If someone were to ask you to make a list of martial arts you could think of, what would they be? Kung fu? Karate? Taekwondo? There are a slew of others that likely come to mind, but I’ll bet few – if any – of the ones on this list do.
Now, you may have come across some of these since there are a million lists like this out there, but I did some digging to try and find some of the most obscure martial arts out there that actually have videos where you can see them in action. I do hope you enjoy the list I put together of the top 10 coolest martial arts you didn’t know existed!
Bokator (pronounced bo-ka-tau) is a Cambodian martial art that is known for using knees, elbows, ground fighting and submission techniques, and various weapons. It is a diverse art, with much of it derived from watching animals in nature. As such, there are many animal-based systems, just as there are in many kung fu styles. The actual fighting, however, more closely resembles Muay Thai kickboxing, very similar to what Tony Jaa fights with in his movies. The animal aspects are quite interesting and look like dancing. It’s really kind of weird, but it’s cool. But these guys climb on each other and get on your shoulders and junk. What a great set of stuff to be able to add to your skill set!
Okichitaw is a relatively new martial art, developed in 1997 by a guy named George J. Lépine, who is a Plains-Cree Michif and learned his tribe’s wrestling, tomahawk throwing, and hand-to-hand combat techniques during his childhood in Manitoba, Canada. He also studied judo, TKD, and hapkido, which he combined with the Plains-Cree warrior techniques to create Okichitaw. While he doesn’t claim it is a traditional martial art, he does try to keep the tribal spirit true, even while combining with more traditional Asian arts. It’s pretty damn cool.
Taekkyeon (take-ee-on) is a traditional Korean martial art that looks an awful lot like kung fu, but it’s not. Taekkyeon uses a great deal of footwork, as it is highly kick-centric (surprised? It is Korean, after all). That said, unlike TKD, it is not particularly acrobatic, and it encompasses a great deal more. While TKD (at least modern TKD as we know it) is designed for sport and show and can be quite flashy and interesting to watch, Taekkyeon is much more practical in real world fighting situations. Known as the original Korean martial art, it has deadly purpose that is hidden in a soft veneer. Again, there is much of Taekkyeon that is reminiscent of Chinese martial arts – there is the soft exterior of tai chi with the powerful explosiveness of kung fu, except it has more of a dance feel and spirit to it. While I like Korean martial arts okay, this is one that I find beautiful and deadly at the same time and I fell in love with it right away!
It is said that Kalaripayattu is the oldest martial art known. The exaggerated body movements, flexibility required (and obtained through practice – I mean, just the everyday things they do will make you like a rubber band), complexity of technique, and broad array of weaponry are all indicators of a complete and deadly martial art. And what a show! You can tell that kung fu certainly must have had its origins in Kalaripayattu. The claim is that the Chinese arts were developed as Indian warriors fought with them thousands of years ago and their techniques were incorporated into existing Chinese fighting philosophies. Any way you slice it, Kalaripayattu is awesome!
I’ve also seen it spelled kino mutai, but I’ve read that that’s incorrect and comes from a western misinterpretation of the word. Anyway, this Filipino martial art is pretty hard core. I mean, it’s all about biting and gouging and stuff. You’re not learning this at your average strip mall black belt mill. Oh, no, you’ll get DQed in a flash! And when I say biting, I mean trained biting. You learn different angles, amounts of pressure for different purposes, the best places to bite for different desired effects, and so on. It is traditionally associated with the way women fight, but clearly it can be effective against anyone and employed by anyone. Craziness. Now, videos where they show the truly devastating stuff are hard to find, but here’s one that teaches a bite technique. Allz I can say is I’m glad I’m not this guy’s uke!
Lerdrit has one purpose, and one purpose only… to kill. It is derived from Muay Thai and is used by the Royal Thai Army, and in life or death situations, they got no time for anything but taking out the other guy first. So basically it’s a distilled version of Muay Thai that emphasizes sudden, explosive techniques meant to devastate. The focus is on using the hard parts of the body to inflict the most damage with the least potential for self-injury, so there are a bunch of knee, elbow, shin, and palm strikes, although there’s a lot of grappling and throws, as well. It’s definitely one of the more badass, to-the-point martial arts out there.
Dambe is basically Nigerian boxing, where kicks tend to be low, and only one hand is covered. But get this – that hand, the strong arm hand, also called the spear, is covered in cloth then tightly bound with rope. That heavy baby is what is being swung at you. Plus, often (although not generally professionally), the strong leg is wrapped in a chain. These guys are sportsmen, but man, talk about trying to mess you up. They mean business!
Okay, so maybe you’ve heard of this one. Still, it’s relatively obscure, and it’s very cool. Savate is a French martial art, also called French foot-fighting or French kickboxing. Obviously, it’s focused on kicks, but it also includes hand attacks. At the time of its development (18th century), hitting with a closed fist was illegal in France, as it was considered a deadly weapon, so back then, they would use slaps. Open-handed attacks were fine, apparently! Anyway, today, it is a popular sport, where ranks are measured by glove, not belt. The ultimate glove is silver. Traditionally (before sports rules took over), the attacks are meant to be powerful and designed to inflict as much damage as possible. Kicks were low and supposed to break bones. It was initially developed by sailors who had to fight above decks against other navies, so at the time, sport had nothing to do with it. Either way, today’s savate is still pretty cool, and I bet dealing with one of these fighters on the street would not be easy!
9. Nguni Stick Fighting
Generally thought to have come from cow herders in South Africa who learned to defend their cattle via stick fighting, the Nguni style is a traditional fighting art commonly displayed at weddings. This is one of those who-is-the-strongest type contests where local warriors are all invited to show their skills. It uses two sticks – an offense and a defense – although some individual styles might use a shield. You can see how this plays out in the video. It’s very cool!
That’s right. That’s what I said. Bartitsu. It’s a mix of the name of the founder and jujitsu. And it will totally mess you up. Edward William Barton-Wright, an engineer from England, lived in Japan for a number of years and studied martial arts while he was there. Previously, he had learned wrestling, boxing, savate, and the stiletto. In the 1890s, he took everything he had learned, distilled it down to the essentials, tested it out on “toughs”, or street fighters, and once he was satisfied with its efficacy, he taught it to others. It was poory marketed, though, and it died off except for a mention in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Empty House in 1903, where Sherlock Holmes said that baritsu (sic) saved his life on many occasions.