Even though I've been writing about mixed martial arts since 2005 and been training in several disciplines for over a year, I never took a hardcore interest in Bruce Lee, the cultural phenomenon who made a huge impact on pop culture during a life that ended way too soon.
That interest changed this past week after seeing "I Am Bruce Lee," the Spike TV retrospective that spanned Lee's entire life with tons of clips and interviews with his family, friends and a legion of celebrity admirers that were more than happy to talk about what he meant to them.
There was an interesting section around the middle of the two-hour show that focused on him being referred to as the father of mixed martial arts, something UFC president Dana White has touted for years. His widow and daughter seemed hesitant to associate him with the UFC, while friends and biographers acknowledged that Lee would probably like the concept of MMA and could be considered a pioneer of the sport but not "the father".
Then, there was Gene LeBell, the judo master and part of Ronda Rousey's team. LeBell knows how to cut promos and he is also acknowledged as being an early adopter of MMA. In 1963, he battled boxer Milo Otis in a boxing vs. judo challenge, choking him out in the fourth round of a five round fight.
LeBell cut a promo on Lee (someone he worked with during his stuntman years and was a friend), growling that "If Bruce Lee is the father of mixed martial arts, than I am its grandfather." But Lee is one of White's childhood heroes and it's a hell of a lot cooler to associate a pop culture icon with your sport than a 79-year-old man.
Along with White, fighters Jon Jones, Stephan Bonnar, Cung Le and Gina Carano gave their thoughts on Lee, highlighted by an odd bit of dialogue by Jones explaining how by beating opponents, he's doing them a favor by beating fear and weakness out of them. Despite their conflicts with the UFC, Spike didn't try to bury the promotion or awkwardly force in Bellator talent that no one would know.
However, there was one bit that felt like a dig on White. Near the show's close, Lee's death is discussed with his wife saying it was caused by a bad reaction to headache medication. His daughter Shannon says that there's plenty of ridiculous theories about what happened and mentioned conspiracies. We then immediately cut to White saying that the circumstances around Lee's death are shady. The way it was constructed made White look a bit buffoonish, but overall, he came across fine.
According to the numbers, I wasn't alone in watching "I Am Bruce Lee" as last week's debut did the best ratings of any documentary in Spike's history with a 1.0 rating / 1.4 million viewers. That viewership nearly doubled a 2009 documentary on Muhammad Ali.
Fans of MMA, martial arts or biographies in general will love this documentary and I highly recommend searching your cable listings for re-air times. It was fast paced, fun, interesting, insightful and touching with plenty of food for thought. Was Lee the true father of MMA or is this more of a culture play given the alternatives?