How Bruce Lee and street fighting in Hong Kong helped create MMA

Updated on November 18, 2022

Illustration by Adolfo Arranz

Most people credit the US with inventing mixed martial arts (MMA) but combat sports have long been an intrinsic part of Hong Kong’s culture. As a teenager, Bruce Lee was one of the first to combine different martial arts disciplines in the city’s street fights, decades before the formation of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in America

A growing group of enthusiasts are staking out the city’s claim that the true creator of MMA is Bruce Lee. In the opening frames of 1973’s Enter the Dragon, Lee and Sammo Hung Kam-bo slug it out in an organised contest at Hong Kong's Ching Chun Koon Temple. Somehow looking the personification of “cool” despite being decked out in his curious kempo gloves and era-defining shorts, Lee wins the fight with his unique version of an “armbar”.

The “armbar” was a fighting technique restricted to jiu-jitsu and judo but by introducing inter-disciplinary moves, Hong Kong’s “Little Dragon” brings the world its first taste of MMA in this famous fight scene.

Dana White, the UFC president, refers to Lee as the “grandfather of MMA” for breaking the barriers between fighting styles.

Tragically, Lee died at the age of 32 from cerebral oedema on July 20, 1973. Following his untimely death, combat sports leagues begin to spring up all over the world. People continued to experiment with various martial arts styles and new rules began to evolve.

Kung fu movies emerge out of Hong Kong in the mid-1960s and when Lee’s Enter the Dragon is released posthumously in 1973, the box office hit lifts the genre out of cult status. It is the first martial arts film co-produced by a Hollywood studio and grosses over US$90m on a budget of US$850,000

Top 10 Hong Kong action films among IMDb’s greatest martial arts films of all-time

In the early 20th century, large numbers of immigrants from mainland China came to Hong Kong seeking refuge. Some are prominent martial artists and many people turned to them to learn self-defence techniques in response to Hong Kong’s high crime rates and limited police manpower. As a result, over 400 martial arts schools were established in the 1960s and 1970s heyday.

Police reports from 1953-1967 reflect a significant increase in violent crimes “against the person”. A total of 4,417 violent crimes reported between 1953 and 1960, compared to 7,512 between 1961 and 1967.

Rooftop fights

Hong Kong's street fighting culture comes from kung fu schools developing their own distinctive styles. Practitioners challenge each other to regular bare-knuckle matches in the streets. The police take a dim view of the street fighters, labelling them members of deviant gangs. Teenage fighters take the contests to the rooftops where they can conduct their bouts away from the watchful eyes of the colonial authorities.

As a teenager, Bruce Lee regularly watches and takes part in street fights. He begins to cherry-pick techniques from different schools and combines them into his own style

Ip Man, the legendary wing chun master — whose most famous student is Bruce Lee — encourages his students to look beyond the classroom to hone their skills

Wing Chun is a traditional southern Chinese kung fu style. It is a form of self-defence specialising in close range combat and uses striking and grappling

Fighters frequently suffer sprains and fractures while practising and during combat. Many martial arts masters learn ancient Chinese bone-setting skills (osteopathy) and establish clinics to treat injuries

Hung kuen is a well-known and popular fighting style in Hong Kong associated with the Cantonese folk hero, Wong Fei-hung

A long-forgotten series of fights that captured the city’s imagination


This fight brought the entire city to a standstill. There were reports that millions of dollars changed hands in bets. The fight was officially under Muay Thai rules but – in accordance with the groundbreaking Full Contact Boxing Association (see below) – rules were mixed to allow a fair fight. “It is known as the fight of the century,” says Kong, now 62 years old.


Held as part of an annual inter-school boxing tournament, this fight pitted a certain St Francis Xavier's College student, Bruce Lee, against Gary Elms, an expat boy from King George V School. Mixing kung fu with boxing, Lee floored Elms several times to win comfortably on points. Lee vowed to explore all combat sports to expand his repertoire.


Billed in the papers at the time as a “death duel”, the fight switched from Hong Kong to Macau to avoid the British colony’s ban on martial arts fights. Many now consider it to be the world’s first MMA fight. It was promoted as raising funds for the Shek Kip Mei Christmas fire of 1953 which left tens of thousands homeless.

