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Best Martial Arts for Self Defense in the Streets

I've been training in martial arts since the 1980s and consistently since the '90s. I am a 2nd-degree black belt in Kenpo Karate.

Choosing a Martial Art

When choosing a martial art for self-defense, obviously, you want one that has practical application in the street and other situations in which real-life attacks occur. You want a system that takes into account a good range of scenarios and uses sound principles that are effective for keeping you safe from harm and that could save you in a real situation.

At the same time, it is important to realize that no martial art is magic. It depends on how you apply your art and how well you train. Consistent training is important for burning techniques into muscle memory and neural pathways of the brain so that the moves become second nature and so you are so used to doing them that you can execute them with speed and power. The way you train is the way the techniques will be executed. Know that from the outset.

Certain martial arts are particularly practical for self-defense and street application, taking into account scientific and logical principles of power generation and consideration related to what will actually work against a lively and resistant attacker. Simply put, you need something that will effectively deter and stop an attacker. More often than not, this means grabbing the adversary and/or using strikes and other immobilizing technique that totally cancels him and his attack.

I would like to note, also, that when dealing with multiple opponents, striking arts are the most efficient because time is scarce in such a situation and you need all of your weapons available readily when dealing with more than one person wanting to do you harm. An effective self-defense system must, at least, make use of some striking.

So, let's explore the most effective martial arts for street self-defense.

The late Grandmaster Ed Parker, founder of Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate, also known as American Kenpo.

The late Grandmaster Ed Parker, founder of Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate, also known as American Kenpo.

Kenpo Karate

Kenpo Karate is a system of martial arts that applies scientific principles of motion and physics in addition to using common sense and logic. It is the study of what kind of natural laws and motion generate enough power in strikes to deter or stop an attacker from doing you harm. It also considers the angles and positions needed to execute these techniques effectively and how to check the opponent with the use of grappling, control of the attacker's body, and use of the position of yourself and the adversary to stop attacks.

Kenpo takes into account the myriad of real attacks that occur in the street and students are encouraged to examine the various possibilities in dealing with and stopping these attacks. Kenpo is designed for self-defense and the street.

Dan Zan Ryu includes:

  • Japanese Jiu Jitsu
  • Okinawan Karate
  • Chinese Kung Fu
  • Filipino Knife Fighting

Dan Zan Ryu Jiu Jitsu

Dan Zan Ryu was developed in Hawaii, as did Ed Parker's Kenpo Karate, by Professor Henry Okasaki. Many of the arts in Hawaii developed in an environment in which there was an exchange of information between the arts, even resulting in hybrid arts like Kajukenbo, which is a combination of boxing, Jiu-Jitsu, and Kenpo. I have personally known practitioners of Dan Zan Ryu who, while primarily grapplers, were skilled strikers too. Like Kenpo, Dan Zan Ryu breeds real fighters that use whatever is necessary. Its foundation is in Jiu-Jitsu, grappling, and its techniques are very effective. But it's not unusual to see a Dan Zan Ryu fighter applying strikes. In fact, Dan Zan Ryu has elements of Karate, Kung Fu, and Filipino knife fighting.

For this reason, generally, I consider this art to be street-effective because it encompasses more than a narrow field of knowledge, and artists from this system understand the value of both grappling and striking techniques.

A fun Jiu Jitsu throw.

A fun Jiu Jitsu throw.

Boxing and Kickboxing

Boxing technique is efficient and strong. It is fast and makes use of effective body mechanics for generating power behind punches. It also makes use of multiple angles of attacking and defending. Simply put, people have been using boxing to defend themselves for many, many years.

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Add kicks to those boxing techniques and you really will bewilder an attacker.

Training for speed and power is the essence of boxing, with rapid punches that use body weight and torque to knock out the opponent. Adding a vicious Muay Thai kick to the thigh nerve can only help your self-defense endeavors.

Boxing and Kickboxing also make good use of movement for defense. After all, the best defense is to not have the target available to be hit; making use of head and body movement to avoid getting hit is a boxing stand-by and very effective. You have to keep moving in a real self-defense situation.

Grandmaster Cacoy Canete, practitioner of Doce Pares Eskrima and Eskrido, a system that incorporates the use of grappling, striking and multiple weapons.

