Tag Archives: Myth

Bruce Lee – Myth vs. Fact

by Al Alvir

Like many of you, I grew up wanting to believe, in every way possible, that Bruce Lee was, and will forever be, the greatest fighter to have ever walked the planet.  I read the Tao of Jeet Kune Do and all his pamphlets, including the one about the one-inch punch.  I studied Jun Fan and believed everything I read about Bruce Lee.  I even put all of his fight clips into video and studied his moves.  When I went to college, I used Bruce Lee clips to make a video about the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic, and named it “Enter the Ramayana.”  Bruce Lee was martial arts’ Moses.  I saw him as Jesus. 

While I celebrated Bruce Lee, I vilified everyone who seemed to contest him.  It is the classic psychology of idolatry.  Chuck Norris, Bob Wall, Ji Han Jae, and to a certain extent, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, were professionals who I always would bash only because they were respected fighters and athletes who had proven themselves to the world in contrast to Lee – and Bruce Lee was, simply, not proven.  And because it continues to be a common hypothetical question of who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee or Mike Tyson, I learned to hate Mike Tyson because he was considered to be dangerous enough to be mentioned in the same breath.  Martial artists who were presumed to be lesser martial artists because they had always been mentored by Bruce Lee (e.g. Dan Inosanto) were easily accepted by me, as it was understood that they were to always be beneath him. 

In the martial arts world, Bruce Lee was widely considered a teacher exclusively, not a fighter.  Even in the martial arts world of sub-cultures and hero worship, there is a dueling school of thought that considers facts when gauging anyone’s worth as a fighter: fight record.  Is the martial artist’s performance quantifiable? Validated?  More than a few-men tournament?  More than some showy, inconclusive video clips?  Not just word of mouth and interpretations and opinions? 

When Bruce Lee was mocked for having amateur skills with the nun-chucks by a reputable nun-chukka expert, I made excuses for Lee.  “They are just movies, but in real life, Bruce would kick his ass with or without the nun-chucks,” I angrily retorted to the paper’s printed words and I forwarded my sentiments to everyone I knew.  Chuck Norris, to this day, diplomatically fends questions about Bruce Lee as a real fighter.  During the 1970’s, Norris hinted that Bruce Lee was basically good for a non-fighter, and many Lee-freaks wanted to murder Chuck Norris for saying that. Until I grew up, I had always bad-mouthed Chuck Norris for that fact.  Bob Wall accounted for not fighting Bruce Lee to the fact that Bruce Lee didn’t want to risk losing his reputation.  Wall, on the other hand, was a tournament fighter who risked his status at every bout.  Gene LeBell is credited for having his way with Bruce Lee.  Kareem Abdul Jabbar spoke about how Bruce’s size deficit was too much for Bruce Lee to overcome against him, even though Jabbar accepted Lee as the master martial artist; when they toiled around in the gym, Bruce Lee couldn’t do much to the 7’2 student.  These are all people who have views that could just as easily be pointed to hearsay, but they share two major differences with what hearsay is.  They are a unanimous group of people who figure to be fighters (plus one athlete) who have a system of standards, tournament and sport, and they can corroborate their stories (Bruce Lee has the luxury, as it is a luxury of myth, to be dead).  Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee are known to have had a fight that has numerous accounts.  For all the accounts, however, there are a few facts that no one involved had ever been known to disagree with:  Bruce Lee made a statement that any Gung-Fu man could not beat him, Wong Jack Man was the sole challenger who wanted the contest to be televised, and after rumors abounded that Bruce Lee handled Man (who denounced the rumors), Man printed a rematch challenge for the public to view to which Bruce Lee never responded. 

Like any school or gym owner, I knew that Bruce Lee had to know what he was doing, but something in the back of my head wondered why he has no proof of being a fighter while the world accepts him as such, as Lee never bothered denying it.  I was curious as to how insecure Bruce Lee was and how his ego held him back.  More so, I wondered why such an expert on fighting would base his choreography on nonsense.  When I watched videos of Bruce Lee punching a heavy bag, I wanted to bury the footage and never mention it again.  I was a boxer who punched a hundred times better (in form) at the age of 15, and I didn’t want the world to get privy onto what I was noticing about my hero.  I never wanted to admit that the slow shutter speeds of those old cameras made everyone appear inhumanly fast.  When I read about the man he performed the one-inch punch against had bruised ribs from that single punch, I was slightly amazed, but I was more amused by the hyperbole.  I knew that it was impossible.  Plus, anyone who knows how to punch can perform this move – hardly a feat.

