10 Best Martial Arts For Self Defense (Ranked & Compared)

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If you want to learn how to protect yourself on the streets, then martial arts can be one of the best investments with your time and money.

But there are literally hundreds of variations of martial arts in the world, so which ones are best for pure self-defense?

In this article, I’ll give you the top list of different types of martial arts to consider and rank them from worst to best so you’ll know the best martial arts for self defense.

Each martial art has been selected based on its popularity, availability, and reliability for self defense situations. Let’s get to the list!

10. Taekwondo

Taekwondo deserves a spot on this list because it focuses on speed and accuracy when it comes to the blows you can throw. And the main weapon is using your legs to land body and head kicks.

Taekwondo does have a very effective method for landing devastating head kicks in a ton of situations and angles. This is the primary weapon and purpose of this martial art.

If you could land just one head kick, it could quite easily knock out an advancing attacker and stop the engagement altogether to allow you to get away.

What makes it less effective is that the martial art is largely centered around the sport, which means landing strikes on your opponent is to gain points — rather than dealing damage or knockout blows that could help you get away.

It also has pretty lame punches altogether, as fist strikes to the head aren’t as common as body punching and that’s not going to deter any attacker very much. The punching style also is unlikely to land any effective power.

The Taekwondo stance is very dangerous, too, as it’s a completely hands-down stance that leaves your upper body and head open up to hits more easily.

In a street fight, you’ll most commonly be punched in the head, and with your guard down you could easily get smoked by your attacker.

Taekwondo martial artists also have an essentially non-existent grappling technique. As street fights often end up on the ground in trips and falls, your head-kicking skills would become suddenly mute.

Although the Taekwondo stance does have a hands-down style, it does mean that you would be naturally in a good position for under hooks that enable you to defend takedown attempts — assuming you’ve put some effort into learning a grappling style too.

If you really want to use Taekwondo for self-defense, you would be better off learning some Boxing and a prominent grappling martial art as well to give you enough well-rounded defensive abilities.

9. Karate

What makes Karate belong on this list is not just its popularity but its combination of powerful kicks, punches, and even some grappling and throwing elements.


It’s one of the most popular martial arts on the planet, taught in many prominent countries and for all age groups. Its focus on discipline, honor, and encouragement to move up the belts likely make it so attractive for parents to teach their children important values.

And perhaps rightly so, as Karate has an incredibly detailed technique system that helps a student build up skills over time and repeat them until mastery before moving up to a new belt.

The art has several variations of feints and counterattacks and combines punches with kicks very aggressively, which can make its techniques useful for self-defense.

Karate techniques are taught to use a lot of explosiveness and power, which means that proficient Karate martial artists could have some strong abilities in their arsenal for defending themselves on the street — one heavy Karate kick to the gut and it discourages an attack.

They’re also not shy from grappling, as there is a variety of collar holds, trips, and even throws taught in the later stages of Karate, so there is a bigger mixture of qualities in this single martial art that can help someone defend themselves in different situations.

But if the fight truly ends up on the ground, then Karate becomes mostly useless. You won’t learn any defensive holds or submissions in Karate that you could with other grappling martial arts.

Another flaw with Karate is the fighting stance which is very square-on and with a low guard. Where Taekwondo benefits from a side-on stance, Karate is potentially more susceptible to takedowns.

Although Karate students learn a lot about having strong legs and stability, the stances are still often facing the opponent, and with legs sometimes too close together, that makes it easy to push them off balance with a fully weighted attack.

These days, the Karate that is taught is often more targeted at those that want to take up a physical hobby to stay fit or learn discipline, and it would take a lot of years of Karate practice to get to a point where you’re learning techniques that could become effective in defending yourself.

Which is why Karate still sits low on this list.

8. Boxing

Two boxers in a street fight

Boxing is a martial art that exclusively uses fists for fighting. It also places a lot of importance on head movement, countering, and footwork.

You could say that it’s the most common martial art used on the streets simply because throwing big haymakers comes naturally to many people.

Whether it’s using good technique or not is where Boxing as a martial art comes to be important and what separates the boys from the men.

I’m placing Boxing higher than both Taekwondo and Karate, despite the latter’s greater versatility, because it’s so widely understood due to the sport’s popularity, the natural knowledge of its effectiveness, and its wide availability. There’s a boxing gym in just about every city in the world.

