The MMA World Pays Tribute to Bruce Lee 40 Years After His Death
Audiences were captivated by the release of Enter the Dragon in the summer of 1973 and mesmerized by the performance of Bruce Lee.
Unfortunately, the star of the movie—who became the first leading actor of Chinese descent in a major studio Hollywood production—would not live to see its impact on the world.
Exactly four decades ago on Saturday, Lee’s life came to a tragic end by a cerebral edema due to an allergic reaction to pain medication. He left behind an everlasting legacy through all he had accomplished in his 32 years.
Lee showed he was a gifted martial artist and actor as well as a deep-thinking philosopher. His quotes still resonate with many people, from all different walks of life, to this day.
He was a trendsetter, a strong personality and a man who challenged conventional and traditional ways in both Hollywood and martial arts.
Before Enter the Dragon, there were no lead roles for Chinese actors. Lee set out to change that and did so. He was discovered by a Hollywood agent while performing an exhibition at Ed Parker’s Long Beach Karate Championship in 1964.
That would lead to a successful stint as the character Kato on the TV series, The Green Hornet.
After that, and without a leading role, Lee returned to Hong Kong to make Big Boss, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon before Hollywood and Warner Bros. called him back to star in Enter the Dragon.
The legendary film was made on a budget of under $1 million. It grossed over $25 million in its first year alone. In 2004, the movie was selected for preservation by the National Film Registry and is still widely considered a landmark in martial arts movie history.
Just as he chose to forge his own path to reach the top and break through in Hollywood, Lee did the same in martial arts.
The former Wing Chun student did not believe in having one set style in martial arts; he believed in incorporating techniques from multiple styles. He said, "Use only that which works and take it from any place you can find it." His goal was not to have a style and to dispose of any wasted movement.
He formed his own martial art entitled Jeet-Kune-Do in 1967 and displayed it brilliantly in the opening fight sequence of Enter the Dragon.
In that fight scene, Lee attacked his adversary with punches and kicks, took his opponent down to the floor by using several different types of throws and won the match by forcing his opponent to tap from a straight arm lock.
Eerily similar to modern-day MMA, especially with him wearing fingerless gloves. And this was 20 years before the first UFC.
Lee is an icon in every sense of the word. He won a posthumous award in 1999, becoming one of Time magazine's most influential people of the 20th century. He was a trailblazer, a pioneer and way ahead of his time.
Perhaps his most famous quote is the one that truly defines him:
"Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend."
Bleacher Report spoke to several fighters and other notable MMA personalities to get their take on how Bruce Lee is such a huge influence on their sport even 40 years after his death, and to pay tribute to his legacy.
"Bruce Lee was my first hero growing up. I was a huge kung fu fan and me and my brothers would watch kung fu movies every weekend. For me, I didn’t see him as a mixed martial artist, but as the ultimate martial artist.
"The way he moved and the charisma he had made me want to be like him. He was a smaller guy, but he beat everyone and to me he was a real life superhero. As I got older, before I even got into mixed martial arts, I read all his books and studied his philosophy.
"Bruce was so far ahead of his time he wanted to learn everything. Whatever worked from the different martial arts he used, and whatever didn’t work he threw out. He was so far ahead of his time."
On Enter The Dragon
"It was so awesome and it was the first time you saw a martial artist do a myriad of techniques. He had karate, kung fu and was kicking, punching and doing everything. In the past you’d only see karate people doing karate or kung fu people doing their thing.
"Specifically in that movie he used everything, used all the moves, and it was amazing to see what a martial artist he was and how far ahead of his time he was.
"He was getting the different styles to go up against each other in the movie to show which could do what. It really showed how revolutionary a mind he had."
“He was the first to bring it to the mainstream. He also understood that one discipline doesn’t always work and was willing to adapt. Bruce added the cool factor to Martial arts.”
"I don’t know how many times I whacked my knuckles with my nun-chucks trying to be like Bruce Lee as a kid! Thank God mine were plastic!
"Bruce made martial arts cool to a generation. He introduced us not only to his philosophy and training, the precursor to MMA, but also stars like Chuck Norris in the famous coliseum fight scene in Way of the Dragon. His legend is alive and well today."
