Which Martial Art is Best?

For what purpose? In order to recommend a martial art, I really need to know what is your goal. Ideally I’d also know a bit about you, like what your training background is, and what your strengths & weaknesses are, as well as what specific club you’re thinking of joining because every martial art has better and worse teachers. But if I know nothing about you or your teacher – only your general status & goal – here’s what I’d recommend…

Mission: Equipping a beginner from scratch

If you’re a complete beginner to martial arts and want to focus on a single martial art for a few months or a few years, to get as good as you possibly can be in practical self defence, I would probably pick Wing Chun, even without knowing where in the world you’re training and who with, because I reckon the average Wing Chun student in the world gains more than the average student of any other art, in terms of basic practical self-defence capability, in my humble opinion (as a biased Wing Chun teacher). Wing Chun generally teaches Blocking/Parrying and Counter-Striking as well as Anti-Grappling from a stand-up position, to a very high level very quickly. This is probably the most important stuff for practical empowering self defence, and Wing Chun is the best art for learning this stuff quickly, mainly thanks to its exercise called Chi Sau (meaning Sticky Hands) which keeps the core of the art largely legit in spite of widespread teacher tendencies to distort things in a nerdy or thuggish way.

Without knowing anything about you or which teacher will be training you, if you asked for a second style to learn subsequently or concurrently to Wing Chun, for maximum practical self defence capability, I would probably pick Judo. Because it complements Wing Chun very well – it traditionally focuses on practical grappling for takedown of the opponent without compromising one’s own stand up position. Granted, modern sportive clubs will often teach you to go down with the opponent to gain half a point if that’s all you can manage – this is generally a bad strategy for the streets. But the average Judo club still places a lot more emphasis on staying on your feet than the average BJJ club. Judo is also an art that aims for grace & efficiency, hence its name which means “the soft way”, but unlike the average Tai Chi club, Judo is well grounded in Olympic sportive culture to minimise the popularity of bullshido (delusional stuff). When you combine Wing Chun which typically gives the student plenty of blocking/parrying & counter-striking capability as well as very strong anti-grappling skills, with Judo which typically gives the student plenty of pro-active grappling & takedown ability, what you end up with is a pretty well rounded martial artist with a broad spectrum of well grounded skills that complement each other nicely.

I’ve personally trained with veterans from the GB squad who have told me my Wing Chun Sticky Hands / Tai Chi Push Hands moves are unlike anything they’ve seen before but are just as effective as their own Olympic level Judo moves in the initial battle for grip & control. The main difference was, they were trying to control my Jacket (sleeves & collar), while I was only interested in the placement of our skeletons, ignoring their jacket, doing moves like Huen Sau, Jam Sau, Biu Sau, Lap Sau, etc. Grip fighting was the area we spent most time on, at my request, but we also did a bit of Randori (freestyle Judo sparring) and pretty much reached a stalemate, as is usually the case when two great grapplers of different styles come together for friendly sparring – it’s usually an even stand-off until someone’s concentration slips or their energy is spent after several minutes of stalemate.

If I then had to recommend a third martial art, for the unknown beginner to train in an unknown place with an unknown teacher of my chosen style, I would probably pick Boxing or Kickboxing. I would do this to counter-act the nerdy tendencies most likely poisoning the Wing Chun classes. To offer a sport-nurtured perspective on mainly punching and kicking, but also blocking & parrying. And to provide more spatial awareness and comfortability at different ranges. Of course there’s no guarantee that your teacher of boxing or kickboxing is a well refined champion – there are still plenty of cowboys doing nerdy moves that I wouldn’t even include in a boxercise fitness class. But due to the popularity of these arts as competitive sports, there’s a good chance you’ll find someone who’s kind of legit. Then you can reflect on the differences between your boxing/kickboxing and Wing Chun, weed out what seems nerdy, cherish what seems uniquely valuable, and be inspired by what they seem to have in common.

Mission: Refinement of an accomplished martial artist

If you’re an outstanding, well-rounded martial artist, you probably want a very deep artform, to patch anywhere you may be a bit weak, and to help join up your various different moves & concepts into one seamlessly consolidated, well organised system. If I didn’t know anything about you other than you’re a high level well rounded martial artist, and I had to recommend a single art for you to focus on in an attempt to improve you as best as possible, I would probably recommend Tai Chi or Capoeira. The first is a very “internal” style and the second is a very “external” style but they are both comprehensive and fluid enough to pretty much guarantee continued improvement the more you train.

Of course to qualify as a high level, well rounded martial artist I’m assuming you’ve either done a few years of Wing Chun (or elements of Wing Chun within a related system like JKD) or many years of competitive boxing or kickboxing or Muay Thai or similar to satisfy your blocking & striking needs; as well as a style like Judo or BJJ or wrestling to become accomplished in delivering and defending from takedowns, chokes, locks, etc. If you haven’t done this kind of groundwork, you’ll need to do that first before worrying too much about graceful refinement, else you’ll be leaving gaping holes in your game.

First published: 11 March 2024