Boxing becomes an even greater defensive option because almost anyone can learn good boxing proficiency in 6 months, and will become a better fighter than the majority of the population within a year of consistent training.

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If you become a boxer with even intermediate skills, you’ll be able to distinguish an inexperienced fighter quite fast by someone’s body language and what stance they take.

Having this awareness puts you at a significant advantage because you’ll know when to expect strikes and be able to counter them.

You can easily predict the next punch that your opponent will throw based on whichever hand they pull back with. A trained boxer won’t wind up like this because they learn through sparring that it’s obvious and gets you into trouble.

A decent boxer can complete a full punch from a standing position, using subtle pivoting of the body to extend the arm and deliver a punch. It doesn’t require pulling your arm back, which most people naturally think. This is where the advantage lies for an experienced boxer.

But boxing as a self-defense solution does have its problems. Any fighter, inexperienced or experienced, can lose their temper and let their rage get the best of them.

Boxing skill and technique can go out of the window as soon as a real fight happens unexpectedly, so even the trained boxer can lose their cool and start trying to throw emotional windmills that end up with them on the losing end.

It’s imperative that if you choose to use boxing as a primary martial art for defending yourself, you commit yourself to learn the craft, including keeping your head when getting hit (so practice a lot of sparring) and constantly striving to get better.

As discussed with other martial arts here, Boxing also has a big flaw: it involves little to no form of grappling. There’s the boxing clinch, which is usually only temporary and gives you some options for attacking on the exit, but that’s all there is.

If you plan to use boxing as your primary form of self-defense, then you’d be best off pairing it with a top grappling martial art further down this list.

You also only have two points of attack to use, your fists. Using any other body part without any decent technique would be a waste of energy and likely make things worse.

7. Muay Thai

What makes Muay Thai effective for self-defense is its versatility in striking options. It easily beats out Boxing because it’s not just punching but also elbows, knees, and kicks.

Its nickname is “the art of eight limbs” for a good reason!

Muay Thai even has some elements of standup grappling, with clinch holds to allow for close elbows and knees and trips.

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 movements very hard to predict.

The ability to throw devastating kicks, knees, elbows, and fists opens up a wide range of combination possibilities that even an experienced fighter will struggle to keep up with.

It has a very high upright stance and trains the fighter to be very bouncy on the feet. Both these mean that the Thai fighter can launch extremely harsh kicks with lightning speed and maintain excellent balance if the opponent gets too close.

Muay Thai fighters also learn how to catch kicks from their opposition and launch counterattacks with trips or big direct punches. So if you end up in an altercation with someone who knows how to kick, then you’d have some defenses against it.

But Muay Thai doesn’t have a complete system for every situation. It’s still lacking in floor grappling, takedowns, or takedown defense.

They might have some defensive grappling ability that passes over from their clinch skill development, but that’s in a high stance and a true grappler will often dig into the hips to throw opponents off-balance.

Let’s take an example of a legendary Muay Thai vs. grappler fight when Demetrious Johnson fought Rodtang Jitmuangnon in ONE Championship in a mixed-rules match with striking-only and MMA rounds separately.

As the superior striker and Muay Thai fighter, Rodtang dominated DJ during the striking-only rounds. But as soon as Demetrious was able to use his entire arsenal, which has a dominant base in wrestling, he made quick work of Rodtang and submitted him.

This is just one example, but what we would typically expect to see is that when you’re in a street situation, where there are no rules, being taken down to the ground would make Muay Thai suddenly useless except for having elbow-striking technique.

6. Judo

Judo comes in as the first grappling system on this list and reasonably high because of its effectiveness in throwing inexperienced opponents off-balance and onto their backs with quick work.

Most attackers will be overly aggressive to intimidate and get the upper hand as quickly as possible, which usually comes with advancing closely to their target.

As most people on the street have no idea how Judo works, it’s pretty easy for an experienced Judoka to use that overzealousness against them by using their momentum and an intelligent trip to swing them over to the ground.

The Judo fighter can incapacitate opponents quickly, creating an advantage for them to hold the attacker down, use one of the eighteen available submissions in the art, or create enough time to break free and get away.

It would even have applications against multiple attackers if you could take them on one at a time and use each advance differently.

