The Greatest Martial Artists of All Time

Who are the best martial artists of all time? It's a tough question to answer, but the first step is to determine what an influential martial artist is. This list considers the number of people the martial artist has influenced, the skills and knowledge of the artist and the intangibles, such as innovative thinking, that make him stand out. 

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Masahiko Kimura

Courtesy of Wikipedia

In 1951, Helio Gracie gained a moral victory over judo expert Masahiko Kimura in a judo/jiu-jitsu submission match in Brazil. But the reality is that Kimura triumphed during the match with a move that broke his adversary's arm. Later, the reverse ude-garami (arm entanglement, a shoulder lock) that he used to win the fight would be renamed the "Kimura." 

Kimura was simply an amazing martial artist and influenced the world around him as such.  He was promoted to yondan (fourth dan) at the age of 15 after only six years of practice. This was an amazing feat. In 1935, he became the youngest ever godan (fifth degree black belt), after defeating eight opponents at the Kodokan Dojo. By age 20, he became the All Japan Open Weight Judo Champion, a title he maintained in undefeated fashion for 13 years.

Kimura was known for his highly intense and difficult workouts, which at one point consisted of 1,000 push-ups and nine hours of practice daily. His constant wins in fights around the globe helped expose martial arts to the world.  

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Yip Man

Yip Man was a high-level Wing Chun and Wushu expert. But his greatest influences can be seen in two arenas. First, many of his students went on to teach, leaving a large influence in China and beyond. Next, a couple 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, albeit with some liberties, including in the film "Ip Man," starring Donnie Yen. He has become a cult hero of sorts due to this, which increased his influence.

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Chojun Miyagi

Miyagi founded Goju-ryu karate, which blends Japanese and Chinese influences into a new hard-soft style. Many people don't know that "The Karate Kid," perhaps the best-known martial arts movie ever, was based on Miyagi and his style. Now that's influence.

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Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris
Harry Langdon/Archive Photos/Getty Images

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 Jiu Jitsu and judo. He even formulated his own style of fighting, 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.

In addition, Norris was the former World Professional Middleweight Karate Champion, a belt that he held for six years. Along the way, he defeated karate greats like 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 starring in "Walker: Texas Ranger."

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Mas Oyama


In Mas Oyama, we're talking about an amazing karate practitioner who fought and won regularly as a youth.  And this wasn't point fighting- we're talking about a full contact karate man, folks.  In fact, Oyama is the inventor of 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 (1.5-2 minute fights against a constant flow of adversaries).   Oyama completed the 100 man kumite three times over the course of three consecutive days, surviving each battle along the way.

For the fame he received from these exploits and his martial arts prowess, which included judo and boxing training as well, Oyama makes this list.

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Jigoro Kano

Jigoro Kano was a jujitsu expert who began to focus on throws. He melded jujitsu styles into one form that eventually became known as "judo." His Kodokan judo style still lives on today.

He wanted judo to be incorporated into Japanese schools and removed some of its more dangerous moves to make this happen. By 1911, largely through his efforts, judo become adopted as a part of Japan's educational system. In 1964, perhaps as a testament to one of the great martial artists and innovators of all-time, judo became an Olympic sport.

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Gichin Funakoshi

Gichin Funakoshi died a fifth dan in karate, which was 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, where his philosophies on karate and training are written down. The niju kun, or 20 principles, are the base by which all Shotokan karate students are guided. As is the case with many martial arts styles, Funakoshi believed that the teachings of karate stretched beyond the walls of his school and that practitioners became better people overall by following the 20 principles.

Funakoshi's students included his son Gigo; Hironori Otsuka, creator of Wado-ryu; and Mas Oyama, creator of Kyokushin (full-contact karate).

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Royce Gracie

Sumo wrestler Chad Rowan takes on Royce Gracie. Courtesy of

For years, people have wondered which martial arts style is best. Oftentimes, these conversations, at least in America, sprang up over stand-up styles like karate, Taekwondo, kung fu and boxing.

But in 1993, a 170-pound Royce Gracie changed the world's perceptions, winning three of the first four UFC tournament championships. He did so by using the grappling art of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which his father 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, became as influential as anyone could be in the discipline.

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Helio Gracie

Helio Gracie was a somewhat sickly youth. He was clearly the least powerful and athletic of his brothers, who were taught the art of Kodokan Judo by Mitsuyo Maeda. It was because of his less than stellar athleticism that Gracie began to modify the art so that the moves would be less strength based. The result was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.

Gracie won many no-rules or few rules matches during his lifetime. But when he managed to press judo expert Masahiko Kimura in a fight, he truly became influential. Later, his style would allow his son, Royce Gracie, to win three of the first four Ultimate Fighting Championship tournaments, proving the style's worth, often against bigger opponents.

Gracie died a 10th-degree red belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, which is the highest belt anyone has received in the art.  

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Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee is considered by many to be the most famous martial arts movie actor ever. 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 reached the masses.

Lee also influenced the martial arts as a whole. He was one of the first to stray from the linear "this-is-how-you-do-it" mentality of the traditional arts to focus on utility, or, simply, what works. Though he did not necessarily look at it as a martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do became his signature form. In essence, it was founded on the principles of street fighting practicality and existed outside of the parameters and limitations of other martial arts types. Later, UFC President Dana White would say that Bruce Lee was "the father of mixed martial arts."

Many high-level fighters and martial arts actors have credited Lee with being an inspiration. On top of it all, Lee was an expert in Wing Chun and trained in multiple other disciplines, including boxing, judo, jujitsu, the Filipino arts and more throughout his life. In short, Lee influenced the arts as a practitioner, pioneered martial arts movies and was a great artist himself. For these reasons, Lee is the most influential martial artist of all time.