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History of MMA & The Gentlemens Art of Bartitsu

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E.W Barton-Write, does that name ring any bells? How about the art of Bartitsu? If you have ever read the Sherlock Holmes Stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle you have indeed heard of the Gentlemen’s Art of Bartitsu. In The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explained his victory over Professor Moriarty in their struggle at Reichenbach Falls by the use of

“baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me”.

Sherlock

The founder of this art for Bartitsu was E.W Barton Write in 1899. E.W Barton-Write was arguably on of the most progressive thinkers of his time in regards to combat sports. He was an entrepreneur specializing in both self-defense training and physical therapy. He was one of the first Europeans to learn and teach Japanese martial arts . He combined several techniques which could be viewed today as the first combination of Mixed Martial Arts in History.
EWBW
Barton-Wright was completely fascinated with the art of Jujitsu and studied three years in Japan under an unnamed teacher where he reportedly learned many art forms. When he returned to England and set up a martial arts school, he wrote to contacts in Japan asking for Japanese experts to be sent to England. Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi were sent, and became the two pioneers of jujutsu and judo in England.

He was an accomplished author and practitioner, writing many articles on the subject as well as teaching his techniques to any one that would listen to him. His passion for the sport and ability to use techniques was unheard of during this time period.

At the time his passion an ability did not go unnoticed. He was featured in several articles including one done by Journalist Mary Nugent in 1901, for an article she was to write for Health and Strength magazine (Nugent, 1901: 337). She was fascinated by the art and you could tell in her article. She stated that upon in entering the club for an interview it was

“a huge subterranean hall, all glittering, white-tiled walls, and electric light, with ‘champions’ prowling around it like tigers.”

In Nugents interviewed with Barton-Wright you can tell she was quite intrigued by his gruffness and technique. He would have been 40 or 41 at the time, a man of the world. She described him as “electric” and was responsive to his ability to speak on the subject with such passion and quickness.

E.W. Barton-Wright is also remembered as pioneering the promotion of mixed martial arts. He held contests, in which experts in different fighting styles compete under common rules. Barton-Wright’s champions, including Yukio Tani, Sadakazu Uyenishi and Swiss schwingen wrestler Armand Cherpillod enjoyed considerable success in these contests. Again way ahead of his times since it would be nearly 100 years later when these competitions would rise in popularity again.

So what is Bartitsu? Clearly a combination of the founders name and Jujitsu. It also combined other forms of combat fighting such as boxing, savate and canne de combat (French stick fighting). It was the first martial art known to have combined Asian and European fighting styles.

In 1899, Barton wrote an article in the London-based publication, Pearson’s Magazine, entitled “A New Art of Self Defense.” In this article he explains his gentlemen art.

The boxing implemented by Barton was the style used by Golden Age fisticuffs of the time. Unlike the modern style, boxers during the 19th and early 20th century maintained a stiff and upright stance. Usually the lead hand was extended, with the rear forearm “barring the mark” or covering their chest area.

Jujitsu was of course a component. During the late 19th century, jujitsu had become a popular sport among Westerners. In fact, President Teddy Roosevelt was a practitioner of the martial art. Barton brought in famous Japanese jujitsu instructors or jujtsukas K. Tani, S. Yamamonto, and Yukio Tani. In an March 1899 issue of Pearson’s Magazine, Barton summarized jujitsu in three principles:

1. To disturb the equilibrium of your assailant.
2. To surprise him before he has time to regain his balance and use his strength.
3. 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.

La savateis a French kickboxing system developed from street fighting sailors in the port of Marseilles during the 19th century. Sailors in Marseilles had to develop a way to fight that didn’t involve closed fists because they were considered deadly weapons and carried legal penalties if used. Thus, savate consisted of different kicks, open-handed slaps, and grappling.

Stick fighting was another French martial art. Barton brought in Pierre Vigny, a Swiss master-at-arms, to teach stick fighting. Because many upper class Englishman carried canes and umbrellas, Vigny modified the traditional form of stick fighting to better implement these instruments. His system was simple and efficient, and it lent itself to defending oneself in an altercation in the streets. Strikes to the face, head, neck, wrists, knees, and shins were used to eliminate the threat of an attacker.

So for those of you that think MMA is a new practice make sure you read up on Barton Write and his contributions to the sport. He may not be a name often used or even remembered but his contributions to the technique and promotion of the sport should not be forgotten and will forever be immortalized in story books as the Gentlemen’s art.

Here is a full list of Barton-Write’s articles for further reading:

Barton-Wright, E.W. (1899, January). “How to pose as a strong man.” Pearson’s Magazine, 7, 59-66.
Barton-Wright, E.W. (1899, March). “The new art of self-defence: How a man may defend himself against every form of attack.” Pearson’s Magazine, 7, 268-275.
Barton-Wright, E.W. (1899, April). “The new art of self-defence.” Pearson’s Magazine, 7, 402-410.
Barton-Wright, E.W. (1901, January). “Self-defence with a walking stick.” Pearson’s Magazine, 11, 11-20.
Barton-Wright, E.W. (1901, February). “Self-defence with a walking stick.” Pearson’s Magazine, 11, 130-139. Barton-Wright, E.W. (1902). “Ju-jitsu and judo.” Transactions of the Japan Society, 5, 261-264.

This article was written in the memory of Edward William Barton-Wright (1860–1951) a progressive thinker and true practitioner passionate of the sport we now call MMA.

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Autumn Ziemba
Autumn’s interest in Martial Arts began in her early teens through her father and brother. They trained together for several years. During those years she was also active in Sports. Autumn took a break from Martial Arts and athletics to pursue her education. She completed her Undergraduate Degree at Oneonta State College in Sociology with a concentration in Pre-professional Human Services. She then studied Social Sciences at Binghamton University receiving her Masters in Social Science in 2009. Her passion lies in Gender equality for sports and facets of Mixed Martial Arts. She currently works as a Criminal Justice Professional. Writing is a passion of hers and she enjoys engaging with people of various backgrounds to gain an understanding of different perspectives in the world of MMA.
  • Michael Munro

    Just noting that we do know the name of Barton-Wright’s instructor in Japan. He trained with sensei Terajima Kuniichiro of the Shinden Fudo Ryu dojo in Kobe for three years and also said he had taken some lesson with Professor Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo.