It might be hard to imagine, but there was a time when the notion of fighting effectively meant clinging to techniques that had little basis in reality. Back then, the various martial arts were insular, rigid things, and to stray from one particular path was to consign your soul to eternal damnation (or so your dojo brothers thought).
Thankfully, those days are long behind us, with our enlightenment coming courtesy of an eight-sided metal cage and the gallons of blood spilled within. All hail the Ultimate Fighting Championship. But before there was a UFC to preach to us the gospel, there was a lone prophet, struggling to run martial arts schools and on the verge of movie stardom. He believed in cross-training in various fighting styles. He believed in utilizing only what actually works in a fight. His name was Bruce Lee.
Author Matthew Polly’s biography on Lee – “Bruce Lee: A Life” – hits bookstores today, and with a page-count just north of 600, it is far and away the definitive text on the subject. Polly spent years researching and conducting interviews, distilling all the information gathered into a book that provides insight on everything from Lee’s childhood film career, to his tumultuous years as a pain-in-the-ass student, to his quest to find fame and fortune in America, to the success that came in the twilight of his short life.
We even get to know quite a bit about Lee’s personality outside of what was captured on celluloid.
For instance, in the lead-up to the filming of “Enter the Dragon”, Lee made sure his American co-star John Saxon knew what was what. According to Polly:
On John Saxon’s first day in Hong Kong, in January 1973, Lee brought him to his home and asked to see his sidekick. Standing in the middle of the room and feeling a little foolish, Saxon flicked out a few kicks.
“Not bad,” Bruce said. “Now let me show you mine.”
As he had done so many times before, Bruce handed Saxon a padded shield to hold against his chest and place a chair several feet behind him. Then Bruce did a hop, skip, and a jump and blasted into the shield. Saxon went flying back on his heels and landed in the chair, which shattered. He was in shock for a few moments. Bruce ran over with a concerned look on his face.
“Don’t worry,” Saxon said. “I’m not hurt.”
“I’m not worried about you,” Bruce said. “You broke my favorite chair.”
And that’s when John Saxon realized he was not going to be the star of the movie.
Yes, Lee was a bit of a pecker at times, but credit goes to Polly for striving to paint a fair and accurate picture of both the myth and the man.
A few years back, the UFC included Lee as a playable character in an iteration of their video game, and you can buy t-shirts from the UFC’s online store that bear Lee’s name and image. “The father of MMA,” is what UFC boss Dana White called him, but Lee’s influence on fighting – and culture – extends way beyond the cage.
There used to be underground kung fu tournaments in Queens, NY, and the characters that showed up and took part in these full-contact affairs hated all things UFC, but worshiped Lee like a god. They even dressed the part.
If that makes you scratch your head and wonder why, read Polly’s book. Like an important historical text examining Jesus Christ, Muhammad or Buddha, “Bruce Lee: A Life” makes it clear how and why Lee’s fistic religion has endured for so long. He nails it.