In the early 1980s, Hong Kong had its own unique fight club. The brains behind Hong Kong’s Full Contact Boxing Association were influential local sports administrator Wai Kee-shun, policeman James Elms and fighter Kong Fu-tak. Their promotions packed out the QEII and Southorn stadiums with fight cards staged up to three times a month that make heroes of a procession of local fighters.

The cards were unique for the time because they were regulated under the guidelines of the Full Contact Boxing Referees Association, which combined rules from kung fu, karate, kick-boxing and Muay Thai.

By the mid-1980s, safety issues and illegal side-betting conspired against the Full Contact Boxing Association and the organisation gradually faded away. Many fighters turned their attention full-time to Muay Thai and run gyms teaching a mix of martial arts.

Bruce Lee,
the grandfather of MMA

Today, MMA fighters do not worry about whether a specific move corresponds to classical disciplines or styles. They use any method they want to express themselves and which they hope will bring them success in the cage. This is also the philosophy behind the martial arts form Jeet kune do, founded by Bruce Lee almost a quarter of a century before the first UFC contest in 1993.

Bruce Lee's emphasis on using techniques that are advantageous in a real-life brawl overlaps with the training methods of current MMA combatants. Lee has long been referred to as “the grandfather of MMA” by UFC president Dana White.

The martial arts master’s connections stretch far and wide, including to the establishment of Hong Kong's Full Contact Boxing Association

Lee Elms Tak Hung Wai Chow Elms Elms Wai Tak Chow Hung Elms Lee Lee’s first and only officially recognised fight is a Western-style boxing bout in 1958 when he is a high school student at St Francis Xavier’s College. He faces, and beats, a King George V School student named Gary Elms. Lee continues to explore combat sports as he becomes a film star. In the opening scene of his most famous kung fu film, Enter the Dragon, Lee fights a character played by Sammo Hung Kam-bo. Hung soon goes from being a stuntman to a major star in his own right. In a series of hits in the 1980s, he introduces audiences to a young kickboxer-turned-actor, Billy Chow who proves a dab hand playing dastardly thugs. Between acting and professional fighting, Chow wins a welterweight world kickboxing championship. His most famous fight is when he faces Hong Kong warrior Kong Fu-tak in 1983. It is a bout that brings Hong Kong to a standstill. Full Contact Boxing is the brainchild of Kong, famed Hong Kong sports administrator Wai Kee-shun and local policeman James Elms, cousin of the man who helped ignite Lee’s mission to blend all martial art forms … a certain Gary Elms.

In his early training programmes Bruce Lee focuses on bodybuilding but soon realises the bigger muscles and extra bulk are compromising his speed. Lee also looks for ways to introduce unpredictability into his training sessions so he can develop new fighting moves. His willingness to experiment with training methods and flexibility in applying different fighting techniques and disciplines leads Lee to develop his own distinctive style.

During the mid-1960s, Lee adds 13kg to his 1.7m frame using his personalised bodybuilding workout. When he finds his bulky mass too cumbersome for his quick strike techniques, he devises a new workout plan based on strength over size. Lee becomes increasingly lean by 1970 after he combines his diet with a new cardio fitness routine to create a compound muscle power workout. The leaner Lee makes his best movies in this era.

Jeet kune do

Jeet kune do founded by Bruce Lee in 1967 and translates as “the way of the intercepting fist”. It is a hybrid of martial arts systems and life philosophy. “Jeet kune do is just a name”, says Lee, and cannot be compared to any other style because it is not a collection of techniques or movements. The overriding principle of Jeet kune do is to eliminate what does not work and to use anything that does.

Characteristics of Jeet kune do
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Here are some examples of the principles of jeet kune do in action during typical MMA fighting

Jeet kune do encourages fighters to move between different techniques during a bout

Modern MMA

Over the last decade mixed martial arts has grown significantly and is now one of the most popular sports in the world. The UFC is the largest MMA promotion company in the world, while promotions such as the Singapore-based One Championship are growing in strength each year. There have been almost 7,000 UFC fights since 1993

Submission is one of a number of ways to win MMA matches. These fighting techniques come from a variety of different martial arts styles such as boxing, jiu-jitsu, judo, Thai boxing and karate as well as others.

Bruce Lee didn’t believe in just one style. He mastered many different fighting styles and incorporated them into his own while creating Jeet kune do. He continues to be an influence on today’s MMA athletes. His philosophy threw out the old rigid models, limitations and restrictions and invited the world to come and play.

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