But of course, these are all paramount on attackers closing the distance for you and taking advantage of that. If they don’t advance into a very close range, the Judo martial artist might struggle to make anything happen.

A Judo fighter going against a boxer or kickboxer could get picked apart because they may have the experience to deliver blows and get out of range fast.

So let’s take a Judo vs. Muay Thai fighter; they would need to take risks to avoid large kicks from the Thai boxer and then get as close as possible to take them down.

Get a hold of the opponent, and complete a throw as fast as possible. If you can’t do that, you could struggle, so pairing this martial art with some striking would be beneficial.

5. Wrestling

Wrestling is all about grappling, power, and strength. It involves getting into a clinch and completing throws and takedowns with immense speed and power.

Wrestlers need to close the distance very quickly and get a hold of their opponent, but this isn’t a large flaw since wrestlers are trained to be explosive and almost dive at the hips and legs of their opponents — which is near impossible to avoid.

A wrestling fighter has some of the most extraordinary athleticism of any martial art. This is probably their most outstanding quality.

They can thrust and lunge at an opponent, use their grip strength to grab and hold them, and use several explosive takedowns that usually lift the whole body off the ground and stops any defensive capability.

The traditional sport of wrestling specializes in body pins, making it very effective in one-on-one brawls because of the ability to push weight over an opponent and keep them grounded.

By using their pinning techniques, they can multiply their effective body weight, making it an exhausting experience for a casual attacker.

And while that wrestler has the top advantage, it doesn’t take an expert boxer to know how to throw punches to the face with one arm, all while in control. It would be devastating for any attacker.

Wrestlers have the qualities to direct the fight where they want to go.

If a striker tries to swing at them, the wrestler needs to keep their distance and wait for one moment to strike at the hips and complete a takedown — something that an inexperienced fighter or even striker-dominant fighter could not prevent.

This is what gives wrestling a much higher place on this list. Even as a striker-dominant fighter myself, I know how I could be entirely nullified by an experienced wrestler who can deliver takedown after takedown.

4. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu enters high on the list because of the diverse techniques that make it highly applicable for street fights.

A BJJ fighter has several advantages over most opponents. They are trained to grab the wrists in a standing position and get closer to start holds or takedowns.

This action could immediately make any striker ineffective, but the Jiu-Jitsu practitioner will have the best chance against long-sleeved opponents because of their typical reliance on training in a Gi.

Still, there are entire Jiu-Jitsu programs designed for No-Gi, which becomes even more useful for application in mixed martial arts or on the street.

What BJJ is best known for, and for a good reason, is its wide range of submissions and choke holds. This is the main reason BJJ beats Wrestling on this list: Jiu-Jitsu fighters learn how to finish a fight very early on in their training.

But even Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu has its flaws. It doesn’t teach any form of striking. It’s a complete grappling system designed to immobilize an attacker and stop them from getting back up and coming after you.

This also makes BJJ very dangerous in the wrong hands. The tools taught in this martial art shouldn’t be used lightly, it’s possible to break bones (particularly elbows), and the choke holds aim to make the opponent pass out.

A choke hold is a great way to stop an aggressive attacker by putting them to sleep temporarily. The oxygen supply is temporarily lowered to the brain and causes a blackout, which is usually safe.

But in the heat of the moment and adrenaline cursing through your veins, it can be challenging to know when to stop as you may fear for your own safety. More significant injuries can happen, so it is imperative to become an experienced but calm Jiu-Jitsu practitioner.

This is all in a one-on-one scenario where no additional attackers are pursuing you. If there are multiple, then BJJ would be completely useless.

While you may get one opponent onto the ground and hold them there, it’s too easy for another attacker to kick you while you’re down and potentially knock you out there. This is the greatest flaw of this martial art for self-defense.

3. Combat Sambo

Sambo is primarily a sport that combines wrestling, striking, and even some Jiu-Jitsu elements. Because it teaches both grappling and striking methods, it makes it very effective for self-defense.

Combat Sambo has close similarities with MMA as a sport, but with slightly different rulesets and methods of earning points.

There’s a good reason why many top UFC fighters from Dagestan also have their background in Sambo. They’ll often learn the sport young, like a wrestler might, and so have a variety of fighting skills from an early age.

Learning Sambo would teach you to become a strong and competent wrestler, understanding how to control the tempo and direction of the fight and your opponent’s body. And you’d learn how to strike as it borrows many kinds of punches and kicks from boxing and kickboxing styles.

