“A lot of people come up to me and say, “hey Bruce, are you really that good?” Now if I say yes, probably you will say I am boasting. But if I say no, you KNOW that I am lying”
This was a joke Bruce made, when interviewed by Ted Thomas in Hong Kong; shortly after the release of ‘The Big Boss’ in 1971. Ted had asked Bruce Lee if he really could fight as good as his on screen character’s. After replying with a joke Bruce continued, “Lets put it this way. I have no fear of an opponent standing in front of me, I have made up my mind and that’s it baby, you better kill me before I get to you”
So was Bruce Lee really that good? I have heard and read many stories from people claiming that they could take Bruce Lee, that he was nothing but an actor and that he had never competed in any real tournaments or competitions. It is all too easy to state your claims and throw down challenges to a man who has passed away. Most of these so-called martial artists are just trying to boost their own ego because of their lack of self-esteem and self-confidence and inferior martial arts technique.
So Bruce never had any real competitions? Well first let me explain the difference between a competition and a real life encounter. A competition or match fight is regulated by a time limit. There is a referee making sure the fighters fight fairly and there are rules of what you can and cannot do. With a street fight however, anything goes, biting eye gouging, hair pulling and attacks to the groin. There is no time limit or rest breaks and there is no one there to stop the fight if things get out of hand. Weapons can also play a major part of deciding the outcome of a fight. Also what works in the ring doesn’t necessarily work in the street, something many competitors fail to realise until it is too late. I have recently read of a karate black belt being beaten to death by a gang of 5 people. They didn’t respect him for holding a black belt and they certainly didn’t respect the rules of competitions. They basically all jumped him at once and jumped on his head. Anyway I digress. Competitions are for one group of martial artists and street fighting is for another. Bruce Lee fell into the latter category, he didn’t have any trophies or awards for his fighting ability but he certainly had respect from people who knew what it was to be able to fight, and I mean really fight.
Bruce was often challenged by extras and stuntmen on the sets of his films and on more than one occasion he had to prove that he really could do what he said he could. These stuntmen and extras were no pushover. Most of them were either criminals or gang members who had seen more than their fair share of violence. Most of the stuntmen were wise and knew a real fighter when they saw one but some of the more foolish ones wanted to challenge Bruce. And why not for if they beat him it could only enhance their own reputation and perhaps it would be them starring in the next movie. Bruce would have no choice but to accept these challenge, for if he were to back down that would be a big loss of face for him and the rest of the Chinese people on set, as in their eyes he was a hero. The confrontations never lasted very long, usually all it would take was one kick or punch. Bruce knew that he could cause serious damage to somebody, perhaps even kill them so he would just toy with them, just to prove his ability. After the skirmishes the challenger would know as well as Bruce just how good he was and just how powerful he was, it usually put an end to things. A good example of one of these challenges was whilst Bruce was on the set of ‘The Big Boss’. During filming they had a Thai boxing champion on set to teach the extras basic moves during the fight scenes. One day someone suggested that the Thai champ should challenge Bruce. Rather than lose face Bruce accepted the challenge. Various accounts of the encounter have been recorded, but the two most common stories are 1) Bruce threw only one kick and the kick was so powerful that the Thai boxer immediately submitted to Bruce. 2) The Thai boxer attacked Bruce with a vicious combination, which Bruce easily countered and then ferociously attacked back leaving the champ in a swollen mess on the floor. It has often been rumoured that the cameraman on set filmed the battle but Bruce made him destroy it. Who knows? Another encounter happened on the set of ‘Enter the Dragon’. Bruce was stood talking to another member of the crew, when a stuntman approached him and tapped his foot three times in front of him; this is the traditional Chinese sign that you wanted to challenge somebody. Again Bruce could not afford to lose face, especially now he was making a film for the international market that would make him a world-wide star. Again the stuntman went for Bruce and he quickly evaded the attack then returned with a kick to the head. The stuntman didn’t go down but just looked at Bruce, everyone thought that Bruce had missed but when the stuntman opened his mouth, blood ran down his chin and he began to spit out broken teeth. Needless to say Bruce gained the stuntman’s respect.
Years after all these events took place, many of the stuntmen who worked on the films with Bruce are still active in the film industry, yet none of them have ever said that Bruce was not as good as people think. They all insist that Bruce was a very able martial artist and a very capable fighter. They have got nothing to gain by saying such things; they say them because it is true. Ask any of the world class martial artists who were around during Bruce Lee’s time; Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, Bob Wall, Jim Kelly etc, they all sparred with Bruce and they will all tell you the same thing. Bruce Lee was a true martial artist and really knew how to fight. If he wasn’t why would they all want instruction from him. Joe Lewis still trains JKD to this day.
It is worth mentioning for those who said that Bruce never won any competitions or tournaments that he was an amateur boxing champion during his college days. He never really believed in competitions or tournaments though, as they don’t mean anything when you are on the street so why waste time and energy taking part.
The people who matter in the world of martial arts know how good Bruce was. Bruce Lee’s original students know how good Bruce Lee was. From my training in the arts that have been passed down from Bruce, I know how good he was. But most importantly Bruce Lee knew how good he was and he didn’t need competitions to prove it.