Throughout history, many martial artists have contributed greatly to the growth and popularity of the art. While some are not well recognized among fans, others have captured the hearts of millions.
In this article, we will be looking at some of the most famous martial artists of all time.
Some of them on this list are founders of various martial art styles; others are sports practitioners, while some became popular due to their role in martial art films as actors.
So, here is the list of the most famous martial artists.
Famous Martial Artists in History
The following list consists of various famous martial artists of all different types throughout history.
#1. Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee, born Lee Jun-fan, November 27, 1940 – July 20, 1973) was a Hong Kong and American martial artist, actor, philosopher, and filmmaker.
He was the founder of Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial arts philosophy drawing from different combat disciplines that are often credited with paving the way for modern mixed martial arts (MMA).
Lee is considered by critics, media, and other martial artists to be the most influential martial artist of all time and a pop culture icon of the 20th century, who bridged the gap between East and West.
He is credited with promoting Hong Kong action cinema and helping to change the way Chinese people were presented in American films.
#2. Jackie Chan
Jackie Chan, (born 7 April 1954, is a Hong Kong actor, filmmaker, stuntman, and, martial artist known for his slapstick acrobatic fighting style, comic timing, and innovative stunts, which he typically performs himself.
Chan has been acting since the 1960s, performing in more than 150 films.
He is one of the most popular action film stars of all time.
Chan’s martial art styles include Kung Fu, hapkido, karate, Wing Chun, Chinese opera, and other styles.
#3. Chuck Norris
Carlos Ray “Chuck” Norris (born March 10, 1940) is an American martial artist and actor.
He is a black belt in Tang Soo Do, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and judo.
After serving in the United States Air Force, Norris won many martial arts championships and later founded his own discipline Chun Kuk Do.
Shortly after, in Hollywood, Norris trained celebrities in martial arts.
Norris went on to appear in a minor role in the spy film The Wrecking Crew (1969).
A friend and fellow martial artist Bruce Lee invited him to play one of the main villains in Way of the Dragon (1972).
While Norris continued acting, friend and student Steve McQueen suggested he take it seriously.
Norris took the starring role in the action film Breaker! Breaker! (1977), which turned a profit.
His second lead Good Guys Wear Black (1978) became a hit, and he soon became a popular action film star.
#4. Jet Li
Li Lianjie (courtesy name Yangzhong; born 26 April 1963), better known by his stage name Jet Li, is a Chinese film actor, film producer, martial artist, and retired Wushu champion.
He is a naturalized Singaporean citizen.
He is widely regarded as one of the most iconic Chinese film stars and one of the most renowned martial arts stars of his generation.
#5. Steven Seagal
Steven Frederic Seagal born April 10, 1952) is an American and naturalized Russian actor, screenwriter, and martial artist.
A 7th-dan black belt in Aikido, he began his adult life as a martial arts instructor in Japan and eventually ended up running his father-in-law’s dojo.
Segal became the first foreigner to operate an Aikido Dojo in Japan.
#6. Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali (January 17, 1942 – June 3, 2016) was an American professional boxer and activist.
Nicknamed “The Greatest”, he is regarded as one of the most significant sports figures of the 20th century and is often regarded as the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time.
In 1999, he was named Sportsman of the Century by Sports Illustrated and the Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC.
#7. Conor McGregor
Conor Anthony McGregor, born 14 July 1988, is an Irish professional mixed martial artist.
He is a former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Featherweight and Lightweight Champion, becoming the first UFC fighter to hold UFC championships in two weight classes simultaneously.
He is also a former Cage Warriors Featherweight and Lightweight champion.
In his debut professional boxing match, he was defeated by Floyd Mayweather Jr.
He is the biggest pay-per-view (PPV) draw in MMA history, having headlined the five highest-selling UFC pay-per-view events.
#8.Jean-Claude Van Damme
Jean-Claude Camille François Van Varenberg (born 18 October 1960) is known professionally as Jean-Claude Van.
He is a Belgian actor, martial artist, filmmaker, and fight choreographer credited with helping popularize martial arts in film.
Van Damme is widely regarded as one of the most iconic martial arts action stars of all time.
He is a famous practitioner of various martial arts (shotokan karate, kickboxing, muay Thai, and taekwondo) and a successful actor.
#9. Ip Man
Ip Man, also known as Yip Man was a Hong Kong-based Cantonese martial artist and a grandmaster of the martial art of Wing Chun when he was 20.
He had several students who later became martial arts masters in their own right, the most famous among them being Bruce Lee.
#10. Tony Jaa
Tatchakorn Yeerum, born 5 February 1976), better known internationally as Tony Jaa and in Thailand as Jaa Phanom is a Thai martial artist, actor, action choreographer, stuntman, director, and traceur.
