How would Bruce Lee fare in the UFC today?
Martial arts action films lit up the silver screen for decades and Bruce Lee was the catalyst behind their explosion of popularity in the early 1970s. While many action heroes have followed in his footsteps, the majority of them are just actors; but there is a large segment of the fighting community who believe that Lee would be a UFC world champion if he were born in a different era.
UFC President Dana White has coined Lee as the father of mixed martial arts. Whether or not you agree with that sentiment, it is unquestionable that he made a huge impact on modern-day mixed martial arts (MMA).
In the 1960s when martial arts sensei’s wanted to become the master of their discipline, Lee was one of the first to begin cross-training and expanding his horizons.
"The best fighter is not a boxer, karate or judo man," Lee said in an interview with a Chinese news outlet several years before his passing. "The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style. He kicks too good for a boxer, throws too good for a karate man, and punches too good for a judo man."
Lee clued in that his training in Wing Chun could only take him so far following a fight at his Oakland, California gym in 1964. There was no director, there were no cameras and there was no set, just two men fighting for their beliefs.
According to Bruce, the Chinese community took issue with him teaching ancient Chinese martial arts to anyone, including non-Chinese students. He was told to stop, when he didn’t comply, Grandmaster Ma Kin Fung sent his top student, Wong Jack Man to challenge him.
If Man won, he must shut down his gym immediately and never teach to non-Chinese students again, but if Lee won, he was free to teach to anybody, regardless of race, nationality or creed.
Following the fight that is set to be immortalised in the planned 2015 film Birth of a Dragon, Lee was disheartened, while he won in three minutes according to several onlookers, he was frustrated that he didn’t dispatch of his worthy challenger far sooner. As a result, Jeet Kune Do (JKD) was born.
JKD translates to “the way of the intercepting fist” – a philosophy that a fighter cannot be pigeon-holed into a single martial art form. Instead, they must build their own unique style by taking from numerous disciplines. That very thought is the cornerstone of modern mixed martial arts today.
Lee had numerous successful movies that were, for the most part, made on small budgets for Chinese audiences but his final film – the 1973 classic Enter the Dragon remains his masterpiece.
The Hollywood blockbuster is now infamous for having a MMA bout in the opening scene, a full 30 years before the first UFC event.
Lee, a chiselled 135 pound (61kg) fighter competes wearing a pair of kenpo gloves, very similar to the ones worn by MMA fighters today. On a dirt floor surrounded by onlookers, Lee battles Sammo Hung, overwhelming his larger adversary with his speed and agility before finishing him with a modern day submission move - a straight armbar.
Unfortunately, he never got to see the final product, Lee passed away one month before the premiere. He left behind a wife, two children, and some of the most influential fighting scenes in cinema history that would inspire some of the biggest stars in MMA many decades later.
When Rorion Gracie’s vision came to life for the inaugural UFC event at the tail end of 1993, it changed everything we knew about fighting.
Chuck Norris, Jackie Chan, Jeane-Claude Van Damme and Mike Tyson were perceived as some of the baddest men on the planet, but Rorion understood that none of them would be able to deal with his Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), the martial art that his father Helio had perfected for over 70 years.
When the organisation began to find success in the mid 1990s, fighting purists attempted to weigh up whether or not Lee would have a successful career inside the UFC’s Octagon, and those cries have only gotten louder as they grew into a global conglomerate.
Lee’s on-screen fights are unmatched. Admirers watched his every move with their jaws wide open, bewildered and amazed at how athletic he was as his kicks flew faster than lightning while he took out a group of ten opponents all at once.
While the action was heavily scripted, that same athletic prowess would be a real asset for him inside the UFC today – when you look at UFC champions Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones, their God-given athleticism is vital to their success and would be a major ace up Lee's sleeve as well.
Above anything else, Lee was best known for his kicks. He possessed incredible speed and explosiveness, so much so that several fight sequences during the filming of Enter the Dragon were slowed down to allow the naked eye to follow the action.
One of his signature moves consisted of a trio of kicks, before his opponent could think of defending a strike he would be smacked with Lee’s naked size ten boot in the leg, torso and head to put them to sleep.
So let’s assume for a second, that Lee was a competitor in the UFC’s current 135 pound (61 kg) Bantamweight division. He would be competing against the likes of reigning champion Dominick Cruz and interim belt holder Renan Barao.
Somewhat surprisingly, all three fighters are roughly the same height – Cruz 1.71m, Barao 1.7m and Lee 1.71m. So it would be safe to assume that all three would be fairly evenly matched in terms of reach.
Both Cruz and Barao are known for their speed, but Lee’s explosiveness is that of legend, so you’d have to give the Chinese-American fighter the edge here. Of the current fighters, Barao is known for his power, racking up six TKO/KO victories in his professional career, but again, Lee mastered the art of the “one inch punch”. Couple this finishing strike with his vast array of kicks and it’s not too much of a stretch to predict that Lee would play the part of knockout artist among the Bantamweight’s best.
While Lee’s kicking arsenal was blissful to watch unfold on the big screen, it could be a major detriment inside the Octagon.
Ever since UFC Hall of Fame inductee Dan “The Beast” Severn rag-dolled his way into the MMA scene at UFC 4 in 1994, wrestlers have dominated the sport.
An overwhelming wrestling attack proved to be the ultimate foil for strikers in the early days of mixed martial arts. While times have changed, wrestlers still remain at the top of the food chain with five current UFC champions all possessing a solid wrestling base.
Lee never drilled any wrestling to combat a takedown artist but he did learn judo techniques under 10th degree black belt Gene Lebell after the pair of talented combatants came together to share trade secrets between their martial arts in the late 1960's.
Lebell, the man credited with winning the first sanctioned MMA contest in America, is widely regarded as one of the greatest judokas of all-time, even UFC women's bantamweight queen Ronda Rousey credits LeBell as a major factor for her success, undoubtedly Lee would've picked up a trick or two from the self-proclaimed "Godfather of grappling". Not unlike Barao and many other current Brazilian fighters, Lee could work his grappling skills to keep the fight standing, thus playing to his striking strengths.
Lee was way ahead of his time – his thoughts and philosophies from the 1970s still ring true today with MMA fighters of all walks of life relating to his words of wisdom and his impact on the sport is still being felt over 40 years since his passing. While we will never truly know if he would be a champion inside the UFC, it’s always good food for thought.
Would Bruce Lee have made in in MMA today? Comment below or over on our Facebook page.
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