Bruce Lee – The Most Overrated Underrated Martial Artist Ever

16 Oct

      Anyone who picked up the July issue of Black Belt Magazine a few months back will have noticed that (once again) Bruce Lee was on the cover. If you’re wondering why a magazine regularly puts a man who has been dead for 40 years on its cover, all I can say is those issues are usually Black Belt’s biggest sellers. In fact, that month’s entire magazine was designed as a tribute to the late martial arts film star. My own contribution to the issue was a short piece on the connection between Lee’s jeet kune do style and fencing.
      Without getting into a debate on the merits of consistently featuring a guy who’s been dead now for longer than he was alive in your magazine, I do find it fascinating that Lee still carries that much weight in the martial arts world. Certainly, there are few figures among the living or the dead in martial arts who draw a wider range of opinions. Some ultra-traditional martial artists still loathe him and feel he was more of an actor than a legitimately great martial artist, while those who remain under the sway of Lee’s legend continue to view him as possibly the greatest martial artist in history.
      My opinion is that Lee is simultaneously the most overrated and the most underrated martial artist ever, which I’m sure will get virtually everyone upset with me.
      On the overrated side of the ledger, you simply have to be realistic here. Lee, despite the stories told about him, was not a serious fighter, either competitively or on the streets. The one alleged private match he had against another martial arts master is claimed as a thorough victory for him by his supporters. But this ignores the fact the kung fu “master” he supposedly beat had no real record of competitive success himself plus, after his great victory, Lee was so displeased with his wing chun fighting style, he set about retooling everything he did into what would become his new fighting method, which he christened jeet kune do. It simply seems unlikely one would retool their entire fighting style after an easy win so the stories of his overwhelming success in this match may be somewhat exaggerated.
      Now I’m too young to have ever met Lee or seen him perform in person, so much of my opinion on his fighting abilities necessarily has to rely on what I have heard from people who did know him and work out with him. However, I have always tried to avoid basing my opinions on the impressions of Lee’s primary students for the simple reason that students always tend to think their instructor has phenomenal abilities. Call it the “my daddy is the strongest person on earth” syndrome. But if you want to know how good a martial artist is, don’t talk to his direct students, talk to his peers.
      I once heard someone ask this exact question of the late karate and kickboxing champion, Joe Lewis (not to be confused with the boxer Joe Louis). Lewis trained with Lee a number of times to hone some of his skills for competition but Lee was never his primary teacher and Lewis was already an accomplished martial artist by the time he met Lee, perhaps making him a bit less biased.
      Lewis’s response to the question of how good Lee was went something like this, “He was the best martial artist I ever saw but couldn’t fight worth a damn.”
      When asked to clarify, Lewis explained that Lee’s technique was tremendous but only in demonstrations or in sparring with his own students. He simply was not very good when it came to really fighting with other decent fighters – he was too small and didn’t have the mentality of a fighter.
      While this is just one man’s opinion, I have heard similar words from others. Some time back, I quoted Lewis’s opinion on Lee to Gene LeBell. LeBell is a legendary martial artist who worked out with Lee on a number of occasions and taught Lee some grappling moves. He considered Lee a good friend and has always been careful to say only positive things about him. But when I repeated Lewis’s opinion to LeBell, he conceded that he could not totally disagree with it.
      Simply put, Lee was not the greatest fighter ever. He may not have even been a very good fighter, at least by today’s standards. Furthermore, his personal method of martial arts (Lee never liked to call jeet kune do a “system” or a “style”) while still revered by many, has some holes in it when held up for close observation. Besides the fact it did not have a great deal of wrestling or groundwork incorporated into it – something that most martial artists now understand to be vital to real world fighting capabilities – much of its striking seems too heavily geared toward outpointing an opponent rather than knocking him out (I’m speaking here about the curriculum Lee had left when he died, now sometimes referred to as jun fan jeet kune do, not the more modern “concepts” aspect of JKD which borrows heavily from muay Thai, kali and various other arts).
      In that recent issue of Black Belt, I discuss how Lee, himself, borrowed heavily from traditional western fencing concepts. But what I did not say is that, in my opinion, he overlooked one vitally important thing: that fencing works because… you’re hitting someone with a sword! Simply trying to move the way fencers move, without the benefit of holding a weapon in your hand, will often leave your attacks lacking in power. Fencing relies more heavily on speed than brute force allowing the sharp metal of the sword to do the damage. But without a sword or other weapon in your hands, you simply must generate more power in most of your strikes, other than ones directed toward vital areas like the eyes or groin, which, to be fair, Lee did emphasize. But when looking to strike with a punch to the head, if you’re seeking to do maximum damage as you likely would in a street fight or even many MMA contests, power often trumps speed. Yet with his emphasis on using the lead side to strike with and moving the hand or foot before the body, Lee clearly seemed to stress speed over power.
      After having read a good deal about Lee and having talked with several people who knew and trained with him, I’ve come to the opinion that he developed jeet kune do to defeat the people he viewed as his primary challengers. In other words, he came up with a style that would allow him to get the better of traditional karate and kung fu masters in sparring sessions. And, in that realm, I believe his style was quite efficient. He exploited the immobility, telegraphic techniques and lack of combinations used by most of the so-called masters of his day and came up with something that may well have been superior in sparring sessions, or perhaps even challenge matches. However, this is quite a different realm than that of the street or the octagon. Several years ago, when I broached this theory with a very senior instructor of JKD, he essentially agreed with my outlook.
      So, in my opinion, Bruce Lee and his method of fighting was not the be all and end all of martial arts. But…
      On the underrated side of the ledger, anyone who decries Bruce Lee and feels he wasn’t that significant a martial artist overlooks his vast contributions to the technical side of fighting. There were few figures in the martial arts world, before Lee, who ever attempted to look at the whole body of fighting techniques with the kind of objective and analytical eye Lee brought to the matter. Prior to Lee, the martial arts were bogged down with people who refused to go beyond their own individual styles. Though, from an aesthetic perspective, that approach may have had merit, from a practical perspective it’s an utter failure. True fighters, whether on the battlefield or in the ring, do not ignore what other successful fighters are doing. They consistently borrow and learn from the most successful people in their field. This is how progress is made in virtually every form of human endeavor. But it’s a concept that, even today, many martial artists are reluctant to embrace. Lee was among the first practitioners of Asian martial arts to publically embrace this approach. Further, he went beyond even those martial artists who had previously extolled the merits of borrowing from other styles by exploding the whole notion of styles in the martial arts as being too limiting. It’s ironic that today many practitioners of jeet kune do cling to this “style” when Lee seemed to clearly indicate in his writings that fighters should not be beholden to any style but should strip away such labels in order to get to the heart of what works in combat.
      His analysis of martial arts techniques, particularly his insights into what he called the “angles of attack” (essentially the various basic methods with which any technique can be set up to attack the opponent with) was far ahead of its time. Even today, many martial artists do not fully understand some of the important principles Lee was already propounding back in the 1960s.
      Putting aside the massive contribution he made through his films drawing people into the martial arts, Lee’s contribution to the analytical and technical side of martial arts was so immense (if still often unrecognized by many practitioners of these arts) as to make him a truly significant figure in the history of the field.
      So perhaps it’s time to finally put Bruce Lee into proper perspective. He was not the Superman of martial arts that his many idol worshipers would have you believe, nor was he perfect in all his opinions on martial arts. But he was a brilliant, and by most accounts technically very proficient, martial artist who made some of the most important and profound contributions to the arts that we have ever seen. That may not be enough for some people. But it should be.


