Before proceeding to the top 20 on this list of the most important and influential people in martial arts history, a few words about those who didn’t make the list are in order. More astute readers may notice the omission of some big names, the most prominent of which may be the famed samurai Miyamoto Musashi. While he might well make a list of the most well-known martial artists, Musashi does not make our list of the “most important and influential” martial artists simply because his actual impact on the way martial arts have been perceived and practiced around the world is rather small. Few people still practice the style of swordsmanship he founded and while many have read his work, The Book of Five Rings, even fewer can truly say its rather oblique passages have directly influenced their martial arts.
Also absent from the list are a number of notable MMA champions who are likely better known than many of the names included here. Though the sport as a whole has certainly influenced the way martial arts are perceived and practiced nowadays, it can’t really be said a Randy Couture or a Chuck Liddell has, individually, had that great a direct impact upon the entire martial arts world. Additionally, some may feel certain arts such as taekwondo or the Chinese martial arts as a whole, have been under represented on this list. While such arts are certainly prominent around the globe, it is difficult to single out specific practitioners of these styles, save for those already included here, who have had a massive impact upon the martial arts world. Finally, culling such a list out of all the martial artists in history is a difficult process and there are some prominent martial artists who, if this were a top 100 list, would certainly have made the cut. But a line had to be drawn somewhere and, in this case, it was to do a list of only the top 40 martial artists (also a special thanks to Stickgrappler for his input though, sadly, his personal favorite of kung fu film star Donnie Yen did not quite make the list). And now, the top 20…
20. Yang Lu-ch’an – 19th century Chinese martial arts master who first brought the art of tai chi chuan to prominence in China, eventually coming up with his own branch of the system, now known as Yang style tai chi. This laid the foundation for tai chi to become the most widely practiced martial art in China, and possibly the world.
19. Joe Corley – A martial arts promoter who was instrumental in the Professional Karate Association, the first western kickboxing organization, starting in the 1970s. The PKA appeared semi-regularly on television for a number of years and provided an important bridge between the traditional, light contact karate competitions of the 1960s and today’s MMA and muay thai style fights.
18. Robert Mark Kamen – Not to be confused with kickboxer Rob Kaman, Robert Mark Kamen is a karate practitioner and screenwriter who came up with the script for the original Karate Kid movie. The hugely successful 1984 film spawned the next major boom in martial arts popularity following the kung-fu craze of the early 1970s. It’s likely many of today’s current karate masters took up the art due to the influence of Kamen’s movie.
17. Jhoon Rhee – Regarded by many as the father of American taekwondo, he began teaching the Korean martial art in the U.S. in the 1950s. He would go on to produce a number of tournament and PKA champions as well as being among the first martial artists to merge kata with musical accompaniment. Perhaps his most lasting impact was the introduction of the foam safety equipment which would become standard among karate competitors.
16. Chuck Norris – A tang soo do stylist who was among the most successful tournament karate competitors of the 1960s, he went on to open a chain of successful schools producing a number of renowned champions before becoming a film star. One of the most widely viewed martial artists in history, most of his early movies revolved around martial arts and his long-running TV series, Walker, Texas Ranger, included frequent martial arts-themed fight scenes.
15. Jackie Chan – Though a somewhat successful film star in America, Chan has been even more successful outside the U.S., consistently appearing as a top foreign box office draw for much of the past 30 years with his kung fu-themed action/comedies. His long standing, world-wide appeal may make him the most viewed martial artist in history.
14. Joe Lewis – Perhaps the most successful karate competitor of the 1960s, Lewis revolutionized martial arts in the west with his introduction of kickboxing in the early 1970s. His brilliant analysis and innovations in the technical realm influenced a generation of karate and kickboxing competitors.
13. Ed Parker – The founder of American Kenpo, Parker was among the first karate instructors in the U.S. dating back to the 1950s. He went on to spawn one of the most popular and widely practiced martial arts systems in America along the way teaching a host of entertainment industry notables including Elvis Presley and film director Blake Edwards. Bruce Lee first caught the attention of the martial arts world during a demonstration at Parker’s Long Beach International Karate Championships, at one time probably the biggest karate tournament in the world.
12. Koizumi Gunji – Founder of the Budokwai, one of the oldest Japanese martial arts schools in Europe and perhaps the first one open to the general public. He’s regarded as the father of British judo and went on to found the European Judo Union, which helped lay the basis for worldwide competitions and the eventual inclusion of judo in the Olympics.
