Bruce Lee statue in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, photo courtesy of Johnson Lau
Martial arts legend, international movie star, and pop icon Bruce Lee passed away 39 years ago this past week (on July 20, 1973). After his only son Brandon died during a movie shoot, people assumed that his lineage had ended.
They were wrong.
The Dragon’s sons can be seen all over TV and Pay-Per-View with the rising popularity of mixed martial arts and the billion-dollar growth of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which is rapidly eclipsing boxing as the world’s preferred combat sport.
K-PoP caught up with two professional fighters to discuss the “original mixed martial artist.” They were Vietnamese American Nam Phan, a UFC featherweight from Orange County, CA, and Hawaiian middleweight Kendall Grove, the season 3 winner of The Ultimate Fighter.
What was Bruce Lee’s influence on you growing up?
KG: As a kid, I always wanted to be him, to emulate him. After watching “Game of Death,” I even made makeshift nunchuks and ran around the house with them. I thought I was him! (Laughs) Later on, I really got into his philosophy on fighting, how adaptive it was. His art and style motivated me to fight smarter, too.
UFC featherweight Nam Phan, photo courtesy of UFC.com
NP: Of course I was a fan growing up. We used to do imitations and then practice his moves on each other and get in trouble. As an Asian American, he was the only role model we had. He inspired us and still does to this day, to be strong and not back down.
How did Bruce influence MMA?
NP: Are you kidding me? Bruce was the first mixed martial artist! He was more important to MMA than even Royce Gracie (a pioneering former champion who introduced ground fighting to the sport). Bruce was about using whatever works -- boxing, judo -- and trying to improve as a human being and fighter.
Hawaiian Middleweight Kendal Grove, photo courtesy of mixedmartialarts.com
KG: He was the pioneer. He didn’t believe his style was the best and wanted to mix styles to create a new, more effective style. But back then, that was seen as a big no-no, to cross train. But now MMA fighters use every martial art. Look at (champions) Anderson Silva, Jon Jones, and Junior Dos Santos. In fact, if you look at the gloves Bruce wore in his first fight in “Enter the Dragon” (an epic collision between Bruce and Sammo Hung) they are pretty much just like the gloves we use in the cage today and that movie is almost 40 years old.
If Bruce fought in the UFC as 135 lb. bantamweight, how would he do?
NP: With his mindset, he’d do well. He already has the mind of a mixed martial artist to go with a lot of talent and skill.
The UFC Octagon, photo courtesy Josh Hedges/ © Ultimate Fighting Championship
KG: He would have evolved because he was always learning. With his speed, power, and philosophy, I think he’d be dominant, a champion or contender for sure.
If you had to get into the Octagon with the master, what would happen?
KG: Because he’s so fast, I wouldn’t try and stand with him. I’d try to take him down and ground and pound him.
NP: Oh, that’s easy. He’d use his infamous one-inch punch and knock me to infinity, make my heart explode. I’m dead. The first fatality in the UFC! (Lots of laughs)
It’s good to see that kids still respect their elders nowadays.
Next up: Phan makes his national TV debut on August 4, fighting on UFC on FOX. Grove recently won a split decision in the ShoFight promotion and expects to fight again this coming September.
K-PoP is short for Ky-Phong on Pop Culture. Ky-Phong Tran is an award-winning writer and teacher based in southern California and he’ll be writing about music, art, literature, Los Angeles, fatherhood, and other musings.
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