Is Martial Arts a Sport?

Is Martial Arts a Sport?

The question of whether martial art is a sport likely exists because of the clear overlap. So, is martial arts a sport?

Martial arts are originally not sports but codified systems and traditions of combat practiced for self-defense, military, and law enforcement application; and mental, physical, and spiritual development. However, many martial arts have evolved into combat sports, therefore, making them a recognized form of sport.

Although there is a clear overlap between martial arts and (combat) sports, the distinction between the two remains clear.

Keep reading as I try to help you better understand the position of martial arts in sport and whether it is in fact a recognized form of sport.

Is Martial Arts Considered a Sport?

Martial arts is not largely considered a sport due to its evolution and adoption as a combat sport.

Most martial arts (if not all) were originally created as a real-world self-defense fighting system to help practitioners defend themselves where there is a threat to life.

It is also designed to enhance the spiritual and mental development of members.

This means that martial art in its purest form is deadly and can kill an opponent.

However, when these arts are practiced as a sport, the goal is not to permanently harm or take the life of an opponent but to score points through measurable techniques.

Yes, a martial art in its original form is not a sporting activity but a dangerous weapon used to cause or avoid great bodily harm to another.

Interestingly, however, some of these martial arts have evolved and they now have a sporting side of the art.

For example, a martial art such as taekwondo (in its traditional form) is a deadly art capable of killing and was in fact used during wars.

But now, modern taekwondo is practiced more as a sporting activity rather than as a traditional martial art.

Most martial art sports are generally practiced as a form of a sport called combat sports.

Note however that while some martial arts have been recognized for sporting competitions and entertainment, others are yet to evolve or be adopted as a combat sports.

Now, let’s understand the distinction between martial art and combat sport.

What Is a Combat Sport?

A combat sport (also called a fighting sport) is a competitive contact sport usually involving one-on-one combat where a contestant usually wins by scoring more points than the opponent, submitting the opponent with a hold, disabling the opponent (KO, knockout), or attacking the opponent with a specific technique.

The rules in various combat sports are usually quite different from each, other so the goals and skills can differ greatly between combat sports.

Combat sport emphasizes performance over personal development making it different from the focus of most traditional martial arts.

Some combat sports (and their national origin) include:

  • Boxing (British)
  • Brazilian jiu-jitsu (Brazilian)
  • Jiu-jitsu (Japanese)
  • Judo (Japanese)
  • Karate (Chinese/Okinawan/Japanese)
  • Kickboxing (numerous origins)
  • Lethwei (Burmese)
  • Mixed martial arts (numerous origins)
  • Muay Thai (Thai)
  • Sambo (Soviet/Russian)
  • Sanda (Chinese)
  • Savate (French)
  • Tae Kwon Do (Korean)
  • Vale tudo (Brazilian)
  • Pankration (Ancient Greek)
  • Luta Livre (Brazilian)
  • Wrestling (Numerous Origins)
  • Pro-Wrestling (British/American)

Interestingly, most (if not all) of these combat sports are recognized martial arts that are now also being practiced as a sport.

This is however not surprising considering the long pedigree between combat sports and martial arts.

The purpose of most combat sports is to entertain and test the skills of the fighters within a rule set.

They are not focused specifically on bettering the life of the athlete.

This is quite a different philosophy when you take a look at how modern traditional martial arts operate.

What Is a Martial Art?

Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practiced for self-defense, military and law enforcement application, physical, mental, and spiritual development, and the preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of a nation.

As stated earlier, most martial arts have now evolved to include competition and entertainment, which is probably all that combat sport is all about.

“There is more to martial arts than just combat. Its mental and spiritual benefits immediately set it apart from combat sports.”

Martial Arts Republic

Examples of martial arts are:

  • Aikido
  • Boxing
  • Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
  • Judo
  • Muay Thai
  • Taekwondo
  • Kickboxing
  • Karate
  • Wrestling

In addition to teaching basic fighting skills, martial arts also focus heavily on mental discipline and the search for enlightenment.

For example, many martial arts focus strongly on developing philosophies such as respect, self-confidence, and discipline in their students, something combat sports aren’t focused on.

Martial art isn’t always about the kicks and punches.

Difference Between Martial Arts and Sports

As you may have noticed, I was already touching on the differences between martial arts and sports earlier in this post.

Now, let’s take this a step further, shall we?

A distinction is often made between combat sports and martial arts in professional circles.

However, this distinction is not clear-cut.

For example, Outsiders can see this quite clearly in the fact that some taekwondo, judo, karate, or jujutsu schools describe themselves as martial arts schools, while other taekwondo, judo, karate, or jujutsu schools describe themselves as combat sports schools.

