What’s the difference?

Martial Arts, Combat Sports, Self-Defense

What is the difference? I would say the main differences will be perspectives more than anything else. So let’s put it into perspective.

Here’s a quick look before the details –

Martial Arts : No rules. Values and code of conduct must be inculcated.

Self-Defense : No rules. Values and code of conduct not needed.

Combat Sports : Applied rules. Values not needed. Code of conduct in accordance with rules.

So how are they different? And how are they similar? (Know the term “Same same but different”? It means – they are the same thing but somewhat different at the same time… or different time) Anyway, as I was saying….

Out of the need to protect


The need to protect one’s self, one’s family, one’s kin, one’s village, one’s country or state, one’s property, one’s way of life, one’s belongings ….. springs the evolution in the usage of one’s body, its limbs and parts into combat elements with incredible and sometimes even incredulous abilities. Right up to the building of weapons and wielding them against stronger enemies, be it in might or numbers.

Hence, the creation of self-defense (the self not necessarily limited to just “me”, “myself” or “I”) led to the formulation of Martial Arts, which then led to the start of Combat Sports (an avenue in which to test one’s fighting skills based on a set of agreed rules, – or in today’s standards, it can just mean entertainment).

Meaning to say : Self-Defense –> Martial Arts –> Combat Sports
This is what I mean by perspectives. If you were just learning how to turn your body into

neandethal child

a lethal fighting machine, it’s called learning Self-Defense. In today’s world is that sufficient though? Practically yes, but ethically and responsibly? Why not? (a significant part of this lies with the teacher) The thought here however, is that, can and should one train and learn to become a lethal weapon without nurturing the proper values and virtues? Values like, hard work, discipline, perseverance, courage, humility, courtesy and so on…. And more importantly SHOULD you even be taught to become a mean fighting machine if you don’t possess or refuse to be taught traits like those above? Because this is where you get the bad guys as depicted in so many movies and shows. The ones who are well versed and seem to have an incredible aptitude for fighting but with a demented view the world. Imagine a Jack the Ripper who already possesses anatomical or surgical knowledge being highly skilled in fighting too…. scary.

Leading us to the formulation of what we know as Martial Arts. But first, what is a Martial Art? And who invented or started Martial Arts? Before we dive into that, we have to realize that just like the World, her inhabitants, particularly us homo sapiens, our beliefs, our culture and social systems, WORDS too will evolve its meanings with the times. And the word we’re interested here will be “Martial Arts”.

Aikido class in session

Wikipedia states that “Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a number of reasons:…. The term is derived from Latin, and means “arts of Mars”, the Roman god of war….” Oxford dictionary says it’s “Various sports, which originated chiefly in Japan, Korea, and China as forms of self-defense or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.” My phone’s dictionary says that it’s “any of the Traditional forms of Asian self-defense….”

But here’s my take on what Martial Art is or essentially means –

The combative systems in which the study and development of turning the human body into an array of weapons is done in tandem or infused with a code of conduct and values which are necessary to train or mould a person into a “decent” (based on our culturally and socially accepted views today) human being (we used to call this “spiritual development” but it’s difficult to define as such nowadays, with science debunking the “self” and the existence of a consciousness altogether).


The Orient has had a huge success in building a plethora of different Martial Arts schools, collectively known as the Arts of the Orient. And that is also why in today’s context when we say Martial Arts, it’s usually tagged or linked to the Orient (small in frame with slanted eyes – lol. But nevertheless deadly. Like Jet Li in Lethal Weapon). From KungFu to Wushu (know the difference? Yes, Kungfu and Wushu are different in essence) to the Arts of the Samurai and its Bushido code, it’s no wonder why so many awe at its mysteries and ways.

Ok so now that we have a good idea of what Martial Arts is. Let us get into who invented Martial Arts? Who started it? I would argue that no one did. I would say that it was Society that invented Martial Arts along with its cultures. Because the way I see it, this question is similar to asking what or who was the first man or chimpanzee who threw a stone at a threat or who or what was the first creature to use its hand or paw or wing to swipe away a nuisance or threat. Who’s to say that they didn’t have a “War Art” used in accordance with accepted values of that time in history? And why do I link Martial Arts to something that primitive and far back in our evolution? Because again who are we to say that back then it was not how “wars” were fought and what self defense meant? So to me, the word Martial Arts represents a whole history of human’s evolution in our ability to defend ourselves and used in tandem with the accepted values and virtues inculcated and a certain code of conduct at a particular time. Bringing us back to the paragraph Out of the need to protect”

But what if we look at the word Martial Arts in this view ;-

Martial = War

Therefore Martial Arts = War Art

So would it be a fair to simply state that it is a word that describes the human’s ability to train, foster, condition and teach the body and mind to have the ability to maim and kill? That’s it right? Latin or european or asian, that is what it simply means… But NO. That is NOT it! The whole point of the previous paragraphs is to illustrate that, when we say Martial Arts, it is much more than just that! Without values, Martial Arts is NOT an art. It is just fighting! For example, putting a teabag into your cup and pouring hot water into it is different from the Japanese Art of Making Tea. Effective yes. But Art? Certainly no! Taste good? That depends.

Japanese Tea Ceremony, also called Chado, Sado, and Chanoyu

So what about Combat Sports or Fight sports then?

The Colosseum

Well, that term describes a combative athletic activity in which a contestant wins by scoring more points than the opponent or by disabling the opponent within its rules and restrictions. By adjusting the rules and restrictions, you get different promotions and events. Examples will be Kickboxing, K1, Vale Tudo, MMA…. That’s all it is when you call it Combat Sports.

So…… If I have to sum it all up into one sentence, it will be;-

“From the necessity to defend oneself, emerged skills that were indoctrinated with values and virtues to formulate Martial Arts, leading to the creation of combat sports for the sake of entertainment and competitive play.”

In closing this post, I would like to add that, there is still so much debate I can do on this subject but the most important of all is for YOU to understand why and what you want to learn. My advise will be to do a Martial Art. Don’t just learn Self-Defense or do a “Combat Sport”. Martial Arts will teach you how to defend yourself and also inculcate into you values that are so needed in today’s World. Don’t just learn how to fight. And don’t just learn it to compete in events. Rather, compete only as a test of how much you’ve grown and to gain a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.


Published by

Terence Cheah

I am an avid Martial Artist who has been teaching Muay Thai for more then 20 years and have recently earned my Black belt in Shinkyokushin Karate. I run a Martial Arts gym called Transcendence Martial Arts where most of my students are everyday people who want to get better, both physically and psychologically. I also love reading, motorbikes and scuba diving quite earnestly. And not forgetting my ever supportive loving wife and 2 daughters who always make me grateful for my life and energy .

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