A million contradictory accounts of Bruce Lee happenings widened the gap from truth and myth when it should have done the opposite, narrowing the gap and increasing our understanding.  It is so astonishing how simple occurrences that were actually witnessed by normal people can get so out-of-hand ridiculous and made-up in time.  It becomes no wonder to me how the bible I read in the Catholic church had been interpreted and changed thousands of times.  And the thing about myth is that the stories can never simplify the happening – the dynamic doesn’t work that way.  If Bruce Lee were alive and told a story about how he lost a fight, the five people who witnessed it can spread a lie more easily than Bruce Lee would be able to spread the truth, as long as the truth was not as grandiose.  The key is that I, like the rest of Bruce Lee worshippers, wanted to believe every cool thing I read about the man.  I wanted to believe that his choreography was proof that he was the best fighter.    

Understand that this is a very human thing to do with the things we hold in high regard.  Mike Tyson became my favorite boxer after I had done away with my belief in the fantasy martial arts, and I’ve been prone to similar exaggerations about him.  I know that his knockouts sound even more brutal than they were when we note them in retrospect.  His knockouts are quicker when people recount them, and I liked that people regarded him so high.  And when he “bit half of Holyfield’s ear off,” I appreciated the vicious hyperbole and I didn’t offer a correction.  That’s what is happening with Bruce Lee, like any legend. 

I dare never to try to ruin Bruce Lee’s legacy, as I love what he has done for martial arts, and I respect him greatly, but because we have never seen him react under dire circumstance, beaten, hit with powerful strikes, we can never presume that he was a fighter of any sort.  Maybe he was, but unfortunately never had a chance to – or chose not to – exhibit it like real fighters do:  over and over again, building records (more than a couple tournaments) and humbling themselves to fight, and fight once more. 

To people who did see “whatever it is they saw” in regards to Bruce Lee and continue to hold their opinions high and refuse to let go of memories that are gradually perpetuating myths, I question them too:  “Could you be at all wrong?  At all?”

The Problem With Bruce Lee’s JKD – Afterword

Faith Based Training

JKD has adopted the deficiencies of traditional martial arts (TMA): faith based martial arts training, as I call it. Without questioning all facets of martial arts through the process of simulation training and mere skepticism, all TMA falls short of reality. And JKD is a peripheral victim. The fact is that martial arts training involves pain and frustration and randomness, and it’s not for everyone. It is not glorious at all in all the suffering that goes with it, yet it is a passion like anything else. Even disciplines that are proven through sports must be proven to each successive practitioner. For example, no matter how convinced we are that an arm-bar works, we cannot even trust a Royce Gracie without trying it for ourselves. We cannot know viscerally—not just theoretically—how to do it to an opponent until we actually do it.

Faith based training is what has become of martial arts. Coaches don’t tell why and students don’t ask why. Their training itself doesn’t answer why. Even mma gyms seem to have allowance for quasi-practitioners who just go to classes, do partial-contact drills, but don’t do the free sparring with minimal protection. Minimal protection is important, because you must be free to release genuine force and also process the pain. JKD men often put full gear on (shin protectors, head-gear with mask, and even stomach protectors); this allows fighters to release force upon one another, but it does not allow fighters to process the pain and react to it. Conversely, “gear-less sparring” generally does not allow fighters to release real force on one another, and then there’s nothing to process. No pain, it’s like play-fighting.

