Battle has been an unavoidable element of life since the beginning of time. Animals have always fought for food and survival, and humans have waged war for innumerable reasons since the advent of our species. Territorial, political, religious, and other bases for bloody conflict have written violence into our blood. Violence is so much a part of us, in fact, that we have developed a recreational instinct for it and created games in order to slake our evolutionary bloodlust.
The following are some of the means by which we scratch our bloody little itches. Some may have come from long ago, but all are presently practiced. Here now, for our sadistic glee, are the ten most brutal modern-day fight sports.
Catch wrestling, for those unfamiliar with the term, is basically a combined form of grappling, allowing for techniques from wrestling, judo, and jujutsu. It values both pins and submissions while focusing more on the power of wrestling as opposed to the finesse-oriented principles of judo and jujutsu (the names of both of which translate roughly to “gentle way” in reference to their focus on technique over strength).
A unique element of catch wrestling is that victory comes through a best-of-three system (in which individual wins are referred to as “downs”) rather than single-win determination, essentially forcing competitors into three submission grappling matches rather than one.
Though catch wrestling does not carry the threat of concussive and blunt-force damage, the slams and submission holds carry a great risk if they are not executed carefully (and still to a significant extent even if they are). This, accompanied by the requirement of the “downs” for a victory, earn catch wrestling a spot representing grappling arts on this list.
Recently returning to the US is the art of bare-knuckle boxing. This new iteration, known as the Bare Knuckle Fighting Championship (BKFC), features a new rounded, four-rope “squared circle” but is otherwise the same brutal sport that was banned in 1889, Broughton rules and all.
The immediately possible injuries in boxing are largely obvious, including damage to the skull, eyes, ribs, and hands. (Broken hands by the puncher are very common in fight sports—a risk greatly exacerbated in bare-knuckle context.) But the biggest threat to a boxer is cumulative brain damage from continued blows to the head over time, which can lead not only to common forms of brain damage and “punch-drunk syndrome” but also to a greater risk of brain illnesses such as Alzheimer’s later in life.
Russia has a reputation as a cold, hard, unforgiving place, and the fight sports that come from there are no different. Sambo isn’t just a fight sport but also a military combat system as well, with separate training systems for each version (military, sport, self-defense, freestyle, specialized). “Sambo” is a Russian portmanteau meaning “self-defense without weapons,” and it is essentially the official fighting system of Russia. It is used by everyone, including soldiers, police, athletes, citizens, and, presumably, bears on unicycles.
Sambo was formed in the early 20th century by a series of Russian martial artists by combining the effective elements of various fighting styles. Vasili Oshchepkov—a karate and Russian wrestling master who was also one of very few non-Japanese in the world with a black belt (second-degree) from Jigoro Kano (the creator of judo) himself—teamed up with Victor Spiridonov—a master of various grappling martial arts who focused on finesse and redirection of force over power due to a left arm lame from a bayonet wound—to form a new hand-to-hand combat system with the knowledge they’d acquired from their unique combat training and experience. From here, they joined up with Vseobuch, the general combat training system of the Red Army under Vladimir Lenin. In this context, they combined their studies with Anatoly Kharlampiev and I.V. Vasiliev—both extensive students of world martial arts systems and Vseobuch leaders—to complete their martial arts concept. Thus, Sambo was born.
The use of headgear and gloves may allow for greater protection against the cumulative brain damage that can be caused by some other strike-oriented combat sports, including bare-knuckle boxing, but the added danger of immediate injury from kicks, knees, elbows, judo throws, and submission holds earns Sambo a place on this list.
Muay Thai is a form of extremely aggressive kickboxing that originated in Thailand. It evolved from an earlier, more military style called Muay Boran. As warring with neighboring nations decreased, its military nature declined in favor of sport combat, and Muay Thai was born. It was always an important national pastime in Thailand but gained worldwide popularity in the 1970s and 1980s, when Muay Thai fighters gained a reputation for readily defeating kickboxers of other disciplines.
Affectionately known as “the art of eight limbs,” Muay Thai gets this notorious nickname due to its use of elbows and knees in addition to the typical punches and kicks of other forms of kickboxing. (More ancient rules also allowed for headbutts, but those have since been banned.) The sport also contains a technique known as “Thai Clinch,” in which the hands are locked behind an opponent’s head in order to control their movements and deliver a series of difficult-to-defend-against knees to the face and occasionally throw them to the ground.
The elbows and knees make Southeast Asian forms of kickboxing especially brutal as a fight sport, even in the face of other types of kickboxing. There are many versions of kickboxing from this region of the world with similar rules—such as Kun Khmer and Pradal Serey—that could be included on this list, but for the sake of maintaining variety, Muay Thai, the best-known of the bunch, has been chosen as a representative.
Mixed martial arts (MMA), is largely exactly what it sounds like: a sport in which competitors of various fighting styles compete against each other in a unified context. The rules, or relative lack thereof, are what make this type of competition one of the most brutal on Earth. A fairly accurate way to describe it would be to combine the rules and allowances of Muay Thai with catch wrestling, and it thus carries the combined risks of both. But there’s more: there is no pinning in MMA, so any victory in grappling is achieved by the much more dangerous act of submission holds or, even more brutally than that, the “ground-and-pound.” This term refers to the act of throwing punches and elbows—almost always to the head—at an opponent who is pinned to the ground. It is as difficult to defend against as it is brutal.
The few techniques that are banned from this sport are kicks or knees to the head of a grounded opponent, downward strikes with the point of the elbow, groin strikes, and “dirty fighting” techniques, such as biting, eye-gouging, and so on. Beyond such things, almost anything goes.
