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Was Bruce Lee Really the Father of MMA, as the UFC Suggests…?

Was Bruce Lee Really the Father of MMA, as the UFC Suggests…?

So, the world is abuzz about news of the UFC’s upcoming video game release this June.

But maybe not for the reasons you’d expect.

In past years, a “hidden character” which could be unlocked in game play has always been an opportunity for the makers to get a little creative. In an old version of the UFC game, a player could actually enjoy playing the role of Bruce Buffer — not as ring announcer, but as a fighter; a nod to Buffer’s past as a kickboxer. Fun stuff.

Today, as Dana Becker reported here, the UFC made official the identity of a special character in their upcoming release: none other than that martial arts icon of martial arts icons, Bruce Lee.

Lee is actually called “The Father of Mixed Martial Arts” in its promotional material.  Here’s a blurb from EA Sports:

You have the premier organization in the fastest growing sport in the world, the UFC; and the most iconic martial artist in the history of the world, Bruce Lee – a martial artist renowned for his philosophies that laid the groundwork for modern mixed martial arts.

I’m… not so sure.

Before I say why, let me say that I love Bruce Lee. I’ve enjoyed his movies for years. His books (or rather, the books which were assembled from his notes) are great, too. I invite anyone to look deeper into him. He’s a fascinating character.

It’s true, he favored combining different concepts from different martial arts systems and catering training to each artist. This would seem a parallel to today’s mixed martial arts. Sure, his fight scene in 1973’s Enter the Dragon, with Lee and a young Sammo Hung donning gloves in a sparring session, looks like today’s MMA.

But is he really the Father of MMA?

Let’s start with what MMA is. MMA is a sport, and it would seem Bruce Lee was not really in favor of sport fighting. When describing what martial arts are in this interview, Lee infers, “some of them became sports…,” but not his own expression of martial arts. Eight minutes in, Lee describes how “the expression of the human body,” Lee’s concept of martial arts, includes everything — even eye gouging.

Hearing this, it seems Lee might not have been interested in participating in the UFC. Maybe he wouldn’t have even liked it.

At the time of his death, Lee had begun implementing grappling into his martial arts expression, but it’s generally said that he hadn’t even begun live sparring in it yet. (If you’re interested in a perspective of Lee as a fighter and trainer, you may enjoy this interview with former kickboxing champion Joe Lewis.)

On the other hand, long before Bruce Lee, organized martial arts challenges and cross-training had dotted the martial arts landscape.

Kodokan judo-trained Mitsuyo Maeda would travel the world fighting and wrestling in many venues before settling in Brazil, where he trained Carlos Gracie to begin the Gracie family’s vale tudo tradition. By the time Bruce Lee was born in 1940, Carlos’ brother Helio Gracie had fought a dozen professional bouts in various rule sets. Gracie’s famous challenge against judo champion Masahiko Kimura occurred in 1951 — Kimura was another who had mixed-fights rules experience, and details his boxing and karate cross-training in his memoirs.

If you think that scene in 1973’s “Enter the Dragon” looks like modern MMA, compare it to footage of Carlos’ son Carlson Gracie, in his vale tudo bout with Waldemar Santana in 1955:

Bruce Lee is an inspirational figure for many. He believed in martial arts — as a path to self-knowledge. All knowledge, as Lee was fond of saying, is ultimately self knowledge.

There’s nothing wrong with having a little fun with a video game. But at a closer look, that character, and the claims the UFC is making about him, may not have much to do with who Bruce Lee really was.

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