There have been many amazing martial artists in history. Some of them have created their own martial arts, while others have inspired millions to learn an art form. I wanted to celebrate them all here by looking at the greatest martial artists of all time.
To do that, I’ve come up with a list of 30 that includes those from a wide range of areas, including martial arts masters, film stars, fierce competitors, and much more. Whether you agree with my list or not, this is a celebration of the most important people in martial arts history.
Table of Contents
- Greatest Martial Artist of All Time – Top 30
- 30. Muhammad Ali
- 29. Demetrious Johnson
- 28. Cynthia Rothrock
- 27. Chojun Miyagi
- 26. Masahiko Kimura
- 25. Billie Blanks
- 24. Randy Couture
- 23. Daniel Cormier
- 22. Valentina Shevchenko
- 21. Sammo Hung
- 20. Georges St-Pierre
- 19. Saenchai
- 18. Donnie Yen
- 17. Anderson Silva
- 16. Jet Li
- 15. Michael Jai White
- 14. Khabib Nurmagomedov
- 13. Huo Yuanjia
- 12. Wong Fei-hung
- 11. Jackie Chan
- 10. Jon Jones
- 9. Royce Gracie
- 8. Choi Hong Hi
- 7. Miyamoto Musashi
- 6. Kanō Jigorō
- 5. Ip Man
- 4. Mas Oyama
- 3. Gichin Funakoshi
- 2. Helio Gracie
- 1. Bruce Lee
Greatest Martial Artist of All Time – Top 30
It’s always difficult to create a list such as this. What makes a great martial artist? It’s a tricky question to answer, but there are a few factors I’ve considered here. The biggest one is how technically proficient they were at mastering their chosen martial arts.
But that wasn’t the only consideration. I’ve also looked at competition results while also giving credit to those inspirational figures who have kept the proverbial fire of martial arts burning brightly. With all that in mind, I’ll get started with the list of the top martial arts practitioners.
30. Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali is the first and last boxer on my list. The reason he’s at #30 is because many people will say that boxing isn’t a true martial art. Whether that is right or wrong is up for debate. What isn’t up for debate is the incredible influence that Muhammad Ali had on the world as an inspirational figure.
For me, he is the best boxer of all time. While a heavyweight, we had the speed, agility, and reflexes of a much smaller fighter. He used his skills to great effect to become a multiple world champion. Along the way, he helped to champion religious, cultural, and racial understanding in a way that few had done before or since.
29. Demetrious Johnson
Demetrious Johnson is one of a few MMA fighters on this list. With the global rise in MMA, especially through the UFC, these martial artists have proved their skills at an elite competitive level. His exceptional skill, technical prowess, and outstanding fight IQ set him apart from many of his rivals.
The inaugural winner of the UFC’s Flyweight division, he helped to give respect to smaller fighters and became an inspirational figure. His ability to mix lighting speed and precision with supreme grappling skills led him to be a well-rounded martial artist and one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport.
28. Cynthia Rothrock
In the world of martial arts, Cynthia Rothrock is one of the most influential women of all time. She broke barriers in the male-dominated world of martial arts films, especially in Hollywood. Far from just being a good actress, she is a skilled practitioner and holds black belts in several martial arts, including Tang Soo Do and taekwondo.
Her dynamic and powerful performance brought a new level of realism to martial arts films, and she heavily contributed to the rise of female action stars. But while her legacy is no doubt her great film roles and being an inspiration for future generations, it all came from her being an exceptional martial artist.
27. Chojun Miyagi
This name may sound familiar due to the legendary character of Mr. Miyagi in the Karate Kid films. While the character is fictional, it was inspired by the real Chōjun Miyagi. He was a pioneer in martial arts and is most famous for being the founder of Goju-Ryu Karate.
He was born and died in Okinawa and made tireless efforts to preserve its traditional martial arts. He developed the “hard-soft style,” which integrated the use of circular, flowing movements while still being able to deliver powerful strikes. His legacy endures not only through Goju-Ryu but also through his principles of respect, humility, and spiritual growth.