In some variations of Sambo, competitors can even use headbutts and groin strikes to win. It resembles ancient pankration where there essentially were no rules. That might come in handy on the street in a needs-must situation.

The only thing that isn’t taught or used in Sambo is choke holds, as they’re illegal in the sport. This might be a small negative, as it reduces your ability to finish a fight. But there are still many other techniques at your disposal.

You might not learn to become the greatest Jiu-Jitsu-style fighter, but you will learn how to be super effective at defending yourself both on the feet and on the ground.

2. MMA

Mixed Martial Arts is another well-rounded system that goes one further than Combat Sambo simply because it is about using the techniques of almost any martial art for competitive fighting.

MMA also tends to borrow techniques from the most effective martial arts for fighting, which you’ll already find on this list. It commonly uses techniques from Boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling.

You’d learn how to use punches, kicks, knees, and elbows to strike your opponent as well takedowns, takedown defense, grappling on the feet, wall, and floor, as well as many submission and choke holds.

You’re not going to fear fighting on the feet or the ground because you’ll have a deep knowledge of all potential dangers and how you can avoid or counter them.

There are rules in the sport of MMA to stop significant and dangerous damage to opponents, but largely it isn’t a detractor to its overall usefulness for self-defense.

Groin strikes and back-of-the-head strikes are two significant disallowed attacks in MMA, but that likely won’t harm your abilities to defend yourself if that is the goal.

You would learn to defend yourself against these kinds of attacks in some way yourself, as catching kicks (learned in kickboxing or Muay Thai) helps parry them away, and MMA sparring will quickly teach you never to turn your back to your opponent.

Your versatility will make you a tiring opponent when acting in self-defense. Your potential to complete a takedown on an inexperienced attacker makes you far more unpredictable.

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, you probably still don’t want to get into a fistfight or grappling situation with them. Better to use your kicks and distance to avoid anything too close-up.

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.

So I feel that MMA is close to being the best martial art for self-defense.

1. Krav Maga

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 can also include gun and knife training.

This well-rounded system has the title of the deadliest in the world since it takes techniques from any martial art in existence (including all the lethal ones) to develop an ultimate self-defense art.

Entering a street fight with hand-to-hand fighting and weapon-disarming skills could give you a major advantage in almost any self-defense situation.

It makes it my top choice as the best self-defense martial arts you could choose because it is explicitly designed for it, and it doesn’t shy away from using even brutal methods to protect yourself.

Krav Maga can be easily described as mixed martial arts’ more-brutal-brother 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.

But a lot of people think Krav Maga is just another form of a “looks good” in training martial art but one which doesn’t actually work in the real world. But that isn’t the case.

Krav Maga teaches striking and grappling, just like mixed martial arts, but with a specific focus on self-defense. This means that the range of techniques you learn is always for the intended outcome.

As a massive mixed martial arts fan and supporter myself, it’s difficult to choose between MMA and Krav Maga for this top spot, but the latter wins out because I have seen how it can be used against the techniques of prominent martial arts.

For example, many people would struggle to be in the guard (legs wrapped) of a BJJ practitioner and be unable to break free.

With traditional BJJ methods, it can be challenging to get out of it. Krav Maga breaks the fourth wall and encourages groin striking, which would bring the BJJ practitioner’s knees closer to themselves and remove the guard entirely.

This defense martial art is also very applicable to women and beginners since it teaches situational techniques that are much easier to memorize without needing deep experience.

One study showed that women could retain two self-defense techniques from just one Krav Maga session. Those could save them from being mugged or worse.

This is why I am keeping Krav Maga, somewhat begrudgingly, in the top spot as the best martial art for self-defense.

Common questions about self-defense martial arts

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

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 soon as a competition is introduced, so are rules, which would affect the available techniques taught in this style.

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.

What is the most effective martial art?

The most effective martial art for defending yourself is Krav Maga. That’s because it is explicitly designed 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 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 most comprehensive set of options for being defensive on any 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 good for self-defense 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 read 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. Hopefully, you will never have to.

I highly recommend picking one up because martial arts are one of the most rewarding activities you can take up in life. But maybe I’m biased because I run a mixed martial arts website!

Perhaps these next articles will help you learn what to do to get started with martial arts:

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