His films include Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003), Tom-Yum-Goong (2005), Ong Bak 2: The Beginning (2008), Furious 7 (2015), and SPL II: A Time for Consequences (2015).
He is a member of Muay Thai Stunt.
#11. Gichin Funakoshi (Founder of Shotokan Karate)
Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan karate-do, perhaps the most widely known style of karate, and is known as the “father of modern karate”.
Following the teachings of Anko Itosu and Anko Asato, he was one of the Okinawan karate masters who introduced karate to the Japanese mainland in 1922, following its earlier introduction by his teacher Itosu.
He taught karate at various Japanese universities and became honorary head of the Japan Karate Association upon its establishment in 1949.
#12. Kanō Jigorō (Founder of judo)
Jigoro Kano was a Japanese educator, athlete, and the founder of Judo.
Along with Ju-Jutsu, Judo was one of the first Japanese martial arts to gain widespread international recognition, and the first to become an official Olympic sport.
Pedagogical innovations attributed to Kanō include the use of black and white belts, and the introduction of dan ranking to show the relative ranking among members of a martial art style.
Well-known mottoes attributed to Kanō include “good use of energy” (seiryoku zen’yō) and “mutual welfare and benefit” (jita kyōei).
#13. Miyamoto Musashi
Miyamoto Musashi also known as Shinmen Takezō, Miyamoto Bennosuke, or, by his Buddhist name, Niten Dōraku, was a Japanese swordsman, philosopher, strategist, writer, and rōnin, who became renowned through stories of his unique double-bladed swordsmanship and undefeated record in his 61 duels (next is 33 by Itō Ittōsai).
Musashi, as he was often simply known, is considered a Kensei, a sword saint of Japan.
He was the founder of the Niten Ichi-ryū, or Nito Ichi-ryū, style of swordsmanship, and in his final years authored The Book of Five Rings (Go Rin No Sho) and Dokkōdō (The Path of Aloneness).
#14. Masaaki Hatsumi
Masaaki Hatsumi, born December 2, 1931, formerly Yoshiaki Hatsumi, is the founder of the Bujinkan Organization and is the former Togakure-ryū soke (grandmaster).
He no longer teaches but currently resides in Noda, Chiba, Japan.
#15. Panna Rittikrai
Panna Rittikrai, born February 17, 1961 – July 20, 2014, was a Thai martial arts action choreographer, film director, screenwriter, and actor.
The head of the Muay Thai Stunt team (previously known as P.P.N. Stunt Team).
He is best known for his work as a martial arts and action choreographer on the 2003 film Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior and 2005’s Tom-Yum-Goong (known as The Protector in the US), starring Tony Jaa, whom Panna mentored.
#16. Dan Chupong
Chupong Changprung, born March 23, 1981, in Kalasin Province, Thailand is a Thai actor, martial artist, and stuntman.
He is also known by his Westernized name, Dan Chupong (the given name is alternatively spelled Choopong or Choupong and the first name is sometimes Danny).
Starting out as part of the stunt team of martial arts choreographer Panna Rittikrai, Chupong’s first film credit was as “Bodyguard 4” in Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior.
He then went on to lead roles in the 2004 film, Born to Fight and the 2006 film Dynamite Warrior.
He has also appeared in Nonzee Nimibutr’s Queen of Langkasuka (2008), Somtum (2008), Ong Bak 2 (uncredited) and portrayed the main antagonist in Ong Bak 3.
#17. Robin Shou
Shou Wan-por, born July 17, 1960), known professionally as Robin Shou, is a Hong Kong-American actor, martial artist, and stuntman.
He is known for roles such as Liu Kang in the Mortal Kombat film series (1995 and 1997), Gobei in Beverly Hills Ninja (1997), Gen in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li (2009), and 14K in the Death Race films (2008-2013).
Shou was also a Hong Kong action star in the late 1980s and early 1990s and appeared in about 40 movies during his Hong Kong career before he entered Hollywood in 1994.
#18. Sammo Hung
Sammo Hung Kam-bo, born 7 January 1952) is a Hong Kong actor, martial artist, film producer, and director, known for his work in martial arts films, Hong Kong action cinema, and as a fight choreographer for other actors such as Jackie Chan.
Hung is one of the pivotal figures who spearheaded the Hong Kong New Wave movement of the 1980s, helped reinvent the martial arts genre, and started the vampire-like jiangshi genre.
He is widely credited with assisting many of his compatriots, giving them their starts in the Hong Kong film industry, by casting them in the films he produced or giving them roles in the production crew.
#19. Huo Yuanjia
Famous practitioner of Mizongyi and co-founder of the Chin Woo Athletic Association. Yuanjia is a national hero in China for defeating foreign fighters in highly publicized matches.