26. Masahiko Kimura
If you recognize the name Masahiko Kimura, I’m not surprised. The famous Japanese judoka has a jiu-jitsu submission named after him, the legendary Kimura Lock. While he didn’t specifically invent the move, he used it in a legendary match against Helio Gracie, and ever since, it has been named after him.
Kimura is just about as big as judo legends come. His innovative techniques and dynamic style helped martial arts progress to the next level. His status as an elite judoka and highly respected instructor was pivotal in the development and popularization of judo globally.
25. Billie Blanks
For this list, I wanted to acknowledge not only those who have vast achievements in martial arts but also those who have inspired countless people to join a school, dojo, or gym. Along with being a martial artist, Billie Blanks is also a fitness guru and actor.
He is most famous for being the creator of Tae Bo, a hybrid workout that combines elements of taekwondo and boxing. This not only helped to revolutionize the fitness industry, but it helped to inspire countless people to try out a martial art for real.
With his influence in fitness, it shouldn’t be forgotten that he is a great martial artist. Earning numerous championships, he was able to use that expertise to create an impressive martial arts legacy.
24. Randy Couture
When it comes to legends of the UFC, Randy Couture is right at the top. Both a Heavyweight and Light Heavyweight champion, he showcased his skills in MMA when the rules were still a little hazy, and the sport didn’t get the respect it does today.
An expert wrestler, he was vitally important in the early days of the UFC and is unsurprisingly in its Pioneer Wing. Along with showing off his adaptability and skill, Couture also showcased the determination and courage needed to get to the top.
Post-UFC, he acted in several films but also owns one of the best MMA gyms in the world. He’s left an indelible mark on the sport of MMA and is still helping the next generation of fighters to come through.
23. Daniel Cormier
Not many people have a better UFC career than Daniel Cormier. A former Olympic wrestler, he seamlessly transitioned to MMA. As with Randy Couture, he became a two-weight world champion in both the Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight divisions.
He was able to showcase his exceptional wrestling skills in the octagon, but the majority of his finishes were due to his formidable striking. A true legend of MMA, Cormier not only showed an elite skill level but also an admirable level of sportsmanship, leadership, and charisma.
22. Valentina Shevchenko
If anyone on this list was born to fight, it’s Valentina Shevchenko. While she became famous for fighting in the UFC, her achievements go way beyond just MMA. Not even including MMA, she has won tournaments in Muay Thai, taekwondo, boxing, judo, and kickboxing. It’s a fighting CV that is almost unmatched by anyone, ever.
In the MMA octagon, she proved herself to be one of the most dominant and skilled fighters ever. This led her to become the women’s Flyweight champion, and on the way to that belt, she showed her exceptional striking and grappling skills.
She has the poise, fight IQ, and technical proficiency you’d expect from someone with her ridiculous record. A natural fighter and no doubt one of the best martial artists ever.
21. Sammo Hung
If you don’t recognize the name, Sammo Hung, you’ll surely recognize his picture from at least one of the many great martial arts films he’s featured in. He entered the movie industry at a young age and has become a revered figure not only for his acting but also for his fight choreography.
In many ways, his contributions to martial arts cinema have been immeasurable. He’s been particularly influential in Hong Kong cinema but has done plenty of work in Hollywood too. Hung was able to combine his martial arts skills with his natural movie talent to create great fight scenes that were not only fantastic but also ones that often had plenty of humor.
20. Georges St-Pierre
There are a handful of fighters in MMA who have helped to take the respect the sport gets to the next level. There is no doubt that Georges St-Pierre is on that list. He’s one of the more well-rounded fighters in history, being able to switch perfectly between elite striking, wrestling, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Not only was he physically dominant, but he also had a great fighting mind. His strategic and meticulous approach meant his opponents often never stood a chance. St-Pierre helped revolutionize how fighters prepared for fights and helped elevate the level of professionalism in the UFC.
For a moment, we move away from the world of MMA and into that of Muay Thai. Saenchai is perhaps the sport’s greatest fighter. He was able to mix his incredible speed and agility with impressive technical mastery. With these skills, he was able to dominate the Muay Thai scene for decades.
