Wrestling is the oldest combat sport, with origins in hand-to-hand combat. Belt wrestling was depicted in works of art from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt c. 3000 BCE, and later in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. The earliest known depiction of boxing comes from a Sumerian relief in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) from the 3rd millennium BCE.

A number of historical combat manuals have survived from the European Middle Ages. This includes such styles as sword and shield, two-handed sword fighting, and other types of melee weapons besides unarmed combat. Amongst these are transcriptions of Johannes Liechtenauer's mnemonic poem on the longsword dating back to the late fourteenth century.

Asian martial arts became well-documented during the medieval period, Japanese martial arts beginning with the establishment of the samurai nobility in the 12th century.

Indian martial arts in medieval texts such as the Agni Purana and the Malla Purana.

Chinese martial arts originated during the legendary, possibly apocryphal, Xia Dynasty more than 4000 years ago. It is said the Yellow Emperor Huangdi (c. 2698 BCE) introduced the earliest fighting systems to China. The Yellow Emperor is described as a famous general who before becoming China's leader, wrote lengthy treatises on medicine, astrology and martial arts. One of his main opponents was Chi You who was credited as the creator of jiao di, a forerunner to the modern art of Chinese wrestling.

Chinese martial arts developed with Ming-era treatises such as Ji Xiao Xin Shu.

Korean martial arts developed from the Joseon era and texts such as Muyejebo (1598).

Modern boxing originates with Jack Broughton's rules in the 18th century, and reaches its present form with the Marquess of Queensberry Rules of 1867.

Fencing and Greco-Roman wrestling were included in the 1896 Summer Olympics.

FILA Wrestling World Championships and Boxing at the Summer Olympics were introduced in 1904.

European swordsmanship always had a sportive component, but the duel was always a possibility until World War I. Modern sport fencing began developing during the 19th century as the French and Italian military academies began codifying instruction. The Olympic games led to standard international rules, with the Féderation Internationale d'Escrime founded in 1913.

In China, the modern history of martial arts begins in the Nanjing decade (1930s) following the foundation of the Central Guoshu Institute in 1928 under the Kuomintang government.

The International Boxing Association was established in 1946.

The term kickboxing was created by the Japanese boxing promoter Osamu Noguchi for a variant of muay Thai and karate that he created in the 1950s.

Taekwondo was developed in the context of the Korean War in the 1950s.

World Judo Championships have been held since 1956.

Judo at the Summer Olympics was introduced in 1964.

Karate World Championships were introduced in 1970.

American kickboxing was developed in the 1970s, as a combination of boxing and karate.

The later 1960s and 1970s witnessed an increased media interest in Chinese martial arts, influenced by martial artist Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee is credited as one of the first instructors to openly teach Chinese martial arts to Westerners.

The US military de-emphasized hand-to-hand combat training during the Cold War period, but revived it with the introduction of LINE in 1989.

In 1993, the first Pancrase event was held in Japan.

On November 29, 2011, UNESCO inscribed Taekkyon onto its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List.

In Europe, the earliest sources of martial arts traditions date to Ancient Greece. Boxing, wrestling, and pankration were represented in the Ancient Olympic Games. The Romans produced gladiatorial combat as a public spectacle.

Legendary accounts link the origin of Shaolinquan to the spread of Buddhism from ancient India during the early 5th century CE, with the figure of Bodhidharma, to China. Written evidence of martial arts in Southern India dates back to the Sangam literature of about the 2nd century BCE to the 2nd century CE. The combat techniques of the Sangam period were the earliest precursors to Kalaripayattu.

The foundation of modern East Asian martial arts and South Asian martial arts is likely facilitated by cultural exchanges of early Chinese and Indian martial arts. During the Warring States period of Chinese history (480–221 BCE) extensive development in martial philosophy and strategy emerged, as described by Sun Tzu in The Art of War (c. 350 BCE).