The 10 Best Martial Arts for a Street Fight

martial arts street fight

There are many reasons to learn a martial art – but one of the most common is self-defense. Many people decide to begin training after going through some sort of encounter on the street. 

In fact, John Kavanaugh, founder of SBG Ireland and the head coach of Conor McGregor, began his martial arts journey after getting beat up in a street fight.

For as long as there has been fighting, people have wondered what the most effective fighting style is. Lots of traditional martial arts have flashy moves or rituals that wouldn’t translate into a street fight.

In this article, I’m going to break down my picks for the most effective martial art in a real fight.

While any training is better than none, these martial arts are the best to learn for self defense and will equip you with effective street fighting techniques.

No single martial art is complete on its own, with each having its benefits and drawbacks, so take that into consideration when picking the best martial arts to learn.

martial arts fight

Which martial arts are best for street fighting?

Most martial arts are trained either as hobbies or as sports – but even full contact martial arts doesn’t translate fully to the street. Many of the things that would work in a ring or an Octagon may not be the best option when there are no rules – or a ref.

In my opinion, the best martial arts for street fighting are going to be those that offer the most practical techniques for street fight scenarios. This includes how well the techniques translate from a sports to a self-defense mindset, how the martial arts are trained in the gym, and how effective it is in stopping an attacker.

Every martial art also has its downsides, especially in a street fighting context. When I examined each martial art on this list, I included some potential problems or oversights when applying the techniques to street fighting.

10. Karate

How To Use KARATE In a STREET FIGHT (3 moves)
1. Effective striking techniques1. Gyms focused on sport over self-defense
2. Excellent distance management2. Limited grappling/groundwork
3. Quick escapes3. Certain techniques won’t translate

Karate is a solid choice for self-defense, offering a wide variety of striking techniques that will be effective in a street fight. Karate is particularly great for distance management, with practitioners being able to maintain and close distance very quickly. In a street scenario, that distance management could mean the difference.

Karate utilizes a range of punches and kicks, as well as some throws. While I believe there are limitations to kicking’s effectiveness in a street fight, karate has some of the best. 

The lead-leg side kick is an excellent way to keep your opponent at distance, which will frustrate anyone trying to get into boxing range. The front kick and push kick are also two techniques that translate to the street well.

Karate also utilizes a range of punches, though it could be argued that the punches aren’t as effective to some other striking arts like boxing and Muay Thai. That doesn’t mean it won’t work in a street fight, though – the punches will work against an untrained, wild street fighter.

As a primarily striking martial art, karate will not be effective in teaching grappling and groundwork. If you can keep the fight standing, you should be fine – but if your opponent takes you down, karate won’t leave you equipped with the proper techniques.

Karate’s biggest downside doesn’t have to do with its effectiveness in the street, but rather how it’s taught. Most schools have a hobbyist or sports mindset – self-defense is often not prioritized. Purely training the sport of karate will make you an effective “point fighter” but would need some adjustments when applied to street fighting scenarios.

Does Karate work in a street fight?

Karate works in a street fight – but it does have some holes to consider.

The most effective street fighting techniques from karate won’t be emphasized in most karate gms, which offer either a more traditional or more sportslike mentality. You will have to adjust the techniques for self-defense and likely practice them on your own, unless you can find a self-defense focused gym.

Against an untrained opponent, karate will excel at keeping your adversary at bay and being able to hit him cleanly without getting hit back. Few other martial arts will be as effective at distance management as karate is.

Against a trained opponent, karate will still serve you well against another striker. The trouble would be if you fought a grappler on the street – for example, a BJJ black belt. If you could prevent him from taking you down with front kicks, you’ll do well – but if the fight gets to the ground, you’re in trouble.

9. Krav Maga

KRAV MAGA TRAINING • Techniques to win every fight
1. Designed for real-world scenarios1. Variations between gyms
2. Teaches techniques that would be illegal in a sports context2. Questionable efficacy
3. Emphasis on efficiency and self-preservation3. Difficult to practice certain techniques

Krav Maga was developed by the Israeli military for use in real-world scenarios, including street fights, terrorist attacks, and self-defense. It’s a mixed combat system that utilizes elements of boxing, wrestling, and grappling, while also mixing in brutal fight-ending techniques that would otherwise be illegal in a combat sport.

