Determining the most influential martial artists in the last 100 years is subjective to a degree. The most significant factor considered was how many millions of people were influenced to take up the practice of martial arts. However, particular weight is lent to those individuals who created a martial art with legs - one that maintained its integrity, and did not splinter into pieces some of which were eventually unrecognizable as coming from the parent art. And lastly, the figures had to be legitimate martial artists in their own right, rather than figures who promoted the martial arts through political means, or the media.
Our list begins with ....
#5. General Choi Hong Hi
Choi Hong Hi (9 November 1918 – 15 June 2002) is the father of Taekwondo. As Taekwondo is the world's most popular martial art, his inclusion on the list is obvious.
He is a figure of no small controversy, and his contributions are minimized in some quarters. That however is politics. Gen. Choi chose to spread the art he developed in North Korea, where much of his family remained after the war, and that did not sit well with the South Korean government, which set up the WTF to compete with Choi's ITF. But that is politics, not reality.
And for the record, the general's name is pronounced something like "chwe." So if someone claims to be an authority and pronounces it Choi rhymes with joy, then you know they don't know what they are talking about.
#4. Rorion Gracie
Royce Gracie is the world's best-known exponent of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Royce's brother Rickson was historically the best fighter in the family. And the art was refined by Royce's father Helio. But the man who brought it to the world is Rorion Gracie (born 10 January 1952).
And the way he brought it to the world was by co-founding the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and putting his younger brother Royce in it to win it. The stupid simple idea was that you could test the efficacy of a martial art by actually fighting, rather than by blabbering about it in the barbershop or in the dojo. The result was the UFC, which in turn ushered in the fastest revolution in martial arts training in history.
The other co-founders of the UFC deserve honorable mention: Campbell McLaren, Bob Meyrowitz, David Isaacs, and above all, Art Davie.
So although he did not found an art, Rorion Gracie, is our fourth most influential martial artist in the last 100 years.
#3. Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee (27 November 1940 - 20 July 1973) is the father of Jeet Kune Do. His influence is extraordinary.
Lee essentially introduced Chinese martial arts to the world. He was responsible for the martial arts boom in the 1970s, the largest the world had ever seen, inspiring countless millions to take up the practice of martial arts of every imaginable sort. However, his greatest contribution may lie in his freeing martial arts from the classical mess.
Lee found martial arts as a collection of countless strictly organized and controlled contradictory sets of beliefs and practices, each of which believed itself to be clearly superior to the others. It was, truly, a field in which everyone was certain they were better than average.
He left a legacy that truth in unarmed combat lay outside of fixed systems. He showed the world a contest with fighters in fingered gloves, using strikes, takedowns, and tapping out to submissions on the ground.
In short, he left a world that was ready to embrace mixed martial arts.
When MMA came along, a new system was created for the refining of technique. It is as simple as wheels on luggage - to figure out if something works in a fight, just fight. If a technique doesn't work for you, you'll know, because you will get hit in the face.
The name Bruce Lee gave to his approach - Jeet Kune Do, or The Way of the Intercepting Fist - captures that reality.
And if there was no Bruce Lee, you wouldn't be reading this, as I began training in martial arts, in the mountainous kingdom of Lesotho, after watching Enter the Dragon in 1973. So while Bruce Lee is only one of the most influential martial artists in history, for me, personally, he is beyond any shadow of a doubt the most important.
#2. Gichin Funakoshi
Gichin Funakoshi (November 10, 1868 – April 26, 1957) is the father of karate. He was one of the Okinawan karate masters who introduced the striking art to the Japanese mainland in 1922; but the word "karate" then had different meaning than it does today. Funakoshi founded Shotokan, which, along with Kyokushin, is one of the two best-known styles of karate in the world.
Kyokushin founder Masutatsu Oyama, who deserves an honorable mention, was in fact one of Funakoshi's students. Funakoshi had changed the name of karate to mean "empty hand" instead of "China hand," creating the word and meaning that spread more than any other martial art.
For better and for worse karate has splintered into countless directions. Karate can be two players wearing foam floaties bouncing up and down, or it can be the exclusive practice of kata, or it can be bare-knuckle knockdown style, or it can be Karate Combat, and the list goes on and on. However, Gichin Funakoshi is the figure who brought it to the world, and that is why he is the second most influential martial artist of the past 100 years.
#1. Jigoro Kano
Kanō Jigorō (10 December 1860 – 4 May 1938) is the founder of Judo. Judo was the first Japanese martial art to gain international recognition, and the first martial art to become an official Olympic sport. Kano's innovations include the use of black and white belts, as well as dan rankings. He sent emissaries across the planet to proselytize, including Mitsuyo Maeda, who landed in Brazil, and taught techniques to the Gracie family. That led to the birth of Braziian Jiu-Jitsu, which in turn led directly to mixed martial arts.
While most martial arts have split off into widely varying directions, Judo has remained Judo for over 100 years. And while there have been innovations and evolution, it is so tremendous a martial art that is and remains just one Judo.
And that is why Jigoro Kano is and remains the most influential martial artist in the last 100 years.