Not only is he a living legend, but his flamboyant fighting style and unorthodox techniques have made him incredible to watch. Often giving up a significant size advantage to make fights, Saenchai won many titles to seal his legendary status.
He remains active into his 40s and has over 300 wins in Muay Thai. With that type of record, there is no doubt about him being one of the greatest martial artists of all time.
18. Donnie Yen
Many of us grew up in an age of watching action movie stars, with greats such as Jean-Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Bruce Lee. While those names may fill us with nostalgia, Donnie Yen helped to bring through a new era of fighting movies and has enjoyed a remarkable career.
He trained in many martial arts styles, including Tai Chi, Wushu, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, among many more. This technical proficiency shines through in his film roles, where he’s been able to use his physicality, speed, and precision to create some of the best fight scenes of all time.
It’s fair to say that Yen’s dynamic performances, combined with his choreographic brilliance, have redefined action cinema. He’s helped to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western audiences to inspire a whole new generation of martial artists.
17. Anderson Silva
Who is the best mixed martial artist of all time? It’s a hot topic, but the number one on many people’s lists is Anderson Silva. His achievement in the UFC was unprecedented as he dominated the Middleweight division with the longest title reign of all time at 2,427 days.
He grew up practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu informally before he went on to train in Muay Thai, taekwondo, and capoeira. This mix of martial arts helped to give him a wonderful blend of qualities that he took into the octagon.
Known as an elite striker, he was also able to out-grapple submission experts to prove his dominance. A few losses at the end of his career made his record look worse than it was, but at one stage, it was an incredible 33-4.
16. Jet Li
It’s an obvious point, but Jet Li is one of the all-time legends of fight films. The martial arts icon is one of the greatest movie stars who consistently showcased his incredible skills. Li has a strong martial arts background, including his mastery of Wushu, which led him to become a national champion.
On the screen, he was known for his lightning-fast strikes, along with his acrobatic prowess. Along with his remarkable talent, he had the charisma and charm to become an international superstar. While he’s become less active in recent years, he’ll forever be remembered for his iconic films such as “Once Upon a Time in China” and “Fearless.”
15. Michael Jai White
As with Donnie Yen, Michael Jai White has been hugely important in bringing through a new age of fighting cinema and is one of the best martial arts actors of all time.
While a great actor, he also has a great martial arts background in Shotokan Karate, Goju-Ryu Karate, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and more, where he has achieved black belts in multiple martial arts.
In addition to his martial arts prowess, Michael Jai White has made a significant impact in the film industry. His notable roles in martial arts and action films, such as “Spawn,” “Black Dynamite,” and the Undisputed film series where he has showcased his versatility as an actor and martial artist.
It seems as though his continuation to fighting cinema will continue for a long time yet, as he’s also become an accomplished producer and director.
14. Khabib Nurmagomedov
Khabib Nurmagomedov was not just your regular UFC fighter as he transcended the octagon. Along with his supreme skill, he also deserves a lot of praise for both his discipline and sportsmanship. Undefeated in his career, he showed world-class striking skills, but it was his elite grappling skills that made him unbeatable.
He was able to blend both sambo and wrestling into a style that no opponent could win against. His relentless pressure and unmatched control showcased true martial arts in what can be a brutal sport. Outside the cage, his character and humility perfectly aligned with the classical teaching of martial arts and made him a true ambassador.
13. Huo Yuanjia
Huo Yuanjia is a legendary Chinese martial artist and founder of the Chin Woo Athletic Association. He has made a remarkable contribution to martial arts and played an important role in promoting China at a time of social and political upheaval.
While it can be hard to separate fact from fiction due to his mythical status, we do know that he’s remembered for challenging foreign fighters to defend national honor. Due to this, his story has been featured in many films and television series, perhaps most notably in the 2006 film “Fearless” starring Jet Li.
Along with his proven martial arts prowess, Huo Yuanjia is also a symbol of resilience, cultural pride, and the pursuit of excellence.
12. Wong Fei-hung
Another legendary Chinese martial artist is Wong Fei-hung. Born in the 19th century during the Qing Dynasty, Wong Fei-hung was a master of Hung Ga Kung Fu and is revered for his exceptional skills and unwavering moral principles.