11. Morihei Ueshiba – Known as “O-Sensei” or “great teacher,” he founded aikido, one of the major modern styles of Japanese martial arts which now has numerous offshoots spread around the world.
10. Mas Oyama – Founder of the kyokushinkai style, one of the major systems of Japanese karate. Oyama gave Americans some of their first exposure to karate by touring the U.S. as a professional wrestler in the 1950s. His kyokushinkai introduced “knockdown” competitions which allowed full contact striking except for a prohibition against punches to the face. It spawned a host of spin off styles and served as a foundation for many Japanese and European kickboxers.
9. Run Run Shaw – The guiding force behind the Hong Kong-based Shaw Brothers film company which produced and distributed most of the classic Hong Kong “chop socky” films of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. These films, such as The Five Deadly Venoms and The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, created a mystique and mythology around the Chinese martial arts which still exists to this day and undoubtedly inspired a great number of people to take up the practice of these arts.
8. Mitoshi Uyehara – The founder and original editor of Black Belt Magazine, probably the first general interest martial arts publication in the western world, in the early 1960s. For several years it was the only regular source of information on martial arts for most practitioners and still remains the U.S.’s largest general interest martial arts magazine. It provided many now well-known martial artists their first media exposure, in particular Bruce Lee, a friend of Uyehara’s whose regular appearance in the magazine undoubtedly contributed to his early reputation.
7. Cheng Man-ch’ing – Possibly the most famous and influential master of tai chi in history. In the 1930s and 1940s, as part of an effort by China’s Kuomintang government, he began modifying traditional Yang style tai chi shortening the forms and concentrating on the health, rather than the martial, aspects of the system. In the 1960s, he immigrated to America and became one of the first instructors to teach Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese. He is, perhaps, most responsible for tai chi now being practiced by millions of people around the world as a form of exercise.
6. Rorion and Royce Gracie – Difficult to distinguish just one of them. Though other family members are credited with creating Brazilian jiu-jitsu or with being better fighters, none had a greater impact than these two men whose combined efforts changed the martial arts landscape. Rorion was the first member of the family to immigrate to the U.S. and begin spreading their unique martial art outside Brazil. When he co-created the Ultimate Fighting Championships in the 1990s to showcase the style, it fell upon Royce to compete and demonstrate the art’s effectiveness. It was his success that launched the grappling boom and the sport of mixed martial arts.
5. Choi Hong Hi – An officer in the Korean military who’s better known for his political rather than technical efforts in the martial arts, he is still considered by many the father of taekwondo, one of the most widely practiced styles in the world. While other co-founders of the system were probably more highly regarded teachers, it was largely due to Choi’s efforts in the 1950s and 1960s that modern taekwondo came into being and gained its status as the national sport of Korea.
4. Gichin Funakoshi – Sometimes referred to as the father of modern karate, he was the first Okinawan master to popularize the art in Japan, beginning in 1922. His system, which eventually became known as Shotokan, went on to become probably the most popular karate style in the world. A number of his later students were among the first instructors to teach karate in the west. He also taught several of the Korean instructors who would go on to found taekwondo.
3. Dana White – President of the Ultimate Fighting Championships since 2001 and the driving force behind the company’s soaring popularity. Prior to White, the UFC and mixed martial arts were, at best, a minor sports fad which seemed on its way to extinction. Under his guidance, it has become one of the most successful sports organizations in the world. In the process, he was able to achieve something no one had ever accomplished before him, to turn a martial arts based sport into a financially lucrative major viewing attraction in the U.S., as well as in overseas markets.
2. Jigoro Kano – Not just the founder of judo but could largely be considered the father of modern Japanese martial arts. Much of what we think of as traditional Asian martial arts, from a belt ranking system to standardized uniforms, was created by Kano in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was vital in introducing both judo and kendo to the Japanese public school system. By sending instructors to the United States and Europe, he made judo the first Asian martial art to gain widespread notoriety in the West. As a member of the International Olympic Committee, he paved the way for judo to become an Olympic sport.
1. Bruce Lee – Though I have written elsewhere about the somewhat overrated nature of Lee’s martial arts abilities, there can be no questioning his impact upon the Asian martial arts. If there is one person whose name is synonymous with martial arts among the general public, it is Lee. While he made a number of contributions as the founder of jeet kune do and as an innovator analyzing the technical side of martial arts, it was through his movies he had the greatest influence. His fame and magnetism as a film star probably inspired more people to take up the practice of martial arts than anyone else in history.