There is some controversy surrounding the efficacy of Krav Maga, though this mostly has to do with the variation across gyms. Krav Maga can be a great system for winning a street fight, but not all gyms are created equal. If you choose Krav Maga, it’s best to do due diligence in finding a reputable gym with experienced teachers who emphasize effective techniques.

Does Krav Maga work in a street fight?

Krav Maga will work in a street fight if you train at a reputable gym – however, there are a few things to consider. 

Firstly, some of the techniques are designed to end a physical confrontation quickly and efficiently – often in a brutal manner. Techniques like fish hooks, eye gouges, and punching with keys are used to maim the aggressor so that the fight ends quickly. However, if you use these techniques in a street fight, there may be legal repercussions, as some of the damage you cause can be permanent.

Certain Krav Maga schools also have teachers with other martial arts backgrounds that tend to overemphasize certain aspects, such as striking over grappling. It’s best to take a well-rounded approach to street fighting, so it’s something to take into consideration.

8. Wrestling

5 Wrestling Moves to WIN Every STREET FIGHT
1. Strong emphasis on control and grappling1. No striking techniques
2. Excellent for strength and conditioning2. Limited against multiple attackers
3. Effective in close-quarters combat3. Certain tendencies of wrestlers won’t translate well to a street fight

Wrestling is the foundation for many aspects of fighting and can be an effective self-defense method. It can also end a street fight very quickly with brutal slams and takedowns. Wrestlers are known for their athleticism, explosiveness, and conditioning, making it a solid base for both fighting and staying in amazing shape.

Wrestling is an entirely grappling based sport, teaching its practitioners how to control their opponents, maintain dominant positions, as well as takedowns and slams. However, there is no striking or submissions involved. In a street fight, wrestlers will mostly be reliant on slamming their opponent to the ground.

Does Wrestling work in a street fight?

Wrestling can be extremely effective in a street fight. Wrestlers have great knowledge of how to use their leverage and strength to take people down – as well as generating a ton of power to pick people up and drop them on their heads. A well-timed takedown can end a street fight instantly, especially on a hard surface like concrete.

However, wrestlers run the risk of hurting themselves on the ground while executing these techniques. Certain techniques like suplexes might not be practical in a street fight. Wrestlers would be better off using techniques like a high-crotch takedown, where they lift the opponent off the ground and dump them down without having to go to the ground themselves. Wrestling also has limited applications in a street fight scenario against multiple attackers.

The biggest weakness for wrestling is the lack of striking. A wrestler will do very well against an untrained opponent and even another grappler like a BJJ player or judoka. They will also do very well against a striker IF they can get the fight on the ground or the clinch. However, if they fight remains on the feet, wrestlers will be at a disadvantage.

7. Judo

Does Judo WORK in Street Fights?!! 1 SIMPLE IDEA for Self Defence
1. Great throws and grappling techniques1. No striking techniques
2. Emphasis on off-balancing opponents2. Limited ground control compared to other grappling bases like wrestling and BJJ
3. Builds agility and coordination3. Ruleset will create tendencies that aren’t transferable to a street fight.

Judo is an often underestimated martial art that can be extremely effective in a street fight. It’s an ancient grappling art that focuses on throwing your opponent to the ground. It utilizes leverage so that even much smaller judokas are able to throw down larger adversaries – letting gravity win the fight for them.

Judo is one of the few grappling martial arts that can be effective against multiple attackers. Its emphasis on maintaining balance while offsetting your opponents balance means that a well-trained judoka can trip or slam multiple adversaries in quick succession, something that a wrestler or BJJ player might not be able to do.

It’s important to keep in mind that judo is primarily a sport and most gyms will be teaching the sport aspect of the martial art. That means that the techniques are going to be reigned in by the ruleset of the sport, not specifically for fighting in the street. Despite that, judo is still a great base for self-defense.

Does Judo work in a street fight?

Judo works in a street fight, especially against untrained aggressors and strikers. It’s especially effective on concrete and unlike wrestling, which involves takedowns that can also injure the wrestler, judo emphasizes throws. That means you can slam your opponent to the ground without going to the ground yourself – and also allows you to stay on your feet and get away quickly if need be.

Like other grappling based sports, judo doesn’t teach striking. To have a well-balanced approach to street fighting and self-defense, you’ll want to add in a striking martial art to complement your judo. Judo has some submissions, specifically armbars and other arm locks, but it doesn’t teach a wide array of chokes that BJJ does.

