Of all his legacies, perhaps Bruce Lee's most impressive is the ability to inspire a generation of fighters who weren't even born at the time of his death, in a sport that didn't exist until 20 years after he was gone. The number and quality of fighters who claim Lee as an influence are legion, from superstars Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre to blue-collar scrappers like Dan Hardy and Alex Caceres.
It's a chain unlikely to be broken, mostly because among each new wave of fighters comes a few that grew up watching his movies and marveling at his speed and fitness, and also because the link between the sides remains a valued one.
At Saturday night's UFC on FUEL 6, which marks the fight promotion's debut in China, the company took the unprecedented step of featuring Lee's image on the fight poster, emphasizing his role as a forebear of current-day fighters with the quote, "Bruce Lee is the father of mixed martial arts."
It was done with the permission of his estate, which is run by his daughter Shannon Lee through the Bruce Lee Foundation.
"I always make the distinction between Jeet Kune Do and MMA," Shannon Lee said on Wednesday's edition of The MMA Hour. "I don't see Jeet Kune Do as being the same thing as MMA, but I think when you start talking about my father's philosophical notion that in order to be a well-rounded fighter, you have to be able to defend an attack in any situation you find yourself, he was very much about needing to have a very precise and well-rounded arsenal when it came to real fighting. Of course, UFC is a sport, it's not street fighting but it's about as close as you can get in a controlled environment to a no-holds-barred fight, and I think my dad’s philosophies about needing to be a well-rounded fighter have been proven out in the sport."
Bruce Lee died a few months shy of Shannon's fourth birthday, but she still grew up in an environment that stood in deep recognition of his life's work. Shannon herself studied Jeet Kune Do and kickboxing, among other martial arts, and after a career in film, she took over running the family business from her mother, Linda, in 2000.
Years later, she met UFC president Dana White at an awards banquet, and the two struck up a friendship that has resulted in a good business relationship between the two organizations.
When the UFC asked about putting her father on the fight poster (his image is bathed in light, almost angelic, lying between six featured fighters), Shannon quickly agreed, saying it was an "honor."
"In a way the UFC and the rise of MMA have rally helped solidify my father’s legacy and position in the world of marital arts," she said. "That has been really important. There’s always discussion, and I’m sure a lot of people don't want to have the discussion about Bruce Lee and MMA, and that's fine but martial arts was really my father's life. It's really what he dedicated his life and what he felt he learned the most from in terms of him as a human being, was through his pursuit of martial arts. I definitely think it's wonderful the UFC has risen as it has so we're talking about martial arts as a sport, we’re watching it on TV. It’s been great for the Bruce Lee legacy as well."
Shannon is currently working to launch a Bruce Lee Action Museum in his adopted hometown and final resting place of Seattle, and though she won't be able to attend the UFC event in Macau, she considers nearby Hong Kong -- the birthplace of the action cinema that gave rise to her father's career -- a home away from home.
Almost 40 years after Bruce Lee's death, he casts a considerable shadow. To fighters, to fans and to a sport, he was the visionary who saw that a blending of styles -- the same idea as "mixed martial arts" -- would work more effectively than any single style.
"I think my father in a way, he was very ahead of his time," she said. "Especially with the rise of MMA and UFC and the continuation of action movies, people haven't been able to duplicate him, and the fact he continues to inspire on such a high level because he had so much depth behind him. You see his movies, and you're just like, 'Wow that’s so awesome.' But then you dig a little further and you find all these philosophies, all these writings, all these amazing things, his life journey and it's so very inspiring and in a way still extremely relevant today. So I feel like he's still sort of at the forefront. We’re just sort of catching up to him in a way right now."