blow. However, if you get taken down, all your skills will be useless. 

Being unpredictable in a street fight is one of the keys to victory. Martial arts training in Wing Chun will allow you to have a fluid-like movement that might also make you look intimidating to others who have watched a “Kung-Fu” movie. Many of the techniques you see in those movies are Wing Chun moves. 

What makes Wing Chun effective in the streets is its comfortability in extremely close combat situations. Here you can throw palm strikes and defend yourself from incoming strikes left and right. 

Despite having some Kicking moves, Wing Chun is highly dependent on the hands. If you’re unfortunate enough to get pinned down, the fight’s already done.

8. Boxing

Boxing student practicing his punches

Boxing is a martial art that specializes in punches, head movement, and footwork. It is the most common martial art used in a street fight. Boxing doesn’t have the versatility when striking. Another bad side is that being taken down can be the beginning of your end. 

It doesn’t matter if it’s proper or improper; everyone knows how to throw a punch. Boxing is in this spot because people don’t need years of training to be able to defend themselves effectively using their fists. 

If you want to choose Boxing to defend yourself, be aware of incoming takedowns and tackles. Leg kicks and front kicks are also one of your greatest enemies. 

With its low level of difficulty to learn, people tend to underestimate Boxing which makes them commit various mistakes in fighting. However, if proper technique is used, Boxing can win you a lot of street fights. 

Beginner mistakes that people make in the streets

If you become even an intermediate-level Boxer, you can easily distinguish an inexperienced Boxer in the streets with their body language.

You can easily predict the next punch that your opponent will throw based on whichever hand he/she pulls back from the stance. Trained Boxers don’t do this; instead, they throw the punch from exactly where their fist is located in the stance in a neutral position.

An experienced Boxer doesn’t need to “wind up” a punch to throw it. They complete the movement from technique and pivoting the body in unique ways. It’s subtle, but it’s where all the power comes from. Not pulling your arm back and then trying to throw a boulder.

The biggest mistake that you can commit in a Boxing street fight is letting your emotions overcome you. When this happens, you will lose awareness of what punch you’re throwing and your surroundings. So you better keep calm and collected and set up with your jabs.

7. Muay Thai

Muay Thai fighters practicing kicks on the pads

What makes Muay Thai effective for self-defense is its versatility when it comes to striking only. Here you can use elbows, punches, knees, and kicks. You can also catch a kick and follow it with a sweep to destroy your enemy’s balance. But being on the ground will be your worst nightmare.

Muay Thai, also known as Thai Boxing, is one of the most effective martial arts in street fighting. You have a vast arsenal that you can choose from that will make your next moves harder to predict.

With your ability to catch kicks and do foot sweeps gives you a major advantage in both offense and defense. Sweeps can cause your enemy to fall down giving you the choice to run or impose more damage. 

Even if you are a high level striker, if you’re unlucky enough to fight with an elite grappler, you will not stand a chance. Take for example the match between Rodtang Jitmuangnon and Demetrious Johnson.

DJ was able to survive through the Muay Thai rounds against Rodtang and wait for when MMA rules applied and he could grapple. DJ took Rodtang down to the ground and submitted him quickly. It shows that although you can be a high level striker, it doesn’t give you any skills to battle on the floor.

6. Judo

One Judoka throwing his sparring partner with a Judo throw

The style of Judo is more about body throws from the clinch. These throws are great for immobilizing people on the ground. With that being said, Judo fully depends on closing the distance in order to perform a successful throw. If you’re fighting someone who’s great at keeping his/her distance, you’re doomed. 

Getting to throw and slam your opponent in a street fight might get you one step further to victory. However, in Judo you need to get a good hold of your enemy by clinching in order to perform a successful move. 

The problem is that closing the distance might cause you to absorb punches and other strikes that might hinder you from getting the clinch.

If you can close that distance against a striker like a Muay Thai fighter, then the Judo practitioner has a good opportunity.

Once you get a good hold, the W’s yours. 

Other things you can do in Judo after throwing someone down

In Judo, throwing someone down doesn’t end there. After mounting your enemy, you’ll have the option to either perform different choke holds or joint locks. 

You can choose from 18 different submissions and use them depending on what the situation needs. If not, you can also land some ground and pound to your opponent’s body to show who’s the real boss. 

5. Wrestling

Two Wrestling students practicing

Wrestling involves throws from the clinch and takedowns that are shot from a distance with immense speed and power. Wrestling specializes in body pins which makes it very effective in one-on-one brawls. However, you can’t really do anything to a good striker unless you take him/her down. 

