Martial arts has been around for the longest time. If we are to base it on archaeological findings, then we can say that martial arts has been used by man as early as 3400 B.C., when the ancient Egyptians depicted some form of struggle on jars and other artifacts. There have also been drawings and sketches in Mesopotamia and China showing humans in combat using either a sword, stick, or bow.
Admittedly, however, most people only learned of martial arts after seeing a martial arts movie or watching a mixed martial arts (MMA) fight. Although purists may frown at the suggestion that much of martial arts’ popularity can be credited to Bruce Lee, the statement does hold some truth.
That said, here is a listing of the top seven martial artists of all time who have contributed to the popularity of the combat sport.
1. Bruce Lee
Without a doubt the most influential martial artist of all time is the action star and filmmaker Bruce Lee, a Chinese-American who rose to prominence in the 60s and 70s until his untimely death on July 20, 1973.
A pop culture icon of the 20th century, Lee is credited for singlehandedly putting martial arts in the map through his movies. In fact, you can ask anyone on the street on who Lee is, and chances are high you’ll get a response associating him with karate and other martial art forms.
2. Yip Man
Although his claim to fame would definitely have to be the teacher of Bruce Lee, Yip Man has his valuable contributions to martial arts. He schooled some of the best martial artists of the 20th century like Lee and a host of other Chinese figures. There have been several movies and TV series that touched on his life and his legacy to martial arts.
3. Jackie Chan
Perhaps the only man who is closest to touching the legacy of Bruce Lee would have to be Jackie Chan, himself a decorated action star and martial artists. In fact, if we are to base it on longevity and the number of films made alone, Chan would best Lee by a mile. The still active Chan has been acting in martial arts movies since the 60s and has appeared in more than 150 movies.
Chan is a cultural icon himself, having successfully mixed comedic timing with his martial arts moves. There isn’t one cinema buff who has never heard of Chan, and his mainstream appeal has made martial arts even more recognizable to the casual fan.
4. Anderson Silva
Perhaps the most popular and controversial Universal Fighting Championship (UFC) champion of all-time, Anderson da Silva is a Brazilian mixed martial artist who is recognized as the greatest of his generation. He holds the UFC record for most consecutive wins (16) and title defenses (10) with 12 post-fight bonus awards to boot.
Although his popularity has suffered a dip ever since he lost in consecutive mind-blowing fashion to Chris Wiedman, Silva’s career is back on track. It remains to be seen whether he would recapture his old glory but it is undeniable that his exploits in the octagon has made the public aware of the various styles he is adept at, like taekwondo, judo, Muay Thai, Jiu-jitsu wrestling, and Capoiera.
5. Chuck Norris
Like Lee and Chan, Chuck Norris has been able to make martial arts more recognized by the public through his movies. In fact, he starred with the late Lee in the movie “Way of the Dragon.” He became a huge star in the 80s, and later made the transition to a TV star after his movie projects dwindled.
As a martial artist Norris was the Professional Middleweight Karate champion in the 70s, a feat he held on for six years. However it cannot be denied that his greatest contribution to martial arts was when he was acting in front of the cameras.
6. Royce Gracie
Similar to Silva, Gracie is a UFC fighter who is regarded as one of the best of his time. A Brazilian Jiu-jitsu practitioner, he was best known for beating fighters who were bigger and stronger than him. He weighed just 170 pounds but still won three of the first four UFC tournaments. His legacy is unquestioned that some quarters consider him to be a bigger star than Silva, especially when you take into consideration how he helped shape what the UFC is today.
7. Jet Li
A popular Chinese action star who rose to Hollywood prominence as the bad guy in Lethal Weapon 4 released in 1998. Like Chan, he has had his share of Hollywood action blockbusters like Kiss of the Dragon, Unleashed, and the Expendables series. He is a master of various styles of wushu, and studied other martial arts like Supreme ultimate fist and Shape intent fist.