“Rags to riches” stories are a dime a dozen. It’s almost cliché to wax poetic about a determined soul who worked his way out of austere conditions to hit the big time. But your mother always taught you that hard work pays off and were he alive today, Bruce Lee would kick you in the shin for disagreeing with her.
Lee had no aspirations of changing the martial arts, but raised in Hong Kong, he really had no choice in the back alleys where “punch or be punched” was the official past time. Rehashing a life so well documented is unnecessary, but the art Lee left behind, Jeet Kune Do, cannot be given its due respect without a brief lesson in the history of the original dragon.
Before moving to the United States in 1959, Lee studied Wing Chun, an empty hand form of Kung Fu that was developed in Southern China and is defined by short-range hand attacks, under Master Yip Man. It was during this period that he learned the importance of efficient striking through centerline control and the dominance of technique over brute force. Man instilled in Lee the futility of flashy kicking and wasteful movements and the importance of protecting the center of the torso to force opponents to attack from the outside in. Wing Chun also developed in Lee the concepts of forward pressure (closing the distance between you and your opponent), trapping (intercepting an attack before it starts), and vertical punching. As a young adult, Lee opened two Wing Chun schools, one in Seattle and the other in Oakland, California. In 1964, Lee managed to piss off a few Oakland Chinese martial arts masters and received an ultimatum-stop teaching Wing Chun or take an ass beating. But Bruce Lee would not be Bruce Lee if he’d backed down and in the ensuing fight, he defeated Wong Jack Man in under three minutes; too long by his standards. The fight ignited a fire in the self-critical Lee to rethink his methods and be more efficient. He looked to the fighting style of his adopted country for improvement.
“Bruce had a high regard for western boxing because he felt it was more efficient in many ways than many Kung Fu systems,” says Dan Inosanto, a fully accredited instructor under Lee. He added the fluid motion of boxing’s footwork, which he felt gave him more mobility to position himself for strikes against his opponent than other static forms. He then borrowed boxing’s emphasis on proper body alignment, maximum striking surface, hip rotation, and kinetic energy chain sequences, which are combinations that flow naturally from each other.
But he wasn’t satisfied and adopted techniques from (of all arts) fencing. The coiled rear foot of the fencer intrigued Lee as well as strategic points, such as the stop-hit. “[It’s] essentially the JKD namesake—the way of the intercepting fist,” says the Bruce Lee Foundation. “The idea that you can set up your opponent so that you will be able to intercept him in his most vulnerable state—on the attack—is central to the work of fencing authors Aldo Nadi and Julio Martinez Castello,” which Lee studied.
His new art was called “Jun Fan Gung Fu” after his given Chinese name (Jun Fan), so it literally meant “Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu.” But he soon discovered that this label was too restrictive and would hamper its growth. In 1965 he renamed it Jeet Kune Do to incorporate his philosophical beliefs on the marital arts. Jeet Kune Do meant “The Intercepting Fist” and wasn’t limited to the three basic disciplines of Wing Chun, boxing, and fencing because Lee believed that anything that worked was useful. This is Bruce Lee’s greatest legacy-an open minded approach to a traditionally closed minded art form.
Lee believed that if an unorthodox movement, like a groin strike, eye gouge, or even a flying knee ended a streetfight, then it should be part of the practitioner’s skill set. He knew that the development of someone’s style should never be limited to the gym, but new techniques and moves should be discovered within the free flowing environment of an actual fight. Lee’s students were encouraged to interpret moves for themselves and even change them for their own purposes.
“The martial arts were very traditional and full of rigid styles back then,” says Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon. “It was almost like a religion. They all had set rules and mandated that you didn’t venture outside of them. To my father it was all about being free and opening your mind.”
It was a revolutionary way of looking at combatives by changing the very nature of the art from systemization to modularity. It was less like a toy truck that could not change and more like a Lego set that the user could interlock to make something more useful. It was an alternative to the traditional evolutionary approach that just built off of itself one advancement at a time.
Jun Fan Gung Fu remained intact as a tangible art form within the auspice of JKD, but by renaming it Lee was able to add his philosophies and create something new. Jeet Kune Do was broken down into two major tenets – the framework and the personal system.
CATCH ME A FISH
The framework is a collection of movements and techniques that gave the student the basic tools to establish a fighting system, but without limiting him to only these forms. At its core, the framework is the Jun Fan Gung Fu tat Lee developed and is more of a process of finding what works best by learning the base instruments of the marital arts. Some of the critical parts of the framework were:
-Strong in fighting. Close quarters combat was Lee’s bread and butter based on his background in Wing Chun. Jeet Kune Do therefore reflected the need to practice close quarters throwing, grappling, immobilizations and what Lee called shifty blasting.
-Economy of Motion. There’s no reason to be flashy. Every movement has to have a purpose.
-Centerline Control. A Wing Chun concept, the body’s natural centerline had to be protected so attacks would go around it. Protect the centerline and form a shell so your opponent has to attack from the outside in.
-Intercepting attacks. A JKD staple is the stop-hit, which is a timed strike made against the adversary while he is coming forward to deliver a strike. It anticipates and intercepts the line of attack.
-Simultaneous block and attack. This is a combination of a well-coordinated angular deflection of an opponent’s attack coupled with a simultaneous attack of your own.
