“The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering.” – Bruce Lee
It must be blatantly obvious to everyone who knows me that Bruce Lee is my most favourite person who ever lived. That could perhaps be evidenced in how as a five-year-old, I literally cried when I learned that Bruce had already passed away long before I was born.
I remember my mother tucking me into bed one night and I asked her tearfully, “Mummy, did Bruce Lee really die?”
I guess in the interest of keeping her young daughter’s fragile sensibilities intact, she lied.
“No, baby. He’s an old man now with grey hair.”
“Mum, he’s not that old.”
“I know, but you’ve seen how strong and fast he is. How good at kung fu he is. He’ll live for a very long time; years and years and years.”
And I guess, in this regard, she was telling the truth. Though he died at such a young age, more than 40 years later, his influence on the martial arts world is still staggering.
His cinematic accomplishments may have stood the test of time, but it was the man himself – the actor, the martial artist, the writer, the teacher, the philosopher, the director, the producer, the choreographer, the husband and the father – who was immortalised through the sharing of incredible stories and first-hand anecdotes that help constitute his legacy.
In honor of Bruce Lee on what would have been his 74th birthday, I’ve made a list of 10 reasons why he was so deserving of the respect, admiration and accolades he received throughout his life and beyond, as both the greatest martial artist of the 20th Century and as a remarkable human being.
#10: Bruce Lee was a philosopher
Some people would think Bruce Lee was just an actor or just a martial artist who made movies. But Bruce was also a writer and a philosophical thinker. The dynamism and intensity of his fighting ability were often matched with his own ideologies about martial arts and life. It was at university in Seattle, US where he studied philosophy, while at the same time managing to hone his kung fu techniques. But while he found an invigorating passion in teaching and developing his fighting abilities, he was just as nurturing of the more studious, scholarly side of his character.
He read and wrote comprehensively about his thoughts on physical combat, the psychology of fighting, the philosophical origins of martial arts, and on personal motivation, self-actualisation and liberation of the individual. Tao of Jeet Kune Do is a significant expansion of his legacy, and is a manuscript I keep on my bedside table.
Bruce’s often deep and reflective views were constantly quoted throughout his public career, and even in personal letters to his friends and family or in diary-like notes to himself, his thoughts were quite profound and insightful.
#9: For Bruce Lee, punching bags were like goose feather pillows
Bruce Lee trained in several styles to develop his speedy but heavy-landing strikes, and would do so with the aid of a heavy punching bag. For the typical boxer or gym enthusiast, an average heavy punching bag needs to weigh at about 30-35 kilograms (70-80 pounds) to counter a strike, while the larger ones tend to weigh up to nearly 70 kilograms (150 pounds). Like the force of nature he was, Bruce Lee required custom-built punching bags weighing up to 140 kilograms (300 pounds) to meet his strength. Bags were also often made with metal sewn inside for weight and durability or otherwise the bag would quickly bust open or break apart. For a man who would only weigh at about 75 kilograms (165 pounds) at his heaviest, his power is truly astounding.
#8: Bruce Lee was a sophisticated fighter, on and off the screen
Bruce was one of the most entertaining fighters on the silver screen simply because of his fight scene hallmarks. Rather than depending on brute force, Bruce was able to demonstrate in his films that he was a clever fighter. One example would be his constant use of kiai in combat (often to help the breathing and/or exertion of force) and emulating shrill animal noises and taunts to unsettle his opponents.
Another example, and perhaps one that is for the benefit of the audience, would be ways to strike fear into the hearts of his foes by unnerving them. He achieved this by frozen stares or constant eye contact, nimbly side-stepping or dodging their attacks as if they were gusts of wind, throwing off his shirt to free up his limbs (revealing intimidating musculature no less), and – of course – tasting the blood from the fresh wounds inflicted by his attacker. In a typical Bruce Lee film, you would soon learn that when Bruce would reach down to his cuts to taste his own blood, s**t was about to get real.
Off the screen, Bruce had an insatiable desire to learn everything he could about any of the combative arts, building up an impressive personal library in the process. His knowledge of different disciplines saw him develop his own style: a mix of wing chun techniques he learned growing up in Hong Kong, as well as techniques he would adopt from an ever-growing repertoire of disciplines ranging from karate to boxing. But it wasn’t until an incident in 1964 when Bruce realised the significance of learning a more fluid, reactive style of fighting. Having already begun expanding his kung fu schools and taking on numerous students, Bruce was challenged by a group of kung fu men from San Francisco who protested against him teaching kung fu to non-Chinese students.
The terms of the challenge were that if Bruce was defeated, he would stop taking on non-Chinese students. The fight only lasted three minutes, ending with Bruce pinning his challenger to the floor. But what was a more surprising outcome was that Bruce was actually disappointed in his personal performance. Despite victory, Bruce was disheartened at his inability to defeat his opponent in a shorter amount of time.
This was an important milestone for Bruce and his growth as a martial artist, as he worked to emphasise techniques that were fast, flexible and practical, rather than adhering to the rigidity and formality of any individual style. This notion led to the development of Bruce’s own martial art, Jeet Kune Do, translated into English as “The Way of the Intercepting Fist”, that has seen schools spring up across the globe. His brand of intuitive martial arts also has a foundation in philosophy, with Bruce believing in the ability of fighting without fighting – a creed that was referenced in his last film Enter the Dragon.
#7: Bruce Lee perfected the one-inch punch
This is perhaps one of Bruce Lee’s most famous physical feats, and it’s rightly impressive. His punches were so powerful that he could land a devastating blow against a fully grown adult male standing just an inch (2.54 cm) away and send him flying. His technique was that effective that he could also break wooden boards from the same distance.