The adoption of instructor titles and monikers is another indirect perpetuation of faith based training. It causes students to become followers who don’t question. It’s like religion of martial arts. A coach’s ability to communicate a way of thinking about fighting is better than any coach brainwashing. Anything that lends to brainwashing—as in “believe this because I’m saying so, trust me”—should be extinguished from martial arts. Such things like Sifus and masters and Professors have zero effect on improving martial arts. In the army they break you down to nothing, and on so many levels they brainwash you. Martial arts is not like the military in which you are taught to sacrifice yourself completely to your military’s cause. In martial arts, you sacrifice completely to and for yourself. A hierarchy on almost every level of martial arts stunts the only thing that matters: fighting ability. And respect, in combat arts, is inherent, if not earned on an individual basis. The point is that everyone is equal in martial arts and should question every skill, as fighting is a never ending evolutionary process among the vast array of disciplines.

In JKD, their three main aspects—efficiency, directness, and simplicity—is misleading. It seems inherently correct, but once you put it as a numbered aspect of a way (be it ‘of no way’ or whatever), you make it a “rule.” I would rather sacrifice efficiency, directness, and simplicity for something that simply works for me. Plus the 3 aspects are subjective. It can be argued that boxing is the least simple of martial arts, as it may be the most rigorously strategic. I question, for example, the effectiveness of trapping ala Wing Chun. JKD men all over the world are convinced that this stuff works. It seems efficient, direct, and simple enough, but how do we know? No one has ever used it in full contact combat with any bit of exclusivity. There is no known use of it in combat, period. Paul Vunak, a JKD man who was known for his excellent trapping skills, had plenty of instructional videos exhibiting the trapping range in what I call “contractual sparring.” By that, I speak of sparring in which one guy is limited from using at least one technique that his opponent is not limited from using, or one man’s goal is different from the other man’s goal. Something like this is really just a drill. The truth is that a fighter cannot trust any technique for himself because somebody says it works. A fighter cannot even trust a technique for himself even if he has seen it in action; he must practice it himself and ask the questions in every way he can. Mainly, “how and why would this work for me?” So how can the masses trust a technique they have never seen in use and have never tried themselves? And I don’t know about some of those Brazilian Jujitsu moves either; they don’t seem too simple, direct, or even efficient, but they sure as hell worked for other people. They just don’t seem as cockamamie as, let’s say, Ninjutsu. But hey, maybe that deserves some inquiries of its own.

Only an individual can answer what is best for him in combat, but he should be honest and realistic. If a technique works, is it the best move for a fight? Is there a set-up, follow-up, and counter? Is it a one time move like a Superman punch (meaning you can’t do it over and over because you give the move away)? What does it “working” mean? What if it worked 75% of the time before, but it’s completely failing this time? Do you have the proper tools to solve the problem? What if your technique doesn’t offset another fighter even one-bit? What if the move does the intended physical damage, but the guy keeps coming? Then what?

Question everything…Even what you are reading right now…1…2……3. You are cured.

I thought religion was “the opiate of the masses.”

The Problem with Bruce Lee’s JKD

Jeet Kune Do—a Humble View, Inside Looking… Inside?

From a basic philosophical perspective of education and information, I have always believed in questioning, testing, and testing some more. Now, as an experienced coach, I impel everyone to question what I say and test it. Bruce Lee was my earliest martial arts idol. He had moves with an aesthetic outdoing my sensei and smoother than other karate or kung fu men on Saturday mornings. Bruce Lee almost singlehandedly inspired me to learn boxing and supplement my experience with various styles of martial arts. I have grown to learn how Bruce Lee lent martial arts, on a grand scale, so many invaluable concepts that have helped the evolution of fighting.

My query on JKD is about what it inspires besides boxers to learn different defenses or Greco-Roman grapplers to learn Thai kicks or any other melding of styles. Does it cause a delusion of the artist? Is there a hero-worship that transcends the simple purpose of JKD? When has Bruce Lee ever proved that he existed as an “ultimate,” be-all and end-all of fighters? Hypothetically speaking, if Bruce Lee wanted to be worshipped or even if he wanted his disciples to blindly follow him through the wrong path, should they? Does one grievous Bruce Lee mistake mean uncorrectable, perpetual doom for its new practitioners? Was Bruce Lee’s death the most regressive thing for JKD, causing people to deify him rather than improve upon the gift he gave all of martial arts?

