Bruce Lee's impact on mixed martial arts felt nearly 40 years after his death

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

More than a quarter century before the UFC, the late martial artist and film star Bruce Lee described in great detail what ultimately would become the sport of mixed martial arts.

The UFC was founded in 1993, partly in an effort to determine which fighting style is best. But as Lee had pointed out years before, it is a mixture of styles, not simply one, that is the most effective fighting form.

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The UFC is honoring Bruce Lee in its promotional poster for UFC on Fuel 6. (UFC)

"The best fighter is not a boxer, karate or judo man," Lee once said. "The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style. He kicks too good for a boxer, throws too good for a karate man, and punches too good for a judo man."

Nearly 40 years after his untimely death at 32 in 1973, Lee's fighting philosophies are on display in cages around the world. Fighters who were born many years after his death idolize him nonetheless and credit him with shaping them as athletes.

UFC president Dana White calls Lee the father of modern MMA. While there are others who deserve to be in that conversation, there is no question Lee's impact upon the sport is still being felt.

The UFC will host its first card on Chinese soil on Nov. 10 at UFC on Fuel 6 in Macao, a gaming mecca near Hong Kong where Lee grew up.

To honor Lee, White had an image of the martial arts icon included on the official promotional poster for the event.

"It's pretty amazing when you look back at 'Enter the Dragon,' " said Lee's daughter, Shannon. "There he is in the opening sequence in the shorts and the fingerless gloves, ending it in an arm bar. It's almost as if he knew what was coming. But that all sprung from his belief about what it meant to be a complete fighter. He really believed fully that in order to be a complete fighter, you had to have many different things in your arsenal and be able to defend against and attack in whatever situation may present itself."

[Related: MMA has plenty of room for growth in China]

White said that though racism toward Chinese people was rampant in the U.S. during Lee's lifetime, Lee was such a special athlete that people of disparate cultures came to idolize him regardless.

"If you weren't white, there was some serious racism in this country [during Lee’s lifetime],” White said. “It was happening in Hollywood, too. It was hard to get parts. But not only did he break through and bring martial arts to another level on a worldwide basis, he made it the thing to do. Everybody wanted to do it, all races. It broke through because of what he was doing. Look at the way Asians were portrayed back then. They were portrayed as kind of goofy, and weak.

"And then here comes this Asian guy that every person of every color in every country around the world worshipped as the baddest dude in the world. He changed people's way of thinking about Chinese people. Do you know how powerful that is? At a time of serious racism and the way Chinese people were looked at, he became a worldwide hero. And it wasn't just to white kids in suburbia. White kids in the south were hanging pictures of this Chinese guy on the walls in their bedrooms. That is amazing."

Lee became a hero to White and to generations of fighters who followed him. Fighters routinely quote him and one, Alex Caceres, adopted the nickname of "Bruce Leeroy" in homage to his idol. White first dubbed Caceres "Bruce Leeroy" during the filming of the reality series, "The Ultimate Fighter," and Caceres quickly took it as his own.

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Bruce Lee battles with Chuck Norris on the set of 'The Way of the Dragon'. (AlloCiné)

Caceres is 24 and was born in 1988, almost 15 years after Lee died. He was bullied when he was six years old and his father showed him the Lee film, "The Chinese Connection," as part of a way to teach him how to defend himself.

Caceres became one of those who idolized Lee, to the point he even wears the style of clothes that Lee wore.

Many believe Caceres did it as a gimmick to capture attention while on "The Ultimate Fighter," but he said he was doing that long before.

"I believe fully, totally, in a lot of his philosophies of being creative while adding yourself to everything and adding everything to yourself, being that interchangeable," Caceres said. "… At the age of 14, I was walking around at school, outside at the malls, I always had the Bruce Lee gi on. I never had an eye toward designer fashion. He had a very humble persona about himself and that's what I've been trying to get to."

[Also from Kevin Iole: UFC hurting itself by tolerating cheaters like Stephan Bonnar]

The UFC’s biggest stars have raved about Lee and his impact. UFC champions Jon Jones and Georges St-Pierre regularly quote Lee.

On his Twitter feed, St-Pierre posted one of Lee's most famous quotes: "I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times."

Even boxer Manny Pacquiao grew up idolizing Lee. Pacquiao said he's tried to adapt his fighting style to Lee's philosophies.

"Bruce Lee was a big influence on me," Pacquiao said. "The first movie I saw was 'Enter the Dragon,' when I was 8. Every time we'd leave the movie theater after one of his movies, we'd all jump around and kick. In my early years [as a fighter], I tried to emulate his style in terms of speed and quickness. And I still do a little now."

Shannon Lee was four years old when her father died. Now, she runs the Bruce Lee Foundation and handles his licensing deals. She constantly talks about him and knows his history intimately, but her personal memories of her father only come in what she describes as "brief glimpses."

"He was very playful and energetic," she said. "He had a camera and he was always filming my brother [Brandon] and I. Of course, he was always teaching martial arts and there was a lot of punching and kicking going on."

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A bronze statue of Bruce Lee sits at the Avenue of Stars in Hong Kong. (Getty)

White worshipped her father, but she said she believes her father would hold White in high regard as well.

She has gotten to be friends with White in recent years and said her father admired many of the traits she sees in White. 

"My dad would have liked Dana a lot, I really think so," she said. "With Dana, what you see is what you get. Dana's a funny guy and a personable guy, but he's also a tough guy and a very opinionated, forthright guy. My father admired people who were honest and who portrayed themselves as they were.

"My father was a huge boxing fan and Dana has roots back to boxing… One of the other reasons I think my father would have liked Dana is that Dana is really, really smart and my father would have appreciated that. I'm amazed when I'm around Dana and see how his brain works and how smart he is. His powers of perception are spot on and I think my father would have greatly respected him in that regard."

[Also: Mark Hominick doesn't sound desperate entering UFC 154 on a losing skid]

White said he doesn't know anyone in the UFC who doesn't hold Lee in high regard. He said that will be proven next month, when UFC on Fox 5 is held in Seattle, where Lee is buried.

"I guarantee you, every one of the guys on that card are going to go visit his grave that week," White said. "You watch, you'll see on their Twitter, they'll be Tweeting pictures from Bruce's gravesite. You want to talk about impact? The greatest fighters in the world adore this guy. He inspired generations of people, and not just fighters."

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