We kicked off the What is the Most Difficult Sport?” series last week with the stick-and-ball sports. This week we’ll get into part two with combat sports.
Simulated combat has existed in sport form since the days of antiquity. It makes that the first forms of competition would be related to combat, considering the constant state of war that ancient peoples found themselves in.
In fact, wrestling is generally considered the world’s oldest sport, which makes it the perfect place to start this week’s edition of “What is the Most Difficult Sport?” as we try to determine the most difficult combat sport.
Full disclosure: my personal bias is going to be on full display for this entry. Of the sports that I’ve personally participated in, I believe that wrestling is the most difficult sport. The combination of conditioning, strength, flexibility, and mental toughness required to compete at the highest levels of the sport is near inhuman.
At the Olympic level, wrestling exists in both Greco-Roman and Freestyle while in the United States, the predominant style is folkstyle. No matter what discipline you’re participating in, it’s going to be one of the fiercest challenges you’ve ever subjected yourself to.
I’ve only participated in judo tangentially – using takedowns from the sport in other forms of grappling sports. The addition of the gi (traditional judo gear) differentiates it from wrestling.
In contrast to the pins and shot-based takedowns of wrestling, judo focuses more on throws and trips and also includes some submissions. The grips involved in judo present their own unique set of challenges but is that enough to consider it the most difficult combat sport? I’m not sure.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu/Submission Grappling
Brazilian jiu-jitsu and submission grappling aren’t necessarily the same but for the sake of this piece I am going to group them together. Submission grappling probably wouldn’t be the sport it is today without the explosion in popularity from Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
The focus in BJJ is on securing joint locks or chokes. Competitions occur in both gi and no-gi, each presenting their own unique set of challenges. A relatively new sport in its current form though folks have been practicing joint manipulation and strangulation since the dawn of time. Submission grappling has evolved this through incorporating aspects of wrestling, judo, BJJ, and other grappling arts.
From the grappling combat sports, we get into the striking combat sports. Karate has it’s roots on the Japanese island of Okinawa and features punches and kicks.
In the Olympics, Karate features both Kumite (sparring) and Kata (forms). It’s a martial art form with an added cerebral component, especially when it comes to the katas.
Much like Karate, Taekwondo is a striking-based martial art. Both hands and feet are used in the sport, but the art is much more known for it’s flashier kicks.
The spinning kicks of the sport take an incredible amount of discipline to perfect making this both a physically and mentally difficult sport.
You might have guessed from the name but Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand. Like Karate and Taekwondo, it is a striking-based martial art. Unlike Karate and Taekwondo, there is a bigger focus on the sport as being full contact.
Sometimes referred to as the “art of eight limbs”, Muay Thai’s biggest calling card is the use of elbows and knees – particularly in the clinch. While Karate and Taekwondo can be extremely difficult in their own ways, Muay Thai places a higher emphasis on offensive as opposed to defensive structures. This striking philosophy lends itself to a more frightening physicality among practitioners.
If you take everything we talked about with Muay Thai, took away the gloves, and added headbutts – you’d get the sport of Lethwei.
The headbutt aspect of Lethwei adds another layer of physicality that is just brutal to see on display. As far as striking combat sports go, Lethwei is likely the most violent. There is a reason the sport is not seen often outside of its native Myanmar. Is this enough to make it the most difficult combat sport? Lethwei makes a strong case.
The sport of kickboxing has drawn inspiration from the many different striking combat sports. In a given contest you may see fighter from any of the disciplines listed above as well traditional boxers who we haven’t gotten to yet.
The mix of disciplines is definitely challenging but in a lot of ways, I think Muay Thai and Lethwei present the same kind of challenges. I’m tempted to group all three together with Lethwei leading due to its ultra-violent nature.
The sport of boxing eliminates the use of kicks, knees, elbows, or any other weapons previously mentioned and instead focuses entirely on punching. The sweet science may only allow for fisticuffs but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an incredibly difficult combat sport.
There are an incredible amount of little details that go into becoming a successful boxer. Of the combat sports, I’d argue that boxing takes the largest amount of focus and attention to detail of any of the sports listed thus far. I think there is a strong case to be made that boxing could be the most difficult combat sport of the bunch.
I confess that when I think of combat sports, I often forget that fencing is also simulating combat – albeit armed combat. The use of a weapon certainly differentiates fencing from the rest of the field.
Any slight misstep in fencing could be catastrophic making this an incredibly mentally demanding combat sport. I just don’t know if the physicality is quite the same level as some of the other sports we’ve already listed.
Mixed Martial Arts
When the UFC was first founded by the Gracie family as a way to showcase the supposed superiority of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it unleashed the mixing of martial arts in to the world in a way that was novel to combat sports fans in the United States.
As MMA evolved, it has seen champions come from just about everything we’ve listed above. Jiu-jitsu players, wrestlers, Thai boxers, and more have all seen success in the Octagon of the UFC or the squared circle of Pride.
However, to be successful in the modern age, it takes a proper blend of both grappling and striking. Gone are the days of mixed martial arts being a showcase of one combat sport against another. Sure, the debates will still rage over what discipline is the best base, but modern fighters need to be able to do it all to be successful.
I want to preface by saying that I find all combat sports incredibly difficult. The challenge of facing an opponent by yourself presents an incredibly different mental dynamic when compared to the team stick-and-ball sports. Not to mention the increased risk to your health.
Each of the disciplines listed above as well as some of the sports I’ve probably forgotten to include deserve some strong consideration here and I know my decision is probably going to upset some folks.
Unfortunately, I do have to make a decision and I’ve narrowed it down to wrestling, Lethwei, and mixed martial arts.
As mentioned above, I think wrestling is the single most difficult sport I have ever participated in and I believe it is the most difficult of the grappling sports.
Lethwei, with the brutal combination of offensive pressure and the unique weapon of head butts strikes me as most difficult of the striking based combat sports.
However, only one of the sports above combines both grappling and striking at all times.
With the unique blending of several arts and the strategic tailoring needed for every individual opponent, I have to give my vote to MMA.
My final verdict is that mixed martial arts is the most difficult combat sport.
Did Coach Jay get the most difficult combat sport right?
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