Breaking the first rule of Fight Club, here’s everything you need to know about Martial Arts, the toughest and most disciplined cult of fitness, in Singapore – from Jiu-Jitsu, MMA, Capoeira, Wushu (kung-fu) and Savate, to Taekwondo, Judo, Sambo, Muay Thai, Silat and Krav Maga.
Brazil: Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
BJJ was developed in Brazil in the early 1900s by the Gracie family. It is a popular grappling and ground-fighting style often practiced by Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) fighters. The basis of BJJ uses takedowns, chokeholds and joint-locks to force the opponent (even one who is stronger and bigger in size) into submission, relying on leverage and perfect positioning rather than brute strength. Once the opponent’s air supply is cut off or he is rendered immobilised with his joints locked, he will inevitably surrender.
BJJ follows a belt ranking system. Adult beginners start with a white belt and move on to blue, purple, brown, black and finally, red. The higher you go, the longer it will take to achieve the next belt colour. There are only a handful of red belts in the world, including the late BJJ founders Carlos Gracie and Hélio Gracie.
Roberto Roleta. He is known for his “inverted guard” move and widely regarded as one of the all time greats. Renzo Gracie is another world-famous BJJ fighter with a documentary, Renzo Gracie: Legacy, depicting his fighting career over a ten-year period.
The 2008 movie, Redbelt. The final scene of Lethal Weapon sees Mel Gibson use his legs to take out Gary Busey in a textbook triangle choke.
The death move: Arm bar
This submission hold technique locks out the opponent’s arm at the elbow joint using hip pressure. The opponent is forced to “tap out” or submit. In the situation where the opponent refuses to submit, it would result in a dislocated elbow joint.
Learn it from: Zorobabel Moreira, BJJ World Champion and instructor at Evolve Mixed Martial Art (6536 4525)
Capoeira: Martial art meets dance
Capoeira is a form of martial art and dance that’s put to music, claps and songs that was started by African slaves in Brazil possibly in the 16th or 17th century as a means of self-defence against their Portuguese colonial agents. The fundamental movement ginga (rocking back and forth) and swift, complex moves involving kicks like leg sweeps and knee strikes form the basis of capoeira but all movement is fluid and rhythmic. The moves are practiced in a “game” of capoeira, with two “players” surrounded by a circle of people about 2.5m in diameter, known as a roda. Vincent Cassel used capoeira-inspired moves to cross a hall of lasers in the 2004 version of Ocean’s Twelve, though the music it’s set to is much more jazzed up than you’ll hear in a roda.
China: Wushu (aka kung fu)
Wushu, which literally translates as “martial arts” or “military arts”, originated in China around 1600BC. It was most commonly used in military war during the China dynasties to defend against enemies and evolved into many different fighting styles. One of the most well known Chinese martial art forms that is still practiced today is Shaolin. Most, if not all, fighting styles are inspired by Chinese philosophies like Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. Competitive wushu is similar to kickboxing but incorporates elements of wrestling and aerial kicks and jumps.
Wushu follows a belt ranking system. Beginners start at white and move on to green-white, green, red-white, red, brown-white, brown, black-white and finally, black. It takes a minimum of eight years to reach a black belt but practitioners might be proficient in certain aspects of wushu, like fist-fighting or using a short and long weapon, within two or three years.
The late kung fu king Bruce Lee. He initially practiced Wing Chun, a close-range combat Chinese martial art, but later developed his own martial art form Jeet Kune Do. Singapore resident Jet Li was the All-Around National Wushu Champion of China for five years (1974-1979) before conquering Hollywood.
The all-time most iconic scene must be Bruce Lee, clad in a yellow and black tracksuit, using his combined style to take down the seven-foot-two-inch-tall Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death. Purists will prefer Jet Li’s kung fu in The Shaolin Temple.
The death move: The throat thrust
This technique involves striking at the opponent’s throat just below the Adam’s apple with rigid fingers fully extended in a knife-like form. Short-term repercussions range from slight gagging to internal bleeding that may cause the victim to choke on his own blood. If the strike is swift and hard enough, it can also result in instant death.