#20. Phillip Rhee
Rhee was born in South Korea and raised in San Francisco, California.
He is a martial artist, actor, director, and film producer who has created, produced, and starred in numerous films, including the Best of the Best film series.
The first Best of the Best film spawned three sequels; Best of the Best 2, Best of the Best 3: No Turning Back, and Best of the Best 4: Without Warning.
Rhee’s 1980 representation of the United States Taekwondo Team against the South Korean team in the championships of the Asia Games formed the basis of his screenplay for the film Best of the Best.
#21. Sho Kosugi
Sho Kosugi (born on June 17, 1948) is a Japanese actor, martial artist, and writer with extensive training in Shindō jinen-ryū Karate, Kendo, Judo, Iaido, Kobudo, Aikido, and Ninjutsu.
A former All Japan Karate Champion, he gained popularity as an actor during the 1980s, often playing ninjas.
He starred in a trilogy of martial arts ninja films produced by Cannon Films (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, and Ninja III: The Domination), before starring in the primetime television series The Master.
His work helped establish ninjas in popular culture, leading to a “ninja boom” or “ninja-mania” during the early-to-mid-1980s.
Shinichi Chiba (born 22 January 1939 – 19 August 2021), known internationally as Sonny Chiba, was a Japanese actor and martial artist.
Chiba was one of the first actors to achieve stardom through his skills in martial arts, initially in Japan and later before an international audience.
#23. Morihei Ueshiba (Founder of aikido)
Morihei Ueshiba (December 14, 1883 – April 26, 1969) was a Japanese martial artist and founder of the martial art of Aikido.
He is often referred to as “the founder” Kaiso or Ōsensei, “Great Teacher/Old Teacher (old as opposed to waka (young) sensei)”.
The son of a landowner from Tanabe, Ueshiba studied several martial arts in his youth and served in the Japanese Army during the Russo-Japanese War.
#24. Mas Oyama (Founder of kyokushinkai karate)
Masutatsu Ōyama ( born July 27, 1923 – April 26, 1994), more commonly known as Mas Oyama, was a karate master who founded Kyokushin Karate, considered the first and most influential style of full-contact karate.
A Zainichi Korean, he spent most of his life living in Japan and acquired Japanese citizenship in 1968.
#25. Yuen Biao
Yuen Biao (born Ha Lingchun; 26 July 1957) is a Hong Kong actor, martial artist, and stuntman.
He specializes in acrobatics and Chinese martial arts and has also worked on over 80 films as an actor, stuntman, and action choreographer.
He was one of the Seven Little Fortunes from the China Drama Academy at the Peking Opera School along with his “brothers” Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan.
Yuen Biao has appeared in over 130 films. He has played roles in eight television series for the Hong Kong channel TVB.
#26. Angela Mao
Angela Mao Ying (born Mao Fuching; 20 September 1950) is a Taiwanese actress and martial artist who appeared in martial arts films in the 1970s.
One of the most prominent martial artist actresses of her time, she is nicknamed “Lady Whirlwind” and “Lady Kung Fu”.
She was positioned as a female version of Bruce Lee.
#27. Kathy Long
Kathy Long (born April 21, 1964) is an American kickboxer, mixed martial artist, and actress.
She has held various kickboxing championships, including two KICK World Kickboxing titles and the WKA and ISKA world titles.
Long as a practitioner of the martial arts began her training in the Japanese art of Aikido, eventually earning a black belt in the system.
Long would go on to earn a black belt in Chinese Kung Fu San Soo, eventually reaching the level of master in the style.
She would train in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu with the Machado family, as well as in Jeet Kune Do, Tae Kwon Do, Kali, and Wing Chun Kung Fu.
Long has appeared in numerous movies and was Michelle Pfeiffer’s stunt double in Batman Returns.
#28. Mark Dacascos
Mark Alan Dacascos (born February 26, 1964) is an American actor and martial artist.
He won numerous karate and kung fu championships between the ages of 7 and 18.
He is known for his roles as Wo Fat in Hawaii Five-0, Louis Stevens in Only the Strong, Mani in Brotherhood of the Wolf, Toby Wong in Drive, Ling in Cradle 2 the Grave, the titular role in Crying Freeman and as Zero in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.
#29. Wesley Snipes
Wesley Trent Snipes (born July 31, 1962) is an American actor, film producer, and martial artist.
His prominent film roles include Major League (1989), New Jack City (1991), Jungle Fever (1991), White Men Can’t Jump (1992), Passenger 57 (1992), Rising Sun (1993), Demolition Man (1993), To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), U.S. Marshals (1998), The Expendables 3 (2014), Coming 2 America (2021), and the Blade film trilogy (1998–2004), portraying Blade.
