The Greatest Martial Artists of All Time
The greatest martial artists of all time are defined by the number of people they influenced, their skill and knowledge, and other talents, such as innovative thinking, that made fighters such as Bruce Lee stand out.
In 1951, Masahiko Kimura defeated Helio Gracie in a judo/jiujitsu submission match in Brazil. Kimura triumphed with a move that broke his adversary’s arm. The reverse ude-garami (shoulder lock) he used would later be known as the “Kimura.”
Kimura was an amazing martial artist who was promoted to yondan (fourth dan) at age 15 after only six years of practice. In 1935, he became the youngest godan (fifth degree black belt) after defeating eight opponents at the Kodokan Dojo. By age 20, he had become the All Japan Open Weight Judo Champion, a title he maintained for 13 years.
Kimura was known for his intense and difficult workouts, which at one point consisted of 1,000 push-ups and nine hours of daily practice. His wins outside of Japan helped expose martial arts to the world.
Yip Man was a high-level Wing Chun and Wushu expert. Many of his students went on to teach, expanding his influence in China and beyond. Two of his students, Grandmaster William Cheung and Bruce Lee, went on to have great influence in the martial arts world.
Yip Man’s life has been told in many movies, including “Ip Man,” starring Donnie Yen, which helped make him a cult hero.
Chojun Miyagi founded Goju-ryu karate, which blends Japanese and Chinese influences into a hard-soft style. “The Karate Kid,” perhaps the best-known martial arts movie, was based on Miyagi and his style.
Chuck Norris originally trained in the art of Tang Soo Do, achieving black belt status. He also has black belts in tae kwon do, Brazilian jiujitsu, and judo, and he even formulated his own style of fighting known as Chun Kuk Do. Along the way, Norris had an outstanding karate tournament career from 1964 until his retirement in 1974. His tournament record is estimated to be 183-10-2. He won at least 30 tournaments.
Norris held the title of World Professional Middleweight Karate Champion for six years, defeating karate greats such as Allen Steen, Joe Lewis, Arnold Urquidez, and Louis Delgado.
Norris is even better known for his acting career, earning fame for fighting Bruce Lee on screen and for starring in “Walker, Texas Ranger.”
Mas Oyama was an amazing karate practitioner who fought and won regularly as a youth. He invented full contact, or Kyokushin, Karate.
Along the way, he beat up bulls, participated in multiple demonstrations in the U.S., and invented the 100-man kumite, a series of 90-second to two-minute fights against a constant flow of adversaries. Oyama completed the 100-man kumite three times over three consecutive days, surviving each battle along the way.
His fighting prowess also included training in judo and boxing.
Jigoro Kano was a jujitsu expert who focused on throws. He melded jujitsu styles into one form that eventually became known as “judo.” His Kodokan judo style still lives today.
To help judo be incorporated into Japanese schools, he removed some of its more dangerous moves. By 1911, largely through his efforts, judo had been adopted as part of Japan’s educational system. In 1964, it became an Olympic sport.
Gichin Funakoshi died a fifth dan in karate, the highest rank one could achieve at the time. He formulated his own system, Shotokan, the most widely practiced karate style in use today.
Funakoshi’s influences can be seen in “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate,” a book describing his philosophies on karate and training. The niju kun, or 20 principles, are the foundation for all Shotokan karate students. Funakoshi believed that the teachings of karate stretched beyond the walls of his school and that practitioners became better people overall.
Funakoshi’s students included his son Gigo; Hironori Otsuka, creator of Wado-ryu; and Mas Oyama.
For years, people have wondered which martial arts style is best. Often, these conversations, at least in America, have concerned stand-up styles such as karate, tae kwon do, kung fu, and boxing.
But in 1993, a 170-pound Royce Gracie changed the world’s perceptions of martial arts, winning three of the first four Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) tournaments. He did so by using the grappling art of Brazilian jiujitsu, which his father had invented.
With his wins, Gracie changed martial arts forever, putting mixed martial arts on the map. Today, nearly every high-level fighter practices his father’s art, and Gracie, a sixth-degree black belt, has become as influential as anyone else in the discipline.
Helio Gracie was a somewhat sickly youth, less powerful and athletic than his brothers, who were taught Kodokan Judo by Mitsuyo Maeda. Because of his less than stellar athleticism, Gracie began to modify the art so that the moves were less strength-based. The result was Brazilian jiujitsu.
Gracie won many no-rule and few-rule matches during his lifetime, but when he pressed judo expert Masahiko Kimura in a fight, he became truly influential. Later, his style allowed his son, Royce Gracie, to win three of the first four Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments, proving the style’s worth.
Gracie died a 10th-degree red belt in Brazilian jiujitsu, the highest belt anyone has received in the art.
Bruce Lee is perhaps the most famous martial arts movie actor of all time. He starred as the Hornet’s sidekick, Kato, in the television series “The Green Hornet” (1966-67) and in movies such as “The Way of the Dragon.” With his most mainstream film, “Enter the Dragon,” Lee’s influence finally reached the masses.
Lee also influenced martial arts as a whole. He was one of the first to stray from the linear “this-is-how-you-do-it” mentality of traditional arts to focus on utility—simply, what works. Though he did not necessarily look at it as a martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do, which became his signature form, was founded on the principles of practical street fighting. Later, UFC President Dana White said that Bruce Lee was “the father of mixed martial arts.”
Many high-level fighters and martial arts actors have credited Lee as an inspiration. Lee was an expert in Wing Chun and trained in multiple other disciplines, including boxing, judo, jujitsu, and the Filipino arts, throughout his life. For his work as a practitioner, pioneer, and artist, Lee has become the most influential martial artist of all time.