Martial Arts and Combat Sports | What is the Difference?

People that are interested in fighting and martial arts sometimes use the terms combat sport and martial arts interchangeably. I wanted to know if they were distinctions between the two terms so I looked into it.

Martial arts are fighting or combative systems codified for the purpose of teaching people how to fight. Combat sports are contests of combat within a specific ruleset to determine who is the better fighter within that ruleset. Many martial arts can also be considered combat sports.

Now that we know that martial arts and combat sports are conceptually distinct topics, let’s go into more detail on what makes martial arts and combat sports different.

What is the Difference Between Martial Arts and Combat Sports?

Martial arts teach their students combative systems in order to increase their ability to fight within the traditions of that martial art. Combat sports test fighters within a specified ruleset to determine who is the best fighter in that contest.

What Are Combat Sports?

Combat sports are contests that are set up to determine the best fighter within a specific ruleset. Combat sports are typically one-on-one contests where a fighter will win through scoring more points, disabling their opponent, or hitting a specific technique.

The rules in various combat sports are usually quite distinct from each other so the skills and goals can differ greatly between combat sports.

Combat sports focus on performance over personal development which makes it different from the focus of many traditional martial arts.

Some examples of martial arts that are also combat sports are:

  1. Mixed Martial Arts
  2. Wrestling
  3. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
  4. Muay Thai
  5. Kickboxing
  6. Boxing
  7. Karate
  8. Taekwondo

The purpose of most combat sports is to test the skills of the fighters within that ruleset. Many of these combat sports are set up for entertainment value as well, the two most notable combat sports in terms of popularity for entertainment at this time are MMA and Boxing.

It should be noted that martial arts that are heavily focused on their respective combat sports competitions are heavily weighted towards performance in their specified rulesets, especially in competition-oriented schools or dojos.

Combat sports are not specifically focused on the betterment of the life of the athlete, which can be different when you take a look at how modern traditional martial arts are set up.

What Are Martial Arts?

Martial arts are combative systems to become better at fighting with came about to meet the needs of self-defense, fighting for military or law enforcement use, and personal physical, mental, or spiritual development. These systems often have overlap with combat sports.

Many martial arts have a strong focus on developing respect and discipline in their students. This formal discipline and restraint alongside personal development make it unique from combat sports.

Most people think about Karate, Taekwondo, and Kung Fu as martial arts, but the definition extends to all combative systems. While martial arts is most commonly associated with Asian martial arts, the term is actually European in origin and came about around the 1550s.

Some common examples of martial arts are:

  1. Wrestling
  2. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu
  3. Muay Thai
  4. Kickboxing
  5. Boxing
  6. Karate
  7. Taekwondo

Many modern martial arts schools have shifted their focus to have wider appeal by promoting their martial arts disciplines as tools for self-defense alongside emphasizing personal development in mental health, physical health, and spiritual health. There is also a strong community aspect to martial arts.

The focus of martial arts in terms of directly addressing self-defense and broad personal development makes martial arts distinct from combat sports as a whole, despite the overlap that can sometimes occur within some martial arts disciplines.

I think that Ramsey Dewey has a great video on the topic that I linked below.

Are Martial Arts or Combat Sports Harder to Learn?

Both martial arts and combat sports can be difficult to learn, but they differ in what makes them difficult. Martial arts can have both breadth and depth of techniques that add complexity. Combat sports are more physically demanding since athletes must apply techniques to resisting opponents.

Many martial arts disciplines can be harder to learn due to the technical demands of the art. Martial arts can be complex due to the breadth and depth of techniques. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo are perfect examples of martial arts with high technical knowledge requirements for mastery.

Combat sports, by contrast, are more physically demanding due to the focus on combat within their rulesets. This forces combat athletes into developing higher fitness, strength, and flexibility alongside technical mastery of the skills used to win in that sport.

Depending on the specificity of the sport, you will need more specific physical attributes to excel. For example, in MMA a smart combat athlete can defeat physically superior opponents due to better strategy. The same is not always true in a more narrow ruleset like boxing.

Are Martial Arts or Combat Sports Better for Self-Defense?

Both martial arts and combat sports can help to develop self-defense skills, but combat sports do a better job than typical traditional martial arts school settings. Combat sports give you better stress-inoculation since you do more live sparring against resisting opponents.

Somebody who has good self-defense skills can avoid conflict in the first place. But if it comes down to an actual fight the skills developed in combat sports live training will help to allow somebody to have a quick response, effective defense, and good balance and footwork.

If you take somebody who has had training in a typical casual traditional martial arts school and put them in a situation where they need to defend themselves without having significant amounts of time training in a full-contact fighting situation, they might freeze up and not be able to use their training.

Being in control while under the normal hormonal response to a fighting situation is its own skill that only gets developed if training is done in a way that mirrors a fight. A wrestler or boxer who has had dozens of intense sparring rounds will be able to think and use their muscle memory to defend themselves despite the dump of adrenaline into their systems since they have been there before.

Final Thoughts

Martial arts and combat sports are distinct from each other in many ways, but many martial arts do cross over into the realm of combat sports as well. This crossover can create some confusion when talking to people about combat sports and martial arts.

Overall, the distinction between martial arts as combat systems and combat sports as contests of combat ability is relatively simple to categorize if you go by those definitions.

For more check out What is the Difference Between Martial Artists and Fighters?


Hi, I'm Andre and I am the author of this website. I currently train primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu but supplement with other grappling martial arts as well as help to coach my kid's blended grappling program.

Recent Posts