BAM! POW! ZAP! Holy MMA Batman! The Martial Arts of the Dark Knight – Part 3

Co-written with Thomas Nash. In honor of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, we have been exploring the hand-to-hand fighting skills of Batman,…

By: John S. Nash | 11 years ago
BAM! POW! ZAP! Holy MMA Batman! The Martial Arts of the Dark Knight – Part 3
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

Co-written with Thomas Nash.

In honor of the release of The Dark Knight Rises, we have been exploring the hand-to-hand fighting skills of Batman, mostly as revealed in the works of his creators and early storytellers, Bob Kane and Bill Finger. So far we have covered his two primary disciplines – boxing in part 1 and jiu-jitsu in part 2 – and now we will be looking at the other martial arts that were used by the Caped Crusader in his Golden Age stories.


While we have shown that jiu-jitsu is Batman’s predominate grappling style, it isn’t the only one to be revealed as part of his repertoire. In Batman #11, “Bandits in Toyland”, the Dynamic Duo is not only shown on the mat running through “wrestling drills”, but Batman himself is referred to as a “master coach”. Evidence of this mastery appears several times during his adventures, including the image below that shows Batman rendering a giant cat (don’t ask) unconscious through the use of a full nelson. One can also see that he is aware enough to put his “hooks in’ via way of a double grapevine on the feline’s legs, a popular tactic from catch-as-catch-can wrestling, and very similar to the half-nelson and grapevine combination demonstrated by Frank Gotch in his 1908 book, “Wrestling and How to Train”.

Batman reveals himself to be something of a “leg wrestler” (a wrestler who can use his legs as another set of arms) when he uses another grapevine to take down an armed criminal while he remains standing. This feat is made all the more impressive by the fact that he does so without the aid of his arms, which have been bound.

In fact, Batman (and Robin) are skilled enough to be able to not only jump into the ring and face a pair of professional wrestlers in Detective Comics #73 (March, 1943) but to also quickly defeat them. Of course, the two wrestlers could very well just be “workers” and not true “shooters”, but for Batman and Robin to easily handle such large men in an era when actual grappling skills was not uncommon, suggests a level of skill well beyond adequate.

It is noteworthy that despite his obvious proficiency at it, Batman isn’t shown using his wrestling skills nearly as much as his other combat skills. The reason for this probably lies with his overriding priority to keep the fight standing. In fact, it seems likely that it is because of his excellent wrestling skills that he can keep the fight off the ground in the first place. As many MMA matches have shown us it is the superior wrestler who dictates where the fight takes place – in Batman’s case, he prefers staying on his feet. In this regard, his philosophy to fighting resembles William Ewart Fairbarn, who wrote, when describing the lack of groundfighting in his 1942 hand-to-hand combat manual, that:

” . . . no holds or locks on the ground are demonstrated. The reason for this
(a) THIS IS WAR: your object is to kill or dispose of your opponent as
quickly as possible …
(b) Once on the ground, you are more vulnerable to attack …
… It is, therefor, obvious that you should concentrate on remaining on your

However, this doesn’t mean Batman never takes the fight to the ground. In situations where he is facing a single opponent and has no fear of another combatant entering the fray, Batman has shown a propensity to take his foe down where he can control and dispatch them in brutal fashion. When he wishes to do this, he will usually shoot on them, employing a double leg takedown. Of course, he might have picked up this skill not in wrestling but in football, as many writers describe it as a “tackle”, but as wrestling coach Todd Vennis stated, “A [wrestling] takedown is nothing more than a football tackle.”

That Robin has also shown to be quit adept in these takedowns/tackles, would seem to suggest that it comes from their training in wrestling and not American football.


Surprisingly, one of the few martial arts outside of boxing, jiu-jitsu, and wrestling we actually see Batman and Robin training in is fencing. While it might seem ludicrous that a modern (well, modern in 1940) crime-fighter would need to know how to use the foil or sabre, it turns out that in Gotham City it is a rather useful talent. The Golden Age Batman seems to find himself in a duel every couple of months against modern day pirates, gentlemen thieves, or villains like the Cavalier of Crime or the Penguin. While Batman might not be a master swordsman, he is competent enough to hold his own against most foes in a clash of blades.

But even if he wasn’t facing so many sword-wielding criminals, would fencing offer any benefits to an urban vigilante? Bruce Wayne himself thinks so, telling Robin that “…fencing teaches you quickness and movement…”

Our own TP Grant, a fencer himself, further informs us how it would aid Batman in facing off against armed opponents:

“…weapon combat is very different from unarmed combat, so getting a feel for that distance is important. Precise footwork and manipulation of said distance is also a fundamental element of that sport. A fencer develops a sense of timing for when to close or open distance, and an explosive burst with which to do it. Good compliment to any striking training as it helps develop good, straight punches. And for any weapon defense training it teaches the ability to move quickly away from wild slashes with a knife or swings of a club and then leap in to grab in between swings.”

