There’s lots of movie tough guys, but they’re either quietly dorks (Schwarzenegger), douchebags (Seagal), or dummies (Norris). Bruce Lee, though…man, that is one cool cat.
Goodnight, Dirty Briefs. I’ll miss you like I miss Bruce Lee.
EDIT: Apparently that article didn’t survive their site reboot, so here it is.
The internet has an ongoing love affair with Chuck Norris, which is sad, because the best thing Norris ever did was get beaten up by Bruce Lee. A distant second? The insanity of Walker, Texas Ranger. But Lee was a self-made man who was even more impressive off-camera than on.
Born in America, raised in China by his privileged family, Lee Jun-Fan (“Bruce” was a nickname given him by the doctor, who was a dame! In 1940!) could have ridden his dad’s success as an opera singer and actor. Or he could have rumbled in “escalating” street fights with gangs. We emphasize escalating, because he wasn’t even a teenager yet and his life was already the plot of Double Dragon.
His dad taught him Wu style T’ai Chi Ch’uan, before turning him over to the capable Wing Chun fists of Yip Man, who was descended from one of the Five Elders of Shaolin Monastery, and looked way too nice for a guy who could show you your still-beating heart. Other students wouldn’t train with Lee after learning he was a quarter European, because racism is a door that swings both ways, but shuts firmly in the middle. Man trained him privately, recognizing that: come on, this is Bruce Lee. He’s not going to stop punching things, so we’d better make sure he can control his powers.
Boom! 1956, Lee’s at a Jesuit high school. Now he’s learning boxing from monks. At an age when most of us have yet to master driving, he’s fluent in three different languages for punch. He gets bad grades, which were As when he received the report card, but he pummeled them into Ds on the walk home.
By this point, Bruce was shredding Hong Kong apart, and battering Triad members’ kids, which translated into a possible contract on his life. Man, when we were 18 years old, we didn’t even have a nemesis, let alone a fearful crime outfit committing trying to silence our fury.
Lee went to San Francisco to live with his sister. Okay, maybe now he cruised on his father’s name, right? Nope, he waited tables, because Bruce Lee pays his fucking dues. Then he opened his own kung fu dojo at age 19. Wait-when did he learn kung fu? Holy crow, Bruce Lee! Did you just send yourself skills from the future?
Attending the University of Washington, he met a swell gal named Linda Emery and fell in love like the kids do. Guess what happened again? RACISM! Bruce and Linda looked racism in the eye until it backed away slowly. Jeez, reality, when will you learn to give Lee what he wants and get the hell out of his way? They were married and had two kids – so if you’re counting, there are now three things in existence Bruce Lee won’t punch.
Okay, this is where the story gets amazing. By 1964, Lee is in Oakland teaching anybody who wants to learn, and other Chinese martial artists are annoyed that Caucasians are learning their moves without trading something of equal value, like…I dunno, perfect croissants. Lee’s response to racism remains unchanged: “I can kick the ass of any man alive.” Wong Jack Man takes him up on the challenge and shows up at Lee’s studio to fight.
Let’s pause and emphasize that this is not a movie from 1986.
“As Bruce began to warm up to this task,” his wife recollects, Wong’s buddies were already trying to stop the fight. Lee himself recollected it even better, in a skee-bop jazz slang that…really, Bruce Lee, let us have your babies.
This fight is important, because it led Lee to develop Jeet Kune Do, a simplified anti-style that favored heuristics over prepared stances. What that means is Bruce Lee scientifically dismantled a man and felt he could have done a more efficient job of it. He wasn’t a martial artist; he was a martial engineer.
That same year he debuted the one-inch punch, and by the time he had created Jeet Kune Do, delivered eight “unstoppable” punches that the world karate champion was unable to block despite warning when and where they’d arrive. Bruce didn’t believe in God because it was inconceivable that something could exist that Lee couldn’t defeat in battle.
…wait, was Bruce Lee God?
Here he is fielding some nice and occasionally cross-culturally uncomfortable questions with joy and charm.
One day a rando jumped into Bruce’s yard and challenged him to a fight, which is the kind of thing that happens when you’re Bruce Lee. Lacking patience for this kind of BS, Lee dismissed the intruder with one kick. The nice thing about being knocked out by Bruce Lee is nobody has to move you out of his yard, because his aim was good enough to land you on a hospital gurney across town.
Lee developed a martial arts western called The Warrior, but it got dropped so that an identical show could be released starring David Carradine, who was a rich man’s Christopher Lambert. Some stupid producers had Bruce Lee on the hook and they replaced him with Kung Fu and a lead whose knowledge of martial arts was limited to feeling kind of groovy. Lee took it in stride and went on teaching most ofThe Magnificent Seven how to fight. If they’d let him have his western, it would have beenThe Magnificent One and Two Guys Trying to Keep Up.
A health nut, he died suddenly of what is held to be an allergic reaction to painkiller. Foolish western medicine should have known that pain only dies on Bruce Lee’s knuckles. His pallbearers included Steve McQueen, George Lazenby, Chuck Norris, and James Coburn. That’s right, it took Bullitt, James Bond, an internet meme for power, and a man who played tough guys for six decades just to lay him properly in the earth.
Bruce Lee lived life on his own terms, never backed away from a fight, and left us all too soon. He truly was a profile in manlitude.
All of Brendan McGinley‘s punches are one-inch.