Learn it from: Mr Leo Wen Yeow, head coach and director of Martial House (6440 2878)
In case you were wondering…
The infamous eye-gouging move in the Kill Bill series is possible to execute in real life. It is still practiced and taught as a technique used to stun an opponent, often in conjunction with other striking, disarming and locking techniques. The Five Point Exploding Heart Technique, however, has never been scientifically proven. An extremely powerful blow to the heart can kill a person but they’re unlikely to need to take exactly five steps before they die. [close box]
France: Savate (aka French kickboxing)
Savate, meaning “old shoe” in old French, is one of the only types of kickboxing where the fighters (savateurs) typically wear shoes. It started among lower-class Parisians in the 18th century as a form of street fighting and was used as a defence against thugs. Once an obscure self-defence technique, savate is now an internationally recognised sport practiced by many MMA fighters. High kicks, roundhouse kicks and rear-handed punches are fairly common. This form of French kickboxing places great emphasis on flexibility, agility, footwork and strength.
Savate follows a coloured gloves system. Beginner savateurs start with no colour and promote to blue, green, red, white, yellow, silver and finally, gold gloves. In France, it is necessary to obtain at least the yellow glove in order to be an instructor and it takes about 10 years to master the sport.
Gerard Gordeau. The retired Dutch savate champion is best known for his fight against sumo wrestler Teila Tuli in the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. The late Cameroonian Jean-Luc Bikout, three-time heavyweight savate world champion, was one of the first few to introduce savate to Africa.
While Hollywood blockbusters have yet pick up on this martial art, there is a 1995 American film titled Savate featuring Frenchman Olivier Gruner.
The death move: Fouetté
Literally translated as “whipped”, this is a swift roundhouse kick that uses the toe (often with shoes on) with the leg fully extended. It can be delivered as a high, middle or low kick. A fast deliberate kick into the solar plexus may knock the wind out of an opponent or possibly deliver a deathblow, even before the opponent can react.
Learn it from: Eric De Koba, former Savate World Champion and co-founder of Academy of Impakt Singapore. (6221 2014)
South Korea: Taekwondo
Taekwondo was developed in South Korea by General Choi Hong Hi. After the liberation of South Korea from the Japanese occupation in 1945, young General Choi began teaching the armed forces his martial art and it is now the national sport of South Korea and has been included in the Olympics since 1988. The basis of this systematic sport is reflected in its name – tae means “foot” kwon means “fist” and do means “discipline”. By combining agile footwork and fists in high repetition and low resistance movements, practitioners develop leaner and more flexible muscle tone for maximum endurance.
Taekwondo follows a coloured belt system. Beginners start at student grade (gup) white belt and move on to yellow tip, yellow belt, green tip, green belt, blue tip, blue belt, red tip, red belt and black tip. From black belt onwards, it goes from first dan (master grade) up to tenth dan. It will take about a year to progress from white to green belt and a year and half for green belt to red belt. From dan to dan, it can be anywhere from two to six years.
Jhoon Rhee. Tenth dan Grand Master Rhee was Bruce Lee’s (who also practiced taekwondo) close friend and is often cited as the pioneer of American taekwondo.
Watch it: The movie, Best of the Best sees the US taekwondo team compete in Korea; not a gripping plot but some good examples of the martial art. A more light-hearted take is the Hollywood flop, The Foot Fist Way, from Will Ferrell’s production company, starring Danny McBride.
The death move: Striking the ears with cupped palms.
This technique requires one to “scoop” the opponent and carry the momentum into the blow directed to the opponents’ ears. Effects on the opponent include unconsciousness or concussion, possible fracture and dislocation of the jaw hinge and rupture of the eardrum.
Learn it from: Santos Rivas, CEO and principal of J H Kim Taekwondo Institute (6299 0495)
Judo, which means “gentle way” or “the way of yielding”, was derived from the ancient unarmed martial art of jujitsu that Japanese samurai warriors used to immobilise and kill their enemies throughout feudal Japan. After the Meiji Restoration in 1882, Professor Jigoro Kano excluded the fatal killing techniques of jujitsu and created today’s judo. In 1964 it became the first martial art to be included in the Olympics. Judo is a grappling sport that focuses on body throws, takedowns and ground submissions with techniques largely based on the physical dynamics of the human body. When falling, a judoka will learn how to breakfall to protect his body.
