What is the Difference Between Martial Artists and Fighters?

The terms martial artist and fighter are often used interchangeably but they are not exactly the same thing. There are fundamental differences between people that are martial artists and people that are fighters.

Martial artists practice martial arts and fighters practice combat sports. There can be an overlap between the two, particularly when the martial arts being practiced have a combat sports ruleset associated with them. The distinction between the two terms has to do with the purpose of the training.

Let’s take a dive into some of the distinctions between martial artists and fighters. We will take a look at how martial arts is approached in modern times and lay out what people get out of martial arts as well as what the distinctions can be between martial artists and fighters.

What Makes a Person a Martial Artist?

Anybody who trains in a martial art can be considered a martial artist. Some of the most common martial arts that are trained in modern times are Karate, Taekwondo, Kung Fu, Judo, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Traditional martial arts tend to focus more on self-development than fighting ability.

Martial arts roughly translates to the art of war, and have their origins in training soldiers in martial skills and were used to develop fighting abilities in the context of war. In modern times these martial arts have been shifted more and more into a more self-development hobby activity or with a bent towards getting good exercise.

While these changes have occurred, many people still view martial arts through the lens of self-defense and fighting capabilities. While martial artists certainly do better than untrained individuals, the publically popular martial arts sometimes are always not specifically great at self-defense for several reasons, and fighters who practice combat sports tend to do better in that regard.

Martial Artists’ Motivations

Martial arts have significant roots in self-defense since they were originally built to be fighting systems for war. Many people still practice martial arts for self-defense reasons. The motivation for martial artists really tends towards either seeking self-defense capacity or using martial arts for self-development.

Martial Arts Philosophies

One of the biggest aspects that differentiate a martial artist from a fighter is the emphasis on personal development and the philosophies that go along with training some of the martial arts. Martial arts are often framed to be about building a complete person that can succeed in life both on and off the mats. Traditional martial arts tend to do this more heavily than modern ones.

Some of the tenets of behavior and skills that are emphasized in martial arts include:

  • Patience
  • Focus
  • Respect
  • Discipline
  • Honor and Duty
  • Self-Sacrifice
  • Self-Confidence
  • Awareness
  • Meditation

Martial Arts Abilities

Martial artists seek to build both mental and physical abilities. Physically, you learn the technical aspects of martial arts techniques in terms of punching, kicking, and other combat techniques like grappling or even weapons combat like swords and bows.

What Do All Martial Arts Have in Common?

All martial arts combine the physical practice of techniques and movements. Most martial arts tend to develop mental toughness in their students alongside self-development in terms of appropriate mindsets and behavior.

Is Karate a Real Martial Art?

Karate is a real martial art; in fact, it is one of the most popular traditional martial arts. Karate is a martial combat system that dates back to the 17th century. Today, Karate still covers much of the same material but is more focused on self-development.

What Makes a Person a Fighter?

A fighter is somebody who practices and competes within a combat sport ruleset. Most modern fighters are typically MMA fighters, boxers, and kickboxers. Any person who competes under a combat sports ruleset can be called a fighter.

Fighters train to perform well in a fight within a set of combat sports rules. Their main goal is to develop a skill set that allows them to win within that combat sport’s ruleset. So a boxer would train to be able to win a boxing match. An MMA fighter will train to win an MMA fight.

Since most fighters are looking to win in their fight, they tend to do more intense live training against resisting opponents and emphasize physical and mental conditioning more than an average hobby-level martial artist.

Motivation Behind Fighting

The motivation behind a fighter is more akin to other competitive sports than to martial arts. Fighters train to perform their best to win a fight, in a similar way to people training to perform their best within a specific sport like football or basketball.

Why Do Fighters Fight?

Fighters fight to win their competition. Amateurs do it to prove themselves or to build up experience before becoming professional fighters. Professional fighters fight in order to earn income and be the best fighters they can be within their chosen combat sport.

Fighting Philosophies

Fighters don’t have governing philosophies the way that martial artists do. They simply compete within their combat sports ruleset. For instance, MMA fighters will follow the rules of the UFC if they are a UFC MMA fighters.

Examples of rules that might exist in a combat sport include:

  • Fight within your weight class.
  • No strikes to the groin, hair pulling, eye-gouging, etc.
  • Only closed-fist punching is permitted.
  • Do not hit your opponent in the back of the head.

Fighting Abilities

Fighters tend to reach a higher physical fitness level and emphasize gaining speed, accuracy, power, and conditioning as related to their chosen combat sport. This, in combination with hard live training against resisting opponents, makes them more formidable in terms of fighting abilities than the average martial artist.

What Do the Best Fighters Have in Common?

The best fighters train frequently and have good physical and mental conditioning. They set goals and tend to schedule their efforts in a more calculated way in order to maximize their chances of success in their fights.

Key Similarities Between a Martial Artist and a Fighter

Next, I’ll highlight the similarities between martial arts and fighting:

  • Both martial artists and fighters fight. Whether for self-defense or defeating an opponent, both result in a physical battle.
  • Both require physical fitness and intense training. Though fighters must undergo intense cardio training, both martial artists and fighters must practice and train to hone their craft.
  • Both train for competition. While you can practice martial arts without ever entering a competition, both disciplines have matches that show off their skills and how much they’ve learned.

Key Differences Between a Martial Artist and a Fighter

Martial artists and fighters do have many similarities, which is why many people are unclear about the differences between martial artists and fighters. So let’s look at some of the differences between the two in more general terms.

A fighter’s goal is to maximize their ability to win a fight within a specific combat sports ruleset and a martial artist emphasizes self-development and learning.

Fighters will maximize their chances to win their fight through physical conditioning, sparring, and technical learning. Martial artists tend to value learning their art and self-development and do not tend to train as hard as fighters need to for their goals.

Can a Fighter Beat a Martial Artist?

In most cases, fighters will beat the average martial artist in a fight. This is due to the emphasis on sparring against resisting opponents and the general physicality being higher for fighters versus martial artists. Both of these factors are important in a real fight.

That being said, if a fighter is taken out of their comfort zone, they will have issues. This is specifically notable if you are a striking-based fighter and come up against somebody who is an experienced Judo black belt or BJJ black belt. If a boxer or kickboxer ends up on the ground, they will end up being at a severe disadvantage against these martial artists.

I break down specifics about the dynamics of striking specialists like boxers against martial artists in my post Can a Black Belt Martial Artist Beat a Boxer?

Well-rounded fighters like MMA fighters are more likely to do fine in a wider range of fighting situations and will beat most martial artists, especially since MMA fighters tend to have fantastic strength and conditioning compared to your average martial artist as well as many repetitions of sparring at high intensity in many situations.

Final Thoughts

While there can be a lot of overlap between martial artists and fighters, there are some distinctions between the two. Most of those distinctions have to do with the purpose of their training. Fighters tend to train to win competitions and martial artists tend to train with a desire to learn the art and to better themselves.

In my experience fighters tend to have a base as martial artists before they switch over to being fighters within whatever combat sports system they decide to train in.

For more check out Martial Arts and Combat Sports | What is the Difference?


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.

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