Bruce Lee's life and death are tragically timeless. Lee's time on Earth was cut short in 1973, when he was just 32 years old, yet the martial artist, film star and philosophical treasure made an enormous impact on the world. Lee is still idolized 44 years later, immortalized by his lifetime of work across movies such as The Big Boss (1971) and Enter the Dragon (1973). On top of his contribution to Hollywood and influence in transforming the representation of Asian characters in the film industry, Lee left an unforgettable legacy as one of the most fearsome martial artists of all time.
Part of Lee's impact is due to his fighting style — he created his own martial arts hybrid, Jeet Kune Do. Significantly, the catalyst that fueled Lee's rise to the top was the toughest fight of his career, a private and much-speculated brawl that caused him to reassess his approach to combat.
The upcoming movie Birth of the Dragon focuses on this fight against Wong Jack Man, a real-life event that still looms large thanks to conflicting reports of what really happened. Did Lee win emphatically, or did he struggle?
Two Sides To Every Story
One of the biggest discrepancies in the story is related to why the fight was arranged in the first place. In 1964, five years after Lee had moved back to the US from Hong Kong to teach Western students the traditional Chinese martial art of Wing Chun, Lee was living in San Francisco. He'd set up his own martial arts school, the Jun Fan Gung Institute, and was, by all accounts, kicking up a storm as ardently as he'd roundhouse kick an opponent.
Sure of his ability and willing to take on challenges in the blink of an eye, Lee would promote his school by demonstrating his skills, proudly announcing himself as the toughest fighter in the area. One interpretation of events claims that upon hearing of Lee's arrogance, David Chin, a local practitioner of Wing Chun, identified Wong Jack Man as someone who could knock Lee back into place. Chin worked on a proposal letter with Wong and delivered it to Lee. The date was set.
Before moving on to the details of the fight, there is another interpretation that has less credibility. Some reports claim that Wong was approached by the Chinese community to battle Lee because of the latter's willingness to teach non-Chinese students. The fight against Wong was tied to a life-changing ultimatum. If Lee won, he could to teach whomever he liked. Lose, and he'd lose his school. It's said a Chinese-only code surrounded the Wing Chun tradition for years, but there is little in the way of proof this was enough to trigger the fight.
A Mismatch In Motivation
On the day of the fight, the doors of Lee's gym didn't only lock the two fighters in, they also locked out access to the true version of events — events that will never be fully or even impartially explained. There are two versions of how the bout unfolded, each in stark contrast to the other. Some claim that Lee won the battle easily in only three minutes, but the accounts of Wong and David Chin paint a different picture.
They claim that Wong kept Lee at bay with relative ease, and the fight lasted from 20 to 25 minutes — an eternity in street fighting. Both parties do, however, agree that Lee took a different approach to the battle, striking Wong instantly after the initial handshake, and raining down a relentless stream of punches and kicks on his opponent. Wong held Lee's attack, defending well and choosing decisive moments to strike, frustrating Lee in the process.
This version of events defined the fight as a draw, with neither fighter getting an edge. Despite his early strike, Lee couldn't finish Wong, while Wong held back and contained his attack without matching Lee's intensity. Rather than turn and run, Wong allegedly tripped on a raised section on the floor, Lee pounced, and witnesses stepped in to stop the fight for fear Lee would get carried away — far from a decisive win.
There is one key factor that points toward Lee facing his toughest ever battle against Wong. The fight influenced Lee to hone his own fighting style, as he felt Wing Chun wasn't as effective as it could be, leading to Lee creating Jeet Kune Do.
Lee was a man sure of his ability, enough to challenge anyone who dared take him on. Would he have been so motivated to change his style had the fight against Wong been an easy victory?
Birth of the Dragon hits theaters on August 25.
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