Bartitsu & The History Of Unarmed British Combat
By James Lee
As unequivocally dubbed a fighting nation, the history of British combat will perpetually be imbued into the global spectrum of memorable conflict. From the heroics of Lord Raglan in the Crimea to Field Marshal Haig’s dubious tactics on the trenches, it cannot be disputed, rightly or wrongly, that the impact of the British forces changed the combative landscape for centuries.
Remarkably, as most detail Pankration and Vale Tudo as solely vital to the development of modern mixed martial arts, it can be said that a comparable form of combat was frequent over a hundred years ago in London and that the UK similarly played a part in the structure of modern combat, being licensed fighting.
In reality, the roots of mixed martial arts in the United Kingdom detail back to the late 1800s, when engineer Edward William Barton-Wright invented self-defence martial art Bartitsu. He intended to pit Asian and European fighting styles against one another, and the inclusion of the Asian fighting styles made him one of the first to do so. Much like modern mixed martial arts, Bartitsu combined: boxing, savate (kicking), judo/jiu-jitsu and stick fighting.
It was primarily drawn from Shinden Fudo Ryo jiu-jitsu of Terajima Kuniichiro and Kodokan Judo. After he travelled across Asia for work, Barton-Wright discovered the various disciplines in Japan and eagerly combined those disciplines under the banner of Bartitsu when he returned to England.
Barton-Wright described the three core aims of the sport as:
To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant.
To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength.
If necessary to subject the joints of any parts of his body, whether neck, shoulder, elbow, wrist, back, knee, ankle, etc. to strains that they are anatomically and mechanically unable to resist.
Similarly, he noted the various intricacies of the sport that compare to modern MMA today, from boxing being regarded as the main hitting movement, whilst needing the use of the feet in both an offensive and defence sense to understand how to effectively and safely attack in close quarters. The observations he outlined to the Japanese Society of London in 1900 still hold prevalence to competition at the highest level, with those who excel the most being able to control range most carefully.
Fortunately, Bartitsu will forever have a place in British fictional culture through its use in the Sherlock Holmes novels. Crucially though, the most significant aspect is that his teachers challenged representatives of other disciplines in what could be called the first MMA fights in the UK around 1900 that inspired generations to develop his ideas.
It took a century before a similar form of combat competition took place in the UK. UFC 38: Brawl at the Hall on July 13, 2002, was the inaugural Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) event in the UK. Other smaller promotions had held events in Britain before then, but the UFC is recognised as the leading promotion globally.
Ultimately, as British fighters today like Darren Till and Leon Edwards continue to fly the Red, White and Blue of the Union Jack, it must be said that the contemporary unarmed combat era ventured to these shores over a hundred years ago.
So as the sport has never been more influential in this region, a special kind of pioneering regard should be afforded to Edward William Barton-Wright as he brought the asset of fighting skill and expertise to the original fighting nation. Although imperfect in essence, it inspired several self-defence specialists who went to evolve the craft to the level it is today, and critically, it fought towards tackling Britain’s growing unarmed society.