Bruce Lee – Was he really the father of MMA?

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If Joe Rogan repeats a lie 1,000 times, does it make it true? Anyone that’s listened to Joe Rogan has heard him say that Bruce Lee is the father of mixed martial arts. Mouth pieces for the sport repeat the claim as well as the fighters.

In this blog post I’ll give my reasons why Bruce Lee isn’t the father of mixed martial arts and why this isn’t bad. I’ll also give my thoughts on who I think deserves the title.

Let me begin by explaining why this idea caught on.

The idea that Bruce Lee created mixed martial arts has been around a long time. But it really took off in 2004 when Dana White said it during an interview.

“Actually, the father of mixed martial arts, if you will, was Bruce Lee. 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." Dana White, 2004

Dana White’s comment is considered gospel truth, and here’s why.

Bruce Lee made cross training the corner stone of Jeet Kune Do. He didn’t limit himself to one martial art, and he eventually abandoned the idea of styles completely.

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Jeet Kune Do: it’s just a name; don’t fuss over it. There’s no such thing as a style if you understand the roots of combat. - Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee was on a quest to find the truth in combat. Thus, he preached the necessity of realism and the importance of full-contact sparring.

When you fight, if it is a real fight, use every tool that you have, use your whole body. Use your fists, your legs, your fingers, your head if you have to, and hit them in every vulnerable spot, the balls, the eyes etc. to win – Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee believed martial artists needed to be fit and proficient at all ranges of fighting. Thus, he popularized the idea of being a “complete” fighter.

When you're talking about fighting, as it is, with no rules, well then, baby you'd better train every part of your body! – Bruce Lee

Based on these facts it seems self-evident that Bruce Lee is the father of mixed martial arts. Yet, this is not the case.

Bruce Lee’s fighting style was not meant for competition. Jeet Kune Do focuses on street-fighting and self-defense. Combat sports inspired Bruce Lee, but he considered them to be incomplete.

Bruce Lee was not the first martial artist to cross-train. Bruce Lee did many firsts in the martial arts. But he was far from the first martial artist to train in multiple martial arts styles.

The Conveniently Forgotten Past

There were many personalities and historical events that influenced mixed martial arts. Claiming that Bruce Lee was the father of mixed martial arts denies a huge swath of history.

No-holds-barred competitions predate Bruce Lee by thousands of years. The earliest known no-holds-barred competition was the Pankration in ancient Greece. The ancient Chinese also had a no-holds barred event called Lei Tai.

Fast forward several thousand years.

The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a golden age for combat sports. The history books refer to this era as the Gilded Age. The Gilded Age was marked by rapid technological growth, economic expansion, and globalization. During the Gilded Age jiu-jitsu masters from Japan were traveling the world teaching their art. Karate was being modernized. And people were practicing English boxing and Savate (French kickboxing) world-wide.

The first known person who fits the image of a mixed martial artist lived during the Gilded Age. He was Edward William Barton-Wright. By blending jiu-jitsu with boxing, Savate, cane fighting, and wrestling he created a Victorian martial art. Barton-Wright called his style “Bartitsu” and ran a club that catered to wealthy Londoners. Barton-Wright advertised his club by holding mixed martial arts contests.

A video explaining the history of Bartitsu

So popular was Bartitsu that Sir Author Conan Doyle made it the fighting art of Sherlock Holmes. You read that right. Sherlock Holmes was a mixed martial artist.

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Mixed martial arts contests were occurring world-wide during the Gilded Age. Which country, and what fighting style produced the toughest fighter was an obsession. Sound familiar?

The world-wide phenomenon spawned the Vale Tudo (anything goes) fights in Brazil. The Gracie family dominated Vale Tudo after they started training with the Japanese jiu-jitsu master, Count Koma.

Decades later the eldest son of Helio Gracie, Rorion, conceived of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship).

Royce Gracie winning the first UFC event
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No one person should be called the “Father of mixed martial arts”. But if I had to pick one person it would be Rorion Gracie. Rorion’s creativity and ambition ignited the sports evolution from Vale Tudo to MMA.

How did we get here? How did we get to the point where everyone believes Bruce Lee, fathered mixed martial arts?

There’s only one explanation...marketing.

Rorion Gracie severed ties with the UFC after the 4th event. Political pressure was forcing the company to add rules which conflicted with his vision of it being a pure Vale Tudo competition. Political pressure forced the UFC underground after Rorion's departure.

The company’s fortunes changed a few years later under the guidance of Dana White

I don’t have evidence to support what I’m going to say. But this is crystal clear to me. The UFC brand desperately needed to distance itself from the Gracie family. Royce Gracie who was the first UFC champion was the face of the promotion. But, the Gracie’s vision of the UFC was too edgy, and it attracted attention from regulators. The promotion needed to identify with someone bigger than the Royce Gracie. Dana White found his salvation in Bruce Lee.

Dana successfully rewrote history by uttering the phrase “Bruce Lee is the father of mixed martial arts” into an echo chamber. By doing so he connected the UFC to the biggest name in martial arts.

New rules, a new image, and a connection to Bruce Lee had a measurable impact on the company’s success. That’s marketing 101, baby.

"They have cleaned up the sport to the point, at least in my view, where it is not human cockfighting anymore. I think they've made significant progress. They haven't made me a fan, but they have made progress." John McCain

Bruce Lee’s contributions to mixed martial arts are undeniable. His movies, life, and legacy inspired generations of combat athletes. It doesn’t harm his legacy by saying he isn’t father of mixed martial arts. But repeating it denies the truth.

If there was one thing Bruce Lee cared about more than anything, it was the truth.

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