Was Bruce Lee any good at martial arts? Ask anyone who punches, chops, kicks or throws as a hobby or even a living and the answer will be one of incredulity- isn’t it obvious? Of course he was good, he was amazing! Now you can see how people might get confused- all the cat squeaks, the ambiguous scratches on his body from the tiger claw of Han, the general kung fooey hysteria which still envelops martial arts from the Orient. And then there was his death at 32, very James Dean, just before the release of Enter the Dragon. So how do you know? How does a non-martial artist tell how good Bruce was?
Born in 1940 in Hong Kong into a family of well respected actors, Bruce Lee was in child movies from the age of 3 and by the time he left Hong Kong for America, when he was 18, he’d been in over a dozen feature films. If his aim had been to just be an actor, he could have stayed put. But acting was always just a vehicle for Lee to promote his fascination with martial arts, which initially was Wing chun kung fu, taught to him by the famous master Ip (or Yip) Man. But Bruce also boxed- becoming schools champion of Hong Kong and danced- winning the regional Cha-cha championships too. He also got into street fights, since one of the teaching ideas of Ip Man was that martial arts skills should be tested in real fights. Lee was suspended from school several times for applying this.
Lee had a half-German grandparent, and had been taunted as a youth for being part foreign. He decided to leave Hong Kong to attend college in Seattle. Here he found that the kung fu he knew, though good, had its limitations. It was a turning point . Wing Chun with its fast moves and low kicks wasn’t enough. He began to assimilate moves from Japanese and Korean arts taking everything that suited his style and physique and rejecting that which didn’t work for him. Usually this is a disaster- the equivalent of mixing curry with steak and chips- but in the hands of a master chef you also have the possibility of fusion cuisine of the highest order. This was what Bruce Lee called Jeet Kune Do- his own system that featured kicks, throws and any weapons he felt like using. In 1966 Bruce Lee appeared in the TV series The Green Hornet and this was a big hit in Hong Kong. He returned a hero to make the five feature films that made him world famous, and revealed just how good he really was.
Basically there are three ways to tell. Firstly, performing strings of complex moves is easy- look at Keanu Reeves in the Matrix- looks good but it’s all piffle. It’s harder to make a single move look good and even trickier to perform minor activities like walking, talking to others, even putting the salt down on the table. If it has pizzazz, clarity, springiness and above all timing then it’s a good sign. Bruce Lee (and Steve Mcqueen, one of his martial arts students) has all this in spades. Watch a Stallone movie- his timing is terrible. He acts in almost total isolation.
Next, you can tell how good someone is by their students. Apart from his Hollywood clientele Bruce Lee taught fighters such as Dan Inosanto and Taky Kimura, both of whom command great respect worldwide. Ever met anyone boasting of being taught by Jean Claude Van Damme?
Third- what’s it like being on the receiving end of their technique? There’s a sequence in Enter the Dragon during the outdoor tournament section when Bruce Lee kicks an opponent out of the ring. This guy is catapaulted back into the crowd. What you don’t see is the man behind who’s arm is broken by the sheer momentum of Lee’s kick at one remove. On another occasion when Lee was on Hong Kong TV, he was surprised by a test, set by the presenter, which was to push over a Tai Chi master, notoriously good at rooting themselves to the spot. In a flash the Tai Chi master has disappeared. What happened is too fast for the camera to catch. Finally the camera pans down to the master out cold on the floor. “I don’t push,” says Lee, “I punch.”
Was Bruce Lee any good? Of course he was!