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Is Bruce Lee really the ‘father of mixed martial arts’? UFC president Dana White thinks so – but is he right?

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 20/7/2020 Douglas Parkes
Bruce Lee holding his hand up: Bruce Lee's fighting philosophy resonates with modern MMA. Photo: Criterion Collection. Bruce Lee's fighting philosophy resonates with modern MMA. Photo: Criterion Collection.

Bruce Lee is famous for many things. For his innovative kung fu films like Enter the Dragon and Fist of Fury, for his philosophy " collected in the book Tao of Jeet Kune Do " that advises people to "be water", for becoming the first global Asian movie star, and for his tragic passing at the age of just 33.

With his synthesis of different fighting styles it is arguable that Bruce Lee deserves to be recognised for inventing mixed martial arts (MMA). Not for nothing did Dana White, president of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), the largest MMA promotion company in the world, once declare that Bruce Lee was the "father of mixed martial arts".

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Explaining what is required to excel at MMA, White said: "You've got to cross-train in many different systems ... If you look at the way Bruce Lee trained, the way he fought, and many of the things he wrote, he said the perfect style was no style. You take a little something from everything. You take the good things from every different discipline, use what works, and you throw the rest away."

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Dana White holding a phone: UFC president Dana White described Bruce Lee as the 'father of mixed martial arts'. Photo: AP © Provided by South China Morning Post UFC president Dana White described Bruce Lee as the 'father of mixed martial arts'. Photo: AP

White was correct in saying that Lee's philosophy was based around no fixed style. It was in Tao of Jeet Kune Do that Lee stated: "There are styles that favour straight lines, then there are styles that favour curved lines and circles. Styles that cling to one partial aspect of combat are in bondage. Jeet Kune Do is a technique for acquiring liberty ... Jeet Kune Do favours formlessness so that it can assume all forms ... (and) uses any technique or means which serves its end. In this art, efficiency is anything that scores."

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This thinking fits in perfectly with MMA's ethos of utilising different styles of fighting rather than, say, just judo or boxing. In Tao of Jeet Kune Do Lee goes on to explain the "weapons" that practitioners can use, which include various grappling holds as well as punches and kicks " not to mention "mental cultivation" such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism, and nutrition. His discussion of grappling was particularly apt given many MMA fights end up on the mat with competitors attempting to enforce the kind of leg and arm manipulations Lee wrote about before his death in 1973.

Yet although Lee can be considered a spiritual father of MMA, and he certainly popularised the idea of mixing different styles of martial arts in the West, there are other precursors that predate the Little Dragon himself.

One can potentially go as far back as the ancient Olympic Games and the sport of pankration to find the original MMA. Created later than both wrestling and boxing, which were also ancient Olympic events, pankration was a form of competition with few rules. The aim was to make your opponent submit and all punches, kicks, grappling holds and chokes were legal. Only eye gouging and biting were outlawed. The ferocity of pankration was legendary, to the extent that stories survive of one or even both competitors dying during bouts.

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Closer to the modern day, Vale Tudo, meaning "anything goes", is a Brazilian contact sport that developed in the early 20th century and has established links with UFC. Vale Tudo emphasised competition between various forms of martial arts such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, luta livre and capoeira.

Royce Gracie standing on a stage: Royce Gracie and his family did much to create modern MMA, including co-founding the UFC. Photo: AP © Provided by South China Morning Post Royce Gracie and his family did much to create modern MMA, including co-founding the UFC. Photo: AP

The Gracie family, from Rio de Janeiro, were Vale Tudo matchmakers and promoters, even hosting a local TV show, HerOis do Ringue (Heroes of the Ring), in the 1950s and 60s that featured fights between different styles of fighting.

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Eventually the Gracie family would feature in the establishment of UFC. Rorion Gracie, along with other partners, co-founded the company that would eventually produce the first UFC event. Royce Gracie, Rorion's younger brother, featured in the inaugural show and claimed the first UFC tournament championship after he defeated boxer Art Jimmerson, shootfighter Ken Shamrock and savate fighter Gerard Gordeau. Although initially considered a one-off event, the popularity of the UFC meant that more followed, eventually forming the UFC as it is known today.

Although on balance the Gracie family has had more direct input into the development of MMA, Bruce Lee's accomplishments should not be diminished. Clearly his philosophy of combat was prescient, if not directly influential. It should come as no surprise then that Lee has featured as a character in UFC video games and that former champion Conor McGregor has said he had "no doubt" that Lee would have been a UFC champion had he the opportunity. Father of MMA or not, Bruce Lee would definitely have been amazing to watch.

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