13 Difficult Combat Sports
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13 Difficult Combat Sports

Some of the most prominent combat arts today, compared.

13 Difficult Combat Sports
Markus Boesch

Eastern Martial Arts and Western Combat Sports. The common ground? Pure-primal, human combat. It is common to believe that Martial Arts and Combat Sports are different “styles” of fighting. While this may hold true in some ways, the reality is that fighting is a very complex interaction to condense down into an individual “style.” Each style brings with it a set of assumptions, just as any ideology or paradigm has its own assumptions. Based on its assumptions, a style will focus on certain aspects of fighting, but one aspect is not necessarily more or less important than another. A common thread, however, is the reality of these arts. No games here. Pure physics and hundreds of years of human history; there’s no twitter fingers.

Here’s a stone-cold fact: being a competitor in any of these martial arts (i.e., in their respective “sport” conceptions) is difficult. Their sport is combat. Mano y mano. Hand-to-hand. It is the most natural form of sport known to Earth (fighting is an intra-species phenomenon). That said, not all forms of combat arts are created equal and, here, I set out to compare some of the most prominent combat arts against each other.

I’d like to thank my good friend Lucas Yum for his help on reaching a consensus for these ratings. Our varied martial arts backgrounds (in grappling and striking) combined allowed us to have at the very least a surface-level, superficial understanding of how to operationalize these complex arts. I think I speak for the both of us when I say we are not experts. We do not have black belts (or equivalents) in these arts and have not instructed them at a high-level. Take these ratings with a grain of salt. Also, be sure to check out “The Top 11 Most Difficult Sports” by fellow UC Berkeley Odyssey contributor Jordan Tate. I’ll leave it to the reader to speculate whether that list of sports is more, uh, difficult than this following list.

Criteria: Subjective ratings based on difficulty of technique, difficulty of highest-level competition, and difficulty of an individual training session, on a scale of 1-10 with a sum out of 30. Cost is not a factor.

(Difficulty of) Technique:

(Difficulty of) Highest-level competition:

(Difficulty of) Individual Training Session:

Mixed Martial Arts

MMA in its modern incarnation, not the vale tudo of the past. The important difference is that vale tudo was essentially a mixing pot of unrelated martial arts, while now the sport has evolved into a beast of its own.

Technique: 11 - Every and all things functional can be found here. If it works in a fight with some gentlemen’s code, you’ll find it in Mixed Martial Arts.

Highest-level competition: 11 - Five 5-minute rounds. Championship level MMA is an insane marathon in 25 minutes. 4oz gloves and a (small) handful of rules. Essentially all striking weapons are legal and grappling is critical.

Individual Training Session: 11 - Imagine 2-hours of wrestling, striking, takedowns, submissions, cage-fighting, clinch, and more.

Score: 33/30

Combat Sambo

Not Sport Sambo or American Freestyle Sambo. Combat Sambo is a hybrid combat-sport originating from the Soviet Union. Essentially a mix of judo, wrestling, jiu jitsu, and striking, Combat Sambo is one of the most complete martial arts on this list. It is known for its unique uniform: compression shorts and a gi top with shin-guards, gloves, and boxing headgear. The point-system emphasizes throws, but submission and knockout are match-ending. In Combat Sambo, chokes, armlocks, and leglocks are legal. Strikes do not score points, but a knockdown carries the same scoring-weight as a throw.

Technique: 10 - Focus is throws, in addition to wrestling, striking, and submissions. Leg-locks, chokes, and armlocks are legal. Designed by the Soviet military, it is a hybrid of wrestling, Judo, jiu jitsu, and various striking arts.

Highest-level competition: 10 - Essentially MMA with a gi-top (kimono) on. Fedor Emelianenko and Khabib Nurmagomedov are World Combat Sambo champions. Rounds and point-system emphasizing throws, but knockdowns due to strikes carry equivalent gravity in scoring. Knockouts and submissions end the fight.

Individual Training Session: 10 - training involves throwing, wrestling, striking, and submissions.

Score: 30/30

Muay Thai

Technique: 10 - derived from the Thai-people’s war art of fighting, Muay Thai is known as the “Art of Eight Limbs.” Incredibly in-depth striking art.

Highest-level competition: 10 - no more than 5 rounds of 3 minutes; elbows, punches, knees, kicks, and trips are legal.

Individual Training Session: 10 - if we’re talking Thailand, you’re in for it.

Score: 30/30

American Folkstyle Wrestling (collegiate)

Technique: 10 - I know first hand how insane this sport is (like all grappling arts are) in terms of technique. Folkstyle requires being solid from the bottom, on top, and on the feet. The technical prowess required in the scramble and in the hand-fight is very high.

Highest-level competition: 8 - try to push your cardio to death in 7-minutes (3x2x2 mins). Two fine-tuned machines in a scrap. NCAA Division 1 is the highest level -- less than 1% make it from high school to the Division 1 level.

Individual Training Session: 11 - TJ Dillashaw was outspoken on his disdain for wrestling practices. 2-hours of warm-ups, drilling takedowns, top/bottom, situations, and live-goes. Probably some technique in there somewhere, unless it’s near weigh-ins. “Nobody ever drowned in sweat.” --Dan Gable. I welcome you to enter a dungeonous wrestling room near you.

Score: 29/30

Greco-Roman Wrestling

Technique: 9 - All upper-body ties; the handfight is key in Greco. However, foot, hip, and leg placement is all pivotal and makes the difference at the highest level. Greco wrestlers also have amazing lifting form, as they clean and jerk their body weight in the form of opponents to score points.