Overall, judo is an excellent choice. Not only will it enable you to slam down larger opponents, the emphasis on balance will also help you stay on your feet – an extremely valuable skill in a street fight.

6. Combat Sambo

Why Sambo is Effective in a Street Fight
1. Teaches striking and grappling1. Limited availability of schools outside of Russia
2. Trains for a variety of combat scenarios2. Ruleset may not translate to a street fight
3. Effective in close-quarters and at distance3. Usually favors grappling over striking

Tracing its origins to the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, combat sambo is a Russian martial art that was originally developed for the Red Army to enhance their hand-to-hand combat skills. Nowadays, sambo is a national sport in Russia, teaching a mixed variety of wrestling, grappling, and striking techniques.

Combat sambo may not be as well known as some of the other martial arts on this list, but it is increasing in popularity due to the success of UFC fighters like Khabib Nurmagomedov and Islam Makhachev. Although there is a heavier emphasis on grappling, combat sambo also teaches striking, making it a truly mixed martial art.

Does Sambo work in a street fight?

Sambo is an excellent base for street fighting because it covers all the bases. It trains punches, kicks, knees, as well as takedowns and submissions. Because of this, it’s one of the best choices for self-defense and street fighting.

The main drawback of combat sambo is its limited availability outside of Russia. It isn’t nearly as popular as boxing, BJJ, or karate in places like the United States. Another thing to consider is that there is a sport element to sambo in most gyms that teach it, so you will learn a ruleset that may not directly translate to the street. Another thing to consider is that the striking is often utilized as a way to set up grappling techniques – so in scenarios where you have to stay standing, sambo may not be as effective as a purely striking base like boxing or karate.

5. Muay Thai

Muay Thai In Street Fighting
1. Powerful striking techniques1. Less emphasis on defense
2. Striking base that teaches clinch work and trips2. Doesn’t teach grappling outside of the clinch
3. Full range of striking techniques not taught in other bases3. Certain techniques won’t work in close-quarters

Muay Thai is one of the best bases for striking, making it a great choice for self-defense on the street. It is one of the most effective fighting styles for generating powerful strikes, including punches, kicks, elbows, and knees – meaning you’ll be able to hit your opponent with every part of your body, not just your fists or feet.

Another unique aspect of Muay Thai that makes it effective in a real fight is that it teaches clinch work and trips. Other striking bases like karate don’t emphasize the clinch, and ones that do (like boxing) don’t incorporate trips.

Does Muay Thai work in a street fight?

Muay Thai is one of the best bases for self-defense in a street fight. It generates a ton of power in its strikes and has greater variation of techniques compared to other striking bases. Because it teaches clinch work and trips, it can be effective against multiple attackers. Muay Thai equips you with both long range and close-quarters techniques, such as a roundhouse kick at distance or an elbow in close.

There are drawbacks to consider. Although it does teach clinch work and trips, there is no other grappling, groundwork or submissions involved. There is also less emphasis on defense compared to other striking bases. Sports like boxing will teach head movement and footwork to dance around your opponents, whereas Muay Thai is much more plodding, walking your opponent down to throw heavy strikes at them.

Another thing to consider is that not every technique will be usable in certain street fight scenarios. For example, if a fight breaks out in a crowded bar, you likely aren’t going to have the space necessary to throw a roundhouse kick.

Overall, Muay Thai is an excellent choice for self-defense that mostly translates well to street fighting. I’ve been training Muay Thai for years and my main criticism would be the lack of defense, which can leave you vulnerable on the street. However, the techniques are powerful and effective.

4. BJJ

Why Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Is Effective In A Street Fight
1. Exceptional ground fighting and submissions1. Lack of striking
2. Effective against larger opponents2. Limited applications against multiple attackers
3. Can end fights without causing permanent damage3. Certain techniques shouldn’t be used in the street

BJJ is currently one of the most popular martial arts in the world – and for good reason. In my opinion, it is the best overall pure grappling base for self-defense, making it one of the most effective martial arts.

BJJ teaches a wide variety of grappling techniques with an emphasis on ending the fight through a submission – including chokes and joint locks. While there is less emphasis on takedowns and throws compared to wrestling and judo, those elements still present themselves in BJJ.