Below are some of the distinctions between martial arts and combat sports.

Combat Sports Is Regulated and Restricted

As stated earlier, combat sports focus mainly on regulated sports competitions.

These competitions usually involve two people competing against one another.

As a result, combat sports have specific rules defining what is permitted and what is prohibited to protect opponents.

These rules also differentiate fighting classes based on weight, age, sex, etc.

In the broader sense, this differentiation into distinct fighting classes may lead to equally strong fighting pairings.

Combat sports fights are also characterized by the presence of a higher authority, namely referees or judges.

These authorities, on the one hand, ensure that rules are followed and, on the other hand, determine who has won a fight based on point systems- this is if no one wins early and the fight continues to the end.

Martial Arts Are Based on Religious or Philosophical Principles

Specific martial arts, especially those originating in Asia, see themselves as complete systems of lifestyle or perfection based on corresponding philosophical or religious worldviews.

It is common to relegate actual fighting techniques to the background or just see them as a path to follow.

An example is Tai Chi, a Chinese martial art that focuses less on combat and emphasizes more on the spiritual and health benefit of the art.

Martial Arts Focuses on Self-Defense During Combat

The main objective of martial arts is not to practice these fighting techniques for competition.

When it’s time for combat, many martial arts deal primarily with self-defense.

And much more than combat sports, they focus on fighting in unregulated dangerous situations (of conflict).

As a result, martial arts training often involves non-fighting behaviors (such as self-discipline, avoiding conflict in advance, or general physical agility).

All this is relevant for martial arts, especially in self-defense situations.

Unlike combat sports, it is usually not known in advance who one’s opponent will be, in which setting it will take place, or what the rules are.

Most importantly, only one party wants to fight whereas the other (the martial artist) merely defends himself or herself.

Is Martial Arts a Sport or Art?

Martial arts is both a sport and an art. As a sport, it is now largely recognized and adopted as a combat sport, and the creativity required of martial artists in the execution of various techniques such as kicks, punches, blocks, etc makes it an art.

We have already discussed the sporting side of martial arts; let’s now examine the art side of the art!

Many people DO NOT consider martial arts to be a form of art and they wonder where the “arts” in martial arts came from.

After all, watching bloody men and women trying to knock each other out cold or choke each other unconscious in a cage or ring doesn’t exactly constitute many people’s idea of divine meaning and beauty.

Meryl Streep once declared in her 2017 Golden Globes speech:

“Without Hollywood, you’ll have nothing to watch but football and mixed martial arts, which are not the arts.”

Meryl Streep

So, can martial arts be considered art?

Absolutely yes! Martial art is one of the purest forms of art. Let me explain.

Art is summarized as “the application or expression of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as sculpture or painting, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their emotional power or beauty.”

Now, let’s examine this definition to see if martial arts fit.

Martial art is art because it is a visual skill that requires creativity.

This means martial artists are highly skilled individuals who use their abilities creatively.

For instance, Taekwondo practitioners creatively use various kicking, striking, and self-defense techniques.

Yes, there are various guidelines and rules associated with different martial arts, which can sometimes hamper creativity.

However, a good martial artist demonstrates extremely fast reactions and adaptability to the approaches of their opponents.

New attacks and counterattacks force lightning-fast recalculations and fresh approaches, requiring vast levels of creativity. 

And despite limitations on what is considered ‘legal’ in most martial arts, there is still plenty of room for creativity and inventiveness to make the whole display aesthetically pleasing. 

In the definition, it is noted that art is usually expressed visually, and martial arts, while hard to compare to painting and sculpture share many similarities with dance. 

Rhythms and patterns created by two skilled artists in combat can be mesmerizing.

The internet is filled with examples of excellent fights in taekwondo, kung fu, and judo.

For example, a video, titled ‘Kung Fu Monk vs Other Masters,’ has amassed over 54 million views in a year, strongly indicating a widespread visual appeal among users watching martial arts in action. 

The definition finally ends in reference to the appreciation of art for its beauty and emotional power, therefore taking us back to martial arts’ spiritual roots.

There are few art forms across the world with such a strong connection; the emotional and spiritual practices of Daoism and Zen. 

It’s in fact fair to say that successful martial artists are typically more aware of their spirituality and the emotional power of the art that they create. 


The question of whether martial art is a sport exists because of the obvious overlap between the two.

However, disciplines such as taekwondo, boxing, judo, and wrestling are inherently martial arts.

However, their presence in international sporting competitions such as the Olympics also categorizes them as sports, meaning martial arts is now something to be broadcasted to an audience, regulated, and eventually profited from.

Related: Is Taekwondo a sport?

Related: Is wrestling a sport?

Related: Is Fencing a sport?

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