Though current bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw will not be a playable character in EA Sports UFC when it hits the shelves two weeks from now, Bruce Lee will be. Perhaps equally ridiculous is that Bruce Lee isn’t being treated as a novelty addition to the roster, but rather as “the father of Mixed Martial Arts,” something Dana White has also called him. Giving credit to only one person for the creation of MMA is absurd enough, but painting Bruce Lee as that person is just preposterous.
Then again, it really isn’t hard to understand why Zuffa would want to make someone like Bruce Lee an ambassador for our sport. Lee was — and still is — an instantly recognizable celebrity. His body was ripped and athletic. He knew how to wrestle, sure, but also understood that most people would rather watch him throw flashy kicks. His affirmations were deep enough to look good on playing cards and posters, but not too profound for the bros curling in the squat rack to comprehend. In other words, he appeals to a much larger audience than Edward William Barton-Wright and Tommy Tanaka do.
Even with all that in mind, there are figures in combat sports history who not only did more to mold modern MMA than Bruce Lee, but can also be worked into the charmingly revisionist Zuffa account of history just as well. The following list will focus on the accomplishments of these individuals, as well as the arguments for why they should be repackaged as the fathers of MMA. Let’s start with the oldest candidate, and work our way towards the modern era…
(Not Dioxippus, but I know how much you all love this thing…)
Martial Art: Pankration, an Ancient Greek combat sport that allowed punches, kicks, takedowns, joint locks and chokeholds (sound familiar?).
Notable Achievements: Dioxippus of Athens was not only the toughest fighter in Ancient Greece, but arguably the toughest fighter to ever live. In his prime, he was so famous for taking out all challengers that he won an Olympic championship by default (akoniti) because nobody was willing to fight him; he’s the only person to ever win an Olympic wreath in pankration this way. He famously defeated one of Alexander the Great’s best soldiers, Coragus, despite the fact that Coragus wore full armor and had several weapons to use against the naked Dioxippus; you read that correctly, he showed up naked to a fight against a guy in full body armor and won. After the bout, Dioxippus was framed for theft, and chose to take his own life rather than be punished for a crime he did not commit.
Why It Makes Sense: Dana White and Joe Rogan like to remind us that “fighting is in our DNA.” Dioxippus is proof of this.
Bill “The Butcher” Poole
(Again, not Bill “The Butcher” Poole, but rather a character he inspired: Bill “The Butcher” Cutting from Gangs of New York.)
Martial Arts: Bare-knuckle Boxing, Rough & Tumble (aka “Gouging”)
Notable Achievements: Let’s be perfectly clear: Bill “The Butcher” Poole was not an honorable man. The leader of both The Bowery Boys and the Know Nothing political movement, Poole terrorized the streets of New York City while spreading anti-Irish, anti-Catholic hate-speech throughout the mid-nineteenth century. He took part in Rough & Tumble — more accurately called “gouging” due to the fact that eye-gouging was not only allowed, but encouraged — contests as well as bare-knuckle boxing matches. Poole beat up heavyweight boxing champion John Morrissey so badly that The New York Daily Times wrote “[Morrissey] presented a shocking spectacle, and scarcely could any of his friends recognize him.” Though Morrissey’s men would shoot Poole in the chest over the incident, “The Butcher” lived for fourteen days with a bullet lodged in his heart. According to legend, his final words were “Good-bye, boys, I die a true American.”
Why It Makes Sense: Was Bill “The Butcher” Poole a total scumbag? Yes — and that’s the entire point. Since Zuffa history depicts MMA as something that only the most vile, deplorable people took part in until Dana White invented rules (obviously not true, but history is written by the winners), painting Poole as the original MMA fighter actually makes sense.
Evan “Strangler” Lewis
Martial Art: Catch Wrestling
Notable Achievements: Back when professional wrestling was actually a legitimate competition, Evan “Strangler” Lewis was one of the most feared men to lace up the boots. “Strangler” ran through his competition with frightening ease, masterfully utilizing the stranglehold — a technique you more than likely recognize as the rear-naked choke — to secure victory. His win over Ernest Roeber in a best-of-five match on March 2, 1893 made him the first American to become a world champion wrestler. Lewis would defend the title for two years before losing it to Martin “Farmer” Burns, and was inducted into The Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame in 2009. That he wasn’t exactly known for his sportsmanship is another story for another time, as is the way that many wrestling fans confuse him with Ed “Strangler” Lewis.
Why It Makes Sense: He was the blueprint for every freakishly athletic wrestler to ever fight inside the Octagon, from Ken Shamrock to Cain Velasquez and all points in between.
Hit that “Next Page” button for a trio of fighters whose battles against each other made them all legends of the pre-Zuffa era.