Saying “medieval” may cause one to question whether or not this is a modern sport, but the term actually refers to a modern sport intending to simulate medieval combat for modern athletes. The sport essentially involves competitors donning armor and wielding steel weapons, simulating the nature of medieval fighting as closely as possible without killing each other. The armor sounds like it might remove a good deal of the sport’s brutality, but the axes and maces put it right back in. A competitor being held against a rail by two opponents as another beats on his helmet with an ax is quite a sight to behold.
One forgiving element of the sport is that the rules for elimination of a team member are rather merciful—essentially, hitting the ground means you’re out. The competition is decided on a last-man-standing basis, with teams consisting of five to 21 fighters. There are also substantially less brutal (but still pretty rough) one-on-one fights based on traditional rules for competitive dueling.
This sport, just as it may sound, is essentially an MMA equivalent to HMB. Two fighters enter a ring in medieval equipment very similar to that worn by HMB fighters. From here, many elements are similar to what would be a one-on-one HMB match, but with one drastic difference: You’re not out when you’re knocked down. Victory in medieval MMA is claimed through means similar to hand-to-hand MMA—knockout or submission—except with weapons. The brutality of this is displayed well by Rustam Kukurhoev’s vicious knockout of Vitaly Kravchenko in an early event by taking Kravchenko down and bashing his helmet with the edge of a shield. (You can watch it above.)
Originally created as a bit of a sideshow to divide the undercard from the main card at an M1 MMA event, the attraction was so well-received by fans that the sport has grown to where entirely medieval fight events are now being held.
Rounding out the section on weapons is the national martial art/sport the Phillipines—Eskrima, also known as Kali or Arnis. Some may argue that the three are technically different styles with different focuses, but they all fall under the category known as FMA, or Filipino martial arts, and are largely interchangeable.
The art was admired by colonial (1521–1898) Spaniards but was banned by 1596 and completely forbidden by 1764, due to it being too dangerous. The Spanish attempted to wipe out FMA, as well as most of Filipino culture, but the natives found ways to keep their traditions alive and hidden, with FMA concepts specifically being hidden in forms of dance.
Unlike most martial arts, which focus on hand-to-hand conflict first and integrate weapons later, FMA emphasizes weapons—particularly modern available weapons such as sticks of various range, knives, longer blades like machetes, chains, and even projectile weapons like guns—and uses unarmed techniques as only one part of the mix.
When engaging in sport Eskrima, the most commonly associated form is single- or double-stick fighting styles. Most, if not all, professionally sanctioned FMA organizations use heavy padding to protect fighters from serious damage, making the sport decidedly less dangerous, but the version that gets FMA onto this list is the unarmored type. It is not uncommon for FMA practitioners to engage in semiorganized competitions in which they beat the bejesus out of each other with wooden sticks almost completely unprotected (often with the exception of their hands). The unsanctioned nature of these competitions make them especially dangerous, as well.
On seeing these bouts, this form of Eskrima is clearly more fight than sport, and it’s incredibly brutal. Though not associated with an official sports league, there is a wealth of organized competitions for unarmored FMA. There are many instances of a few individuals engaging in unarmored weapons practice in other styles, but these, unlike unarmored FMA, are not widely organized enough to constitute their own sport.
Originating from a game designed by the Romans to keep their legionnaires fit for battle (harpastum), Calcio Storico is commonly referred to as “the most violent sport on Earth.” Though the previous entries on this list have all been martial arts competitions, this sport is a predecessor of modern soccer and also shares many similarities with American football and rugby. The ball is carried much like in rugby or American football and then thrown into one of a series of spaced-apart goals on the far side of the opposing team’s territory.
What qualifies Calcio Storico as a fight sport, however, is that martial arts are still regularly used—and with far less regulation and protection than in martial arts sports. It features no wearable protection and very few rules. No attacking from behind, ganging up, or striking a downed opponent. That’s about it. The lack of shielding from harm, accompanied by the vicious nature of interaction, leads to a staggering 50-percent injury rate! This is what earns Calcio Storico the notoriety of being the world’s most violent sport.
It must also be noted that participation in this sport is strictly an act of passion, as the competitors don’t even get paid!
Though Muay Thai has already been used as a representative for Southeast Asian boxing, Lethwei is being listed separately, and for a very brutal reason. Firstly, Lethwei is “bare-knuckle” (although handwraps are used), and in response to Muay Thai’s nickname of “the art of eight limbs,” Lethwei is referred to as “the art of nine limbs,” as it is the only combat sport remaining that allows for headbutts. Those facts, however, are little more than incidental in the face of the real reason for which Lethwei is the number-one item on this list, that being its handling of the concept of a “knockout.”
In Lethwei, when a fighter is knocked out (unable to answer an eight count), rather than the fight being called, the unconscious fighter is dragged back to his corner, revived with smelling salts, and given the option to continue! The fight is not called until a fighter chooses not to continue or until the fight runs out of time, in which case the fighter who knocked out the other more times wins. In the case of no or equal knockouts, the fight is determined a draw. Essentially, what we have here is sport with the most vicious of existing contact rules, where what would be considered an outright victory in other fight sports merely constitutes a single point. It is astonishing that people survive this sport, let alone the fact that it is legal and gaining popularity!
Bloodthirst has been a favorite human pastime for a good long while, and with the popularity of the items on this list, that doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. We may no longer allow gladiator battles to the death, but some of these warrior athletes come awfully close.
Jason Karras writes, therefore he is.