But Bruce Lee of course disliked stunts like board-breaking demonstrations, as he felt they gave no insight to actually defending yourself. In fact it was Bruce who said: “There’s no challenge in breaking a board. Boards don’t hit back.”
#6: Bruce Lee was too fast for film
While filming episodes of The Green Hornet, his strikes were so fast that in the film’s playback, it looked like Bruce hadn’t even moved. When Bruce purposely slowed down for the cameras, he would still show up as a blur. Because of this, his footage needed to be reshot at high speed and painstakingly edited so they could capture his techniques properly.
A common rumour about the extent of Bruce’s dexterity and superior hand-eye coordination was that even while he was eating a bowl of rice, Bruce Lee was showing off. In fact, as a means of improving the speed of his reflexes, he was said to be able to throw grains of rice into the air before catching them with his chopsticks as they were falling down. Whether or not this was true, the fact that many of us wonder about its plausibility should speak volumes.
A real trick Bruce was known for that he developed to demonstrate his speed was having someone hold a coin in their palm and instructing them to close their hand if they see him coming to grab it. Bruce would not only manage to swiftly snatch the coin from their palm, but would also sometimes replace it with another coin before the person’s hand snapped shut.
#5: Bruce Lee could do one-armed pull-ups and two-finger pushups
Bruce Lee performed a variety of movements as part of his rigorous exercise and training regime for years. Chin-ups were said to be one of Bruce’s favourite back-building exercises. Variations of this exercise included alternating between his chin and the back of his neck during the pull-up and of course, alternating the number of arms he would use to support his weight.
His immense strength also extended to his fingers, as Bruce had been known to be able to use two fingers (a thumb and pinkie) to do a pushup. This must be the undisputed mother of all gym feats.
#4: Bruce Lee walked away from a potentially career-ending injury
In 1970, Bruce was rendered unable to walk or move his body without crippling pain after severely injuring his fourth sacral nerve (near the base of the spine) after performing a “good morning” exercise, where the barbell (in Bruce’s case with 57 kilogram / 125 pound weights) rests on one’s shoulders before bending straight over at the waist. He was confined to his bed for about six months and the prognosis saw Bruce never practicing kung fu again. The best case scenario would have allowed Bruce to only lead a more sedentary lifestyle after recovery.
But it was during his bed rest when he did a lot of writing for his books and personal journals, and later instituted his own rehabilitation program, where he gradually began walking again and building up his strength. Though the accident had since made Bruce more conscious of exerting his back when filming or training, he arguably emerged from this potentially career-ending injury as a much faster and stronger fighter.
#3: Bruce Lee was a champion dancer
I don’t see why this little bit of trivia can be surprising to some people. The fact that the man was so athletic and nimble on his feet, it makes sense that his talents would have made him both a great fighter and a great dancer.
Apparently, Bruce took up dancing a year after he started taking his wing chun lessons. Learning the cha-cha was initially an enjoyable hobby, but he soon became a pro. He discovered that practicing his dance moves could improve his balance and footwork, so he invested much of his time training in cha-cha as well as in his beloved kung fu. His progress was so amazing that when he was 18, he entered a dancing competition and came out as the 1958 Hong Kong cha-cha champion.
#2: Bruce Lee fought Chuck Norris, and Bruce won
According to the internet and popular culture, Chuck Norris is a bearded, terrifyingly dangerous human being, revered by everyone with amazing and usually nonsensical “facts”. But this is one fact Chuck Norris devotees didn’t count on: he never beat Bruce Lee in a fight.
The final showdown in the film Way of the Dragon showed Bruce and the seven-time world karate champion square off against each other in a shadowy tunnel leading into Rome’s Coliseum.
Spoiler alert, but it was Bruce who came out on top.
Chuck recalls the time when Bruce explained to him what his part will be in Way of the Dragon, the film that Bruce wrote, directed and produced.
“‘I want you to be my opponent. We’ll have a fight in the Coliseum in Rome,’ Bruce said with excitement, ‘Two gladiators in a fight to the death! Best of all, we can choreograph it ourselves. I promise you the fight will be the highlight of the film.’
“‘Great,’ I said, ‘’Who wins?’
“‘I do,’ Bruce said with a laugh. ‘I’m the star!’
“ ‘Oh, you’re going to beat up on the current world karate champion?’
“ ‘No,’ said Bruce. ‘I’m going to kill the current world karate champion.’”
The scene took three days to film and, despite Bruce being directly responsible for the death of Chuck’s character, both Bruce and Chuck remained good friends and training partners. In fact, before making it big as a movie star, Bruce often trained with the martial arts world’s biggest stars. These men would eventually become celebrities in their own right. Chuck Norris was among that elite group and there were times when he and Bruce would spar in the ring, and trade techniques and ideas.
But when asked if he could ever take on Bruce in a real fight, Chuck was quick to avoid a direct answer.
“Would I have beaten Bruce Lee in a real competition, or not? You’ll forgive me for answering with another Bruceism: ‘Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory.’” he said.
Sorry Chuck, but I think we all know the real answer to this question.
#1: Bruce Lee was unbeatable
The myth that still stands as truth today is that Bruce Lee was invincible, having never lost a fight in his entire life. This is otherwise true. Throughout his entire career, he was constantly challenged by film extras, fighters hailing from different styles and other men seeking to gain fame by beating him in combat. Evidently, no one had ever succeeded in defeating Bruce.
The only significant proof to the contrary are stories of street fights he would get into as a teenager in Hong Kong. It was because of these run-ins on the streets that eventually led him to start taking up martial arts training in the first place, and under the tutelage of wing chun master Yip Man no less.
The rest, as they say, is history.