"Bruce Lee is an inimitable soul who has inspired generations of martial artists. The spiritual godfather of MMA."
"Bruce Lee was the first true martial arts icon for me. Every kid wanted to be Bruce Lee. Bruce was a true visionary recognizing the need for integration of various martial arts into one in order to form a true and realistic martial art. Bruce Lee saw the need for MMA way before its time."
King Mo Lawal
"Bruce Lee was ahead of his time…a trendsetter! He was the first true mixed martial artist. He didn’t believe in just one style. He saw the strengths and weaknesses in everything."
"Lee continues to be an influence on today’s MMA athletes because people view him as the godfather of MMA. He was doing martial arts before it was really cool and a lot of today’s stars grew up watching him."
Michael "The Voice" Schiavello
"Bruce Lee is the most influential martial artist in history and Enter the Dragon is the greatest showcase of his skills. Particularly the fight scene with the guards displays a level of martial arts prowess and diversity unseen on screen before and unseen since.
"That Bruce Lee brought martial arts to the mainstream and continues, posthumously, to bring martial arts to the mainstream is a testament to his teachings, philosophies and way of life."
Skyskrape and Punkass from Tapout
"Bruce Lee would definitely be wearing Tapout if we ever could have met the greatest mixed martial artist ever!!!"
"Everything to be said has already been said about Bruce."
Invicta FC Atomweight Champion Michelle "Karate Hottie" Waterson
“Bruce Lee was such a huge influence on me and millions of others all around the world! He educated people about martial arts and how it is more than a sport, but a way of life.
"He was a true pioneer to the MMA world. When it was taboo to mix different arts, he ventured outside the box and intertwined different styles that suited him!
"Now MMA has evolved and ground into something bigger than all of us! I imagine him looking down at all of us who are involved in MMA, and hope that he is proud of what it has become."
Bellator Featherweight Champion Pat Curran
"He is one of the greatest and most influential martial artists of all time. Forty years after his passing he’s still remembered as that."
Bellator Lightweight Champion Mike Chandler
"A true legend. He defines what MMA is. The original."
"Bruce Lee was way ahead of his time, not just as a movie star, but as a martial artist. He was always challenging convention. Hollywood didn’t want an Asian star. He asked why not?
"Chinese masters wouldn’t teach kung fu to Americans. He asked why not? And when teachers and fighters were stringent in their art—and they wouldn’t veer from their so-called style, he challenged them, and asked why not try a combination of arts?
"To say he was the first mixed martial artist isn’t enough. Like Gene Kelly changed the way dance was choreographed for film, or Run DMC took an Aerosmith song and made it rap, or Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire turned the Hollywood drama into a visceral art, Bruce Lee changed martial arts forever.
"Bruce would have been a fan of MMA. Although he would probably be banned by Dana White by now."
"I wish I knew the guy for how he looks at life and the balance between that and martial arts."
Jesse Katz, CEO of Roots of Fight
"Lee is a legend, an icon of sports, entertainment, pop culture, history and philosophy. Martial arts are popular today because of him. He passed 40 years ago, but will continue to inspire for generations to come. Legends never die."
Former Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker
"Bruce Lee was the greatest martial artist of all time. He was clearly 50 years ahead of his era. It’s understandable why to this day, his loyal fanbase is enormous and constantly growing."
"Bruce Lee is a legend to all of us. He transcends sports. He transcends martial arts. He transcends Hollywood. If you ask anybody, ‘Who is Bruce Lee?’ it has a different meaning to all of us and that’s what’s really special.
"He’s one of those iconic figures that actually to me is more in heed in action and in thought than he actually did in living form and that’s special.
"Billions of us go through this planet without any of us knowing that we were even here and then Bruce Lee is somebody that billions of us know who he is and will for generations to come.
"I looked up to Bruce Lee as a child, as a boy, as just a physical specimen an Olympic athlete. Like a Michael Jordan or Pele there was Bruce Lee. I always saw him as an athlete because that’s what my focus was. That’s what he really meant to me most.
"The feats of strength and flexibility he was renowned for a man of small stature…He could easily outperform men twice his bodyweight. I’m a strength athlete. I understand that’s not just magic and luck, that’s some real hard work that went behind that.