As with Huo Yuanjia, Fei-hung is another legendary figure that has been played by Jet Li in films, this time in the “Once Upon a Time in China” film series. Along with his martial arts prowess, he was also a renowned physician who specialized in traditional forms of Chinese medicine.
11. Jackie Chan
If I were to make a list of the most beloved martial artists ever, Jackie Chan could well be number one. He is a huge global icon in the worlds of martial arts and entertainment. He was able to cross over into both Chinese and international cinema to become a global star.
What made him so infamous is that he was able to combine his martial arts prowess with fearless stunt work and physical comedy. He was able to showcase his skill with innovative and acrobatic fight scenes. As with many on this list, he was not only a great fighter but also inspired millions around the world as one of the best famous martial artists ever.
10. Jon Jones
The controversies surrounding MMA’s career take away from some of his greatness, but there is no doubt he’s one of the most talented fighters ever. He only has one loss on his record, but that came via disqualification after he used an illegal elbow while dominating the fight.
He’s proved himself to be an incredibly versatile fighter and has shown exceptional skills in striking and grappling, as well as his overall fight IQ. He dominated the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division and could have easily stayed there if he wanted to, but he made the step up and won the UFC Heavyweight championship as well.
Jones has consistently shown that to be a great martial artist, you need both physical and mental talent, as he combined his incredible athleticism with a strategic approach to fighting.
9. Royce Gracie
As I mentioned before, many people are elevated in this list because of their marital arts legacy as well as their skill level. While a master martial artist, Royce Gracie will forever be known for his advancement of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and his groundbreaking contributions to MMA.
A member of the legendary Gracie family, Royce played an important role in popularizing the sport that his father, Helio, co-created. Chosen to showcase the family’s martial art in the early days of the UFC, Royce proved its effectiveness in real-world combat situations.
Importantly, he proved to the world that technique can be more important than size and strength. Sadly everyone on the rest of this list has passed away, so I’m ranking Royce Gracie as the best living martial artist in the world today.
8. Choi Hong Hi
For much of the rest of this list, we focus on those who created and pioneered martial arts. One of those men is Choi Hong Hi. He was the founder of taekwondo and a visionary leader. Developed in the mid-20th century, he blended traditional Korean martial arts with other influences to create what is today one of the most popular martial arts.
The emphasis on high, fast kicks has helped to set taekwondo apart from many other art forms. Choi Hong Hi not only showcased his dynamic and powerful skills but instilled a strong code of ethics and moral values in his martial arts. Today, taekwondo is a much-loved martial art that continues to change the lives of many people around the world.
7. Miyamoto Musashi
There is perhaps no more mythical figure in martial arts history than Miyamoto Musashi. Born in 1584, he’s a legendary swordsman and the author of “The Book of Five Rings.” His skill with the sword was unmatched, and he was undefeated in over sixty duels.
Musashi is probably the best weapons-based martial artist of all time, but his legacy extends beyond his skill. His insights into combat are timeless, and his writings remain a classic guide to both strategy and warfare. He’s an inspiration to anyone who craves martial arts prowess, strategic wisdom, and the pursuit of mastery.
6. Kanō Jigorō
Here, I highlight another of martial arts great innovators in the form of Kanō Jigorō. The founder of judo, he wanted to adapt traditional jiu-jitsu to make it more effective. His approach was hugely successful as he developed one of the most famous martial arts.
Jigorō’s philosophy was of using an opponent’s force against them and wanting to have maximum efficiency for the smallest amount of effort.
Beyond judo, he applied its principles to education and became a renowned teacher, focusing on character development and personal growth. His legacy continues to this day and led to judo being included as a part of the Olympic games.
5. Ip Man
Another person who holds a special place in the history of martial arts is that of Ip Man. He was a martial arts grandmaster and Wing Chun legend who holds an esteemed place in martial arts history. Revered for his expertise, he was not only important as a devoted practitioner of the martial art but became a key figure in popularizing Wing Chun.
Along with his achievements, he is also remembered as being Bruce Lee’s mentor, which has further amplified not only his global recognition but also that of Wing Chun. Ip Man’s philosophy of practicality and self-improvement has contributed to him being a legend in martial arts.
