The list of things given to the human race by Queen Victoria’s London is long and, like a letter to Santa written by Wednesday Addams, largely grim. Jack the Ripper was just the tip of the world-trashing iceberg. The modern police force, the tabloid press, the workhouse and the concentration camp are just a few of the nasties that oozed out of the era. Sorry to break it to you, British Empire fans—Victorian London may have seen itself as the ‘heart of civilization’ but it was more like the un-wiped arsehole of the world, shitting all over the face of the future.
There is, however, one tiny source of pride that emerges from this maelstrom of malice. Victorian London—perhaps inevitably, since the city stretched its claws halfway around the globe—was also the birthplace of the first mixed martial art, and home to some of the original Ultimate Fighters. A whole technological revolution before Royce Gracie cemented the superiority of his family’s style of jiu jitsu by slaying the giant Shamrock at the first UFC, Edward Barton-Wright, a colonial engineer, was shocking and impressing London society in equal measure with his new combat system, which he called ‘Bartitsu’.
His martial art combined jiu jitsu, Savate, bare-knuckle boxing and street fighting techniques to create a style which, in Barton-Wright’s own words, ‘should enable a man to defy anything.’ Like Gracie, Barton-Wright was a slight, unassuming man. Which must have made it all the more galling for the professional pugilists and wrestlers at St. James Hall in London when, fresh off the boat from Japan, he strode into their hangout and challenged the whole lot of them to a fight.
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