When I set out to create this series, I wanted to only include martial artists that distinguished themselves against other top martial artists of their time. I would not include movie star martial artists who, while very skilled and athletic, haven't tested themselves to the same degree. Bruce Lee's impact and contributions to martial arts, however, are just too big to be ignored.
When speaking of Bruce Lee there is the severe danger of falling into myth. It can be very difficult to sort fact from legend. He gathered so many loyal followers and fans that exaggeration, embellishment and hero worship are rampant when dealing with Bruce Lee's history. This particular remembering of Lee will focus on his contribution and influence on martial arts over his movie career.
Bruce Jun Fan Lee was born in Chinatown of San Francisco on November 27, 1940. Famously born in the Hour of the Dragon, Bruce was the son of a Chinese opera singer. Three months after his birth, Lee's family moved to Hong Kong, which would become Bruce's childhood home. It was a time of conflict and his earliest memories include Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II. His family nicknamed him "Mo Si Ting", meaning "one who cannot sit still".
After the war the English returned to control Hong Kong and reignited old tensions. Now school age, Lee became involved in local street gangs and frequently got into street fights. At age 13 he was introduced Master Yip Man, a Wing Chun instructor.
A form of Chinese Kung Fu or Gung Fu (the Cantonese pronunciation), Wing Chun is an attempt to solve the age old problem of helping a smaller, weaker combatant defeat a larger enemy. Legend says the art was created by a woman who was taught Kung Fu by a monk. She adapted it to suit her smaller frame and created what would be known as Wing Chun. Centered around straight line punching and speed, Wing Chun has developed into a complex system of clinch and distance striking. Speed is paramount in Wing Chun as fighters use chain punching, hand trapping, and hard low kicks to overwhelm an adversary's defense.
Here is a good summary of Wing Chun history along with some visual reference from the History Channel's Human Weapon series:
Yip Man was one of the great modern masters of the art, and Lee learned quickly. The training had a positive effect on Lee, both physically and mentally. When he first started training Lee used his new skills to win street fights and had a reputation for merciless victoires, but over time he was drawn away from that life style. When in High School Bruce entered in an inter-school Queensbury Rules Boxing event, which he won by defeating an English student. He was also an avid dancer and won the Hong Kong Cha Cha Championship in 1958.
While a fantastic martial arts student, Bruce was not a great academic student, and at age 18 he had not yet graduated from high school. He had siblings that traveled to the U.S. to attend colleges. In 1959 Bruce traveled to the States to claim his American citizenship. Lee finished high school in the U.S. and then attended the University of Washington, where he studied philosophy and taught Kung Fu. At this time eastern martial arts were starting to come to the United States, but the only one that had achieved a slight amount of popularity was Judo.
Quickly Lee had a small group of dedicated students that implored him to open his own school and charge for membership. In the early 1960s he opened the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute in L.A. By 1964, Lee had married his college girlfriend and opened his second school in Oakland. What would transpire next would be one of the most contentious moments of Bruce Lee's martial arts career. Lee fought a challenge match with a Northern Shaolin style Kung Fu instructor Wong Jack Man, and that fact appears to be only thing the followers of the two men can agree upon.
Disagreement surrounds the events of this fight, starting with what actually lead these two men to fight. Wong Jack Man was an instructor in San Francisco, and Bruce Lee's wife would claim Wong took issue with her husband teaching Caucasian students. Certainly some in the Chinese martial arts community felt this way, but the followers of Wong claim this was not an issue whatsoever and that it was Lee that picked the fight with Wong.
The two met at Lee's Oakland school in the winter, with about 15 onlookers split between their respective schools and no referee or major rules. What transpired next is hotly contested.
Lee's side of the story was that of a quick victory, overwhelming Wong with a Wing Chun style attack and defeating him in about three minutes. Wong's side of the story is of a 20 minute battle that ended in a draw. Both stories have their aspects that make it seem unlikely.
Wong's story reeks of excuse making. He claimed Lee fought dirty, attempting to gouge his eyes, crush his throat with strikes, and kick him in the groin. Wong additionally claimed he held himself back several times to protect both Lee from serious harm and himself from legal action. That if he had let himself go he could have killed Lee. The story that comes from Lee's camp seems equally unlikely, as Lee was famously unhappy with the fight and began to seriously rethink his training. It seems implausible that a quick and nearly effortless victory would cause so much soul-searching on Lee's part.
