15 Best American Martial Artists of All Time

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When thinking of the best martial artists of all time, it’s easy to automatically think of those Asian pioneers who spread the wonder of martial arts throughout the world. However, who are the best American martial artists of all time?

That’s what I wanted to find out. I’ve come up with a list of 15, and they include a mix from the world of combat sports, cinema, and more. Without further delay, let’s check out the list!

Best American Martial Artists of All Time

Before we get started, I must say that creating this list was difficult. It was hard to rank a Hollywood legend against someone in the world of MMA, for example, but I’ve given it my best shot!

15. Jim Kelly

There is no doubt that Jim Kelly is one of the most important martial artists of all time. He was a hugely important figure in breaking stereotypes and paving the way for other black martial artists. Along with being a film star, he was a famed expert in Shorin-ryu karate.

Kelly was able to combine his athletic skills with his charisma to become one of the greatest American martial arts actors ever. His most famous film role was undoubtedly as the character Williams in “Enter the Dragon,” alongside the legendary Bruce Lee.

Beyond Hollywood, Kelly ran his own dojo and was able to positively contribute to the martial arts community through his teaching, as well as being an inspirational movie icon.

14. Wesley Snipes

Jim Kelly walked so the likes of Wesley Snipes could run. As with Kelly, Snipes was able to perfectly blend his martial arts expertise with an impressive Hollywood career. An expert in both Shotokan karate and hapkido, he showcased his impressive skill most memorably in the “Blade” trilogy of films.

With him being such a huge movie star, it’s easy to forget just how much of a top martial artist he is. He’s another person who has helped to inspire a whole new generation of martial arts enthusiasts. Not many have been able to have such an impressive on-screen presence, as well as being a martial arts master.

13. Rhona Rousey

Rousey is a formidable woman for many reasons. She has a background in judo, which includes being an Olympic medalist in 2008. She then transferred those skills to being one of the most groundbreaking mixed martial artists of all time in the UFC. She was the first woman to enter its Hall of Fame, and the first women’s world champion.

Not content with that, she moved over to the WWE to become a pro wrestling star and has also appeared in a wide number of films. Whether it was on a mat, in an octagon, a ring, or on the screen, Rousey has constantly showcased her martial arts prowess.

She’s played an incredibly important role in breaking down gender barriers in male-dominated industries. Not only that, but her charm, good looks, and competitive spirit helped turn her into a global icon.

12. Chuck Norris

There is no doubt that Chuck Norris is a living legend in the world of martial arts. His place on this list is more than deserved, considering he’s a black belt in many disciplines. He’s most famous for his karate, winning many championships in his younger years.

Of course, as with many on this list, he rose to fame as an actor and was prominent in many great films through the 70s and 80s, most notably in 1972’s “The Way of the Dragon” alongside Bruce Lee.

Now in his 80s, his action movie days seem long behind him, but there is no doubting the legacy he’s left behind. Norris has become a cultural icon, as well as a symbol of toughness and martial arts mastery.

11. Jessie Graff

Jessie Graff is perhaps the least famous person on this list, but of course, that doesn’t matter. Saying that, she became well known for being a star on American Ninja Warrior (ANW) where she was able to defy expectations and redefine what people thought possible on the show.

As a professional martial artist, she is a back belt in Taekwondo and is highly proficient in many other fighting styles, including Kung Fu. While not an acting star like many on this list, she has featured in a wide number of films as a stuntwoman due to her incredible skill set.

10. Steven Seagal

Steven Seagal is most notably known for being an expert in Aikido, having run a dojo in Japan. However, along with Aikido, he’s also mastered many other martial arts, including karate, judo, and kendo.

It was these martial arts skills that got him noticed by Hollywood, and he made an impressive debut in the film “Above the Law,” and his acting career went from strength to strength. Known for his justice-seeking roles, films such as “Under Siege,” he soon cemented his place as an action star.

While he may be a controversial figure now in many respects, there is no denying his martial arts prowess. He’s had a huge impact in popularizing both Aikido and martial arts cinema.

9. Cung Le

Born in South Vietnam, Cung Le moved to America when he was just a few months old and became a citizen. Le’s journey through martial arts started with kickboxing, where he’d eventually have a perfect 17-0 career before transferring his skills to MMA.

He won the Middleweight championship with Strikeforce before eventually focusing on becoming one of the best American Kung Fu actors. There, he was able to use his considerable martial arts skills to bring his characters to life and seamlessly blend traditional martial arts with modern combat techniques.

8. Demetrious Johnson

Another of the MMA fighters on this list, Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson is one of the greatest mixed martial artists of all time. In the UFC Octagon, he shows unparalleled skill and versatility to dominate the Flyweight division.

His unique blend of striking, wrestling, and submission skills meant he was able to overwhelm many of his opponents. The first ever Flyweight champion, he also showed that smaller fighters can be just as entertaining as the bigger guys.

7. Cynthia Rothrock

If Rhonda Rousey is an incredible pioneer for women in MMA, Cynthia Rothrock has the same legacy for inspiring female action stars. She smashed through gender barriers and starred in many fighting films.