Grandmaster Cacoy Canete, practitioner of Doce Pares Eskrima and Eskrido, a system that incorporates the use of grappling, striking and multiple weapons.

Eskrima and the Filipino Martial Arts

Filipino martial arts, like Eskrima, are good for understanding the use of weapons. Many of these arts are rooted in the use of blades and sticks and translating the movement of those weapons into empty-handed self-defense techniques. In addition, the arts emphasize making use of what's available in the environment, making use of pipes and hair brushes, if need be, to defend yourself. The Filipino arts are based in being open enough to understand that techniques can be translated across the board, whether you are using a stick, an empty hand, or a soda bottle.

Eskrima encompasses a wide range of arts, including grappling, striking, and weapons. If you study Eskrima you will get in-depth knowledge of disarms and use of weapons, knowledge which is very necessary when it comes to street self-defense.

Like Kenpo, the Filipino arts make use of checking (stopping or preventing the attacker's movement by grabbing him or positioning him or yourself so you can't be hit), angles, and keeping yourself out of range of attack while putting yourself in a position to attack and defend yourself. It makes use of very logical and practical principles of self-defense.

Canete Showing Locks, Throws and Disarms

So, there you have it. These are the martial arts that emphasize power, control of the opponent, practical considerations for the street, and logic and common sense. They are arts that are effective for street self-defense and real fighting.


Mike on January 09, 2020:

Sambo and Judo are very practical for the street.

John logan on January 03, 2020:

You forgot about kyokushin karate...

Charles star on December 19, 2019:

Please audience, one of the most effective street martial arts J.K.D..please check out .Bruce Lee first and second generation students.His combat skills and principles are impeccable..not the movie crap!!.

audie crear on December 05, 2019:

Ask the two thugs with pistols pointed at you.

Rj on December 03, 2019:

Krav Maga would be my choice even thought I have 35 years in Korean Martial Arts. Grappling arts are great but in the streets there are more dangers than just one person. If your tied up with your adversary and they have other help your in trouble. Street Fighting is not a catch and release system it's life or death. In a law abiding country you have rules but in the 3rd world you only have one rule, that is too survive IMO

Dennis Engard on December 01, 2019:

Ed Parker and I worked out together a long time ago. We would meet with other Black Belts a week each year. We where all different styles and we would share styles, techniques, discuss, and laugh at each other. We were great friends. He is missed. Nice article except you left a lot of Discipline/Styles out. Look at your comments. But I am sure you know that. Your article was written, in my opinion, by a Martial Artist who has pretty much only his style as his knowledge then used a book. There is no difference in styles when discussing self-defense. The old Masters can never be replaced. I have friends who are badass street fighters without formal training. What I mean is no style is any good if the INSTRUCTOR isn't. Just being a Black Belt doesn't mean they can Instruct. Not all can be National Champion in Kata or Kumite. I learned that myself in the first 10 years of my teaching. I was still actively competing. My schools were great competitors! It took me until then that I was there for ALL my students and I had a job to be able to share my limited understanding to ALL of my students. This is constructive criticism. There are too many Black Belts out there than are not good Instructors. They may be great competitors. Think of this next time when you compete in a tournament and wonder why this judge did't see your point or judged so low in Kata. Just my opinion and we all have one, you know the rest. Just Saying..

Just another Black Belt still learning.

United Fighting Arts Federation

Master Chuck Norris, Founder

Tom on November 28, 2019:

What about Krav Maga?

D Stephens on November 09, 2019:

There grappling arts Wrestling, jujitsu, sambo, Judo all have an advantage due to the fact that they can spar at live combat speed without getting repeatedly hit or kicked in he head. You could not throw elbows at full speed during a sparing session . Gapplers get more live combat experience.

Johnny Walker on November 05, 2019:

I prefer WING CHUN

William Muhammad on October 30, 2019:

I'm a Taekwondo practitioner & I also have some training in VSK Jujitsu. I can say with extreme confidence, from experience in many hand to hand combat encounters in the streets, Taekwondo is the real deal. I'm aware that there are some who may incorrectly think otherwise due to watching tournaments or whatever reasons.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on September 12, 2017:

I absolutely agree with you, Xavier, about street fighting. The last thing I'd want to do is get tied up with one person on the ground in the street where anything goes. With Kenpo, it kind of depends on the instructor whether they will teach how to deal with getting on the ground. My instructor did specifically teach some techniques for dealing with ground fighting and we would often spontaneously apply techniques while sparring when the fighting end up on the mat. There are techniques you learn in the system that can be applied on the ground too.

