Choosing the right martial art
The age old question (in the USA, at least)
Choosing the right martial art for you depends on many physiological factors on your part, as well as the reasons you'd like to study. In order to make an informed decision, you need to know what the major constituents of some of the more popular arts are.
As there are at least 300 styles of Kung Fu, and many more styles of Karate, I'll break things down into somewhat simple terms. It's important to remember that there are "soft" arts, those that use your opponents energy against them. A seasoned martial artist may not find much of this interesting. An open-minded martial artist learns from everything, though. This article will be geared more t'wards the layperson. It is NOT in any way an attempt to be scholarly.
Karate: Originally from Japan, Karate is a Japanese word. Most historians trace it to Okinawa. It's a system built upon strikes from the hand, elbow, knee, and foot. Specifically, Karate means unarmed or empty hand.
Kung Fu, systemized in China, specifically the Shaolin Temple, is an amalgamation of the roots of martial arts from India. The monks of the Shaolin temple used it both for protection, as well as the pursuit of the physical self. Many historians consider these the first styles, while some consider Pencak Silat the very first style. Pencak Silat is in fact the oldest formulated fighting style.
This gets a little tricky in choosing a style. Any Japanese style having Go in it's name stresses a hard style. These are best for very strong people, as blocks are counterstrikes, and designed to injure the striker. This doesn't mean that ONLY styles with the Japanese word for hard are hard styles. Goju Ryu Karate Do is hard soft. Chinese, Korean, and Indian styles aren't always that clear cut.
Styles like Judo (which is often taught as a sport, and in only about a century old), ju jitsu (or any of the English spellings) Aikido or Pencak Silat rely on using the opponent's energy or momentum against them. This is the idea of "soft". The Willow Tree in the Wind is an observation that inspired softness in Japanese martial arts. The tree gave with the force of the wind, and was the only one left standing.
It comes down to this: Understand how a style works, know what you're trying to get out of it.
Grappling, throwing and joint manipulation
Again, I'm not trying to appeal to the devout martial artist here. These capsules contain very basic explanations to help people make an educated decision.
Just because these are "in close" styles doesn't mean that they are designed for bigger stronger people. Fact is, these styles all teach forms of redirecting an opponents energy.
From Japan, the most popular, easiest to find arts that fit this mold are: Ju Jitsu, Judo, and Aikido. Aikido is the art we see used by Steven Segal in his movies. The backbone of these styles is not to resist force, but merely send it in another direction. The joint manipulation (known to many now as submission holds thanks to the UFC) aspect is even incorporated into many of the throws in all of these styles. In short, people without an overwhelming amount of strength, people with a lower center of gravity, and well, people without major back problems- I say this because all of these arts will teach you how to fall correctly- can excel at these arts. Women in general find these styles most helpful for self defense. Removing the need to overpower or strike (many Ju Jitsu styles incorporate striking) a larger opponent while keeping BOTH of her feet on the ground make them a sensible choice.
From Korea, someone seeking styles such as this would be primarily seeking a Kuk Sool Won school. Unlike many other Korean styles such as Tae Kwon Do (which is also taught as a sport in most schools), Tang Soo Do and Hapkido, Kuk Sool Won doesn't rely as heavily on kicking. There are many, many in close techniques in this style. I had an opportunity to fight a number of KSW practitioners at West Point MANY years ago. They put on a demonstration, and I was quite impressed with the style's (sometimes) sensible street applications.
From China, not a lot to choose from, at least in terms of arts that you can find in your neighborhood. Shuai Jiao is the most prominent throwing art from Chins. I had a chance to study this art whilst studying Shaolin in New York. This would be a supplemental art as far as self defense goes; definitely not a stand alone. Be in good physical condition!!! The work outs are absolutely brutal!
Again from China, but not considered a system is Chi Na. This is a strictly grappling style. It revolves around joint manipulation and pressure point attacks. Again, not a stand alone, but many forms of Kung Fu incorporate it. Many Wing Chun schools add Chi Na to their curriculum. Taiwan Police are taught to use Chi Na techniques.
More Flamboyant Styles
These are the styles that everyone loves to watch. High kicks, flips and flowery movements (meant as a descriptor, not comparing an art to a flower- relax!). One of these arts are in fact a sport.
From China comes Wushu (this may be spelled many different ways). Wushu is a relatively young art dating back to 1949. If you love the old Kung Fu movies that used to be on every Sunday morning, you'll love this style. High kicks, strikes from interesting angles and flying techniques all make up this art. As this is more often taught as a sport than a defensive art, it's practicality on the street is very limited.
Similar to Wushu are many of the Northern Chinese Kung Fu styles. These styles are suited for taller or even lanky people. Best to note, with many Chinese styles, though, most spend a lot of time working on forms. Forms are choreographed sequences that mimic fights. As an art, these are very intriguing. From a defensive standpoint, some consider them superfluous. These are not the only arts with forms, many contain forms in some sense. Kung Fu stylists often immerse themselves into the entire cultural experience. I did! I studied Chinese Herbology and meditated.
The Southern Chinese styles are slightly more grounded in their approach. Historians actually attribute the differences to rural as compared to more built up surroundings. That said, most Southern styles are based upon a lot of striking with the hands and the stances are not usually as wide. Many of these styles are great for self defense, as they concentrate on a great deal of countering and body play, primarily rely on striking with the hands, elbows and knees at a closer range.
From Korea, Tae Kwon Do is a style primarily made of of kicking techniques, and lots of high kicks. Unfortunately, TKD has been very watered down in the United States. Much of the technique has been put aside in the interest of sport OR income. Ask a child to name a martial art. Most will say Tae Kwon Do. This is what they know, but that's not where all of the income comes from. Every TKD school that I've had experience with charges a fee for belt tests! Oh yeah, belt tests. So moving from white to green (after all of the silly stripe nonsense) is gonna cost money. If you choose TKD, get ALL of the fees explained up front
But I want to learn how to fight a real fight!
Again, I'd recommend studying an art selected using some of the aforementioned criteria. One skill-set that I'd certainly IMPLORE anyone wanting to learn how to fight learning is boxing.
Yep, boxing. Not only will you learn how to react when you are hit, but boxing's footwork and head movement are key strengths for any fighter to possess. Many people don't credit the man for it, but look at a young Mike Tyson's fights. He was virtually impossible to hit, and rarely blocked punches. This was a product of Cus D'amato's peek-a-boo style. Ducking punches and returning fire with an onslaught of punches.
Part of Tyson's power can be attributed to the fact that he didn't dance around the entire ring avoiding attacks. His feet were always planted.
I've studied many styles, but boxing definitely taught me things that other arts never did.
Punching power: Too many martial arts encourage you to keep your shoulders squared to the opponent. A boxer won't extend his/her bodyweight beyond their centerline to "reach" for a punch, but they are taught to extend and snap the punch. Some of that snap is simply from the pronation of the hand at the end of the strike.
You ARE going to be hit! There are no "point style" boxing gyms. You get in the ring for the first time, someone's gonna light you up! Just as important as other attributes, it's important to condition yourself. Being struck is an indispensable form of conditioning. I've known amateur boxers that actually took the first few shots in a street fight just to prove a point. I know of two that let the opponent exhaust himself, THEN knocked him out.
For both competitive and street fighting, boxing is a must learn art!