Trained in multiple disciplines, Rothrock is a hugely respected martial artist who specialized in lightning-fast kicks and dynamic fight choreography. If there is a queen of martial arts cinema, it’s Cynthia Rothrock.

6. Billie Blanks

While some people use their martial arts skills in the world of cinema or sport, Billie Blanks used his to inspire countless people through fitness. Trained in multiple disciplines, including Taekwondo, karate, and boxing, Blanks found success in martial arts before becoming a fitness instructor.

While it was the fitness world where he left the biggest mark with the creation of Tae Bo, he’s also appeared in many films such as “Bloodfist” and “The King of the Kickboxers.” There is no doubt that many people will have started martial arts because of Billie Blanks.

5. Randy Couture

There is perhaps no legend bigger in the UFC than Randy Couture. A former collegiate wrestler, he was a pioneer in the early days of UFC and was one of the key figures in making MMA the respectable sport it is today.

Couture won multiple championships over two weight classes and showcased his incredible wrestling ability, along with effective striking. Added to this, he displayed the resilience and courage you need to be an exceptional martial artist.

He’s also touched into the world of acting but has continued his legacy by creating one of the best MMA gyms in the world. A true legend of American martial arts.

4. Daniel Cormier

I had to give huge respect to MMA fighters when it came to creating this list. After all, they have proved their martial arts skill in the most demanding of situations. As with Couture, Daniel Cormier was a wrestler who fine-tuned his skills to become one of the best MMA fighters ever.

As a former UFC Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight Champion, he became only the second fighter in UFC history to hold titles in two weight classes simultaneously. While his martial arts skills can’t be doubted, he’s also proved himself to be a role model for aspiring athletes.

3. Michael Jai White

It’s hard for any martial artist to transfer their skills to the world of film and not be compared to some of the greats who have gone before. However, Michael Jai White has proved himself to be a unique modern-day martial arts movie star and responsible form some of the greatest MMA movies of all time.

White is trained in several martial arts disciplines, including Shotokan karate and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and began his journey into martial arts at a very early age. Quickly, it soon became apparent that he could use his considerable skills in front of the camera.

His fight scenes have become legendary and praised for their authenticity. While still one of the most famous martial arts actors in Hollywood, it’s becoming clear he’ll continue his martial arts legacy as a great film director.

2. Jon Jones

On skill alone, Jon Jones is probably the best American mixed martial artist of all time. He has often displayed an extraordinary combination of athleticism, versatility, and fight IQ that set him apart. It’s allowed him to consistently make seasoned pros look like hopeless amateurs.

He was the youngest-ever UFC champion at the age of 23, and the only loss on his record was via disqualification. His unorthodox striking, innovative grappling, and adaptability in the cage showcased a level of talent rarely seen in the sport and martial arts in general. Despite being a controversial figure, his talent and impact are undeniable.

1. Bruce Lee

If my number one choice has surprised you, it will only be for one reason. Was Bruce Lee American? Well, it may surprise many to learn that the legend was born in San Francisco. However, his parents were only in the country due to an opera music tour, and Lee moved back to Hong Kong when he was just four months old.

Still, his birthright meant he was able to gain American citizenship when he emigrated back to American as a teenager, so that makes him eligible for this list! But enough about his ancestry, let’s talk about the most famous, and best, martial artist of all time.

Bruce Lee was a man who transcended not only martial arts but also generations. Over 50 years after his death, he’s still as famous now as he ever has been. His martial arts journey started with training in Wing Chun before he went on to create his own art from Jeet Kune Do.

He was soon destined for stardom, and his move to Hollywood made him a pioneer of martial arts cinema, especially in the Western world. Classics such as “Enter the Dragon” and “The Way of the Dragon” were not only groundbreaking but helped to challenge racial stereotypes.

His legacy is still felt today, and he has inspired millions to take up martial arts. A mix of his charisma, philosophy, and unparalleled skills has helped to make him an immortal figure not only in America but around the world.

Best American Martial Artists – FAQs

Who’s considered the greatest martial artist of all time?

Bruce Lee is widely considered to be not only the greatest American martial artist, but also the world’s greatest martial artist of all time. Not only did he showcase his talents at an early age, but he created his own martial art in the form of Jeet Kune Do. He’d then go on to inspire millions with his acting in martial arts films alongside his philosophy and teaching.

Who is the world’s best martial artist?

It’s still often the case that the best martial artists will either enter the world of combat sports or acting. In that respect, the best active martial artist in cinema is probably either Donnie Yen or Michael Jai White. In MMA, Jon Jones is still reigning supreme.

Who is the best female American martial artist?

Of all time, the best female American martial artist, in my view, is Cynthia Rothrock. She was an early pioneer, and no doubt inspired millions of women to take up martial arts.

Who is the best American martial arts actor?

I’d say that honor goes to the aforementioned Michael Jai White in the current day. He’s been in a wide number of great films where he’s used his skills and athleticism to choreograph many intense and realistic fight scenes

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Span Chen
Span Chen
I have been practicing karate for more than 6 years, and now at the sixth level (green belt) of the Okinawa Goju-Ryu Karatedo Kugekai. Though I haven’t earned my Black Belt yet, I am deeply passionate about my training.