An often overlooked aspect to consider when choosing the best fighting styles for the street is the fact that BJJ equips you with a range of techniques that can end a fight without causing permanent damage. Any striking base runs the risk of causing permanent brain injuries (or worse), as can a wrestling slam. However, BJJ teaches techniques like the rear-naked choke, where you can neutralize your opponent by putting them to sleep. As long as you let go, there won’t be any permanent damage.

Is BJJ effective in a street fight?

BJJ is extremely effective in a street fight, especially in one-versus-one scenarios. It’s one of the few martial arts that equips smaller practitioners with tools to defeat much larger opponents, making it a great choice for smaller individuals. It also provides an extremely advanced and in-depth working knowledge of ground fighting, both offensively and defensively. 

Like every other base, there are drawbacks. BJJ doesn’t teach striking techniques, so you will have a hole in your self-defense approach if you only train BJJ. Some techniques may leave you open to strikes or slams, such as the triangle-choke. And while BJJ teaches some techniques that can be used against multiple attackers, it won’t be the most efficient choice if you’re in a scenario where there will be a lot of people.

I’ve been training BJJ for many years and I’ve often heard people say things like “BJJ doesn’t work in a street fight because you want to avoid the ground” – but these are mostly said by people who have never been in a real hand-to-hand combat scenario. There are tens of thousands (if not more) videos on the internet of BJJ being used effectively in a street fight, so if you doubt its efficacy, just check out the tale of the tape.

3. Boxing

The Truth About Boxing in a Street Fight
1. Exceptional punches and footwork1. Lack of ground fighting
2. Emphasis on defense2. Sport aspect diminishes some street efficacy
3. Excellent cardiovascular training3. Can cause permanent brain damage

Of all the pure striking bases, boxing is one of the most effective in a street fight. It translates well into self-defense scenarios because of its emphasis on footwork, defense, and punching. While it doesn’t have kicks, knees, or elbows, punches are almost always a better choice on the street. 

The age-old adage of boxing says to “hit and don’t get hit,” which is great advice if you ever fight yourself in a street fight. Boxing equips its practitioners with the punching power to end a fight quickly while also giving them the head movement and footwork necessary to avoid getting hurt.

Is boxing good in a street fight?

If I could only recommend one striking art for self-defense, it would be boxing. It’s extremely effective in a street fight, can be effective against multiple attackers, and has a large emphasis on defense. A quick jab-right cross can make any aggressor instantly second guess themselves.

The main drawbacks of boxing is that it won’t teach you any ground fighting skills, so boxers will be at a disadvantage against wrestlers and BJJ players. Another disadvantage is that boxing is trained with gloves, something that won’t be available in a street fight. Without their gloves, boxers run the risk of breaking their hands in a street fight.

Another thing to consider is the risk of injury is great for boxers who train regularly and anyone who gets hit by one. CTE is a concern for professional boxers, so if you spar regularly, you may be putting your brain health at risk. You can also permanently damage (or even kill) a person if you knock them out and they hit their head on concrete.

Still, boxing is probably the most streamlined striking martial art for self-defense. It’s one of the best martial arts to learn and pairs especially well with a grappling art. A boxer who is trained in wrestling, BJJ or judo will have everything they need to win a fight on the streets.

2. Lethwei

Lethwei Headbutt tutorial for Fights,Street fights and Self defense
1. Bare-knuckle striking emulates street fight scenario1. No grappling
2. Effective street fighting techniques not taught by other martial arts2. Extremely high risk of injury, even compared to other combat sports
3. Excellent cardiovascular training3. Limited availability. 

Lethwei is a brutal and little-known martial art that teaches things that are particularly useful in a street fight that other martial arts won’t. Lethwei is essentially bare knuckle Muay Thai with headbutts – making it an incredibly ruthless martial art for self-defense and street fighting.

Originating in Myanmar, lethwei hasn’t been popularized in the West, largely due to its brutal nature and extremely high risk of injury. That can make it difficult to find a gym to train it, and some of the techniques in sparring should be avoided (such as headbutting). However, certain aspects of it make it uniquely suited to street fighting.

Does Lethwei work in a street fight?

Lethwei can be extremely effective in a street fight. Because it is bare-knuckle, its practitioners will be used to the rigors of gloveless striking. It also teaches techniques that are illegal in every other combat sport, namely headbutting. Any fan of the UFC knows that accidental headbutts are often some of the most effective strikes (for example, when Kevin Holland was knocked out by an accidental headbutt by Kyle Daukaus), and one of the hardest to see coming.

