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Forty-five years after death, Bruce Lee’s influence still being felt in modern MMA

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Bruce Lee’s influence is still being felt in MMA.
Corbis via Getty Images

Imagine this, for a moment: We’re in the middle of a major UFC event, say, UFC 200, or a show at Madison Square Garden, or maybe it’s International Fight Week.

As the big card winds toward the main event, the camera pans between fights to some of the celebrities seated down in the VIP sections at ringside. Oh hey, there’s Mike Tyson. There’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. There’s whichever UFC champion is defending his or her championship on the next pay-per-view.

Then there’s a roar from the crowd as the camera fixates on a smiling Bruce Lee, with grey hair but otherwise looking like he could still whoop on people half his age if only they’d give him a chance, on hand to witness the latest edition of the billion-dollar enterprise his big-screen popularity helped spawn.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (left) and Bruce Lee on the set of “Game of Death.”
Corbis via Getty Images

According to some who have studied him closely, such a scene would not be an outlandish idea.

“I don’t think Bruce would be a hardcore mixed martial arts fan, or someone who went to every show,” noted martial arts author Matthew Polly told MMA Fighting. “I think he would have been the sort of person who showed up every once in awhile, and we would have enjoyed the recognition for his contributions and his life’s work, and he definitely would have enjoyed the spectacle.”

Of course, whether Lee would have been a fan of the modern day version of mixed martial arts will forever remain pure conjecture, because Lee died an untimely death at the age of 32 in Hong Kong on July 20, 1973, just a week before the release of his classic film “Enter the Dragon” made him a worldwide superstar and ushered in the martial arts craze in North America which eventually manifested itself in the sport of MMA.

But while the man who revolutionized thousands of years of martial arts teachings in such a short period of time had his life come to an end just before the world came to appreciate his genius, Lee’s influence clearly remains felt today in the culture at large and in the sport of mixed martial arts in specific.

Polly — whose recently released book “Bruce Lee: A life,” published last month by Simon and Schuster, just might be the finest volume ever penned on the legend — believes the transcendent nature of Lee’s popularity and the timelessness of his teachings combine to keep him at the forefront of the movement he created.

“He means many things to many people across cultures,” Polly said. “In Asia, he was the unquestioned hero, the star of the show, the Asian man who went over to Hollywood and became a superstar in a white man’s world. Here in the United States, he’s a timeless icon. Like Marilyn Monroe is the archetype for sex, Bruce is the archetype of the scrappy underdog who kicks ass. That’s an ideal that never goes out of style, the sort that each new generation discovers and identifies with and makes their own.”

That underdog archetype is far from the only American trait Lee came to embody. Lee’s story was also of reinvention, of perseverance, of willingness to continue to work toward your dreams even when everyone is telling you to give up.

Polly, who spent six months in the Lee family’s native Hong Kong working on a book that was eight years in the making, details the icon’s path, from childhood film roles to championship winning cha-cha dancer to his undeniable nose for finding trouble and getting into fights.

Lee, who was born in San Francisco in 1940 while his father was in the states for a residency with an acting troupe and returned to Hong Kong as a toddler, was sent back over to the U.S. as a teenager by his family in an attempt to get his head straight after being expelled from a prestigious school over his behavior.

The future martial arts star eventually began building his name up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to the Bay Area to Los Angeles, as a hothead who had no patience for those who adhered too tightly to traditional teachings. In developing his own style, which he eventually called Jeet Kune Do, Lee sought to focus only on elite students, which ran into problems.

“You see it over and over,” Polly said. “Bruce starts up a school, only wants to have the most serious and disciplined students join him, and then he inevitably has trouble paying the rent.”

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He doubled down after arriving in Los Angeles, where he started to pursue dreams of making it as an outsider in a genre led by white men such as Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson.

While also showing such intense discipline and devotion toward his craft, he also played the “fake it ’til you make it” card known to so many trying to make a go of it in Hollywood, buying a house he couldn’t afford up in the Hollywood Hills and a Porsche at a time his only role of note was as a sidekick in the short-lived but well-remembered television series “The Green Hornet.”

“It’s a paradox that someone who was known for being so frugal and humble also wanted to project such a big image,” Polly said. “For all the strict discipline he showed in the martial arts and in his training, he wanted to make it as badly as anyone in Hollywood.”

While it’s easy to conjure the notion of a present-day Bruce Lee as an honored guest cageside at major UFC cards, it’s also not too difficult to see things going the other way.

Lee hated the concept of too many rules in fighting. His most famous real-life skirmish came in 1964 in a warehouse in Oakland with a rival competitor named Wong Jack Man.

The dispute, which started when Lee made comments toward the martial arts establishment in San Francisco which were considered disrespectful, turned into a challenge fight in Lee’s dojo, one in which Man’s side tried to negotiate rules such as no shots to the face or groin — limitations which Lee rejected. Man, losing the fight, struck Lee’s neck with a hidden pair of spikes, and Lee responded with a reckless abandon, beating Man until Man’s handlers called off the bout.

