Fight fans and fighters themselves have long pondered the question – would Bruce Lee have competed in mixed martial arts had the stars aligned? And how good would he have been?
The Hong Kong martial arts icon died, aged 32, from a brain oedema in his home city on July 20, 1973, at the height of his superstardom.
But his jeet kune do philosophy – which encouraged taking aspects of different fighting styles and moulding them into the unique blend that improved you as a martial artist and a person – is often credited as the beginnings of what would become the sport of MMA in November 1993 at UFC 1.
Sadly, supporters have had to make do with playing as Lee on video games like EA Sports’ latest offering, UFC 4, against modern day superstars like Conor McGregor and Jorge Masvidal.
The Enter the Dragon and Fist of Fury star would obviously have been too old to compete when MMA started taking off, but his daughter feels he would certainly be involved in some capacity were he alive today.
“He would absolutely love to watch it,” Shannon Lee told SCMP MMA ahead of the release of her new book, Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee, on Oct 6. “M y father was a fight fan. He would have loved it.
“Whether he would’ve competed, I don’t know because he didn’t compete in his life. He didn’t believe in martial arts for competition. He was more interested in martial arts for his own artistry and self expression.
“That said, I’m sure he would have loved to have trained with all these athletes, to have sparred with all these athletes, to have traded ideas with all these athletes, to have maybe even guided some of these athletes. I’m sure he would have loved it.”
The 51-year-old Lee has made it her mission to protect and preserve her father’s legacy through creative projects, including as executive-producer on Cinemax action-drama series Warrior.
The series is based on an original concept and treatment by Bruce Lee, with the second season premiering last week on US television, and both seasons coming to HBO Max streaming platform.
She is also the caretaker of Bruce Lee’s estate and charity foundation, a role which also includes licensing her father’s image rights for projects she feels help honour his legacy – such as the UFC 4 video game. It’s fitting, given UFC president Dana White has lauded Bruce Lee as the “grandfather of MMA” for his role in helping create it.
“It is a worthy association,” Lee said of White’s words. “I don’t think my father would’ve called what he did mixed martial arts, but I understand there is a lineage there. What my father was saying about martial arts is that if you want to be a fully expressive martial artist you have to be able to encounter any scenario, whether that’s on the ground, standing up … you have to really look inside yourself and say, ‘what is the most effective way of moving my arms and legs in combat?’
“That’s what he was getting at in his creation of jeet kune do. He looked at other arts, but he didn’t have a recipe like two cups boxing, one cup fencing, three cups taekwondo. It wasn’t like that.
“It was more, ‘Let’s look at all the different ways in which human beings have engaged in the combat arts and now let me put that into my body and figure out what works for me, and by the way let’s also look at things like Newton’s laws of motion, biomechanics and kinesiology, and things like that’.
“So he was experimenting and he was open-minded and he did adopt different thoughts and different ideas and put them into practise for him and created his own techniques. And at the end of the day whether we’re calling it MMA or jeet kune do or whatever, it’s all just in the words of the UFC – how can I be the ultimate fighter?
“It’s a little different because UFC is a sport so there are rules and guidelines that have to be followed which is also different from jeet kune do, which is not a sport.
“My father certainly wasn’t the only person to study more than one art, but he was definitely the first to speak about it so vocally and write about it and teach it, and put these thoughts out into the world in a really public way. Therefore, I think you can very legitimately draw a line from him to where we are now.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.