In Wrestling, you can get a hold of someone with a good distance with the help of explosive, and fast take-down attempts. These takedown attempts will allow you to either slam or throw your opponent.

While Wrestling is mostly used in competition and the fighters wear singlets, the skills and athleticism they learn can become very effective elsewhere.

What makes Wrestlers special is they can multiply their body weight when they pin a person. This makes it hard for the opponent to move, escape, and even breathe.

Other things you can do in Wrestling after pinning someone down

Pinning a person will usually leave his/her face wide open because his/her hands are too busy trying to push you away. This will give you a chance to punch the unguarded face.

Even a Wrestler with no striking experience knows how to throw punches down onto a pinned opponent. And for these reasons, it makes Wrestlers very hard to contend with in a street situation.

4. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu students practicing a turtle shell defense

What makes BJJ effective in a real-life street fight is its arm grabs, takedowns, locks, throws, and chokes which can put people to sleep. It also utilizes garment grabbing to get a better hold of the enemy. However, this style lacks striking skills.

You can easily immobilize and even put someone to sleep with takedowns and various submissions in a street fight. This fighting style is very effective if you’re fighting someone who’s comfortable with standing up. 

Take note that BJJ only shines its brightest when you engage in one-on-one combat. If you happen to fight multiple attackers, it’s better to swallow your pride and run.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a black belt, you cannot put down more than one person at once. What you see in the movies, doesn’t apply in real life.

Can you hurt someone if you choke them out in a fight?

With enough force, you can restrict a person’s blood flow to the brain which will cause him/her to fall asleep. A sign that your opponent already passed out is when he/she softened up or stopped resisting. 

If you felt these signs, then it is now safe to let go of the choke. Eventually, the blood flow will come back making your opponent gain consciousness again. 

However, if you continue to choke an already passed-out person for over 3 minutes, the lack of oxygen could cause them serious harm.

But like with any martial arts studies, one of the biggest teachings is to know when to choose a fight and when to end it. Jiu-Jitsu practitioners should learn this well over the course of persistent sparring on the mats.

3. Sambo 

Two Sambo fighters grappling on the floor

Sambo is hybrid wrestling that allows all sorts of punches, knees, kicks, headbutts, and even groin strikes. Sambo also includes arm locks, leg locks, and throws. Sambo’s versatility makes it one of the most effective and dangerous self-defense martial arts out there. 

Sambo is pretty much a bootleg of Mixed Martial Arts but with a much wilder rule to play with. In Combat Sambo, you can grapple with your enemy or throw punches or kicks to knock them out. 

If you ever take your opponent down in the street, you can either do ground and pound or joint locks. The only thing you won’t learn in Sambo training or competitively is choke holds because they’re illegal. This could change your effectiveness on using Sambo in the streets and the ability to “finish” the fight.

Headbutts and groin strikes

In a street fight, there’s no referee to tell you that what you’re doing is illegal. What makes Sambo deserve to be included in the number three spot is the allowance of particular strikes.

In Sambo, you can throw a headbutt and a groin strike. Most other martial arts will never actively train these kinds of attacks (except for lethal self-defense forms of Karate). You can use these illegal strikes freely on the streets if you want to end the fight right away.

2. MMA

Two MMA fighters grappling on the ground wearing MMA gloves

Mixed Martial Arts is another well-rounded system. Here you’ll get the freedom to mix every non-weapon martial art when you fight. You can punch, kick, use an elbow, a choke, etc. However, in a brawl, encountering someone with a weapon is possible and you wouldn’t have any defenses for it.

Knowing Mixed Martial Arts will remove the fear of ground fighting or stand-up striking because you know how to defend and attack in both situations. 

You can perform grappling and Jiu-Jitsu moves on your opponent anytime you want. You can also stay on your feet and exchange vicious blows. Unlike Sambo, here you can put anyone to sleep by utilizing choke holds.

Your versatility will make you a tiring opponent when acting in self-defense using MMA. Not to mention, the possibility of you throwing a take-down attempt makes you more unpredictable in a street fight. 

Mixed Martial Arts is pretty much the combination of all the different martial arts above, except Kendo and Kali.

Having the most diverse set of skills almost guarantees usefulness during an actual self-defense situation. However, if your attacker is significantly heavier than you, then you probably still don’t want to get into a fistfight with them.

There’s a good reason why the UFC has separate weight classes, as it keeps matchups fair and reasonable. Weight plays a huge part in a fighter’s success.

