There are hundreds of different martial arts out there and we routinely compare them on this site. One interesting question, however, is which martial arts are the hardest to learn? Which martial arts take the longest to master, and why?
The answer is here. Let’s have a look at 10 of the most difficult martial arts to learn.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: The Black Belt Challenge
It’s important to recognize that traditionally, a black belt simply isn’t an indication of “mastery” in most martial arts, it’s the symbol of someone who has mastered the basics and is now able to start their journey as a proficient student into more complex techniques.
That means that in most martial arts, getting to black belt will take between 3 and 7 years. This reflects the fact that each student will commit different levels of time to their practice as well as the fact that they will each have differing levels of natural ability. A student is not “better” because they attain a black belt faster than another student – they are just different.
However, in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) these rules go out the window to some extent. It typically, takes a BJJ fighter 10-12 years to gain a black belt and the black belt does confer a “master” status on the recipient. That means from a difficulty perspective, BJJ is the hardest martial art in which to obtain a black belt.
The good news when it comes to BJJ is that you shouldn’t struggle to find a teacher if you have a decade or so to spend learning it. It has become an essential part of the MMA circuit and as such, there are schools teaching BJJ in almost every town and city. That makes it the easiest martial art to learn on this list from a practical perspective.
Bokator: 10,000 Moves!
You may never have heard of Bokator and that’s because it’s an ancient martial art from the Kingdom of Angkor (which is modern-day Cambodia). The name literally means “pounding a lion” in Khmer. The first challenge that you’re going to have if you want to learn Bokator is finding an instructor.
The second is going to be finding an instructor that speaks your language because, otherwise, you will need to learn Khmer. This isn’t easy. The Khmer alphabet is the largest known alphabet and before you can start speaking it – you need to master 74 different characters! That is 33 consonants (and that’s down from 35 as used in classical Khmer!), 23 dependent vowels and 12 independent vowels and the rest is “supplementary consonants”.
Assuming you get to grips with this amazing linguistic challenge then the next problem is the incredible scope of Bokator. It contains 314 sets of movements and is said to contain over 10,000 individual moves and that’s just the hand-to-hand style! You only have to master 1,000 of these styles to earn a black krama (a krama is a Khmer scarf used instead of a belt system) mind you. This isn’t the highest rank in Boaktor, mind you.
Once you have obtained a black krama and then mastered the 10 degrees of the black krama above that then you will find that you can earn a gold krama. This requires just another 10 years of study and the respect of your peers as an unparalleled fighter before you can get yours.
Wow, talk about hard. Bokator truly deserves its place on a list of difficult martial arts to learn.
Tai Chi: The Surprise Element On This List
Tai Chi is very easy to learn if you learn the modern form of the art. That is Tai Chi without fighting. This is practiced for the physical and mental health benefits. The forms are complex, but they are executed slowly and deliberately and pretty much anyone from the age of 6 to 90 can master some of this kind of Tai Chi.
It will take many years to master all the moves in a modern Tai Chi style but that’s OK, it takes many years to master any martial art, in itself this isn’t an indication of how difficult it will be to learn a martial art.
However, if you want to learn Tai Chi as an actual fighting art you have a couple of challenges – the first is finding a teacher. Because most people don’t learn Tai Chi to fight, there aren’t many people out there who are competent to teach it and the vast majority of people who can teach Tai Chi as a fighting style live in China.
Secondly, the forms are rather more complicated when you want to fight using Tai Chi – you have to master the hand-to-hand aspects and the weapons aspects of the style. To do this, you need to completely master self-discipline and balance to an extent not seen in most martial arts.
Thus, the difficulty setting on Tai Chi as an exercise routine is “easy” but as a martial art? It’s as hard as nails.
Rough And Tumble: Not As Sweet As It Sounds
This martial art has had its name adopted by mainstream English to mean a sort of childish scrap. You might see two kids fighting on a playground, separate them and tell their parents “it was just a bit of rough and tumble.”
The parents, on the other hand, will be very grateful that it wasn’t a bit of rough and tumble at all. You see it’s also known as “gouging” when it’s talked about as a martial art and that’s because the objective was to gouge out your opponent’s eyes when you fought them.
Rough and tumble adherents do not play by the rules of most martial arts. It’s an ugly, brutal discipline which involves biting, gouging and generally trying to disfigure the other guy (or girl) as brutally as possible. Oddly, it still had an underlying “honor” system and was often used in duels in 17th and 18th century America.
It was formally outlawed in the 19th century and that’s why it makes it onto this list of difficult to learn martial arts. It did survive into the modern era, but it is very much an underground practice that only exists in certain communities.
Secondly, rough and tumble absolutely requires that students go out to hurt each other. It’s not playful, it’s the serious business of maiming another person. As you can imagine, this means that very students will ever master the discipline as they’re much more likely to end up dreadfully damaged before they get to that stage.
Bakom: Street Fighting With A Difference
If you thought that rough and tumble was the most brutal of these tough martial arts, think again. Rough and tumble is like a badly designed brawl, Bakom is the high art of inflicting pain on another human being and typically, a Bakom fight is a fight to the death.
