Did Bruce Lee Invent Mixed Martial Arts?

Bruce Lee’s philosophy of mixed-style martial arts paved the way for the emergence of contemporary MMA.

Jan 25, 2024By Scott Mclaughlan, PhD Sociology

 

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a hybrid combat sport that draws on various fighting styles, from Western and Thai Boxing to freestyle wrestling and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. While the exact origins of MMA are debated, many have credited Bruce Lee’s philosophy of Jeet Kune Do (“Way of the Intercepting Fist”) as a significant influence. As the world’s most famous martial artist, Bruce Lee’s philosophy and fighting style inspired and motivated millions. His belief in the superiority of mixed-style martial arts over the practice of rigid “styles” serves as the foundational philosophy of modern MMA.

 

Bruce Lee, Fighter and Martial Artist

The famous Bruce Lee monument in Hong Kong, Source: Wikimedia Commons
The famous Bruce Lee monument in Hong Kong, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Bruce Lee (1940 -1973) delved into the study of martial arts – especially Wing Chun – under master Yip Man in 1954. Though born in America, he was raised in Hong Kong, where he pursued acting, and excelled in dance, earning recognition as a regional Cha-Cha champion in 1958. During his teenage years, Lee reportedly engaged in street fights, but perhaps surprisingly, his competitive fighting “record” consists of just three documented bouts. 

 

In 1958, he won an interschool boxing competition, defeating three-time champion Gary Elms with ease. After moving to America, he took on Japanese Karate Black Belt Yoichi Nakachi and comprehensively defeated him in under 11 seconds. Bruce Lee’s final competitive bout pitted him against a more formidable opponent, Kung-Fu master, Wong Jack Man. While Lee emerged victorious, he was left severely winded by his opponent. Lee openly admitted that he was highly disappointed with his less-than-convincing performance. 

 

Jeet Kune Do as Mixed-Style Martial Arts

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, by Bruce Lee (1975), Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, by Bruce Lee (1975), Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Bruce Lee’s legacy centers on his philosophy and skill as a martial artist rather than his professional fighting career. His major and lasting contribution to martial arts was his creation of Jeet Kune Do (JKD) – the “way of the intercepting fist.”

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Lee was famously against the practice of rigid “styles” of martial arts, like boxing, Karate, and Judo. Instead, he advocated, albeit controversially at the time, that a true martial artist should absorb what is useful, and reject what is not. JKD stands not as a style, but as a philosophy, that emphasizes core principles such as directness, interception, simplicity, and economy of motion.

 

Similarly, the ethos that underpins modern mixed martial arts echoes Lee’s emphasis on hybridity. While contemporary MMA fighters typically specialize in one style, the sport demands proficiency in all areas. Mixed-style fighting skills are necessary if one is to decipher the complex challenges posed by skilled opponents. 

 

Bruce Lee’s Influence on Martial Arts

The iconic image of Bruce Lee, Graffiti Stencil, Tbilisi, Georgia, Source: Wikimedia Commons
The iconic image of Bruce Lee, Graffiti Stencil, Tbilisi, Georgia, Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Following his arrival in America in 1959, Bruce Lee studied philosophy at the University of Washington. He subsequently established martial arts schools in Seattle and California. He went on to inspire millions worldwide as the star of martial arts epics, such as Fist of Fury (1972), Game of Death (1972), and Enter the Dragon (1973). 

 

Beyond showcasing prowess in martial arts in his movies, Bruce Lee emerged as a profound thinker.  He famously likened the essence of martial arts to water, asserting that water “can flow or it can crash.” Lee advocated for a mindset of formlessness – he urged his followers to “empty [their] minds, [and] be formless, shapeless. Like water.”

 

Consequently, entire generations of martial artists have sought to emulate him. Throughout the journey and evolution of mixed martial arts influential fighters such as Anderson Silva, Conor McGregor, and Israel Adesanya have acknowledged Bruce Lee’s influence on their craft. 

 

Did Bruce Lee “Invent” MMA?

Precursor to MMA? Sambo at the European Games (2015), Source: Wikimedia Commons
Precursor to MMA? Sambo at the European Games (2015), Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do predated modern MMA by at least two decades. However, one can also trace the roots of mixed martial arts back to Ancient Greece, where the Pankration combined boxing and wrestling into an Olympic sport in the 6th century BCE.  

 

Alternatively, in the 1920s, Russian Sambo blended a combination of Judo, Boxing, and folk-style wrestling into a combat system for the Soviet Red Army. By 1938, Sport Sambo (Bor’ba Sambo) was recognized as a competitive sport – it remains popular in former Soviet countries to this day. 

 

From the 1950s onwards, the Gracie Family, the founders of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, pioneered the tradition of Vale Tudo (“Everything Goes”). This served as a platform to test the strength of their Jiu-Jitsu against other martial disciplines. In the early 1990s, Rorion, the eldest son of family patriarch Helio, initiated plans to take Vale Tudo to America. In 1993, Rorion Gracie and his business partner Art Davie founded the UFC. 

 

The Father of Mixed Martial Arts

The father of mixed martial arts, Bruce Lee, Source: BBC.com
The father of mixed martial arts, Bruce Lee, Source: BBC.com

 

Sambo and Vale Tudo played a pivotal role in shaping modern MMA. Yet, it is Bruce Lee’s influence as a martial artist that has done the most to shape the philosophy of the sport of mixed martial arts. According to Dana White – President of the UFC – the true father of MMA is Bruce Lee. Citing Lee’s maxim that “the perfect style is no style” White has claimed that excelling in the world of MMA means taking “good things from every different discipline: you use what works, and you throw the rest away.” 

 

Bruce Lee’s teachings, his movies, and his iconic persona have left a lasting impact on the landscape of mixed martial arts. His fight philosophy has profoundly influenced the greatest minds in the game. Though the Gracie family rightly claim credit as the founders of the UFC, the inception of mixed martial arts owes much to Bruce Lee.

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By Scott MclaughlanPhD SociologyScott is an independent scholar with an interest in physical cultures, far-right movements, and Indian politics. He has a doctorate in political sociology from Birkbeck College, University of London.