While this makes lethwei uniquely applicable to the street, it’s also an extremely dangerous sport – perhaps more so than any other on this list. Finding a gym in the West may be difficult, and even if you find one, you won’t be able to spar utilizing all of the brutal techniques that would work in a street fight.

Other things to consider are the lack of grappling techniques, lower emphasis on defense, and high-risk of injury.

All things considered, Lethwei may be suited to street fighting, but you have to ask yourself…at what cost?

1. MMA

When MMA and Street Fighting Collide
1. Comprehensive skill set1. Injury risk
2. Extremely adaptable2. Intense training
3. Realistic training environments3. Won’t teach “illegal moves”

If you’ve noticed a trend with every other martial art on this list, it’s that they all have big holes. Striking bases like boxing and karate lack grappling, and grappling bases like BJJ and wrestling lack striking. How do you remedy this?

By mixing them together. MMA may not technically be its own martial art, but it is the best thing to train if you want to have everything you need for self-defense on the street. An MMA fighter will have the chokes of a BJJ player, the punches of a boxer, and the kicks of a karateka. 

Thanks to promotions like the UFC, MMA is quickly becoming one of the most popular combat sports. Its extremely adaptable, meaning you’ll have a wide range of skills for every scenario imaginable.

Is MMA good for a street fight?

Not only is MMA good for a street fight, it’s the obvious best choice for self-defense. Nothing will cover all your bases as well as MMA does. I’ve mentioned various times throughout the article that the best approach to winning a street fight is having a balanced base, and MMA is the epitome of that philosophy.

I mentioned that the most effective martial arts for a street fight are ones that emphasize effective techniques – something that MMA does extremely well. Over its 30 year existence, MMA has shown us which techniques are the most effective in a fight. While there won’t be a ref or rules on the street, MMA will leave you prepared for any scenario.

The only real drawback to consider when compared to other bases on this list is that MMA gyms won’t teach you any “illegal moves,” such as fish hooking from Krav Maga or headbutts from Lethwei.


What are the best techniques for a street fight?

Above all else, awareness and avoidance are the best techniques for a street fight. The best defense is to avoid situations where you will have to fight on the street. Verbal de-escalation is probably the best technique there is for self-defense. However, when there’s no other option, some techniques stand out compared to others.

For striking, a quick jab will be the foundation of self-defense on the street. You’ll also want to learn how to cover up and move your head to avoid strikes coming back your way.

One thing to consider is the adage “footwork wins fights.” Effective footwork can be the difference between winning a street fight and ending up in the hospital.

For grappling, clinch work and throws will be the most important. If someone grabs a hold of you, being able to control the clinch and throw them to the ground can either end the fight quickly or give you enough time to escape.

Are weapons good for self-defense?

Weapons can be effective for self-defense, but there are many factors to consider.

The first thing to consider are the legal implications. Using a weapon against an unarmed aggressor can lead to legal trouble, even if they initiated the altercation. Many places have laws against weapons, so you can land in hot water if you’re caught carrying something you shouldn’t.

Weapons can also be more dangerous than helpful in the hands of someone who is untrained. Someone might think a knife will protect them in the street, but if they don’t know what they’re doing, they could drop the knife and inadvertently end up giving a deadly weapon to their attacker.

Overall, I would not suggest using weapons for self-defense in general. Again, verbal de-escalation is going to be your best bet.

What is the most effective martial art in a real fight?

MMA is going to be the most effective in a real fight because it is the sport of fighting – it will equip you with every technique necessary for almost any scenario in a street fight.

However, any martial art will be effective in a street fight against an untrained opponent. My suggestion would be to train whatever martial art you love the most. The martial art you stick with is going to be the most effective self-defense base for you.

If you’re concerned about holes in your fight game, consider supplementing with another martial art. For example, I consider BJJ my main base. However, I have also trained boxing in the past and currently train Muay Thai – giving me a strong grappling base while supplementing with the striking of Muay Thai.

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Timothy Schoonmaker
Timothy Schoonmaker
I was an amateur boxer in high school when I competed in the prelims of the New York Golden Gloves amateur division. Later in life, I began training BJJ. My friends at the academy introduced me to Muay Thai, and I train all 3 martial arts today. I am currently a purple belt in BJJ, hoping to advance to brown soon!