As you might expect, this means that you’re not going to pick up Bakom on any main street in America, in fact, the only place that you can learn it is in the slums of Lima in Peru. It was the creation of Villa el Salvador, a convict, a marine and a jiujitsu master.
It blends jiujitsu with both armed and unarmed street fighting techniques and is focused completely on the disabling of the opponent by any means necessary. It is a hugely powerful martial art and attacks are designed to drive the other person off balance and force them to the ground where it’s easy to rain down blows upon them.
There is no concept of “fair play” in Bakom and if you can fake out an opponent to inflict an even bigger injury, no-one will object. You may also surprise them with another weapon if you can discrete one about your person as you fight.
You can see Bakom in action on YouTube here to get a feel for it:
Lerdrit: A Truly Martial Art
The biggest challenge to learning Lerdrit which is a much more lethal version of Muay Thai is being allowed to join the Thai military to get instruction. Given that this is only open to Thai citizens, for the vast majority of people this makes Lerdrit almost impossible.
You can gain Thai citizenship, but you’d need to live in Thailand, pay taxes for 7 years and learn to speak and read Thai (which is not as hard as Khmer but is still among the world’s more challenging languages to learn) before you apply.
Once you’ve done that then the rest of the process is “easy”. You just have to learn to kick or elbow someone to death without getting severely injured as you do it.
Lerdrit is particularly brutal because its practitioners are taught to attack without warning and without mercy. It’s meant to be used in war situations and rather like Israel’s more famous Krav Maga – it doesn’t make any pretensions otherwise.
If you were called on to use Lerdrit in real life, the odds are that the person you used it on would no longer be with us after the attack. This is a martial art for murder not for sport.
Dambe: Getting Stoned To Fight
As with many of these difficult martial arts to learn, the first challenge with Dambe is to find an experienced teacher. For that, you will need to learn the language of the Hausa Muslim tribe of Nigeria and then move to West Africa.
It can also be found in Southern Niger and Southwestern Chad but those are even more dangerous places to learn anything than Nigeria (which is consistently voted to be the worst place to be an expatriate on earth).
Should you decide that this initial effort appeals to you then you will need to join the butcher caste of the Hausa. That is you’ll need to learn to butcher animals in a way which meets the religious and tribal restrictions of the Hausa people.
Assuming that you’re a capable butcher they may then consider you fit to learn Dambe. This is not a martial art for wimps, the most common outcome of losing a Dambe match is a broken jaw and several broken ribs.
It is an armed martial art with the “strong side fist” (a sort of cross between a club and a spear) as the primary weapon. The secondary weapon is often a piece of chain which is wound around the fighter’s leading leg to enable them to cause more damage to their opponent.
You fight in three rounds. No time limits. A round ends when neither opponent is moving, if either the referee or a participant asks it to halt or if someone is knocked to the ground. Whole villages will turn out to watch the fighting.
If that wasn’t difficult enough. Many Dambe fighters are expected to smoke marijuana before they get into the ring. Yes, it’s lethal and you perform it while high, what could go wrong?
Jailhouse Rock: American Prison Fighting
Jailhouse Rock is an unusual martial art in that it is completely unique and indigenous to the United States. It was invented by prisoners seeking to formalize ways to beat the living heck out of each other and for a long time, it was believed to be a purely mythical martial art but research has now conclusively demonstrated that it’s real.
So, if you want to learn it, the first thing you need to do is get yourself sentenced to some time in prison because the “jailhouse” bit is quite literal. Secondly, you will need to be extremely physically fit because all of your opponents will be. All they have to do all day is sit around and work out.
Finally, you will need to be a glutton for punishment because the training regime is utterly brutal. One such technique is “52 pick-up”. This is where somebody scatters a pack of playing cards on the floor and your job is to pick them up in order. This may not sound so bad, but you have to do it while three angry men attack you with all they have, and you can’t fight back until the cards are off the floor.
Kalaripayattu: The Oldest Martial Art?
This martial art was said to have been created by the Indian God Vishnu. It’s also, possibly, the most ancient martial art in the world with a fighting system that dates back to several hundred years B.C. It’s been continuously practiced in Kerala since then and if you want to learn Kalaripayattu that’s your first hurdle – move to India. You may not need to learn the local language though as many people India speak English fluently.
Your second challenge is to learn each of the 108 points that you can hit on a human body and deliver a killing blow to! After that you can explore the myriad variations and sub-styles of this formidable art. You will probably never finish training if you want to master it all!
You will also need to learn Siddha which is an ancient Indian medical system and designed to offset the harm you do as a martial artist.
Okichitaw: Native American Warrior Training With An Asian Twist
Take the native martial art of the Cree Tribe and combine it with judo, taekwondo, and hapkido and Okichitaw arises. Not only does the martial art teach you the most incredible combinations of hand-to-hand fighting, you’re also going to need to get to grips with tomahawks and war clubs!
It is currently only taught to members of the modern Cree tribe, which means that it’s next to impossible to learn for most and while the martial art has been officially recognized, there are no known ways to get involved in it without the right family heritage.
There we have the 10 most difficult martial arts to learn. Whether this inspires you to take up a challenge or to look an easier practice, the incredible commitment of some martial artists to their discipline is truly inspiring, isn’t it?