Bartitsu: The Original Mixed Martial Art

by Neal Litherland 3 months ago in fighting

An Old, But Far From Forgotten, Fighting Style

Bartitsu: The Original Mixed Martial Art

Who would win in a fight? It's a conversation we've all had at one point in time or another. A heavyweight boxer against a judo master? An Olympic wrestler versus a Brazilian Jujitsu fighter? Obama in a cage match with Mitt Romney? Batman versus Superman? We want the answers to these questions.

It's the pursuit of those answers that's led to the establishment of shows like Spike TV's Deadliest Warrior, as well as the continued popularity and success of mixed martial arts as the slightly safer descendant of Rome's gladiatorial days (except with less audience participation and fewer dog fights). What most people don't realize is that, as far as MMA goes, it's all old hat to the British, who invented mixed martial arts way back in the 1880s.

Yes, you read that correctly. England, the tea-sipping, monocle-wearing, fastidiously polite society America has been thumbing its nose at ever since we beat up their soldiers with the help of the Atlantic Ocean, invented mixed martial arts more than 120 years ago. The style was originally called Bartitsu, and it combined savate (French foot fighting), boxing, wrestling, jujitsu, as well as elements of saber fencing and Irish shillelagh fighting. The name came from the creator, a man named Edward William Barton-Wright, whose passion for combat sport was ahead of its time.

How He Did It

Edward Barton-Wright was an engineer by profession, and given that England was still working on that whole empire project, he got sent all over the world building railroads. When he wasn't tugging on his watch chain and laying iron rails with the aid of his excessively manly facial hair, Barton was what we would refer today as a martial arts enthusiast. He'd learned boxing and fencing in England, he'd picked up savate in France, and, when he finally made his way to Japan, he was instructed in jujitsu and judo at the school of Jigoro Kano, according to the Dictionary of Manliness.

Once he returned to England, Barton decided that he'd had enough of this silly engineering business. He decided to answer his true calling, and opened up his own martial arts school where he would teach his own style to those with the sand to step onto the mat.

In his experience, Barton had found that every fighting style had some inherent weakness of one form or another. However, none of them had the same weakness. So he took all the various pieces that he'd learned, and cobbled together an invincible martial art that he, in his infinite modesty, named Bartitsu. Barton even publicized his brutal brainchild through articles published in 1899, explaining to people just what his bizarre new creation was.

Under normal circumstances, this would be a mere historical footnote. However, England was gripped by a fitness craze at the time, and all of its citizens, both at-home and abroad, were looking for new activities to shape up with. They'd tried boxing, wrestling, sword fighting, swimming, rowing, and even running around and screaming while on fire (England has some very strange sports), and when Bartitsu caught on, it caught on big.

It also helped that England (ahead of the American curve once more) was afflicted by a quietly desperate fear of crime. It was a given at the time that just walking down the street was no longer a safe activity, and that hooligans would do unspeakable things to anyone with the temerity to have money in their pockets. Unless, that is, said person was a master of this latest self defense craze!

Unfortunately, the hay-day of the Gentlemanly Art (as Bartitsu came to be known) was short-lived. One day, the fighting style was so famous it was even practiced by Sherlock Holmes in The Mystery of the Empty House (where Conan Doyle changed the name to Baritsu, because he didn't want to fight Barton even metaphorically over copyright), and then almost overnight, Bartitsu slipped out of the public eye as if it had never been.

You know, as health crazes tend to do.

Of course, there were, and still are, die-hard fans of the art that run schools and hold lessons where they combine Barton's original recipe with new spices that have been discovered over the years. And now that America has once more caught up to the discoveries of England, our own mixed martial arts fad has led to the "re-discovery" of Bartitsu by the masses.

Would You Like To Know More?

For more unusual articles about combat martial arts and techniques, check out Glima: The Martial Art Invented By The Vikings as well as How To Knock Someone Out With One Punch. Both of those articles are hosted here on Unbalanced, and they're just a small part of my much larger Vocal archive!

Also, if you're into classic Victorian England with a twist, then you need to read New Avalon: Love and Loss in The City of Steam! This steampunk, short story collection takes you down the dark alleys and strange streets of the city in question, and gives you the two penny tour of its shadowy, secret heart. And if you click the preview, the first few stories are free to read!

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Neal Litherland

Neal Litherland is an author, freelance blogger, and RPG designer. A regular on the Chicago convention circuit, he works in a variety of genres.

See all posts by Neal Litherland