Xavier on September 12, 2017:

Hi Nathan!

In a street fight situation the last thing i would try to do is ground-fighting, but nowdays ground-fighting is very popular and the people is getting crazier and more stupid, so it is no surprise that in a street fight situation someone probably would try to apply some BJJ techniques. That is why i think that ground-fighting techniques are very important to learn, maybe not to apply them but for escaping from them.

Does American Kempo teach how to confront/escape from ground-fighting situatiuons?

(Sorry for my english, i live in spanish speaking land)

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on September 04, 2017:

My opinion is that Kajukenbo is a good art for self defense. It is a combination of Karate, Judo, Kenpo and boxing, so it is pretty well-rounded with some grappling and striking and with some modern art in there with proven effectiveness, like boxing. It's another art from Hawaii that to me is pretty solid as a street art. Chuck Liddell, who has been pretty impressive in the UFC, was trained by John Hackleman, who is an instructor of Kajukenbo. Many of those Hawaiian arts are a pretty good mixture of elements, are really non-classical styles that emphasize what is effective in a well-rounded way.

Nathaniel Smith on September 03, 2017:

Hi Nathan,

I know this article is a little old now, but can you tell me your opinion of Kajukenbo? The only martial arts school near me that I can afford teaches Kajukenbo. Is that still a good art for self-defense?

Dave on May 01, 2017:

What about Wing Chun?

- Dave

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on April 29, 2017:

Thanks, Scott. Interesting to hear from someone who's practiced martial arts. There is a bit lacking in terms of ground fighting in some of these arts. Sometimes you'll get an instructor that will include in the curriculum. However, it's probably good for those wanting to be well-rounded, to add an art to their regimen that has some ground work. Of course, there are situations in which you don't want to end up on the ground if you can help it, and in such case a person should train how not to go to the ground. Conversely, you'll want to know what to do if you do end up there.

promisem on April 29, 2017:

I took kenpo as a teen (blue belt) and tae kwon do / hapkido as an adult (black belt). Both offered techniques that could be used for street fighting, but they seemed more focus on standing techniques than ground work. If someone got me on the ground, I don't know that either one would help much with what to do next. That said, I loved both forms.

anitabooks888 on November 17, 2016:

Fascinating hub. I don't know much about Martial Arts but I have seen

a very positive growth and outlook in my grandson since he took up Martial Arts.

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on June 28, 2014:

Thank you, too, Leland. Like me, you grew up with the martial arts and I can tell you have that same spirit that I've had my whole life. I'm not into putting down any of the arts either, there is a common thread to many of them and it's truly about the individual and how they put their heart and soul into it. Glad you stopped by.


as a student of wing chun and jeet kune do...every bit of what i read was the exact thinking and way i was taught by my father and cousin since the age of seven until thirty five years of fifty three and not training as i used to i do have all taught to me in everyday actions awesome awesome you definitely are a man who loves and understands all martial arts and what and why it is useful..all styles are awesome always thought this never ever put one down for another its all about you and training..thank you brother

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on June 27, 2014:

Exactly, Bill. Good information to have and hopefully never necessary to use. Thanks again, always glad when you stop by.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 27, 2014:

Very nice summary of some of the basics of self-defense. Hopefully, none of us will ever need to use it. :)

Nathan Bernardo (author) from California, United States of America on June 27, 2014:

Thanks, JG11Bravo. I thought about including one like Krav Maga because of it's use in special forces and secret police and for the Jewish population fighting Nazi terror; I decided to focus on these arts which I've seen used and have practiced personally. I do understand the principles of police/military arts and their effectiveness and some of it is included, for instance, in Kenpo. Glad you took the time to stop by and read the article and gave your attention to it.

JG11Bravo on June 27, 2014:

Interesting hub. I tend to lean toward some of the more modern police/military martial arts (Krav Maga, Sambo, U.S. Army hand-to-hand combat) for what I'd consider street-effective, but your perspective on these certainly give me something to think about.

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