Judo follows a coloured belt system. Beginner judokas will start at student grade (kyu) with a white belt and move on to yellow, orange, green, blue and brown in two to three years. Master grades (dan) are black belts ranging from first dan to tenth dan. It will take at least four years to achieve a black belt but few “master” it. Only about 20 people have been given the status of tenth dan since 1935.
Yamashita Yasuhiro. The 1984 Olympic gold medallist had an unbeaten record for nine years between 1977 and 1985 with 203 consecutive wins.
The 1987 arcade game Street Fighter gave many of its characters judo moves and reignited Western interest in judo. The opening scene of Octopussy sees 007 deliver a lethal strike to a henchman that’s come to be known as the judo chop.
The death move: One arm shoulder throw, or ippon-seoi-nage
As judo has no punches or kicks, all throws rely largely on the opponent to make the first move. This technique makes use of the opponent’s momentum and attacking stance to overthrow him and drop him to the ground. If the opponent fails to breakfall in time or stretches out his hands to support himself (the wrong way to breakfall), it can result in severe head injuries and fractured or broken arms.
Learn it from: Tang Soon Onn, founder and head coach of SA Judo Academy (9697 4925)
Sambo was developed as a hand-to-hand combat technique by the Soviet Red Army in the early 1920s. It is an acronym for “SAMooborona Bez Oruzhiyardquo; which means “self-defence without weapons”. The three main variations of sambo – sport, combat and freestyle – incorporate judo, jujitsu and foreign martial arts techniques into their native wrestling styles. Sambo is very prominent in MMA competitions as it covers a range of fighting movements from striking at a distance to rolling on the ground.
Sambo follows a competitive ranking system. Practitioners start at novichok (novice) and move on to yunosheskiy razryad (junior level), vzrosliy razryad (senior level), kandidat master (candidate for master), master, international master, grand master and finally, uchitel (distinguished grand master). Within each rank are three razryad (levels) starting from third to first before proceeding to the next rank. The Federation International Amateur de Sambo (FIAS), the overall governing body of sambo, is in the process of formalising a standard syllabus.
Fedor Emelianenko. Nicknamed “The Last Emperor”, the retired combat sambo world champion was ranked first in the world as the best heavyweight MMA fighter for seven consecutive years.
Sambo is yet to be courted by Hollywood so you’re most likely to see it in an MMA competition.
The death move: Rolling knee bar submission
This technique stops a person lying on the floor from attacking you with their knee by taking control of the whole leg and putting pressure on the joint. Possible repercussions are severe damage to two of four major ligaments of the knee – the anterior cruciate ligament and the medial collateral ligament – and dislocation of the knee joint.
Learn it from: Timothy Loh, sport and combat sambo trainer at Jagsport (6297 1202)
Thailand: Muay Thai
Muay Thai was developed and honed on the battlefield in Thailand though its exact origins are unclear as historical records were lost during the Burmese invasion. It is the national sport and pastime of Thailand, with many training camps situated throughout the country. The practicality of this kickboxing martial art lies in its utilisation of “eight limbs” – the hands, legs, elbows and knees – to overcome the opponent. Although difficult to master, it’s an easy sport to learn and its close combat fighting techniques have many real life applications for self-defence.
There is no official ranking system. In the original art, fighters were assessed solely on the number of fights under their belt. In recent years, the International Federation of Muaythai Amateur allowed different gyms in different countries to set their own colour grading system to rank non-competitive practitioners. It can take anywhere from one to five years to become proficient in Muay Thai.
Nai Khanom Tom. In 1774, the legendary Muay Thai fighter impressed Lord Mangra, the Burmese king, and brought the martial art into the limelight. Other more recent famous practitioners are Sagat Petchyindee and Samart Payakaroon.
The movie that rocketed Muay Thai to its popularity today is Ong Bak, followed by reality show The Contender Asia.
The death move: Swing-back kick, or Jarakhe Fad Hang.
This technique leverages the momentum from the spinning movement to deliver a powerful heel kick to the head or neck of the opponent. It could break the opponent’s jaw and facial bones and leave him slumped to the ground. If the kick lands on his temple, it could result in death. In Ong Bak, the main character Ting (Tony Jaa) delivers a vicious swing-back kick to a much bigger opponent and knocks him out cold.