4. Mas Oyama
The top four on my list are all people who invented their own martial arts style. In the case of Mas Oyama, it was Kyokushin Karate. Oyama was famous for engaging in countless bouts where he wanted to test and refine his techniques. This required dedication and perseverance, which is synonymous with karate as a whole.
Oyama became well known for his physical and mental toughness, often showcased in public displays. Perhaps the quirkiest of these was his fighting 52 bulls in his lifetime, three of which he killed with one strike.
His global influence continues today, and he’s a clear symbol of what it takes to get the most out of your talent.
3. Gichin Funakoshi
Third on my list is another man who created a style of Karate; this time, it’s of the Shotokan variety. He did an incredible job of popularizing Shotokan Karate worldwide, and his influence has transcended beyond the dojos he opened.
Funakoshi’s emphasis on character development, self-discipline, and the unification of mind and body distinguish him as a visionary martial artist. While a skilled martial artist, his teachings went beyond just combat. He embodied the philosophy that karate is not just about the physical forms but also a path to personal growth.
2. Helio Gracie
Trying to rank this list was hard in itself, but trying to rank Gracie family members was even harder. Of course, I’ve included two here, but I could have included many more. However, out of all of them, Helio is the one that probably had the most global influence as one of the true martial arts masters.
He co-created Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) with his brothers and was crucial in making it popular. Helio was renowned not only for his technical mastery but also his strategic brilliance that demonstrated how, in BJJ, technique and leverage can be more important than brute strength.
It’s this line of thinking that is crucial in modern MMA as well as real-life self-defense situations. While his son Royce may have helped popularize MMA, Helio is one who laid the foundations.
1. Bruce Lee
When you make a list such as this, it’s tempting to be contrarian and controversial. However, Bruce Lee simply had to be number one on my list of best martial artists of all time. A mixture of elite skill, inspirational teachings, and legendary film roles means he’s not only the greatest martial artist of all time but also the most important.
He helped to revolutionize both martial arts and entertainment while also creating his own martial art in the form of Jeet Kune Do. His martial art has a philosophy of practicality and efficiency and even challenged traditional martial arts conventions.
Through his martial arts training and film roles, Lee constantly dazzled with his speed and precision. All the while, his charisma and teachings helped to make him extremely popular. Added to all his achievements, Lee shattered racial stereotypes and promoted Asian representation in Hollywood.
Bruce Lee will forever be remembered as an iconic figure who symbolized martial arts excellence, innovation, and the pursuit of self-expression.
Who is the best martial artist in history?
I had Bruce Lee as my number one choice, but it’s an almost impossible question to answer. There are many ways to rank the greatest martial artists, as you can take into account technical prowess, influence, cultural importance, and popularity.
It is also impossible to compare fighters in contrasting martial arts. For example, Miyamoto Musashi was a master swordsman, whereas Helio Gracie was a pioneer of BJJ. You could make a valid claim for any martial artist on this list as being the best ever.
Who is the strongest kung fu fighter of all time?
Bruce Lee practiced in kung fu, so could well claim to be number one here. However, Wong Fei-hung is a legend of kung fu, specifically in the Hung Ga style. His influence and popularity have led him to be the inspiration behind many books, films, and TV shows.
Who is the king of martial arts?
I see this as a funny question as, of course, there is no such thing. While many will see Bruce Lee as the king of martial arts, many others could lay a claim to that throne. Hopefully, this list has given you the inspiration to make up your own mind.
Who was the strongest man in martial arts?
Having huge muscles in martial arts can often be more of a hindrance than a help. However, this title could well go to Mariusz Pudzianowski. He won the World’s Strongest Man title five times while also being a green belt in Kyokushin Karate.
Can a martial artist beat a strongman?
In a strongman competition? No. In a fight? Yes. Strongmen train specifically for their competitions, and this involves no martial arts training. While martial arts will make you strong, you won’t be able to compete with the weight and muscles of these strongmen. However, in a fight, a martial artist’s technical prowess would easily overcome any brute strength.