"I look at Bruce Lee as the disciplined human he was to his sport, to his craft, to his art. That’s the only way you can achieve what he achieved through physical aptitude or chemical proficiency.
"That only comes with hundreds of thousands of repetition on thousands of days to your life devoted to hundreds of thousands of repetition in all of these specific things. Again, that’s a special person. That’s why we are talking about Bruce Lee. He’s that special.
"You could take Bruce Lee and put him along with the lore of Jesus, of Muhammad Ali, of these iconic figures that have such a spiritual impact and move people’s lives."
"My first remembrance of Bruce Lee was back in the day of The Green Hornet TV show where he played the character Kato. It was phenomenal watching him do his martial arts. It was a burst of refreshing air.
"He went on to do Enter the Dragon—which captivated all of us. I started martial arts when I was 12 and I was just glued.
"The famous scene that took me away was the nunchucks-fighting scene, which was two-thirds of the way through the film, toward the end. In my day it was all about being Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris back then.
"Growing up to—outside of my training in boxing—my whole interest in martial arts was really emphasized by that. When I moved out to Malibu, California when I was 15 I became friends—as I wrote in my book—with the famous actor Steve McQueen.
"At the time right before that, there was a time when Bruce was actually training him. I noticed that there was a certificate on Steve’s wall, which was an award certificate signed by Bruce Lee—which his son Chad still has in his memorabilia collection of his dad. I was always fascinated by the piece of memorabilia.
"When I had a chance to read Bruce’s book—the Jeet Kune Do book—which I still have, I’m staring at it right here on the wall of my bookshelf…His whole theory back then about being able to react to whatever comes at you…
"The famous lines he gave at the end of Enter the Dragon about being like water and fighting without fighting, and I still to this day remember how they affected me back then.
"I thought that he was so unique in everything he did and I was glued watching him and his ability to move on camera and films, which was similar to when I saw my first UFC in person when I was at UFC 6 in Casper, Wyoming.
"Watching the style versus style fighting that was happening and growing into the mixed martial arts that it was, and I really do credit him and look at him as one of the grandfathers of MMA.
"It’s amazing how his persona has carried on. An iconic legend that he is…Even to this day people that are younger than me, that were not born during the time that could’ve run to the theater to see Enter the Dragon, or watched The Green Hornet on TV, he’s grabbing them today.
"It’s amazing to see this icon and this legend of martial arts, and in essence mixed martial arts still captivating people today like he captivated me when I was a young teenager.
"We are seeing fighters coming out such as the Anderson Silvas, the Jon Jones, the Jose Aldos and seeing 12-year-olds in the dojos doing things that are going to be phenomenal 10 years from now when they are fighting in the UFC Octagon.
"These people that are being innovative, and impressing us all and taking us to new levels of fighting, their respect and the way that they are captivated by someone that passed away 40 years ago.
"It’s amazing. This is truly what an icon and a legend is all about. That they can maintain the interest and captivate the enthusiasm and create motivation and excitement for them to be the best that they can be in today’s world of MMA—which is ever changing.
"Ten years from now, it’s almost like these great fighters are going to be flying into the Octagon with capes. I mean I don’t know where the end is going to happen. We keep seeing new and new, yet they all respect the great legend Bruce Lee.
"It’s unbelievable. I find it fascinating and totally worthy."
First UFC Executive Producer Campbell McLaren
"He had tried a couple of times to put on no-holds barred events. He was a proponent of getting rid of the hokeyness of the martial arts, the one-finger touch of death nonsense.
"I think he was a very smart man, and he—like a lot of fighters—understood physics. Like how you deliver a blow based on physics, not metaphysics.
"I thought it would be kind of fun to weed out the bullsh**t of the martial arts stuff. I didn’t realize how much fun it would be, and I didn’t realize how many would studiously avoid the UFC.
"I was shocked. I thought the Wing Chun guy and all these others wouldn’t have a chance and they all ran away from it. Chuck Norris ran away from it.
"It was cool. It was Bruce Lee sort of sifting…He had a great quote it was ‘sifting truth from fiction’ or ‘willowing truth from fiction.’ I forget the quote. I knew it at the time.
"So Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do really played a big part in the early days."
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!