Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do: the Origins of MMA, Part Four

Jad SemaanSenior Analyst IJuly 11, 2008

Continuing with my series on the history of MMA (part three can be found here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/33398-rebirth-of-modern-pankration-the-origins-of-mma-part-three), this article will examine Bruce Lee’s martial arts philosophy and contributions to the development of modern MMA combat.

The next article in my series looks at the rise of Vale Tudo contests in Brazil and the work of the Gracie family in developing the art of Jiu-Jitsu, eventually leading to the creation of the UFC in 1993.

Lee as a Historical Figure


Thirty-five years after his death, Lee remains a controversial human being, both as an actor and martial artist. He is undoubtedly a cultural icon, responsible for bringing popularity to traditional martial arts and Chinese cinema in the West. He was named one of the top 100 Most Important People of the Century by TIME magazine.

However, there are many critics who hold serious reservations about Lee’s legitimacy as a true martial artist, citing that he was an actor first and foremost. While this might be true to an extent, Lee’s accomplishments as a professional fighter have been well-documented, including many feats of strength that seem to defy the realm of possibility.

Therefore in this article I do not want to dispute the authenticity of Lee’s abilities and argue whether or not he was a real fighter: I want to stick to the facts and examine what he practiced and believed regarding the essence of martial arts, especially in relation to his “style” of Jeet Kune Do and its relationship to current MMA competition.

A Short Martial Arts Biography

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Lee began training in Wing Chun Kung Fu at the age of 13. Wing Chun is a Southern Chinese martial art that focuses on short-range combat, with an emphasis on aggression and practicality. Lee also trained in Western boxing and fencing. At 22, Lee received informal training from Wally Jay in the Japanese art of Jujutsu, from which come the styles of Judo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He also practiced Judo and catch-wrestling with Gene Lebell.

He began teaching a modified form of Wing Chun when he came to America at the age of 19. In 1965, when Lee was 25 years old, Jeet Kune Do would be created. In a long and disputed match with Wong Jack Man, Lee became convinced that traditional martial arts were too restrictive and formalistic to be employed effectively in a real combat situation.

He strove to develop a fighting system that focused on expediency and flexibility, and which would be able to react to any development in a fight with speed and efficiency. He would call his new martial art Jeet Kune Do, and proclaimed it as the “way of no way.”

Jeet Kune Do and Martial Philosophy


The phrase Jeet Kune Do literally translates as, “The Way of the Intercepting Fist.” It refers to the process of countering your opponent’s attacks with one of your own, and using whatever techniques that the situation prompts. Lee understood that in a combat situation, certain forms or kata would be too rigid and unresponsive to be used advantageously.

With Jeet Kune Do, the practitioner is able to use any move or attack that will enable to him to take advantage of the changing circumstances in a fight. Thus, there is greater freedom of movement and more options available to those who adopt this philosophy of combat. JKD is supposed to be a response to traditional martial arts that are too narrowly-focused on pre-conceived configurations in order to be truly effective in a dynamic environment.

However, to even call JKD a style is a misnomer and misunderstanding of its essence, and here it’s just referred to as a “style” for grammatical convenience. Its emphasis is using solely what is useful for combat purposes, and discarding everything else. It doesn’t matter where the techniques that you are using come from; it just matters if they are effective and efficient in a live combat situation.

Lee himself said that JKD is just a name, and is not to be compared to any other style, because JKD is the “style of no style.” To set off JKD against Karate or Jiu-Jitsu as a distinct entity would be a mistake, since JKD is not a collection of certain techniques or movements: it is all possible combat maneuvers simultaneously, with the current situation determining the next action of the practitioner. The martial art developed by Bruce Lee is essentially “style-less.”

Lee heavily emphasized physical conditioning as an integral component of the martial artists’ lifestyle. He believed that strength and endurance training was largely neglected in the martial arts world of the day. Proper nutrition was also one of his focuses. Lee would spend several hours each day working on his physique and conditioning in order to become a stronger and more durable competitor.

His training program can be described as a “total body fitness” regime, and Lee would only do functional exercises that gave him direct combat benefits. He stressed the importance of cross-training, cardiovascular work, strengthening the abdominal muscles, and speed-building exercises. He usually weighed between 135-145 pounds, though at one point he reached 160 pounds due to heavy lifting. 

Lee paid close attention to the ground game, and practiced wrestling and Jujutsu. Yet he realized that fans would rather see a striking match instead of grappling, and lamented the fact that submission arts may never reach the popularity of traditional styles in movies. He wanted to put on a show for the audience, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he knew that to be a really dangerous and complete fighter, one had to have a solid grasp of ground-fighting techniques.

Legacy and Connection to MMA


Bruce Lee’s influence on MMA can be felt to this day. His emphasis on only using techniques that are beneficial in a real fight coincides with the training regimes of current MMA combatants. Fighters of today focus on whatever methods will bring them success in the cage, and not on whether or not a move corresponds to a certain form or style. To win, you need to be unrestricted in your movements and attacks, and this is a lesson Lee taught over 20 years before the first UFC was held in 1993.

Interestingly enough, the early UFC events were advertised as a competition between styles, to determine which one was the best in a one-on-one combat situation. The UFC was in part created by Rorion Gracie, who wanted to advertise Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu as the supreme combat art. At that time, most fighters in the striking arts were unfamiliar with the ground game, which enabled Royce Gracie to win several UFC tournaments with submissions.

The sport has evolved since then, and competitors have realized that you need to be well-rounded at in all facets of combat if you want to be truly successful. Otherwise, one-dimensional fighters will lose to those who are better-rounded than them or stronger in the aspect that they specialize in.

There are a few current MMA fighters who have trained in Jeet Kune Do and even use it to complement their other skills. Jerome Le Banner and Ben Saunders are two of the more prominent fighters who claim a background in JKD. They both fight in a southpaw stance, even though they’re right-handed, because Lee taught that it is best to fight with your strong hand forward.

He understood the "martial" aspect of combat arts better than most, and tailored JKD to be as powerful as any fighting system could be. He later would regret the progress of JKD though, citing that it had turned into an actual "style," which was the complete opposite of his intentions.

I wonder what Lee would have thought about MMA if he had lived to his day. He has received many compliments from those inside the business. UFC president Dana White has called Lee “the father of mixed martial arts.”

Randy Couture, the only five-time UFC champion in history, had this to say: “I think a lot of the martial arts schools across the country are moving away from the traditional martial arts programs to more of a mixed martial arts curriculum. I think Bruce Lee would be very proud of the movement and what's happening. It's kind of all about what's effective and not getting caught up in one particular style or another" (David Mayeda, “Fighting for Acceptance” p.9). 

There can be little doubt that Bruce Lee was a pioneer and a man well ahead of his time. His “style” and focus on practicality and effectiveness lies at the heart of the goal of true MMA competition: to determine who the better fighter is, and not what is the best style.

Lee’s whole approach to the martial arts and life itself is encapsulated by a phrase he once said: “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or it can crash! Be water, my friend.”

Look for my next article in this series which details Vale Tudo in the 20thcentury and the development of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by the Gracie family.

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