Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee death, 45 years on: One Championship stars pay tribute to ‘father of MMA’ and kung fu icon

Fighters from Asian mixed martial arts organisation say Hong Kong icon laid a foundation for the sport, as world marks 45th anniversary of his passing

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 2:59pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 July, 2018, 10:12pm

Asia’s top mixed martial arts stars have joined the outpouring of emotional tributes to Bruce Lee as the world continues to mark the 45th anniversary of the Hong Kong superstar’s death.

“The guy had it all – and seeing him in MMA gloves just once inspired me,” said Vietnamese-Australian Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen, holder of the One Championship world featherweight and lightweight titles.

The region’s leading fighters have gathered in Manila this week for the One Championship’s Reign of Kings card where Nguyen (11-2) will face Kevin “The Silencer” Belington (18-5) for the interim world bantamweight title.

Speaking on the sidelines of the event, Nguyen said Lee had laid down a template for how martial artists should train and live.

“What you saw him do and heard him say had just rubbed off on generations since,” said Nguyen. “From fighting Chuck Norris one moment to Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] the next really does show that with martial arts anything is possible. His legacy is absolutely astonishing.”

One’s reigning world heavyweight champion Brandon “The Truth” Vera said Lee gave Asian kids a hero when they had few.

“As an Asian kid, that guy influenced more people than Elvis on this side of the world,” said the Filipino-American. “We watched him, we wanted to be like him and we wanted to understand his message. If he had stayed alive I think MMA would have been even bigger than it is today, and earlier too.

“I even loved that he was an asshole sometimes because that’s the discipline part of things. Not everyone is going to understand you and the sacrifices you have to make for martial arts. But you have to stay on that path if you want to succeed and be the best person you can be.”

Lee – who fell victim to a cerebral edema on July 20, 1973 aged just 32 – is widely acknowledged as the “Father of MMA” due to the fact that he encouraged students to cross combat sport disciplines while popularising martial arts globally through films such as Game of Death (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973).

Vera has followed in the master’s footsteps, turning a career that saw him fight in the Las Vegas-based Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) into a world title with One and now into a budding career as an action star.

“He was doing action in his films that nobody back then even knew existed. Now it’s in every film,” said Vera’s whose latest actioner Buy Bust premiered to critical acclaim at the New York Asian Film Festival earlier this month.

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The One organisation has taken a leaf from the Bruce Lee playbook and in recent times expanded its own promotions from MMA into stand-up martial arts such a Muay Thai and even boxing. Its founder and CEO Chatri Sityodtong pointed to the influence Lee’s work had away from the physical aspects of martial arts training.

“He’s a legend not because of his martial arts skills but because of the impact he has had on the world,” said Sityodtong. “He was a philosopher, he was a humanitarian. He changed so much about how martial artists think about life.”

Some 45 years after his passing, Lee remains an idol for fighters of all shapes and sizes from across Asia.

One-time One lightweight champion Eduard “Landslide” Folayang (19-6) of the Philippines is also in action on the Reign of Kings card on Friday and revealed that he had turned to Lee for inspiration during his struggles as a child.

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Born into poverty, Folayang’s family lost five of nine children while he was growing up.

“When I was a kid, Bruce Lee put me on the path I am on today,” Folayang said. “To be a martial artist you have to face adversity and you have to learn from it. That was one of his messages for life as well.”

Rising Filipino strawweight Joshua “The Passion” Pacio (11-2) is a fighter who many believe is on course for a world title shot of his own. His next step towards that end takes place Friday against another emerging force in Thailand’s Pongsiri “The Smiling Assassin” Mitsatit (9-0).

“Of course when I was little I watched all his movies and I imitated his style – kicking and punching. These days I watch tapes of him before every fight,” said Pacio.

“I watch tapes of him training and I listen to the words he spoke to motivate me.”

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And while Pacio said Lee’s philosophy had made a huge impact on his own life, the 22-year old revealed there was one move made famous by Lee he had – like so many aspiring fighters across the globe – as yet been unable to master. Lee’s famous one-inch punch.

“I can’t do that yet. I am not sure anyone can,” said Pacio. “But maybe one day with more training I will. Bruce Lee always said, never give up.”