In television, he is known for his role in The Player (2015).
Snipes was nominated for the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Male for his work in The Waterdance (1992) and won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor for his performance in the film One Night Stand (1997).
He formed a production company, Amen-Ra Films, in 1991, and a subsidiary, Black Dot Media, to develop projects for film and television.
He has been training in martial arts since the age of 12, earning a 5th dan black belt in Shotokan Karate and 2nd dan black belt in Hapkido.
#30. Iko Uwais
Uwais Qorny, known professionally as Iko Uwais, is an Indonesian actor, stuntman, fight choreographer, and martial artist.
He is best known for acting in the action films Merantau (2009), The Raid (2011), The Raid 2 (2014), Headshot (2016), Mile 22 (2018), The Night Comes for Us (2018), Stuber (2019) and the Netflix series Wu Assassins (2019–present).
Famous martial arts instructor who teaches, jeet kune do (JKD), Filipino martial arts, shoot wrestling, Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ), muay thai, silat, mixed martial arts (MMA), and American Kenpo karate.
#32.Tadashi Nakamura, (Founder of Seidō juku karate)
Tadashi Nakamura is the founder and chairman of the World Seido Karate Organization.
A world-renowned karateka, Nakamura is a ninth dan (degree) black belt with over 60 years of experience practicing and teaching martial arts.
Kaicho Nakamura began his karate training in 1953 at age eleven.
His first experiences were in the Goju style under the instruction of Kei Miyagi Sensei, the son of the founder of the style.
In 1956, he began studying with Masutatsu Oyama, the founder of Kyokushin Karate, and in 1959 he earned his shodan rank.
At the time, he was the youngest Kyokushin student in Japan to earn a black belt.
#33. Wu Jing
Wu Jing, also known as Jacky Wu, (born 3 April 1974) is a Chinese actor, director, and martial artist best known for his roles in various martial arts films such as Tai Chi Boxer, Fatal Contact, the Sha Po Lang films, and as Leng Feng in Wolf Warrior, its sequel Wolf Warrior 2, and most recently The Battle at Lake Changjin.
Wu Jing is one of the most profitable actors in China and his movies are often the highest-grossed films in China and around the world.
Wu ranked first on the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list in 2019 and 23rd in 2020.
#34. Carlos Gracie (Co-founder of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (BJJ)
Carlos Gracie (September 14, 1902 – October 7, 1994) was a Brazilian martial artist who is credited with being one of the primary developers of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Along with his younger brother Hélio Gracie and fellow students Luis França and Oswaldo Fadda, he helped develop Brazilian jiu-jitsu based on the teachings of famed Japanese judōka, Mitsuyo Maeda in Kano Jujitsu (Judo) and is widely considered to be the martial-arts patriarch of the Gracie family.
He purportedly acquired his initial knowledge of Jujitsu by studying in Belem under Maeda and his students.
As he taught the techniques to his brothers, he created a martial arts family with Hélio and with other members of the Gracie family who provided key contributions to the style and development, eventually creating their own self-defense system named Gracie Jiu-Jitsu.
#35. Hélio Gracie
Hélio Gracie (October 1, 1913 – January 29, 2009) was a Brazilian martial artist who together with his brothers Oswaldo, Gastao Jr, George, and Carlos Gracie founded and developed the self-defense martial art system of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu, also known as Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ).
Considered the Godfather of BJJ, according to his son Rorion, Gracie is one of the first sports heroes in Brazilian history; he was named Man of the Year in 1997 by the American martial arts publication Black Belt magazine.
A patriarch of the Gracie family, multiple members of his family have gone on to have successful careers in combat sport competition including mixed martial arts (MMA).
Co-founder of Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). Gracie was also a 6th-degree black belt jūdōka.
#36. Vidyut Jamwal
Action star popularly known as “The New Age Action Hero of Bollywood” is a trained martial artist since the age of three in the art form called Kalaripayattu.
Who Is the Most Famous Martial Artist in the World?
Bruce Lee is the most famous martial artist in the world ahead of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Mohammed Ali, and others.
Since his death, Lee has continued to be a prominent influence on modern combat sports, including judo, karate, mixed martial arts, and boxing, as well as modern popular culture, including film, television, comics, animation, and video games.
Time named Lee one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century.
Bruce Lee was renowned for his martial arts prowess and helped popularize martial arts movies in the 1970s.
Lee starred in films such as Tang shan da xiong (1971), Jing wu men (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973).
He is often credited with changing the way Asian people were presented in American films.
And here you have it, the most prominent personalities in the world of martial arts.
If you think I missed out a name, please let me know in the comment section.
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