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Bruce Lee Is NOT the "Father of MMA"

Back in 2004, UFC president Dana White made a comment that people are still talking about. He said that Bruce Lee is the late “Father of MMA”. In this article, I will state the reasons why I disagree with this statement and I will also give my thoughts on the real “Father of MMA”.

“Actually, Bruce Lee was the father of mixed martial arts, if you will. If you look at the way Bruce Lee trained, the way he fought, and a lot of the things he wrote, he said the style was not perfect in any style. You take a little from everything. You take the good things from all different disciplines, you use what works, and you throw the rest away. “ (1) Dana White, 2004

First, let’s look at some of the reasons Bruce Lee was given the title “Father of MMA”.

  • He believed that you have to free yourself from the traps of one martial arts style.
  • He believed you have to be a complete fighter.
  • According to her daughter, Shannon, she was the first to say that the best style is “no style”. (2)
  • His training demonstrated the above while he was still alive.

These are definite points. And I have to say that I had to rethink my position after digging deeper into this article.

Before we go any further, we need to clarify some of the terms we are using here. While the following may not be official definitions, I think they will serve us for this exam.

MMA- “Mixed Martial Arts”

This term is the sport we enjoy the most today. This would include organizations such as the UFC “Final Fighting Championships”, WEC “Cagefighting World Extreme” (now caught in the UFC), Bodog Fight (now obsolete), Fight Bellator, etc.

While the term may mean almost anything, it has a common meaning more towards the unified rules that most state athletic commissions adhere to.

NHB- “No Barriers”

This term is almost synonymous with “MMA”, although it could be considered a more extreme version with fewer rules.

Vale Tudo

This term is very popular in Brazil where the Gracie family created their fighting system. It means “nothing goes”, but often there are still rules.

Using the term “MMA” with the above definition, Dana White makes a strong argument.

If you think of this in terms of “styles”, then the modern MMA fighter is more closely associated with what Bruce Lee has reported and practiced than with the individual style artists from the past. It is only necessary to look at the early UFCs as I, II, & III. Those were the “good ole” days of style vs. style and more like the definitions of “NHB” or “Vale Tudo” than MMA.

Today’s MMA fighters need to be more “whole”. They may not be masters of every aspect of the fighting game, but they must be able to handle themselves in every range.

I think a perfect example of this is someone like Georges Ste. Pierre (GSP). Georges started out in Kyokushin karate. (3) But look at it now. He is one of the most complete fighters in MMA today. You would be put under a lot of pressure to find weakness in his game. And if he manages to go against someone better than him in a certain area, he changes his plan so that it will be difficult to take advantage of this area.

There is evidence that Bruce Lee followed a similar path in his own training. Instead of trying to beat someone at their own game, he would try to take advantage of specific individual strategy, attack, or style weaknesses.

WOW! Pretty convincing so far, right?

Now let’s look at some reasons AGAINST Bruce Lee giving this title.

  • Bruce Lee was not the first to cross-train in the martial arts.
  • Jeet Kune Do is not a sport and Bruce Lee was never in favor of creating a new sport.
  • Bruce Lee never competed. (Except for one boxing game in his youth.)
  • There is no single evidence that Bruce Lee or JKD influenced today ‘s MMA in any way.
  • MMA would happen regardless of Bruce Lee.

All you have to do is look at Pankration’s Greek martial art to see that cross-training has been with us for a long time. It was first introduced in the Greek Olympics in 648 BC, and included strikes, joint locks and grappling techniques.

Another strange point is that Bruce Lee did not support sports fighting. If he wasn’t competing or training to compete, how could he be a father of sport?

Yes, he trained a number of sports tournament fighters in his day like Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, and Mike Stone. But these guys were already sports fighters. So this seems to be a null point.

I have not found a single piece of evidence that Bruce Lee or JKD influenced today ‘s MMA in any way. Yes, there are occasional fighters who trained in JKD, or pay homage to Bruce Lee. But I’m willing to bet there are hundreds of MMA fighters out there who don’t even know who Bruce Lee is or who have no knowledge at all of his training, philosophy, etc..

While there is evidence that JKD Concepts trained in a similar way to MMA, there does not appear to be much support that actually influenced any of today ‘s major fighters or training camps. (Of course there are always exceptions. I’m talking about the overall impact on the sport of MMA.)

But the most important question is this …

“Would MMA happen without Bruce Lee?”

My answer to this is “Yes!”

Helio Gracie as “Father of MMA”.

It is my opinion that the moniker is called “Father MMA” more appropriately for the late Helio Gracie. Here are some of the reasons I feel this way.

  • Helio was accepting of all who came as far back as 1931. (5)
  • He passed on this tradition of the “challenge game” to his sons.
  • His son, Rorion, first started the UFC to continue this tradition and bring it to the US.
  • If not for Helio, the UFC and MMA might never be a sport.

Now I understand that Helio’s aim was to show Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s excellence. And with this, it goes against the “mixed” part of MMA.

But the inevitable truth with this is that if it weren’t for Helio, the UFC would probably never have come to light. It was originally an exhibition to showcase Gracie Jiu-Jitsu style. But it has grown to be more than that now.

As a parent, you want your child to exceed your abilities. The UFC “baby” did this in abundance.

From writing this article, I have come to appreciate naming Bruce Lee as “Father of MMA”. I can see some valid arguments so far.

But I would say Helio Gracie is a more suitable option.

Having reviewed all the pros and cons, I believe it is relevant to this question:

“Would the sport of MMA be where it is today without Bruce Lee?”

And then ask this question:

“Would MMA sport where it is today without Helio Gracie?”

Answer these questions honestly.

Believe me, I want to give Bruce Lee all the credit in the world and all the publicity he deserves. But I can’t give him credit in this case. I would love to say, “Bruce Lee is the Father of MMA”! But I can’t do that with a good conscience.

Bruce Lee deserves so much praise and recognition for the many things he has done and given us. If it weren’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into the martial arts, because I’m sure a lot of you are involved with it.

But let’s give him credit where the credit is due. I think it’s a big enough stretch to give him the title of “Father of MMA”. Sorry Dana!

Kip Brockett

(c) 2011 Kip Brockett All rights reserved

1 Wickert, Marc. 2004. Dana White and the future of UFC.

2 Lee, Shannon. 2010. Bruce Lee: Father of MMA?

3 Pollard, Edward. 2006. Exclusive interview with Georges St. Pierre.

4 Wikipedia. Pankration.

5 Gracie Academy. A Tradition of Excellence.

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