Learn it from: Terence Cheah, chief instructor at FightWorks Asia (6557 0105)
Silat originated in the Malay Archipelago as an indigenous martial art. Today, the martial art has evolved into over a hundred styles. One of the more popular forms is pencak silat. More than just self-defence and combat fighting with or without weapons, pencak silat can also be performed or demonstrated with traditional costumes and music as part of the Malay custom. Joint manipulations, throws and the usage of edged weapons such as the kris (asymmetrical dagger) are common.
Silat has three sash colours at international level: white for athlete, orange for coach and yellow for referee. Different silat schools have their own ranking systems such as belts, badges, coloured sashes and titles. It takes at least two years to become proficient in the basics of pencak silat.
Guru O’ong Maryono. Double World Champion and South East Asia Games gold medallist Ong Maryono has gone on to research and publish the history and culture of silat and is now considered a leading authority and teacher of pencak silat.
In the Hollywood blockbuster film The Raid: Redemption, Iko Uwais uses silat in all the fight scenes.
The death move: Slamming techniques
While there are various forms of slamming techniques practiced differently within the different silat styles, it usually involves lifting the opponent from underneath and throwing him on the ground to take him out. By skilfully determining the opponent’s first body contact with the ground, one can choose to injure the head, neck or back and cause serious damage to the various body parts.
Learn it from: Sheik Alau’ddin Yacoob Marican, CEO of Singapore Silat Federation and grand master of Grasio Sport Silat School (6471 8837)
Trivia: Modern silat can be traced back to the Bugis people of Celebes (Southern Sulawesi). They were seafaring people known for their fighting prowess. Folklore suggests that European sailors would return home with vicious tales of the Bugis man, eventually coining the phrase “Beware the boogeyman”.
Israel: Krav Maga
Krav Maga, which means “hand-to-hand combat” in Hebrew, was developed in the Israeli Defense Forces by Hungarian-Israeli Imi Sde-Or (also known as Imrich Lichtenfeld) in the 1930s. Currently, many elite combat units, including Israeli’s own special forces, use Krav Maga. It is a non-competitive fighting system designed for use on the streets, where no rules exist. Practitioners are taught to analyse a hostile situation and select the appropriate action within a split second before engagement. In Krav Maga, simplicity is key as it is built on the principles of human physiology, psychology and reaction time.
Most Krav Maga organisations within Israel use the judo coloured belt system. Civilian Krav Maga follows a patch grading system of four categories – practitioner, graduate, expert and master. These are further divided into five levels, each with a specific curriculum and requirements. It takes at least 200 hours of training to become proficient in Krav Maga.
Imi Sde-Or, founder of Krav Maga. Grand master Haim Zut was one of Imi Sde-Or’s four Krav Maga students in the 1960s. He holds a tenth degree red belt, the highest achievable degree.
Krav Maga has recently become the fighting style of choice for Hollywood directors and you can see moves in Blood Diamond, Alias and Collateral.
The death move: Straight punch
In Krav Maga, every punch a practitioner delivers is considered a knock-out punch as it’s the main attacking tool to deliver a blow to the attacker’s face, throat and other vital areas. The strength of the punch is not determined by the fist, but rather the amount of force going through the entire body from the legs, torso and shoulders.
Learn it from: Lim Beng Kit, master instructor at Asia Krav Maga (9777 8121)
US Fight Clubs
While the US has not created any original martial art form, it has adapted plenty of existing martial arts to create American karate, American kickboxing and even bojuka (a mix of boxing, judo and karate). Of course, its track record has shown that Americans are more adept at fighting with machines than with their hands.
British Fight Clubs
The fighting style of the British Special Forces is top-secret information but it’s been rumoured to be a mixture of Jiu-Jitsu, judo, boxing and Krav Maga but really, who will ever know? Guess you’ve got to join them (or be a spy) to find out.
Filipino Fight Clubs
The Filipino martial art known as Kali is prized for it knife-fighting technique. It’s considered to be highly influenced by silat and is features heavily in the Bourne series of films.
Watch them all
History, formerly known as The History Channel, broadcasted a martial arts documentary entitled Human Weapon in 2007. Hosted by martial artists Jason Chambers and Bill Duff, the 16-episode documentary featured 15 different martial arts (and one recap episode) and their origins while showing techniques taught by top masters and an assessment of the effectiveness of each martial art.