Q&A: Bruce Lee & ESPN

espn published an article ‘could bruce lee win a real fight’ that left me somewhat confused but not sure if I was just vastly out of my depth. the writer draws a line between ‘martial arts’ and ‘real fighting’–the latter referring to UFC/public sport matches seemingly–that seemed unclarified, and referring broadly to a unified principle of ‘martial arts’ being about conquering yourself not an opponent. am i just confused bcs of inexperience?

So, a couple things floating through here. The short answer is, no, this doesn’t reflect on you. Dotun Akintoye, the author, makes a common mistake among prize fighters, and their fans, classifying prize fights as, “real fighting,” without remembering that violence exists in the real world as well.

We’ve talked about this before, but there is a divide between traditional martial artists, sport martial artists, and combat training. When you live inside the competitive sports martial arts bubble, it’s easy to forget that real combat exists. When you train for competitive fighting, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you’re not training for combat.

Similarly, if you’re training for a different purpose, you’re not going to excel in competitive martial arts. This an observation that Mr. Akintoye gets from Mike Moh (who played Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), when Moh states that he’d need need months of specialized training before going into MMA. He has a fifth degree black belt in Taekwondo, but that’s not competitive MMA. He’s very well trained… to do something else.

In that sense, Akintoye may have a point, even if he’s correct for entirely the wrong reasons. It’s difficult to track down the details, but Lee was involved in street fights growing up. This what led to his eventual martial arts training. So, if we’re talking about, “real fighting,” as experiencing combat, Lee did that. Additionally, it seems to have affected his view of how to train with, and use martial arts. This is someone who saw a three minute fight as lasting too long.

According to Akintoye, it was a specific three minute fight against another martial artist that caused Lee to abandon many of the tenets of Wing Chung, and develop Jeet Kune Do into a full martial art.

That three minutes is a problem for competitive fighters. You can’t have a three minute prize fight. It’s way too short. For competitive sports fighting, you need to draw out the action. People paid a lot of money to come and see the bout, and if it’s over in seconds, they’re going to leave disappointed. This is the fundamental problem with “real” violence and entertainment. Violence is over quickly. Mr. Akintoye even reports a fight between Lee and Yoichi Nakachi where Lee defeated him in 11 seconds.

So, could Lee have been a professional prize fighter if the organization existed during his life? I’m inclined to say, “yes,” but I doubt it would have appealed to him. We’re talking about someone who looked at Wing Chung, and decided the martial art was too slow, before retooling it into something more efficient, while also pulling in techniques from other martial arts. That’s the behavior of someone with a practical combat focus, not what we associate with traditional martial arts, or competitive sports fighting.

Additionally, Akintoye even recounts Lee’s flirting with competitive fighting in the day, and how Lee didn’t enjoy it. Specifically citing the padding on boxing gloves as something Lee disliked. In case it needs to be said, the purpose of boxing gloves is to draw out the fight by weakening the strikes each participant receives.

Mr. Akintoye puts a lot of emphasis on Mike Moh’s appearance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but, I’m sorry, that’s not evidence of anything. There are many positive things you can say about Quentin Tarantino, and I have in the past, however his relation to historical authenticity is, “extremely flexible.” Weirdly accurate in some respects, and completely missing the mark in others.

Tarantino chose to draw from the fight between Lee and Gene Labell. The real history is that Lee had, apparently, been rough with the stunt actors while shooting The Green Hornet, and the stunt coordinator told Labell (who was already a heavyweight Judo champion) to restrain him. Labell picked up Lee in a fireman’s carry and started running around the set with him. Observing that Lee didn’t even try to counter him, probably due to surprise.

If you wanted historical accuracy from Tarantino, you might have missed Inglorious Basterds. In OUATiH, the audience is offered a fever dream that barely relates to reality, and involves a prolonged fight which never occured.

As Akintoye mentions, it was the beginning of a friendship between between Lee and Labell. Both taught each other, and it’s extremely likely that the grappling techniques that Lee incorporated into Jeet Kune Do came from Labell.

It’s also very important to remember that Labell was not just, “some guy,” he has two separate tenth degree belts, and a ninth. While he wasn’t that advanced in ’66, he was already a world class martial artist. This guy is one of those singular examples who have mastered multiple martial arts.

The article on ESPN’s site leads with a snippet from an interview with Stephen Thompson, who suggests Lee was a pioneer in mixing martial arts together. I don’t usually think about it, but I suspect he’s correct. We probably wouldn’t have modern MMA without Bruce Lee. It’s a very interesting observation that’s easy to miss.

While it’s petty and unrelated to anything else, I’ve got a hard time taking Mr. Akintoye seriously after he puts Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s names next to each other as examples. I understand why, but the inclusion of Seagal betrays how little he knows about martial arts beyond The Octagon. This is even more significant, when you remember that Van Damme was a competitive kick boxer before breaking into acting. I don’t hold it against him, but it did affect my perception of the article, and I need to acknowledge that.

I didn’t see what you said about Kung Fu, so I’m not 100% sure where that’s coming from. However, there’s a real reason why we almost never use the term on the blog. Kung Fu is not martial arts.

Okay, that’s not true, Kung Fu can be a martial art, but it can be a lot of other things as well.

Before I go further, it’s important to understand, I don’t speak any Chinese languages.

So, here’s what I’m sure of: Kung Fu can be any art which demands dedication, and persistence from the practitioner. This means it does include martial arts, but also includes many other activities. If you dedicate a chunk of your life to a skill which required focus and dedication, that’s “Kung Fu.”

The extreme end of this would be the idea that a concert pianist would be an example of, “kung fu.” They spent time, energy, dedication, and in the end, mastered their skill.

This where you can find the philosophy that, “kung fu,” is making yourself a better person. You’ve taken this time and energy to focus a skill into excellence. Now, I don’t know how accurate that is, and I’ve never seen it discussed outside of fictional contexts. So, either this a cultural norm, or it’s incorrect, and I don’t know which. As I mentioned, I don’t have the lingual background to make that assessment.

You can look at self-improvement as a struggle against yourself. You don’t need to be perfect, but you do need to be better than you were the day before. Is that, “Kung Fu?” I don’t know. Maybe?

Martial arts is a way you can seek self improvement. So, the idea that you’re facing yourself and pushing on has merit.

The short version is that you’re not out of your depth. Mr. Akintoye has a very specific perspective on what constitutes, “real fights.” That idea is not real world violence. His perspective then distorts his presentation of the facts. He’s pulled some very specific examples, sometimes without context, and constructed a narrative from that. I can’t blame him for that, every one of us will sometimes let our perspective distort our presentation of the facts. That’s just dealing with human beings.

There’s some interesting stuff in the article, but, Akintoye is working from the idea that Bruce Lee wasn’t good enough to be an MMA fighter, which doesn’t mesh with what we know about the man.


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