Stranger Than Fiction: The Forgotten History of Mixed Martial Arts

By Jave Harron

When the term 'Mixed Martial Arts' is mentioned, most people immediately think of the octagon arena and leagues like UFC and Pride. Fighters like Bas Rutten, Randy Couture, Gina Carano, and Chuck Liddell immediately come to mind. The sport of MMA came into popularity in the last few decades, but who would have thought the groundwork for the sport was over a century old?

Bruce Lee is widely considered to be the grandfather of MMA. Bruce Lee studied countless styles of martial arts, and took what he considered to be the best from all worlds. This approach lives on in his philosophy of Jeet Kune Do, which was incomplete when he met his untimely death. (As an aside, Jeet Kune Do is not so much a school of martial arts as a way to study them.)

But what we call mixed martial arts has been around for far longer. While many cultures in the ancient world undoubtedly compared and contrasted 'what worked' on the battlefield, the modern combination of international martial arts for sporting and self-defense is fairly recent. This philosophy goes to someone before Bruce Lee, an obscure British engineer you may have never even heard of.

His name was Edward William Barton-Wright. He was born in 1860, and was a British civil engineer. He did, however, work as a railway engineer in Japan in the 1890s. During this time, he studied jujitsu and judo. He would return to England, and would combine it with boxing, kickboxing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and stick fighting to create a new defensive style.

This defensive style was called 'Bartitsu' by its founder. He listed the principles as to take an opponent's balance, move fast before he can regain his balance, and immobilize his joints to prevent resistance. This philosophy was similar to that of the later art of aikido, but a few things made Barton's school noteworthy. He opened his training studio in 1900, in London's Soho district.

One was that it was one of the first martial arts schools (if not the first) to offer specialized women's self defense classes. Many of the earlier suffragettes took these classes, and the results spoke for themselves. A period political cartoon shows policemen flying through the air, and others backing up from a young woman in a judo stance. A caption at the bottom read, "The Suffragette Who Knew Jujutsu." The suffragettes would often use these classes to demonstrate their ability to defend themselves.

The school itself also offered physical therapy in experimental forms, such as heat, light, and radiation (which likely didn't turn out too well for some). Martial arts of several sorts were instructed there, and Barton encouraged patrons to cross-train to prepare for a variety of possible attacks. However, the fees for the school were expensive, and it soon folded, leaving Barton and his philosophy of self-defense into obscurity. (A few of his students, however, did later achieve fame for combat sports and self defense instruction.)

If not for one fact. The British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was influenced by Bartitsu, and made one of his characters a student of it. That character's name was Sherlock Holmes. As a student of a type of "Japanese wrestling" called "baritsu," the Great Detective could physically defend himself from stronger adversaries. By removing the 't' to make the name sound better, the connections between Bartitsu and 'baritsu' almost remained lost. While Barton would die in poverty in 1951, his legacy does live on. In 2002, the "Bartitsu Society" had a renewal of interest in this pioneer of mixed martial arts.

The next time you watch combatants step into the octagon, recall that MMA is a lot more than some violent sport. It helped empower women to gain the right to vote. It helped the fictional Great Detective defeat the bad guys physically. As a mixed martial artist myself, I look back with interest on Edward William Barton-Wright, the obscure engineer who came a century too early for the MMA craze.