Bruce Lee in MMA

HONG KONG - 1973: Actor and martial artist Bruce Lee poses for a Warner Bros publicity still for the film 'Enter the Dragon' in 1973 in Hong Kong. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

This month, ESPN released the highly anticipated 30 for 30 documentary, “Be Water”, which analyzes the incredible life and career of Bruce Lee.  A philosopher, actor, director, screenwriter, producer, and martial artist, Lee was born in San Francisco, California in November of 1940.  Named by Time Magazine one the 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century, Lee is one of the most renowned martial artists of all-time and inspired an entire generation of UFC fighters. For instance, in a 2013 Bleacher Report piece, UFC fighters such as Kenny FlorianUrijah Faber, Randy Couture, Frank Shamrock, Mauro Ranallo, Roy Nelson, King Mo Lawal, Michelle Waterson, and Uriah Hall, released statements speaking of their respect and admiration for Lee.  A powerful quote in the piece comes from Florian when he states, “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 term of the ultimate martial artist is the perfect fit for Bruce Lee, as he respected/trained in each discipline of MMA, and he even founded Jeet Kune Do, which is a hybrid martial arts philosophy that draws from different combat disciplines.  Also, Lee has a lengthy martial arts lineage, he trained in Wu Tai Chi Chuan, Jing Mo Tam Tui, Choy Li Fut, Western Boxing, Epee Fencing, Judo, Praying Mantis Kung Fu, Xing Yi Quan, and Jiu-Jitsu.  This diverse training also applied to his physical conditioning as Lee had a dedicated fitness regiment in which he focused on total fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance, and flexibility. Therefore, Bruce Lee was the complete package, he trained in every discipline of MMA and was a physical specimen, thus, the question must be raised, Could Bruce Lee successfully compete against the best fighters in the UFC?

Simulated Fights in UFC 3

Division: 135 lbs

1st Fight:

TJ Dillashaw: Striking: 95, Grappling: 90, Stamina: 92, Health: 90

Bruce Lee: Striking: 92, Grappling: 84, Stamina: 89, Health: 89

Result: Bruce Lee TKO Victory in Round 3

2nd Fight:

Dominick Cruz: Striking: 93, Grappling: 90, Stamina: 93, Health: 91

Bruce Lee: Striking: 92, Grappling: 84, Stamina: 89, Health: 89

Result: Dominick Cruz TKO Victory in Round 3

3rd Fight:

Cody Garbrandt: Striking: 93, Grappling: 89, Stamina: 91, Health: 89

Bruce Lee: Striking: 92, Grappling: 84, Stamina: 89, Health: 89

Result: Bruce Lee TKO Victory in Round 3

4th Fight:

Demetrious Johnson: Striking: 92, Grappling: 91, Stamina: 93, Health: 90

Bruce Lee: Striking: 92, Grappling: 84, Stamina: 89, Health: 89

Result: Demetrious Johnson Submission Victory in Round 1

Bruce Lee vs. Ted Wong

As previously mentioned, Bruce Lee founded Jeet Kune Do, and he trained dozens of students on this form of martial arts. One of the most talented students was Ted Wong who would often challenge Lee in extremely competitive sparring sessions. The YouTube channel Beerdy: Bruce Lee Central was able to restore an old two-minute recording of Lee and Wong sparring. The talent of Lee is showcased throughout the video, his footwork is immaculate, his ability to read Wong and maintain the distance is simply incredible.  Also, around the 41-second mark, Lee has some beautiful moments, he lands a solid punch as Wong lunges in, then with Wong staggered, Lee trips his legs, and has top position.  Another talent that is displayed throughout the video is Lee’s ability to quickly react to a situation, for instance, at 1:11 of the video, Wong tries to get close, but Lee hits him with a fast punch/kick combination, which pushes Wong back. Now, some will notice that Lee and Wong are wearing protective headgear, the only reason for this protective measure is that the session took place in the state of California which required such gear. Therefore, during this limited sparring session, Lee showcases his ability to time the opponent, maintain distance, hit with power, react quickly, move his feet, and defend.  In conclusion, this video proves that Lee possesses the skills necessary to compete successfully in the UFC.

Opinions from notable individuals

Conor McGregor: UFC Fighter – Interview at UFC Fight Night 37 in 2014

  • “I have no doubt he would have been world champion in MMA, no doubt. He’s fluid, he’s loose, he’s fast. His movement is fluid, it’s efficient, it’s functional. So many guys are addicted to strength and conditioning, they just get bulked up and stiff and slow. Bruce was free, his body was nimble.”

Xu Xiaodong: Chinese MMA Fighter – 2019 Interview in a Chinese Article.

  • “It’s a performance, a demonstration, it doesn’t show any real combat abilities, everyone use your brain and think about it.”
  • “They weren’t hitting each other in the head, they were just sparring,”
  • “When you look at Bruce Lee sparring footage, look at who he’s fighting, what kind of qualification the person has, you have to understand that,”

Stephen Thompson: UFC Fighter – 2020 Interview in ESPN Article.

  • “I think if he [Lee] was in his prime today, he would be where Conor McGregor is now,” “He would be that guy.”

Mike Moh: Actor/Martial Artist – Played Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

  • “For me to be like, ‘Oh, I could take my fifth-degree black belt and beat somebody up,’ I think that’s absurd,”
  • “Obviously I spar and I train, but would I put myself in the Octagon? No, I would need years and years of specific training just to fight.”

Gene LeBell: Actor/Martial Artist – worked with Ronda Rousey and Chuck Norris.

  • “You can hit a punching bag all you want. Unless somebody is hitting back at you, you don’t become what I consider adequate,”
  • “Martial arts is a great exercise. It gives you ideas about what to do. But if you want to be a professional, you fight.”

Bruce Lee in MMA

Bruce Lee is one of the most talented, disciplined, and well-conditioned athletes in the history of the world. However, Lee’s training methods from the 60s and 70s have been vastly surpassed, especially as MMA has grown in popularity and notoriety around the world. Therefore, Lee would struggle immensely in the modern UFC if he attempted to use his antiquated methods/techniques, now that does not mean Lee is not talented, it simply refers to the era in which he lived. Now, if Lee had grown up in the modern era with the current training, techniques, and coaching related to MMA, he would be a major success in the UFC or any other MMA organization. In conclusion, just imagine, Bruce Lee with a mastery of the modern and more advanced techniques, combined with his amazing physical and psychological abilities, the man would undoubtedly defeat many of the top fighters at the 135 lb. division.

Featured image:
Embed from Getty Images

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