The truth is likely somewhere in the middle. As there is no claim that Wong won the match it is likely it was either a hard fought Lee win or they fought to a stand still. In either event Bruce came away from the challenge match with more questions than answers. It also caused him to realize that physical conditioning, in addition to technique, is a critical component in fighting. Lee would focus future efforts on developing conditioning regiments, specifically cardiovascular endurance which Lee refereed to as 'real world power'.
After the challenge match came Bruce's big break, he had become friends with American Kenpo great Ed Parker. Parker invited Bruce to make a demonstration at an Expo/Karate Tournament he was holding. At this time the martial arts were not well traveled in the U.S. and cross over between arts was rare. Expos were often the only exposure different martial artists had to each other and they attracted large crowds.
His first demo was a huge hit, as he was clearly able to explain the techniques, the concepts and mix in a little humor. Here is a link to a very little surviving footage of that first demo. Bruce became a regular at these expos, showing off his techniques like the famous one inch punch and his two finger push ups. Here is compilation of several of his appearances at Ed Parker events.
What followed next was an "only in Hollywood" kind of story. In the audience was Jay Sebring, a hair dresser. The next week Jay was working on William Dozier, a film producer, and mentioned Bruce Lee's name. Lee was no stranger to film making, as the son of an opera star he had done some work as a child actor in Hong Kong. Lee was called in for a screen test that eventually got him the role of Kato on The Green Hornet, and launched his Western film career.
While he is best known for his film career, he used his celebrity to help promote his new martial art: Jeet Kune Do. Lee was not inventing anything new with this martial art, instead he wished to unify the most direct, simple and efficient techniques regardless of the art of origin. He is not the first man to attempt this, the great Japanese martial artist Jigoro Kano's efforts combined several styles of Japanese Jujitsu into the martial art of Judo. Unlike Kano, Lee did not focus on specific techniques, but rather on concepts.
Jeet Kune Do translates as "The Way of the Intercepting Fist", and the concept of Interception was at the center of Lee's martial art. Rather than counter a blow, which is composed of first defending against a strike and then launching offense, Lee preached heading off an incoming strike with superior timing and speed. How a fighter intercepts is dictated by distance. Lee separated fights into four distinct distances, the furthest being kicking distance, next punching distance, then hand trapping distance, and finally grappling.
Lee personally drew heavily from Wing Chun, but also included a great deal of western boxing, and footwork from western fencing, including leading with the strong hand which Lee believed fit well with his intercepting style. While this is what Lee preferred, there was no set grouping of techniques. Bruce believed each martial artist would incorporate techniques to fit their own strengths and preferences, and discard what wasn't practical. He preached against set styles, seeing them as too limited and closed minded. Jeet Kune Do schools would teach certain fundamentals, but students would create their own personal form of Jeet Kune Do based on what worked for them.
Lee also had incorporated some Judo, both standing and ground grappling, into his personal style but both his own style and Jeet Kune Do on the whole was still a work in progress. On July 20, 1973 Bruce Lee died at the far too young age of 32 due to a reaction to a prescription painkiller. His sudden passing sent shockwaves through the martial arts community and his students. His students have gone on to continue running schools and teaching their own versions of Jeet Kune Do.
When remembering Bruce Lee, many ascribe accolades that are somewhat unfounded. Many call him the greatest martial artist ever or at least in recent history. His lack of public fights or contests against other great martial artists makes it impossible to shower these kind of accolades on him. His most public performances were all scripted fight scenes in movies, which count for very little. What we should do is look at what he actually accomplished.
Lee changed how many viewed and practiced the martial arts. Lee took emphasis off performing kata, and put more importance on conditioning, drilling, and sparring. He broke down barriers separating the eastern arts both from each other and from western arts. And his movie career helped define martial arts to entire generation.
His open minded approach that looked past style and focused on what was practical was ahead of its time and something almost all modern Mixed Martial Artists have adopted. Lee was revolutionary in his approach to training and thinking about martial arts, and for that he is a true God of War.
Special Thanks to Bloody Elbow's own K.J. Gould, Nate Wilcox, and Scott Broussard for sharing Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do knowledge with me. If you want more information on Bruce Lee here is a link to a biography I used for some basic information.