“When drinking the water, don’t forget who dug the well.”
—Traditional Chinese Proverb
Last month marked the passing of one of the well diggers of mixed martial arts, an innovator who should be remembered. George Lee was the student and close friend of Bruce Lee (no relation). George met Bruce almost as soon as the pugnacious eighteen-year-old stepped off the slow boat from China onto the shores of San Francisco in 1959. George was attending an Oakland dance class and Bruce, who had been the cha cha champion of Hong Kong, was a guest teacher. What happened during a break changed the course of martial arts in America.
“What impressed me most about Bruce at that time was, during intermission from the cha cha dancing, he put on a martial arts demonstration,” George wrote in his memoir Regards from the Dragon. “I was incredibly impressed because I had never seen anyone as fast as he was. I told him I had been training in gung-fu for the past fifteen years and had never seen anything like what he was doing. Bruce told me he was going up to Seattle and when he got back he would be happy to teach me his style of martial arts.”
After four years in Seattle, Bruce returned to Oakland to take George up on his offer and open a second kung fu school. Almost as soon as he arrived in Oakland, Bruce got into a trash-talking beef with some San Francisco kung fu instructors and was challenged by a Chinatown expert named Wong Jack Man.
It turned out to be the most consequential and famous no-holds-barred fight in the history of martial arts—every Bruce Lee biopic does its own version. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened on that night in December of 1964 and the two sides have been arguing about it for the last fifty years. According to Wong Jack Man’s friends and students, it was a fairly even contest with Bruce as the aggressor and Jack Man as the counter-fighter. According to Bruce’s people, Wong Jack Man panicked and ran like Kalib Starnes, while Bruce chased him around the room for nearly four minutes before finally tackling Jack Man to the ground and forcing him to verbally submit. About the only the thing both sides agree on is that it was an ugly fight.
Unhappy with the messy win, Bruce found himself exhausted, adrenaline dumping, and questioning his traditional style of martial arts. What Bruce did next is what makes him, in Dana White’s words, the “Godfather of MMA.” He decided he needed to incorporate techniques from other styles of martial arts and he needed to train like a modern Western athlete. He jettisoned a thousand years of standing in a horse stance and smacking wooden dummies for roadwork, calisthenics, weightlifting and sparring.
The problem was back in the 1960s there weren’t any martial arts equipment companies. No one was selling the gear Bruce needed. So he turned to George, who was an engineer by training and a welder by trade. Bruce would draw out what he wanted and George would go into his California garage, where so much of American innovation has come from, and build it: kicking shields, punching bags, specialty weight lifting equipment. The gear was so good Bruce, who had more charm than money in those days before he became famous, called George “the Master Maker.” George’s inventions helped Bruce become a new hybrid style of martial artist and a precursor to the MMA fighters of today—perfectly captured in the opening of Enter the Dragon (1973) where Bruce judo flips and submits Sammo Hung wearing almost nothing but fingered gloves and spandex shorts.
Bruce died before Enter the Dragon was released at the age of 32. George continued to live a long and quiet life, practicing martial arts and playing tennis up almost up until his passing at the age of 96. George never sought to commercialize his inventions but was proud to see them incorporated into the everyday practice of martial artist around the country. “Much of the equipment I made for Bruce was truly ahead of its time,” George wrote. “What Bruce and I started was something new and groundbreaking. I am proud that I have created such machines and that over forty years later all these big companies are doing their own versions.”
When David Tadman, who had helped George write his memoir, visited him in the hospital, he gently touched the dying man’s hands. George roused slightly, smiled, and gave him the kung fu salute—fist in palm. He was gone the next day.
George Lee, from all of us who have benefited from your inventions, we salute you.