1. Krav Maga

Two Krav Maga students practicing self defense

Krav Maga can be described as the “Jack of All Trades” when it comes to martial arts. Krav Maga allows you to use throat strikes, hammer fists, kicks, and more. It also includes gun and knife training. This well-rounded system has the title of the deadliest in the world.

Entering a street fight with hand-to-hand fighting skills as well as weapon mastery will give you a major advantage on what you can do to your opponent.

It makes it my top choice as the best self defense martial arts you could choose because it is designed specifically for that purpose.

Krav Maga can be easily described as a more brutal counterpart of MMA because of the knife and gun training included in this style. You will not only learn how to hold a weapon but also defend yourself from it.

With this, you can learn to disarm a weapon holder that can turn the tide of a fight. 

Krav Maga also comes at the top of the list because of the efficacy of retaining the information learned. One study showed that women were able to retain two defense techniques from just one Krav Maga session:

The findings from this study suggest that a single training session may be sufficient to learn and retain KM strike techniques relatively permanently; and the acquisition of the kick technique may lead to concomitant improvements in kick velocity and impact force.

The effects of single versus multiple training sessions on the motor learning of two Krav Maga strike techniques, in women, 2020

Is Krav Maga a competitive martial art?

Krav Maga is only intended to be learned for self-defense. It doesn’t have any competitions or tournaments associated with it, unlike most other martial arts. As a matter of fact, Krav Maga is adopted by various military groups all around the world. 

Soldiers mainly use this martial art system to defend themselves against real bad guys in the field.

With Krav Maga being a non-tournament martial art, you can perform unique strikes that are usually illegal in a tournament such as a throat strike and eye pokes.

Common questions about martial arts for self-defense

Let me answer some of the doubts you might have when trying to choose your defensive martial art.

What is the most effective martial art?

The most effective martial art for defending yourself is probably Krav Maga. That’s because it is designed specifically to defend against and counter an opponent in close-quarters combat.

The only martial art that closes the gap is mixed martial arts (MMA) because you’re guaranteed to learn a mixture of both striking and grappling that will help you protect yourself, no matter where the fight goes.

Is Krav Maga an effective martial art?

Krav Maga can be a very effective martial art because it happily “borrows” techniques, moves, strikes, and chokes from any other martial art. It isn’t restricted to one system but tries to take and adapt any technique to make it useful.

That’s kind of the whole point of Krav Maga. Take an effective technique and drill it until it becomes second nature, so should someone come at you, then you’ll instinctively know what to do to immobilize the attacker and get away.

Can Krav Maga beat Kung Fu?

Krav Maga could easily beat Kung Fu in a street fight situation. Kung Fu is mostly demonstrative. As long as you can avoid some flashy kicks from a Kung Fu fighter, getting close range would make it easy work for the Krav Maga expert.

Krav Maga uses only the most effective techniques to immobilize any attacking threat.

Kung Fu is very different. While it teaches incredible fitness, flexibility, and surprising techniques, it isn’t going to be easy for them to land a perfect head kick. That’s just about the only reason I could see them winning.

What is the best defensive martial art?

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is typically the best defensive martial art simply because you’ll have the widest set of options for being defensive on any kind of attack. Whether you are being struck on the feet or taken to the ground, you have a chance.

This only differs from Krav Maga as the top recommendation in this article because MMA simply has a ton more ground fighting training involved.

Many fights end up on the ground, even by accident, with people tripping over themselves out of lack of balance and pulling clothing.

If you end up on the ground, you really want some tactics for defending there, like being fully mounted. Then enough knowledge to create distance, frame your body, and posture up to eventually stand up and get away.

How effective is Boxing for self defense?

Boxing is often very good for self-defense needs because it teaches a high level of fitness, quick movement, and a high level of reflexes. These are all critically important when in a self-defense situation.

As most fights usually remain on the feet with swinging arms, knowing how to out-box an opponent is often very effective.

But if there’s even a slight chance of getting tripped up and ending up on the ground, your Boxing skills can become completely useless. That’s why having some ground game is usually very necessary.

What to do next

Hopefully, this guide has helped you choose the right martial art to start learning self-defense. These are some of the best martial arts for street fighting if you need to use them (though hopefully you never do).

I highly recommend picking one up because martial arts is one of the most rewarding hobbies you could have.

We have a tool that can help you find a martial arts gym near you, or you can check out our guides for how to get into Boxing or MMA.

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