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Bruce Lee in MMA would be a star today, the same as yesterday

The modern incarnation of mixed martial arts is hardly as real as it actually gets, in an era where weight classes, rule books and promotionally created stars reign supreme; there was once a time where there were no rules, there were no weight classes and the only chance to buck the system was through purposefully crafted and manipulated matchups. And while some things will never change in combat sports, the engineering of perception versus reality remains a constant no matter how the variables change.

Could a prime Bruce Lee have beaten an MMA fighter?” asked ESPN MMA analyst Chael Sonnen in his March 24, 2020 YouTube video question of the day submitted by fans of the underground forum. Rephrasing the question, “So, who would be the best mixed martial arts fighter that Bruce Lee could then beat? Now, come on … none! Silly question,” argued Sonnen.

“Bruce Lee, whenever I speak about him, I come with a very negative tone that I don’t know is fair,” Sonnen reflected. “I was a Bruce Lee fan, I’m still a Bruce Lee fan. But I feel like that the integrity of the sport through what we are seeing now in the world of mixed martial arts, all the testing that went on, I mean this was tested from 1993. That was essentially the entire idea of mixing the different martial arts, was to test them and then come out the other end with an answer as to if I want to be great at unarmed combat, what specifically should I be working on?” explained Sonnen.

According to the official UFC website, the promotion “adopted the Unified Rules of MMA in November 2000,” which effectively eliminated the original idea and concept behind the sports No Holds Barred era founding and replaced it with the watered down, pseudo version of mixed martial arts that we know today.

While it may be hard for the sports newer fans to understand and empathize with, the fact remains that todays version of mixed martial arts operates under an entirely different paradigm of hand to hand combat than the sport was originally founded on. Today’s brand of violence is the PG-13 version of mixed martial arts and is therefore hardly as real as it actually gets.

Simply put, the original vision and quest for truth in No Holds Barred fighting that Sonnen referenced has been lost and abandoned, perhaps forever. Replaced by a modern, pseudo-representative that is quickly coming full circle back to its professional wrestling roots. Where actual No Holds Barred combat takes a backseat to interesting matchups and entertaining performances; promotionally made stars and under highly regulated conditions. The puppeteer’s interaction with the variables of the game absolutely dictating the public’s perception of reality.

As one of the sports original fans, who are as rare as hens teeth in this day and age, I can tell you that Sonnen’s reasoning for originally following the UFC during the No Holds Barred era of mixed martial arts rings true in my own quest for unarmed combat truth. And the original, early days of No Holds Barred fighting enabled fans across the globe to see diverse, martial arts-oriented hand to hand combat in perhaps the purest setting and form modern day combat sports fans will ever know in their lifetimes. It was a special time in mixed martial arts history and one worth remembering.

“But what Bruce Lee does get credit for, including from me, is philosophy,” noted Sonnen in giving credit where credit is due. “And his philosophy was nowhere near as sophisticated and intelligent as some of his pot smoking fans will lead you to believe or compared to what he thought it was," Sonnen noted in his opinion.

"But in fairness, it was forward thinking at that time. All Bruce’s philosophy was, is try a whole bunch of different fighting forms and steal anything that works from any of them,” explained the Bad Guy in rounding up a rudimentary, but familiar sounding explanation of the Bruce Lee system and philosophy of martial arts.

Which, no matter how you want to slice it, is still in the conceptualization ballpark of the modern incarnation of mixed martial arts. Though as Sonnen correctly notes, the Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do philosophy is a different, parallel world to modern day mixed martial arts where the concept and understanding between both philosophies share many similarities, however the foundations and ultimate implementations of the systems are vastly different.

There are martial arts schools across America attempting to sell themselves as a mixed martial art studio who teach a system of mixed martial arts much closer to the Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do philosophy than the actual mixed martial arts based systems we see in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, where many of these “MMA” schools are in fact teaching a mixture of traditional martial arts as opposed to the wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and kickboxing based mixed martial arts systems most MMA fans are accustomed to seeing in the professional mixed martial arts ranks.

Obviously, there are top notch professional mixed martial arts gyms who teach varying systems of mixed martial arts instruction where outliers exist in the form of a Lyoto Machida, Stephen Thompson etc. But to deny there is a difference between the purported “mixed martial arts” philosophies and systems is to deny reality itself.  One is essentially the modern incarnation and evolution of traditional, commercialized martial arts studios and the other is specifically designed for prize fighting competition. 

“Now, the other problem with Bruce Lee is he was anything but a fighter,” explained Sonnen in making a very important distinction between Hollywood, studio martial artists and professional combat sports athletes. “He never went out and fought anybody. Bruce Lee has the same thing in common with all the other fakes, whether the fake Steven Seagal, fake Jean-Claude Van Damme, you could go right through the list,” explained Sonnen.  

“All the phonies have one thing in common and that is a geographical location known as Los Angeles, California. If you could set up shop and tell a story to a bunch of jerks in your backyard or in your garage to some guys in California, over time you could make them some believers,” Sonnen explained in demystifying how some of Hollywood’s biggest stars in martial arts came to be who they are today.

In a world where perception can be reality, it helps to understand that there is a big difference between Hollywood choreographed, fake tough guys and those who train to be professional prize fighters against other non-compliant, trained killers. Sometimes the two realities can transcend one another, such as the case with UFC legend Randy Couture and women’s MMA pioneer Gina Carano, both of whom have went on to have successful careers on the big screen. But legends whose names were forged in fire should never be confused with Hollywood screen stars whose names were forged in the editing room.

But in the modern era of the combat sports entertainment industry where weight classes, rules and promotionally created stars reign supreme, one cannot help but think that a martial artist with Bruce Lee’s charisma, good looks and natural inclination towards film and screen would once again reign supreme in the modern era of the globally minded UFC promotion. With mixed martial arts increasingly coming full circle back to its professional wrestling roots, there may be hope yet for fake Hollywood tough guys in the modern incarnation of mixed martial arts that is hardly as real as it actually gets.