5 Responses to “Bruce Lee – The Most Overrated Underrated Martial Artist Ever”

  1. Tony Zahra September 14, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    I respect what yr opinion is.
    But we will never know for all you ever hear or read.Is One’s opinion.
    Those you have writen about that say Lee was not #1 in combat is just an opinion that carry’s no weight for they had only worked out with Lee.
    Only one who has been in COMBAT against Lee will be worth and value.
    I have never heard or read that they have beaten Lee in combat

  2. alex September 29, 2013 at 3:43 am #

    thank you, after reading your article i really understand more about Lee! really thank you

  3. hotfight November 24, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    Real combat is different than sport fighting and you acknowledged that bruce emphasized vital targets. So his jkd was and still is ahead of its time because compared to most others ive studied it keeps things more direct and simple. Strong side forward can generate great power more efficiently you just need to meet people who can show you. To be fair there’s not that many thanks to the concepts approach. …which in reality clings onto styles more so and misrepresents JKD. JFJKD has never been about clinging to anything….but sharpening your tools and strategy through daily decrease. If you were ever out numbered in a fight you would realise the importance of this.

  4. Dominick Izzo November 24, 2013 at 10:19 pm #

    You are not alone in your views about Bruce Lee. All the best to you from Wing Chun in Chicago.
    -Dominick Izzo


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