HistoryFurther information: Asian martial arts (origins)
The English verb to kick appears only in the late 14th century, apparently as a loan from Old Norse, originally in the sense of a hooved animal delivering strikes with his hind legs; the oldest use is Biblical, in the metaphor of an ox kicking against the pricks.
The act of kicking in general is a universal form of human aggression. The same movement is also used in non-offensive contexts, e.g. a kick to propel an object such as a ball, or a kicking movement without touching anything, e.g. as a dance move.
Kicks as a form of attack are more typically directed against helpless or downed targets, because using a kick in a combat situation bears the significant disadvantage of losing stability of one's stance, as delivering a kick obviously requires lifting at least one foot off the ground.
Martial arts systems that utilize kicks will therefore emphasize the training of very efficient and technically perfected forms of kicks, include recovery techniques in the event of missed or blocked kicks, and will employ a wide repertoire of kicks adapted to specific situations. In sports tournaments, the rules of combat may also be adjusted, such as limiting the contest to stand-up fighting or reducing the penalty resulting from a failed attempt at delivering a kick.
The more elaborate kicks used in martial arts, especially high kicks aiming above the waist or to the head have long been a distinguishing feature of Asian martial arts. This feature was introduced in the west in the 19th century with early hybrid martial arts inspired by Asian styles such as Bartitsu and Savate. Practice of high kicks became more universal in the second half of the 20th century with the more widespread development of hybrid styles such as kickboxing and eventually mixed martial arts.
The history of the high kick in Asian martial arts is difficult to trace. It appears to be prevalent in all traditional forms of Indochinese kickboxing, but these cannot be traced with any technical detail to pre-modern times. For example, Muay Boran or "ancient boxing" in Thailand was developed under Rama V (r. 1868-1910). While it is known that earlier forms of "boxing" existed during the Ayutthaya Kingdom, it is difficult if not impossible to recover any detail regarding the techniques these involved. Some stances that look like low kicks, but not high kicks, are visible in the Shaolin temple frescoes, dated to the 17th century. The Mahabharata (4.13), an Indian epic compiled at some point before the 5th century AD, describes an unarmed hand-to-hand battle, including the sentence "and they gave each other violent kicks" (without providing any further detail).
A kick delivered to a downed or falling enemy (a demon), Angkor period (ca. 13th century) bas-relief at Banteay Chhmar.
A kick used in armed combat as a means of displacing the opponent's shield in historical European martial arts (Hans Talhoffer 1459)
A kick to the knee as depicted in a Baroque Ringen treatise (Johann Georg Passchen 1659)
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