Always ‘be prepared’, that’s what NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told me when we spoke about his time learning under the martial arts icon that is Bruce Lee, back in 2015.
As well as being one of his students, the 7 foot 2 inch Los Angeles Lakers centre made a cameo ‘for the ages’ in Bruce’s last film, Game of Death. Martial Arts has been around for centuries, but without Bruce Lee there wouldn’t be the same impact on mainstream media and pop culture.
Ask any martial arts movie fan ‘Who’s the best?’. There is only one name on their lips. A poll by Ranker even ranked Bruce Lee as the greatest martial artist in history, while his spiritual successor Jackie Chan came in second.
But while we often praise him for popularising martial arts through his films, we tend to forget his legacy came at the cost of both his reputation and his body. Even though his magnum opus, Enter The Dragon, will be forever present in the annals of movie history, it’s actually in UFC where his legacy has been truly cemented.
Before Bruce Lee came into his own, martial arts was bound by strict codes and traditions.
Figureheads in the martial arts community were openly reluctant on teaching their techniques and skills to those who weren’t Chinese. There is an argument it was a racist/xenophobic approach to halt a form of cultural appropriation. Others would argue it was a simple matter of inherent distrust and misguided suspicion towards outsiders.
However, Bruce viewed things differently. Before moving back to America to complete his studies he became an accomplished practitioner of Wing Chun under the tutelage of Ip Man. But he was a noted firebrand, refusing to follow the rules and regularly getting into street fights with local gangs. In fact, it’s the reason why his parents encouraged him to take up martial arts in the first place.
When he went back to the United States he began teaching non-Chinese students. This most likely stemmed from his own experiences when training under Sifu (teacher) Ip.
After some of Ip’s students learned of Bruce’s mixed ancestry they refused to train alongside him, as they believed non-Asians shouldn’t learn martial arts.
When I spoke to Kareem three years ago he stated Bruce ‘had one criteria’:
You had to be in-shape. He didn’t want people coming in there not being able to keep pace. But if you paid attention you learned a few things.
Perpetration, you had to be prepared. You had to understand what your skills are and how you want to do things and to defend yourself and I found that lesson repeated itself.
While Bruce’s acceptance of students with no Asian heritage ostracised him from the traditionalists – with some even going as far as to challenge him – he saw the bigger picture. Martial Arts needed to get away from traditionalist elitism, and it needed to separate itself from the pseudo-mysticism which was preventing it from progressing further.
He may have been a great philosopher but for all his ‘flow like water’ advice, he was a pragmatist at his core. Often regarded as the godfather of MMA – a sentiment echoed by UFC President Dana White – he was one of the first mainstream wushu practitioners who saw a flaw in the system of Chinese martial arts.
He stepped away from the belief that ‘one style is more superior to the other’. Instead, it’s about the fighter and how they adapt to the situation. Which is why he analysed the head movements of boxers, the footwork of fencers and the grappling styles of wrestlers and judo practitioners.
Through this, he founded the style of jeet kune do, a hybrid philosophy of martial arts heavily influenced by his own personal philosophy and experiences. He described it as ‘non-classical’. To quote Enter The Dragon ‘You can call it the art of fighting without fighting’.
His profound influence – and by extension, his legacy – is felt throughout MMA. They may not have learnt under the man himself but they certainly took on board his philosophy of being the complete fighter. One person who took Lee’s approach to martial arts to the heart is Ultimate Fighter fan favourite Alex ‘Bruce Leroy’ Caceres.
Anyone who’s followed his career from The Ultimate Fighter: Team GSP vs. Team Koscheck to the UFC will be aware of his affinity for Bruce Lee.
Speaking to UNILAD Caceres brokedown Lee’s direct influence on his career and his fighting style. He explains:
As a fighter Bruce Lee showed me that ‘no limitation was his limitation’. We are able to be creative as we want to be.
One thing that stuck with me throughout my entire career, Bruce said ‘I’m not trying to teach you how to fight, like in karate, wrestling or boxing, I’m trying to teach you the best way that you can fight. I’m trying to teach you how to move with your body. The best way that you can move’.
He never believed in styles, just a human way of fighting. That’s what I took to heart for a very long time, there was no ‘way’ of doing something.
It gave me the opportunity and the go-ahead – instead of learning different styles and picking one that resonated with me well – I was able to take all the fighting styles I was being taught at the time and blend them seamlessly.
Speaking of Lee’s influence on the culture of MMA and UFC, Caceres states:
Bruce Lee had to take different aspects of people’s fighting styles and blend them into their own. I think being a true martial artist and true ‘martial arts’ is just that, there are no boundaries, there is no ‘way’ of doing things.
What I take from that, is Bruce Lee was a wholeheartedly honest person when expressing himself. I think that was the key to martial arts in general. Like the Shaolin monks, yeah they practice five hours worth of kung-fu but each person practises their own style, they’re very creative, they don’t just stick to one style, they try to express themselves in the best way they can.
While we mythologise and praise Bruce Lee in death, when he was alive he was considered a dangerous nuisance to martial arts culture. It was because his methods began exposing the pseudo-mysticism which comes attached with martial arts. To question the martial arts system is tantamount to questioning the Chinese government itself.
And it seems history is repeating itself again as Chinese MMA fighter/coach Xu Xiaodong has begun a mission to expose ‘fake martial arts’. In 2017 and 2018 Xiaodong challenged the hierarchy of martial arts in China when he beat two masters trained in the art of tai chi and wing chun. Something the Chinese government isn’t pleased with.
Much like Bruce Lee in his formative years, Xu is cocky and abrasive and for the most part is proving that most traditional forms and styles of Chinese martial arts aren’t practical. Xu’s journey as a fighter runs pretty much parallel to Lee’s.
The only thing which separates the two (Lee’s acting career notwithstanding) is Xu appears to dismiss the styles he considers inferior or outdated. Whereas Bruce was keen to learn from them in order to dissect the strengths and weaknesses.
Films often portray martial arts in a romanticised manner – as if it was a ballet. But the truth is martial arts is ugly and brutal. Lee, being the visionary that he is, understood this clearly. Watch any MMA fight – or any combat sport for that matter – it’s not a pretty picture. But pretty won’t get the job done – speed and precision will.
And that is Bruce Lee’s legacy in a nutshell.
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