Don’t worry, I’m way too smart to try to answer that question. This post is going to look at why it’s impossible to answer, how every style specializes in something, and how the vast majority of us don’t even need to worry about it.
The Right Tool for the Right Job
Asking what style is best is like asking which tool in your toolbox is best. Sure a screwdriver can be used for a lot of things, but if you need a hammer you’re out of luck. Comparing martial arts styles is the same way. The illusion of “best” comes about when you see a particular style fail in a specific circumstance it doesn’t excel in. For example, what if you punch someone and they’re too far away? You might say “punches never work, kicking styles like Taekwondo are the best!” If the situation is different and your opponent is closer you might say “clearly, boxing is the greatest martial art of all time.”
Saying a kicking style is best because the other person is far away is like saying a hammer is the greatest tool of all time because you happen to see a nail.
Everyone Excels at Something
Every style of martial arts excels at something. Styles are born of their circumstances – if it wasn’t doing something well natural selection would’ve killed the style off. Styles that emphasize low stances like Karate or some styles of Kung Fu have great balance and stability. Other styles like Judo and Jiu Jitsu excel at control. Boxers can punch well and Taekwondo practitioners can kick well.
No one style is “best,” but some styles can be “best at something.”
The Ideal Range
One way to compare styles is by what combat range they are best at. A Taekwondo practitioner wants to start as far away from the opponent as possible to use their sidekick. While a boxer or Kung Fu practitioner wants to get past kick range and into punching distance. Closer still a Muay Thai fighter might want to be close enough to throw knees and elbows. From there we move into standing lock and throw range, and finally to ground fighting and grappling.
Once again we can’t say “best,” but we can say “best at that range.”
The Ideal Environment
While styles have evolved with a specific range in mind, they have also evolved with a specific environment as well. Many older martial arts styles were designed for fighting on grass, mountains, mud, or even boats on the water. Because of this, they are lower, slower, and bigger. Older styles often advance by stepping heel first. Newer styles have evolved in the gym or ring and emphasize mobility. These newer styles typically emphasize moving on the balls of your feet.
If you want to know what style is best in a given environment, look at a technique from that style and ask “would this work outside? On a hill? In the rain? Snow? Ice?” What works best in the ring is not necessarily best in nature.
Sport VS Self-Defense
This is a tricky one. People who practice sports-based martial arts argue that their styles are better because they are overcoming a resisting opponent. People who practice self-defense based arts say their style is better because they practice groin kicks, eye gouges, and other vital point striking. At the end of the day, they’re both right.
If you allowed eye gouging in sports it would make for bad entertainment. It doesn’t look exciting, it would cause the sport to be banned, and the risk of permanent injury is too great.
Similarly, if you only taught martial arts where your opponent cooperated, you would have a false sense of security. If I tucked my chin and went into a roll every time you even started to throw me, you would never know if your throw would work on a resisting opponent.
Know Your Gaps
For most of us, it’s impossible to excel at absolutely everything in martial arts. The majority of us out there are hobbyists. We train a few hours at the dojo every week and maybe a bit at home when life doesn’t get in the way. It’s next to impossible for someone who isn’t a full time martial artist to be skilled in every range, every environment, and in the best of every style.
I know my knowledge gaps. I’m most comfortable kicking and punching thanks to my training in Kenpo, Taekwondo, and Tang Soo Do. I’ve done some stand up locking and throwing, but I don’t consider myself skilled at it. What little ground training I’ve done serves only to make me aware of how much of a deficit it is.
The Best is What You’ll Do
So the bad news? There aren’t enough hours in the week to train in enough styles to be “best.” The good news? It probably doesn’t matter. The vast majority of us will not need martial arts for self defense, and even the most ineffective style is effective at promoting physical and mental health. Do what you enjoy and don’t worry. Remember, any training will make you more prepared than no training.