After reading – for the third time in the last 15 years – the Tao of Jeet Kune Do, I was again convinced that Lee was a genius, a legend before his time, indeed. He theoretically understood combat like Cus D’Amato understood boxing combat. He carefully detailed almost everything he had believed, his truths about the art of fighting. Of course, so many of his moves correspond with what we, in today’s fighting world, consider practical.

I notice too many JKD men, however, making the primary faux pas of not questioning. Bruce Lee did Wing Chun Gung-Fu, some western boxing, and Muay Thai, so JKD men believe they should do exactly those. Dan Inosanto, the top JKD man under Lee, incorporated Filipino martial arts, so the flock followed suit. It seems that every JKD man makes this his “way.” JKD guys even go to the extent to say, “ ‘We’ do martial arts [this] way, as opposed to [that] way.” With wide scale questioning – real, genuine inquiry and skepticism – individuals grow and come to find truths that can be so specific to each of the persons. And questioning could only strengthen the concept of JKD.

Bruce Lee regrets naming JKD, so why don’t JKD men absorb this idea: Giving it a concrete property, even in a name, takes away from its proposed water-like property. Being “like water, my friend” becomes mere rhetoric. If one JKD man speculates about his art, he will find answers and for all intents and purposes, he will test it. The JKD school half-testing techniques with assortments of drills only lends to a myth of JKD. When I was 16, JKD was my passion, and I practiced it everyday in my brother’s backyard sessions. But we were bamboozled in many ways; we wore too much gear and we choreograph-role-played too much. We pondered over the straight blast to how to properly perform a stop-kick. Some argued that a straight blast should be softer and made to stun the opponent. Others in our group wanted to swing harder and freer. Some guys wanted to cock the stop-kick for more force. Others wanted to just stop the opponent’s forward movement. We would copy the reference point square-off from Enter the Dragon and Pak Sao to one backfist. We were brainwashed to think one measly backfist predicted a fight’s outcome. Sometimes we would train a sequence of moves and finish it with the first damn strike. The moves lend the subconscious notion that one strike was the science to win a fight. JKD books even illustrate moves to set up these quasi-jabs or backfists. Where was the science of exchanges and reactions to the impact of power punches, set-ups, and boxing traps? Where was the pain factor? We all were so infatuated with finding one truth that we disregarded each other’s truths. We disregarded the whole idea of JKD; if we follow it, we miss it. It was just a concept and we ran with it to the point of killing it. The training was all-in-all worthwhile to a certain extent, but for all the hits we took and time wasted, we didn’t truly test the techniques with the ONLY thing that works, free fighting.

“Formlessness”… “No style as style”… “No way as way”…”Simple movements”… “Non-classical.” It sounds like some high-handed mumbo-jumbo, especially when Lee said what he does is a style. “There is no mystery to my style.” Well of course it is, it’s not a spirit or energy; it is as tangible as words on paper. Hence, it is “style.” JKD men seem to take some of Lee’s philosophies too literally except for the part of JKD that implores people not to follow it. It reminds me of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America when his bride will do anything he wishes except for when he wishes that she would do the opposite of what he wishes. JKD men think they can take whatever they want and throw out anything they don’t want from martial arts. That is naïve, even ignorant. I’ve met JKD men who think they can box for 3 months, do Muay Thai for 4, and play with Escrima sticks before bed without any true sacrifice and commitment to any single art and think they are efficient JKD practitioners. They wrongly assume they can borrow tidbits from arts without thoroughly consuming themselves in one art for many years. This is the current problem with MMA – they have “jack-asses of all trades, masters of jack-asses.” It pains me to watch some JKD men who fancy themselves as martial artists who know boxing. Much of the time, they have dumpy footwork but they could do the little butterfly shuffle from Return of the Dragon. They could snap a backfist, but do they understand a semblance of the science of boxing – an art that has been tested over and over again and continually evolves? How about the popular Brazilian Jujitsu? I challenge anyone to find a JKD school that exhibits proper technique in the fundamentals of boxing or Muay Thai, in which a seasoned western boxer or Thai boxer can witness a JKD school coaching and not say facetiously, “You gotta be kidding me…” JKD is almost irrevocably watered down martial arts with an assortment of flawed fundamentals. Too many of these guys pass as hacks deluded by blind dedication to an antiquated JKD. But, perhaps, the best JKD men (perhaps Eric Paulson and Burton Richardson, I wonder) have moved on and do not affiliate themselves with the eternalized cult that has become of JKD today.

