Elite Defense Systems Published Articles

BRUCE LEE: The Legacy of an Understatement

- By MATT NUMRICH, Kickboxx Magazine

When one talks about martial art legends, there may not be any dispute when it comes to the individual called Bruce Lee. Decades ago he was a film star for the baby boomer generation, while still today he graces the t-shirts worn by third graders. His mystical life was cut short in 1973, while his philosophy called Jeet Kune Do (JKD) still mystifies practitioners in search of his combat secrets. Although JKD was held to closed-door sessions for many years, Bruce's magic still lives on through his fans across the globe. How can one man, with such a short life, still impact so many people today - both inside and outside the martial arts world? First, let us take a look at the three decades he lived, what he changed, and what role he plays today in martial arts.


Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940 - ironically the year of the Dragon. His father was a star of the Chinese Opera, which probably impacted his early film spots in overseas film hits as The Orphan and Chinese Blackboard Jungle. Highly dedicated to whatever he put his mind to, Bruce found a mentor in a teacher named Yip Man, who opened the doors to the world of martial arts. Bruce combined the philosophies of both the Eastern and Western world, which showed through in his combative training. For example, he trained both in the traditional art of Wing Chun, while also competing in school boxing tournaments. Bruce topped off his physical activity by also becoming a dance champion, which only further developed his world-renowned coordination, balance, and speed.

There was no definite point when Lee created his "art" JKD, but it is obvious that his eclectic experiences, (at the time) the country's rebel tendencies, and the overly structured martial arts world, all added fuel to the fire. This fire continued to spread through his acting career as he starred as the side kick "Kato" in the Green Hornet. Later on, he would continue to star in other films as the Big Boss and Enter the Dragon. Both of these movies played huge parts in catapulting Lee in the stratosphere of Asian and American popularity. However, there was still an aspect of Lee's life that pushed him to test not only his limits, but martial arts practitioners all over the world.

Bruce's busy lifestyle did not take away from his training as he continued to experiment and discover new truths in martial arts. He was dedicated in finding the one art that was the "truth", as he called it. The ironic fact is that his frustration in finding this one art, set the foundation of Jeet Kune Do. After experimenting with dozens upon dozens of arts, and realizing that each had their own set of limitations - Lee made a discovery. The answer to his quest for the "truth" came not in one art, but a philosophy of freedom. Lee realized that one art may be the solution for one moment in combat, but useless in another. Therefore, he started to use techniques and training methods from different styles all in the same sparring session. Decades later this line of thought would become a necessity in tournaments like the Ultimate Fighting Championships.

Soon, Bruce and his protege Dan Inosanto were using Praying Mantis one moment, then switching to a Savate kick, then to Western Boxing, and ending up with a choke on the ground. Every movement was dictated by what was needed by the moment. The Jeet Kune Do "structureless structure" was able to account for many ranges including kicking, boxing, trapping (close quarters), and grappling. Inosanto expanded Lee's knowledge on weapons, by introducing the Filipino Arts. Lee even used these arts in the movie, Game of Death - where Inosanto made a cameo. Lee's formula became a battle cry in training, as most JKD practitioners committed the phrases "Absorb what is useful and reject what was useless..." and "No way as way..." to memory.


One of Lee's most interesting discoveries, that is not widely known, is the aspect of "Trapping range". Although Bruce was known to be able to adapt from range to range, he found that there was a particular range extremely effective for combat. Trapping range, as he called it, is simply close quarters. It is the range between grappling and boxing. Lee found that in this range size, weight, height, and even skill did not hold as much water. For instance, in Trapping range one could use more effective tools as elbows, knees, and head butts. Even a smaller person can use these tools to take a larger opponent out of commission easily. Bruce knew this personally; he was only 5'5", 125 pounds. Trapping range was also easy to learn. Compare teaching the mechanics of a head butt, to the extensive mechanics of a spinning roundhouse kick or triangle submission hold. These tools were also more efficient. Clock how long it takes to throw a knee, compared to putting someone into a "heel hook" submission!

This Trapping range discovery was also an ignorant subject to most of the martial arts world. Besides a couple arts only scratching the surface of it's effectiveness, this range was not used by a whole lot of martial artists at the time. Because of the lack of certified instruction in America of JKD today, Trapping range is still not widely known - therefore those who know it have a huge advantage. Surprisingly enough, today's favor of the month "Reality Combat Programs" are now adopting this close range, as a great range to train and defend themselves in. However, if it is that effective, why did Lee not show this range off in his movies? It all came down to what looks good for the screen. Bruce adapted to everything, including the movie set. Although Lee, and later on his son Brandon, both used Trapping range in their fight choreography, its quick "non-flashy" applications don't usually demand attention on screen. This is true even today, especially compared to multiple unrealistic kicks Van Damme popularized in the 90's, and the movie the Matrix showed off a couple years ago.


To this day there is no other street fighting art as complete as Bruce Lee's JKD. That last sentence may be the most controversial statement so far, however there is a perfect modern day example to support Bruce's ideas showing up today. How many opponents in the first couple UFC's lost because they were limited in their ground fighting knowledge? Then, up until the last few years it was thought that ground fighting arts were the answer - as many of these schools popped up all over the US. In the last few "no rules" tournaments "ground only" opponents started to lose, because ground fighting is not the only answer. Now it is assumed that "no rules" fighters know the stand-up and ground game... those who don't learn painfully. As a result, much of the martial arts world now believes that "Hybrid Arts" (a system which combines two or more arts) is the answer to combat. Bruce's findings still hold true, because "just mixing" arts will still have its limitations. There is no freedom by just mixing. JKD is a process not a product.

Today's competitions prove Lee's point once again... but will people ever see the difference? Only if the UFC's bring weapons into the ring or allow mass attacks, will the Hybrid practitioners realize that self-defense is not found in one, two, or even five arts. It is found in that "structureless structure" - not the ring. Yes, Hybrid arts are effective in the ring, but they are still limited in the street. Therefore, Lee's JKD stays where it was meant to be, the street. Elite agencies are are now starting to adopt JKD. For instance, the Navy SEALs contracted out JKD Instructor Sifu Paul Vunak (student under Guru Dan Inosanto) to teach them the realistic self-defense system. Currently, JKD is popping up in the CIA's and major police curriculums, as well. They simply realize that any altercation with a bad guy will have no referee - and really "No Rules". Therefore, Bruce still continues to impact new students even though he has been gone for over 25 years.


It seemed that Bruce Lee did it all. He made movies that captivated audiences, trained and taught with such varied talent as Chuck Norris to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, while turning the martial arts world upside down. His JKD continues to evolve, as it was once stated in a popular magazine that JKD is definitely "known for its street effectiveness". Besides his martial arts' contributions, Lee was also a philosopher. There are many books out right now which solely focus on his intriguing thoughts about life, love, family, and self-improvement. Currently, many people have many different views on JKD, onto what arts are included presently, or just to what JKD is. One thing is true, is that Bruce is not dead, because the changes he started still live on. They live on through his family, friends, and practitioners all over the world. Bruce was a product of a process. He accomplished what three lifetimes would take to accomplish, but in only one-third of a life.

Bruce Lee... a legend... quite possibly the biggest understatement every made.