There are a few things all cultures have in common: language, some type of bread, religion and fighting. Weapons made unarmed combat obsolete as a means of defending or expanding civilization long ago, but hand-to-hand fighting remains a celebrated part of many cultures. Anybody who has been to public school or a pay-per-view watch party knows there is almost nothing as exhilarating as a good fight. Man, woman or child, people can’t help being drawn to the unpredictability, danger, challenge and excitement that fighting brings.
Along with this, the lessons in discipline, mental and physical strength, and boldness that fighting teaches have ensured the survival and proliferation of hand-to-hand combat arts to this day. Similar to languages, different cultures have developed unique styles of combat sports that build upon and borrow from each other. Here is a look at some of the most popular and well-established ones that various countries around the world have to offer.
The Soviet Union was the most dominant nation of its day in international wrestling competition. Soviet wrestlers won 62 Olympic gold medals in 18 appearances total. Russia has continued to be a powerhouse since the dissolution of the USSR, but other countries, including the U.S., can now compete a little better in the total medal count. Many Russians feel as though wrestling’s tough nature showcases the strength and durability of their people.
While soccer is Russia’s most prized national sport, wrestling is its most popular combat sport as well as the one in which Russians are most proficient. Russian wrestlers are known for their extremely refined technique, as opposed to America’s more conditioning- and athleticism-oriented style. The Russian government spends significant resources on the country’s wrestling program and develops athletes from a very young age. Russian wrestlers who achieve success in international competition become rewarded with status, riches and position by the state.
The U.S. is the world’s melting pot of martial arts and combat sports. If a style of fighting exists, there is a good chance you can find someone in America practicing it. That said, boxing has been the premier fighting sport in American history. From Joe Louis to Jack Dempsey to Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather, America has a long list of athletes who have become world iconsthrough the sport of boxing.
There is more than one brand of American boxing, but many great U.S. boxers are known for their slick and evasive fighting, which features a lot of head movement, shoulder rolling and angle cutting. Think of Muhammad Ali fighting with his hands down, defying fundamentals and relying on finesse, footwork, timing and sheer athleticism.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu adapted from a Japanese martial art of the same name by the world-famous Gracie family of Brazil during the 20th century. The premise of BJJ is that a smaller, weaker person using the proper technique can defeat a larger, stronger one. “Jiujitsu” roughly translates to “the gentle use of force,” and a good BJJ practitioner relies on timing, technique, leverage and problem solving to overcome opponents. While BJJ has spread around the world and become a staple of any good MMA skillset, Brazil still has the deepest pool of great BJJ fighters.
Muay Thai is even bigger than soccer in Thailand. The sport is many centuries old and has become an integral part of Thai culture. Muay Thai scoring places high value on body kicks and impacting your opponent’s body position, so Thai fighters became known for explosive, powerful kicks and a strong clinch game that features sweeps, knees and elbows. As well, they possess elite endurance and toughness.
Most Thai boxers start at a very early age in camps where they live, eat, sleep and train. They pay their room and board by fighting frequently. It is not uncommon to see 20-year-old Thai boxers who have already had 100 fights. Muay Thai’s high rate of knockouts, fast pace and skilled, well-developed fighters have made this martial art a worldwide phenomenon and one of the crown jewels of the Thai state and culture.
Iran is the only country in the world where wrestling is the nation’s premier sport. There are no bigger celebrities in Iran than their Olympic wrestlers. Unlike the U.S., Olympic medalists in Iran are made rich and given positions of power in government. In addition, international competitors agree that Iranian wrestling fans are the most committed and fervent the sport has to offer. Regardless of where the world championships or Olympics are held, thousands of Iranian wrestling fans will find their way there, pack the arena and cheer in organized chants louder than those of any other country.
Wrestling, considered to be the most ancient sport in Iran, and it has survived numerous cultural shifts and regime changes. Although a smaller country compared to many, Iran competes very well internationally, and it has won 43 Olympic medals. Despite tenuous relations between the U.S. and Iran, American and Iranian wrestlers are known for getting along quite well outside of competition due to a well-earned mutual respect. Some have suggested that one possible road to improving relations between these adversarial states could be to leverage upon the good relationships their athletes have established with each other in international competition.
The U.K. has a long history of boxing going well back to the bare-knuckle days. In fact, an Englishman in the 19th century, John Chambers, developed the ruleset establishing modern gloved boxing, called the Marquess of Queensbury Rules. English boxers became known for a more fundamentally sound and basic style than American boxers. While there are exceptions, British fighters rely heavily on their jabs and maintain high guards. Although some are knockout artists, British fighters are generally less aggressive than their Mexican counterparts and instead rely more on scoring points and solid defense. Great examples of the British style are heavyweight champions Anthony Joshua and Lennox Lewis.
Japanese culture is steeped in martial arts. From the ancient samurais to judo, sumo, karate, kickboxing and jiujitsu, the Japanese love fighters and fighting. Fighters who have competed in Japan report receiving incredible respect and adoration from the Japanese people, regardless of nationality, race, gender or style. While many combat sports are popular in Japan, MMA has never seen larger in-person attendance than at Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo. Numerous MMA promotions have sold out the 35,000-plus-seat indoor arena for events, including the UFC, Pride Fighting Championships, Rizin Fighting Federation and others. In-person attendance for MMA can’t compete with Japan in any other part of the world.
There have been many great Japanese MMA fighters, including Kazushi Sakuraba and Takanori Gomi, who had impressively exciting and aggressive styles. Perhaps the most defining feature of Japanese MMA, however, is the crowds. Japanese crowds, although massive, are known for remaining dead silent during fights. They never boo combatants and are well educated on the technical aspects of MMA fighting that normally go right over the heads of crowds elsewhere.
Since Australia is the closest “Western” country to Thailand, Australian tourists and expats are common in Thailand. Many Australians have fallen in love with Thai culture, and Australian Muay Thai fighter John Wayne Par, a multiple Thai stadium champion, is the most famous. Many Australian Muay Thai fighters have had success in the unbelievably competitive premier Thai stadiums. As for the Australian Muay Thai style, it is essentially indistinguishable from the Thai style since most good Australian fighters train at Thai camps or by Thai trainers in Australia.
Other than soccer, boxing is Mexico’s pride and joy. The Mexican style of boxing is tough, grueling and designed to break opponents physically and mentally. Known for their toughness, endurance, body punching and aggression, Mexican fighters, such as Julio César Chávez, Juan Manuel Márquez and Oscar De La Hoya, have been among the most exciting boxers of all time. Despite soccer’s status as Mexico’s national sport, Mexico has had a grand total of 204 world-champion boxers—more than any other country.
Influenced by multiple styles of kickboxing, including Muay Thai, Japanese kickboxing and standard boxing, Dutch kickboxing has developed into its own unique style of fighting. Holland has taken a serious liking to kickboxing, and numerous Dutch trainers and fighters have had international impacts in Thai stadiums, professional MMA, Glory kickboxing, K-1 kickboxing and elsewhere. Dutch fighters became known for a style that features a very high guard, much more combination punching than Muay Thai, lots of body punching and heavy low kicks. Great examples include Ramon Dekkers and Ernesto Hoost.