Bruce Lee Is NOT the “Father of MMA”

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

“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.” (1) Dana White, 2004

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

  • He believed you must free yourself from the trappings of any single martial arts style.
  • He believed you must be a complete fighter.
  • According to his daughter, Shannon, he was the first to say that the best style is “no style”. (2)
  • His training reflected the above while he was still alive.

These are convincing points. And I have to say that I had to re-think my position after digging deeper into this article.

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

MMA- “Mixed Martial Arts”

This term has come to mean the more popular sport that we enjoy today. This would include such organizations as the UFC “Ultimate Fighting Championship”, WEC “World Extreme Cagefighting” (now engulfed in the UFC), Bodog Fight (now defunct), Bellator Fighting, etc.

While the term can mean almost anything, its popular meaning is more towards the unified rules that are observed by most of the state athletic commissions.

NHB- “No Holds Barred”

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

Vale Tudo

This term is more popular in Brazil where the Gracie family forged its fighting system. It means “anything goes”, but often still has rules.

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

If you think about this in terms of “styles”, then the modern-day MMA fighter is more closely related to what Bruce Lee described and practiced than to the single style artists from the past. Just look at the early UFC’s such as I, II, & III. Those were the “good ole” days of style vs. style and more akin to the definitions of “NHB” or “Vale Tudo” than to MMA.

The MMA fighters of today have to be more “complete”. They may not be masters of every aspect of the fight game, but they must be able to handle themselves in all ranges.

I think a perfect example of this is someone like Georges Ste. Pierre (GSP). Georges started out in Kyokushin karate.(3) But look at him now. He is one of the most well-rounded fighters in MMA today. You would be hard pressed to find a weakness in his game. And if he does run up against someone better than him in a certain area, he changes his gameplan so that this area is hard to exploit.

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 exploit the weaknesses of a particular strategy, attack, or individual style.

Wow! Pretty convincing so far, right?

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

  • Bruce Lee was not the first person to cross-train in 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 match in his younger years.)
  • There is not one shred of evidence that Bruce Lee or JKD influenced modern-day MMA in any way.
  • MMA would have happened regardless of Bruce Lee.

All you need to do is look at the Greek martial art of Pankration to see that cross-training has been with us for a very long time. First introduced into the Greek Olympic Games in 648 BC, this art included strikes, joint locks, and grappling techniques.(4)

Another curious point is that Bruce Lee didn’t advocate sport fighting. If he didn’t compete or train to compete, how could he be the father of a sport?

Yes, he did train some sport competition fighters of his day such as Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, and Mike Stone. But these guys were already sport fighters. So this would seem to be a null point.

I have not found a single shred of evidence that Bruce Lee or JKD has influenced modern-day MMA in any way at all. Yes, there are occasional fighters that have trained in JKD, or pay homage to Bruce Lee. But I’m willing to bet that there are hundreds of MMA fighters out there that don’t even know who Bruce Lee was or know anything at all in regards to his training, philosophy, etc.

While there is evidence that JKD Concepts were training in a similar fashion to MMA, there doesn’t seem to be much support that they actually influenced any of the major fighters or training camps of today. (Of course there are always exceptions. I’m talking about an overall influence to the sport of MMA.)

But the most important question is this…

“Would MMA have happened without Bruce Lee?”

My answer to this is a resounding “Yes!”

Helio Gracie as “Father of MMA”.

In my opinion, the moniker “Father of MMA” is more appropriately bestowed upon the late Helio Gracie. Here are some of the reasons I feel this way.

  • Helio was taking on all-comers as far back as 1931.(5)
  • He passed on this tradition of the “challenge match” to his sons.
  • The UFC was originally started by his son, Rorion, to continue this tradition and bring it to the USA.
  • If it were not for Helio, the UFC and the sport of MMA may never have been.

Now I realize that Helio’s goal was to show the superiority of Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. And in this, it goes against the “mixed” portion of MMA.

But the inescapable truth to this is that if it were not for Helio, the UFC would probably never have come to light. In the beginning it was an exhibition to showcase the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu style. But it has grown to be more than that now.

As a parent, you want your child to exceed your capabilities. The UFC “child” has done this in abundance.

From writing this article, I’ve come to appreciate the view of naming Bruce Lee the “Father of MMA”. I can see some valid arguments to this point.

But I hold that Helio Gracie is a more appropriate choice.

After reviewing all the points both for and against, I believe it boils down to this question:

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

And then ask this question:

“Would the sport of MMA be 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 instance. I would love to say, “Bruce Lee IS the Father of MMA”! But I can’t do that with good conscience.

Bruce Lee is deserving of so much praise and recognition for the many things he did and has given us. If it were not for him, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into martial arts, as I’m sure many of you can relate.

But let’s give him credit where the credit is due. I just feel it’s a rather large 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.

Nicole Thomas

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