Such a contest — minus the spikes, of course — fits in with the ethos of the UFC’s earliest days. Lee’s posthumous popularity sparked a martial arts craze in North America, with dime-store dojos springing up in strip malls and downtown storefronts from coast to coast.

Each McDojo had their own leader who claimed their way was the one true way. But as often as not, those senseis were nowhere to be found when real challengers came about. It helped fuel the endless “which style of fighting is superior?” debate which ultimately led to the formation of the UFC.

While the earliest days of the UFC had few rules, it’s evolved into the sport we see today, with time limits, several dozen fouls, weight classes, and athletic commission oversight.

Would Lee, who openly disdained the point-fighting system used for competitive taekwondo and other martial arts competitions back in the day, have adapted with the times? Or would he have turned his back on the UFC, as the Gracie clan did for awhile after the first attempt at putting real rules into the combat came about?

“There are aspects he wouldn’t have liked,” Polly says. “The 20-something hotheads who think the teachers are too old and set in their ways to be relevant anymore have a funny habit of turning into elders who believe the young kids today are disrespectful of traditions, so Bruce wouldn’t be the first if he went that route.”

At the end of the day, MMA has become the closest manifestation of Lee’s philosophy as a sport with structure and a detailed rule set is ever likely to produce in the real world.

And within the confines of those structures, Lee would have found much that he liked, Polly believed.

“You can see fighters today that Lee would have greatly admired,” Polly said. “He would have loved Georges St-Pierre’s Japanese ‘bushido’ spirit and respect for the martial arts while adapting it into an effective MMA style. And to this day, this many years into it, you still see fighters like Anthony Pettis who are adapting what they’ve learned from previous generations, taking what works, losing what doesn’t, and adapting from there.”

Polly used Pettis’ famous “Showtime Kick” of Benson Henderson, in which he propelled himself off the cage and kicked Henderson in the head in the closing moments of their WEC lightweight title fight in 2010, as an example of something which would have brought a smile to Lee’s face.

“Being able to pull off something like that kick in a real combat situation was the sort of thing Bruce envisioned with Jeet Kune Do,” Polly said.

“The martial arts purists sometimes forget that Bruce was a showman,” the author added. “He had an unquenchable desire to be the center of attention, to be a box-office star, to be put on a show. Bruce might not have like all the rules, but he would have loved how big of a spectacle the UFC had become.”

There are those who have questioned just how close the ties between Lee and mixed martial arts really are, and it’s an understandable skepticism, given Lee died two decades before the UFC came into being.

But you don’t have to dig too deep to find evidence of Lee’s interest in mixing the fighting styles. Lee’s famous skirmish with Sammo Hung in “Enter the Dragon” shows Lee using jiu-jitsu to finish with an armbar an antagonist who looks like a prototype MMA wrestler, with both wearing trunks and even gloves vaguely reminiscent of modern MMA gloves.

In 1972’s “Way of the Dragon,” the ante is upped even further. Lee engaged in a fight scene with fellow legend Chuck Norris which, Polly notes in his book, is in part modeled after Muhammad Ali’s third-round knockout of Cleveland Williams in a heavyweight title defense at the Houston Astrodome in 1968.

Lee faces off with Chuck Norris in “Way of the Dragon.”
Corbis via Getty Images

“The martial arts elders in Asia frowned on boxing,” Polly said. “Oh, ‘it’s this Western thing that has no value.’ They were dismissive of anything that was considered to be from outsiders. But Lee, aside from admiring Ali as a showman, also saw the value of the footwork involved in boxing. He studied Ali obsessively and incorporated it into his system.”

Lee’s estate clearly believes in the linear connection from Bruce’s work to the current day product, as they signed off on allowing Lee’s likeness to be turned into an unlockable special character in the 2014 EA Sports UFC 3 game.

Shannon Lee, daughter of Bruce Lee and sister of late action star Brandon Lee, is the public face of her father’s estate. And while she believes there are clear differences between her father’s style and what’s become of the sport of MMA, she also believes the sport’s success has helped validate his philosophies on a grand stage.

“I don’t see Jeet Kune Do as being the same thing as MMA,” Lee said during a 2012 appearance on The MMA Hour. “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.”

And as long as as the sport continues to evolve — as long as the Gracies continue to give way to the Fedors and the Liddells and Coutures and Silvas and GSPs and Pettises and Jon Joneses and on to the Max Holloways, Brian Ortegas, and maybe even the Israel Adesanyas, then Shannon Lee believes her father’s legacy will continue to stay tied to the sport.

“In a way the UFC and the rise of MMA have rally helped solidify my father’s legacy and position in the world of martial 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.”

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