Highest-level competition: 9 - An absolute fight -- but without punches. More often than not, forearms, elbows, headbutts, chops, slaps, and shoves are all legal as guys look for an angle to lift their opponents onto their heads. 6-minutes, two 3-minute periods.

Individual Training Session: 11 - Brutal. Gutwrenches for warm-ups, drilling, technique, and in live. Good luck with that alone.

Score: 29/30

Kyukushin Karate

Technique: 8 - Admittedly, I don’t know much first-hand about this style. Kyukushin Karate is best known for being the powerful style that emphasizes powerful kicks-from-anywhere to the head and body with punches to the body-only in what is essentially boxing-range. Devastating knock-outs follow well-executed technique. Georges Rush St-Pierre is a notable practitioner of the art.

Highest-level competition: 10 - based on the 100-Man Kumite, Kyukushin has a legendary, savage competition entailing 100 1.5-minute full-contact rounds for one individual fighter. No punches to the face; kicks to legs, body, head with punches to the body. Full-contact. Real samurai badass karate legend-maker.

Individual Training Session: 9 - despite no punches to the face, the technique and sparring is brutal. Conditioning includes taking strikes to the body.

Score: 27/30

Freestyle Wrestling

Technique: 9 - The complete neutral game at its finest. Where exposure nullifies certain folkstyle scrambles, it also forces wrestlers to maintain the highest-level in terms of position, technique, and timing to continue to win the neutral battle of leg-attacks and upper-body attacks. Mat-wrestling (Par terre) expertise is required at the highest level.

Highest-level competition: 8 - 6-minutes, two 3-minute rounds of the takedown game. Scramble at the risk of exposure and show who has the nastier neutral game. Par terre offense/defense is a binary: you either have it or you don’t. If you have a deficit on the mat, pray your opponent doesn’t expose it (and you) to quickly end a match in tech-fall.

Individual Training Session: 10 - imagine any other wrestling workout. A couple hours of takedown technique and goes, with some par terre mixed in.

Score: 27/30

Dutch Kickboxing

Technique: 9 - strong arsenal of devastating techniques, but the front-kick, clinch, knees, and elbows are underutilized.

Highest-level competition: 9 - Five 3-minute rounds, punches, kicks`, and knees are legal. Notable Dutch Kickboxers include Ramon Dekkers and Ernesto Hoost.

Individual Training Session: 9 - Kicks and punches; throw bones.

Score: 27/30

Submission-only Grappling

Technique: 11 - Combine every type grappling known to mankind and put it in one; submit or be submitted.

Highest-level competition: 8 - EBI Rules: 10 minutes plus overtime. Often tournament style, but individual matches are common. A marathon more often than a sprint of a grappling session. The ultimate goal is submission, no points.

Individual Training Session: 8 - a nogi grappling session is much like others; 2-hours of drilling, technique, and rolling. No-gi is often more dynamic than gi (nothing to grab).

Score: 27/30


Technique: 9 - The sweet science. The hands. “Anybody can throw a punch, but…” the rest is the sport and art of boxing. Punch while avoiding punches. Done right, it’ll save you in a bar fight every time.

Highest-level competition: 9 - Prize-fighting. 12-rounds, 3-minutes apiece. We’re talking about guys like Andre Ward, Triple G, Terrence Crawford, Canelo Alvarez, Mayweather, Sergei Kovalev, Shannon Briggs and more. Good luck landing a punch on any of them without your own 10,000 hours in the science.

Individual Training Session: 8 - Circuit-training, then sparring. Go hard to get better and throw bones.

Score: 26/30

Sport Jiu-Jitsu

Technique: 10 - the world of the ground is an ocean of technique unto itself. With the gi, even more possibilities.

Highest-level competition: 8.5 - 5-10 minutes per match, tournament style. High-level technique at a high-octane pace. Because of the added element of the gi, the passing/top game centric combat sport is incredibly difficult. One inhibitor is that the points favor top-position over the submission, per se. Don’t get caught in a trap.

Individual Training Session: 7 - It’s a grinding session, but nothing that you can’t handle if you work on your cardio a little bit. A lot of cardio, technique, and knuckle-bumps (sparring). Simulate murder.

Score: 25.5/30

Sport Judo

Technique: 8 - the masterful art of throwing in the gi. Armlocks in ne waza. People like Shinya Aoki, Demian Maia, Ronda Rousey, Karo Parisyan and more got their starts in judo. No leg attacks and limited ground-game inhibit it.

Highest-level competition: 8 - Olympic Judo emphasizes one thing: the ippon. The occasional submission via armlock or choke occurs dramatically. Live and die by the big throw in any other case, though. Tournament style.

Individual Training Session: 7 - Warm-up, drills, technique, then sparring. The latter entails getting thrown and tripped, with the occasional tap in there to keep you “honest.”

Score: 23/30

Sport Taekwondo

Technique: 7 - A high-level, specialized type of kicking, Taekwondo is a Korean martial art (and Olympic combat sport). Despite its flash, the defensive principles that Taekwondo takes for granted with its kick-heavy style knocks down its rating.

Highest-level competition: 7 - Knock-outs can occur. Depending on organization, competition is semi-continuous fights of three rounds, where points are kept on a system that favors kicks to the head. Tournament style.

Individual Training Session: 7 - Kicking technique, lots of stretching, and sparring. They definitely take their bumps, but not brain-numbing bumps.

Score: 21/30

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