There is a spiritual characteristic to JKD causing us to romanticize it. JKD practitioners sometimes delude themselves with a competitive nature that seems to rank “who is most like Bruce Lee.” There is no solid fight footage, so the myth is exacerbated by the movie fight scenes that we like to imagine were reenactments of real Bruce Lee fights. JKD men cling to every recorded word like the Branch Dravidians did to David Koresh. A JKD man may dispute the David Koresh example, saying, “more like Jesus.” Haha, it’s what I’m saying exactly. But is JKD “so lethal that we can’t practice it like sport?” That is such an easy cop out of a claim, but kicking groins, biting limbs, and the death touch are not the only things I ask to be tested. The one-to-three inch punch, for one, I’d like to be examined. Anyone with a boxer’s jab can pretty much answer the one-incher claim with a sarcastic “Big f-ing deal.” It is simply a display of moving one’s hips and generating short power. Still, when I first slow-motioned Bruce Lee doing it one of the many times, I felt embarrassed for him after noticing… Lee actually pulled back about 3 or 4 inches. See for yourself. Many probably won’t, because it’s so much cooler to believe the hype. Still, I would have been more impressed if he exhibited a top boxer’s power or speed in a full punch, rather than what seemed like super power in showbiz thaumaturgy. If he could hit as hard as a top boxer from 1 inch away, how would he fare from a full punch’s distance? Lee criticized katas, but held his own exhibitions of indulgence. He even broke boards though he was known to say, “The board doesn’t hit back.”

It is my humble opinion that JKD should be, as it was meant to be, a vehicle “to be discarded.” JKD guys, as they proudly seem to call themselves, “just don’t get it.” They mimic “stylelessness” and cling to every contradiction. I wonder, is Floyd Mayweather more JKD man than Sifu is? Was Cus D’Amato a teacher of an unwritten JKD?

I am not questioning JKD ad hominem. Contrarily, I am supporting what JKD stands for despite the historical myth of Bruce Lee. I believe Bruce Lee to have been the greatest martial artist to have ever been known. But I doubt that he was as good of a fighter. I look at Bruce Lee as being akin to a Malcolm X; he always meant well, but made a mistake, then he tried to rescind on that mistake, unsuccessfully. Many people of this ‘occult’ still believe the mistake, and no one can ever take it back. They believe they should dance like Bruce Lee and that they all, seemingly without exception, should put their strong side first. But Lee was explicit in letting everyone know that his way would not necessarily be anyone else’s way.

Why couldn’t he just have named it MMA? Instead, he accommodated each worshipper to hop on one leg and bark like a dog?



“I have not invented a “new style,” composite, modified or otherwise that is set within distinct form as apart from “this” method or “that” method. On the contrary, I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds. Remember that Jeet Kune Do is merely a name used, a mirror in which to see “ourselves”. . . Jeet Kune Do is not an organized institution that one can be a member of. Either you understand or you don’t, and that is that. There is no mystery about my style. My movements are simple, direct and non-classical. The extraordinary part of it lies in its simplicity. Every movement in Jeet Kune-Do is being so of itself. There is nothing artificial about it. I always believe that the easy way is the right way. Jeet Kune-Do is simply the direct expression of one’s feelings with the minimum of movements and energy. The closer to the true way of Kung Fu, the less wastage of expression there is. Finally, a Jeet Kune Do man who says Jeet Kune Do is exclusively Jeet Kune Do is simply not with it. He is still hung up on his self-closing resistance, in this case anchored down to reactionary pattern, and naturally is still bound by another modified pattern and can move within its limits. He has not digested the simple fact that truth exists outside all molds; pattern and awareness is never exclusive. Again let me remind you Jeet Kune Do is just a name used, a boat to get one across, and once across it is to be discarded and not to be carried on one’s back.”
– Bruce Lee