Many people would agree that Bruce Lee, is one of the most influential martial artists in the world. He transformed traditional perceptions of kung fu and delivered it to the big screen in an exciting way. He challenged traditional martial arts and UFC President Dana White has referred to Lee as the father of mixed martial arts.
Before Bruce Lee, there were definitely mixed martial arts competitions in America. In fact, an individual who is often overlooked is the controversial and misunderstood John Keehan, aka Count Dante.
Mixed Martial Arts In America - Before Bruce Lee
Former President Teddy Roosevelt was actually one of America's most prominent mixed martial artists. While at Harvard, he competed in both boxing and wrestling matches. While serving a politician, he worked with a professional grappler several times a week. While President, he would often train and spar with boxers, wrestlers and study Judo. Truly embracing the concept of mixed martial arts. Roosevelt would also study Jujitsu and explain that the system should be studied by every American.
Chicago 1943: Judo Vs. Wrestling
One of the earliest recorded or covered mixed martial arts matches in the country took place in Chicago. The match featured wrestler Karl Pojello and judo master Masato Tamura. Although Pojello outweighed Tamura by 60 pounds, judo reigned supreme and the wrestler was beaten in 80s seconds.
John Keehan aka Count Dante
The self-proclaimed "Deadliest man alive" started his journey in mixed martial arts, by learning boxing. In the 60s he rose to fame under the guidance of legendary martial artist Robert Trias. After getting kicked out of the World Karata Association, he promoted his own tournaments. He was one of the first to promote full-contact karate and was ostracized by the martial arts community.
Keehan was also one of the first martial artists to publically challenge Bruce Lee's authenticity. He spoke to Black Belt magazine before his untimely demise, saying "I worked out with him… He was very good. He got a lot of reputation but for what? Did he ever win a championship? Did he ever challenge anybody?"
In Keehan's full contact tournaments, the contestants wore boxing gloves and groin protectors. Although Keehan became a pariah in the martial arts world, it is quite obvious, that as one of the first individuals to organize full-contact martial arts tournaments in the United States, he is a true mixed martial arts pioneer.
Bruce Lee must be recognized for being a great ambassador for all martial arts and bringing the concept of martial arts excellence to the world.