That someone like Batman, who would want to make it a priority to never to be struck because of the potential fatal consequences but to also always exploit an opening to deliver his own coup de grace, would study a sport that stresses such important principles should come as no surprise. When facing off against criminals armed with knives or cudgels, let alone swords, Batman would find that the skills developed in fencing to be very beneficial in his line of work.

Batman wasn’t alone in this thinking, for another Bruce, this one with the last name Lee, also saw the advantages of certain fencing techniques, having learned about them through his fencing brother, Peter. Bruce Lee appears to have incorporated many concepts from the sport into own martial art philosophy/style of Jeet Kune Do, including the stance and the principle of the “Stop-Thrust”, which Lee calls “Stop-Kick.” Fencing also stressed efficiency as well as control over distance, timing and rhythm, all things that both Bruces would find useful in a fight.

It should be noted that foil, epee and sabre were not the only weapons that Bruce Wayne and his ward studied. A passing comment to Dick Grayson, also in Batman #4, is that “in our business, it helps to know the use of all weapons.” This hints that Batman and Robin have familiarized themselves with many other hand-held or even thrown weapons, and while we can only guess which ones I think it would be safe to assume that knife, stick, cane, quarterstaff, baton, cudgel would all be on the list (along with, of course, thrown weapons such as the boomerang).


While Batman mostly uses his fist, on occasion he has kicked, kneed and used other unorthodox strikes. The writers never credit any fighting style for these attacks, but many of them bare a very striking similarity with techniques from boxe franciase and savate de rue. Considering the era that stories were originally written, it isn’t hard to imagine Bob Kane, Bill Finger, or another writer or artist working on the series being familiar to savate in same way, having either been exposed to it in person, through film, or read about it in a book or article.

It would also make sense for someone like Batman to have trained in it. Not only is it a discipline that would be relatively easy for him to study (just travel to Paris) compared to other less well-known (at the time) kicking martial arts, but also because so many self-defense experts, such as Edward William Barton-Wright, Emile Andre, Jean Joseph Renaud, William E. Fairbarn, and Eric A. Sykes, have all drawn heavily from the French martial art for their own systems. Systems that share many of the same street-fighting features as Batman’s.

But it isn’t just martial artist from the past who saw the advantages of knowing savate. BE’s kickboxing expert Fraser Coffeen offered his own insight in how savate, a martial art rooted in street fighting, could prove useful to a vigilante like Batman:

Savate is an excellent choice for Batman for a number of reasons. To start, savate is one of the few kicking-based martial arts that is contested primarily while wearing shoes. In savate, you strike with the shoe, not with the shin as in other arts. Obviously, Batman needs to keep his boots on during a fight, so using savate is a good choice. This also allows him to pad his boots, making his kicks more effective. The savate chasse lateral high kick was probably Batman’s most used kick.

As a whole, it’s also a very defensive-based style, using a lot of movement to avoid shots while coming back with your own kicks. As Batman tended to face a number of foes at once, this kind of defense was important – even small blows will accumulate when landed with too much frequency, so a style like Muay Thai that generally takes more blows than savate would be detrimental to Batman in a large scale melee.

As Mr. Coffeen explained, savate fits perfectly into Batman’s philosophy of “hitting but not being hit” fighting style. It also allows for Batman to take advantage of his footwear, as we see here in this example, where he throws a kick that bares a very strong resemblance to a “high body” coup de pied from boxe franciase, landing with his booted heel.

Another kick that bares a striking resemblance to one used in savate is demonstrated by Robin, who uses the tip of his shoe to deliver a “belt kick” – while simultaneously throwing a foe.

Now compare Robin’s kick with this illustration taken from this 1896 article “Fighting with Four Fists”, introducing savate to the American readers of McClure’s Magazine.

Of course, the old street-fighting, self-defense aspect of savate du rue didn’t focus solely on the shoe or boot. It also taught one to use of the knees and elbows, and here we have Batman’s sidekick Robin throwing a knee that looks suspiciously like one of those shown in a savate self-defense manuals.



By now Batman’s fighting style should start sounding and looking very familiar to the regular readers of Bloody Elbow. Cross-training in multiple martial arts; the ability to grapple or strike (be it with a punch, kick or knees); a knowledge of the different ranges and phases of combat, including standup, ground, and clinch; and the ability to seamlessly transition from one phase to another. From these descriptions Batman sounds like the prototypical modern MMA fighter, even though he debuted over five decades before the UFC first appeared (and one year before Bruce Lee, the “Father of MMA” was even born).

Even more uncanny is that Batman uses many tactics and maneuvers that are so identified with the modern sport of MMA. One such tactic is ground and pound, which he demonstrated years before Mark Coleman or Mark Kerr first introduced it to UFC and Pride. As we mentioned above, occasionally Batman will take a foe to the ground (preferably with a double leg takedown), and when he does he will often get a high mount, then posture up before proceeding to rain down blows. Batman’s reasons for using ground and pound in a fight is most likely do to him following Fairbarn’s advice from above. Unlike submission holds and locks, ground striking makes it easier for Batman disengage from his opponent and get up off the ground if more attackers appear, so as not to leave himself vulnerable. An interesting note about Batman’s ground and pound is how he actually uses a leg to pin one of his opponents arms, leaving them unable to properly defend themselves from his onslaught.

In the rare times when Batman and Robin finds themselves on their back, they both will use another very familiar move from MMA to defend himself – the upkick.

Not only was Batman ahead of MMA fighters in techniques, but he was also ahead of them in training and conditioning. Since the beginning, Batman has been an advocate of gymnastics, in fact training Dick Grayson in acrobatics and gymnastics even before he showed him boxing or jiu-jitsu (although he admitted the former circus performer could probably show him a trick or two). Modern MMA fighters like Georges St-Pierre are only now starting to train in gymnastics.

Here is Georges describing gymnast: “The gymnasts are the best athletes in the world, so when you do gymnastics, it makes you more athletic. And you’re able to repeat every movement of every sport.”

Now compare that to this description of gymnast Batman (from Detective Comics #27) who “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” Perhaps Georges and his trainers would have known about the benefits earlier if they had read old Batman comics?

But what about Karate? Kung Fu? Ninjitsu? Wouldn’t Batman need to be a master of these?

Not necessarily. First off, from a practical point of view, we have to ask ourselves would the creators of Batman be aware of these Eastern martial arts? For most of them I would say no (maybe Kane and Fingers heard about “Chinese Boxing” but that is about it), but even if they had I doubt that would have had Batman train in them for the simple fact that not only were they not well know but the discipline they did give him had proven themselves effective to a New Yorker circa 1939.

We also have to consider, from a story telling point of view, if the Batman in the comic books would even have time to extensively train in these other styles if he is already devoting so much time and energy to mastering the ones we have previously listed. It seems highly inefficient for him to try and do so.

Does that mean Batman would know nothing about the “Oriental” martial arts other than jiu-jitsu? No, just that he wouldn’t be a master of them and probably never comprehensively studied them either. However, like Bruce Lee or many modern MMA fighters, Batman could easily have added a specific maneuver or technique to his arsenal since he already has a strong foundation in striking and grappling, as well as being a superb athlete. Just as Anderson Silva added an elbow from Muay Boran, Jon Jones the chasse Italien from savate, Chris Weidman mixing an elbow possibly developed by karate into his boxing, and even wrestler Chael Sonnen trying the spinning backfist (the last one is probably a bad example), it would be very easy to see Batman adding strikes or locks from karate, kung fu, aikido and other martial arts to his bag of tricks as well.

Which brings us to the most interesting point about the original version of the character that Bob Kane and Bill Finger made all those years ago – that in many ways that was the most realistic version of Batman (well, for a guy fighting crime dressed as a bat with a cape). Yes, his adventures during the Golden Age period seem quaint and sometimes silly compared to his more mature modern adventures, but the fighting he demonstrated in those early pages, in light of what we have learned from the past two decades of mixed martial arts, is much closer to what we now know to be effective hand-to-hand combat than what has been shown in later interpretations. In this regard, not only has Batman the character survived the test of time, but the martial arts used by him in those Golden Age stories have proven even more effective since then.

Batman created by Bob Kane (and an uncredited Bill Finger). Robin created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger and an uncredited Jerry Robinson.

Special thanks to Ben Thapa, TP Grant, and Fraser Coffeen for their valuable input.


All art by Bob Kane unless otherwise noted.

Detective Comics No. 44, “The Land Behind the Light.”

Detective Comics No. 36, Untitled.

Detective Comics No. 38, “Robin the Boy Wonder”

Batman Vol. 1 No. 4, “Blackbeard’s crew and the Yacht Society”

Detective Comics No. 37, “The Screaming House.”

Batman Vol. 1 No. 2, Untitled.

Batman Vol 1 No. 1, Untitled.

Detective Comics No. 36, Untitled.

Batman Vol. 1 No. 2, Untitled.

Batman Vol. 1 No. 2, “The Case of the Missing Link.”

Batman Vol. 1 No. 260, “This One’ll Kill You, Batman” Penciller Irv Novac, inker Dick Giordano.

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John S. Nash
John S. Nash

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