-The Five Ways of Attack. Lee briefly described these as “Simple Angle Attack, Hand Immobilizing Attack, Progressive Indirect Attack, Attack by Combination, Attack by Drawing.” Jeet Kune Do disdained direct attacks and instead emphasized counterstriking after an opponent’s strike had been foiled.
-No High Kicks. This is one the only instances where Lee was less accommodating of a particular move. He felt kicks should target the shins, thighs, and midsection, but also believed if an opportunity presented itself, then a head kick is acceptable.
-The Four Ranges of Combat. JKD practitioners were taught to master the ranges of their own weapons-kicking, punching, trapping, and grappling.
-The Three Parts of JKD Efficiency (an attack that reaches its mark), Directness (doing what comes naturally in a learned way), and Simplicity (uncomplicated thinking).
-Combat Realism. Bruce Lee did not stress the memorization of “Kata,” as most traditional styles do in their beginner-level training. He compared doing forms without an opponent to learning to swim on dry land. Lee believed that real combat was alive and dynamic and that circumstances in a fight change from millisecond to millisecond. Therefore pre-arranged patterns and techniques were not adequate in dealing with such a changing situation.
-Physical Conditioning. After watching just one Bruce Lee movie, it’s easy to see why he stressed physical conditioning. His stature was impressive, even by today’s gym-addict standards. Lee knew a fight could last longer than anticipated and was Draconian when it came to his cardiovascular endurance.
TEACH ME TO FISH
The framework provided the tools, but the personal system is really the heart of Jeet Kune Do. In a nutshell JKD recognizes that everyone is different and each martial artist requires a personal system that’s right for them. For example part of the JKD framework was to establish strong close quarters fighting skills. A JKD personal system for a shorter person would take those in-fighting skills and adapt them by developing body combinations and uppercuts. While the JKD framework is a process, the personal system is a product.
“The difference between the two is like going from high school to college,” says Inosanto. “The framework is the basics and the personal system is the advanced techniques.”
“Every human, no matter what your background is, how big, tall, whatever, everyone has their own style,” says Jeet Kune Do practitioner and UFC welterweight Ben Saunders. “It doesn’t mater who you are; everyone is an individual. Lee recognized that and said everyone had to develop his own style. Like me, I’m taller than most guys so I need to train on striking and guard defenses different from most guys.”
It’s within the personal system that Bruce Lee’s genius endures. One of his core maxims was to “absorb what is useful and cast away what is not.” Is a double jab while circling to the left more comfortable than a jab-cross combination? Then use it. Do you have trouble bending your right knee from an old football injury that makes shooting into your opponent’s hips nearly impossible when your left leg is in the lead? Then change it. It was Darwinian adaptation at its finest and reflected one of the maxim’s Lee is best known for – “Be like water.”
“Water is insubstantial, but it adapts to every environment,” Inosanto says. “If you put it in a bowl, it becomes the bowl. If you put it in a cup, it becomes the cup. It adapts to its surroundings. JKD is like this too. It can look like Judo, a streetfighter, Savate, or kickboxing. If it goes to the ground, it looks like a wrestler. Adaptability is the greatest aspect you can have in the martial arts. A good fighter can adapt to close quarters, hand fighting, ground fighting, foreign terrain like an open field, the jungle, close range, long range, whatever.”
It was all about the individual. It was focused on what each person did: how they were most efficient at using their arms, legs, movements, weight, tactics, and the laws of physics to fight. He was just as much an abstract thinker as he was a martial artist and still today, he could be considered the psychologist of the martial arts. He used maxims, such as “No Way as Way,” “No limitation as limitation,” and “The consciousness of ‘self’ is the greatest hindrance to the proper execution of all physical action.” Sounds like some “Ancient Chinese Secret” commercials or a snake oil salesman that promises his nectar will do everything from lube your car to remove tobacco stains, but in fact Lee’s focus was on practicality rather than tradition.
“There are fifty-five throws in Judo, but everyone has their favorite four or five,” says Inosanto. “It’s like a football quarterback who has hundreds of plays, but is strong at throwing or running, so he chooses to use those over and over. Bruce always told me to find an art that fits the individual. Horse jockeys usually aren’t very good basketball centers and vice versa. We all have to use the God given attributes we have to the fullest.”
Oddly, Bruce Lee was adamant that he had not created a new style of martial art and made it known in several interviews before his death that he did not consider JKD an art unto itself. “I have not invented a new style, composite, modified, or otherwise that is set within distinct form,” he said. “On the contrary I hope to free my followers from clinging to styles, patterns, or molds.”
EXIT THE DRAGON
But the world would never feel the true essence of Bruce Lee. He died on July 20, 1973 in Hong Kong. Although the details of his death have fueled many conspiracy theories (and what celebrity’s death hasn’t?), the ultimate cause was ruled a fatal reaction to a painkiller that caused his brain to swell thirteen percent beyond normal. He took a pill and laid down to nap. By the time he was found in his bedroom, he was gone.
Just three weeks later Lee’s opus, Enter the Dragon, was released which every aspiring martial artist and bullied nerd has seen fourteen times. The movie was an instant cult classic and fueled an insatiable craze for Kung Fu that had the unfortunate side effect of unleashing a circus of Bruce Lee imitators, called Bruceploitation.
In 1975, Lee’s widow, Linda Lee published the landmark book, Tao of Jeet Kune Do based on Bruce Lee’s notes and the lessons of Dan Inosanto and his senior students. To date it has sold over 750,000 copies worldwide. But without its leader to guide it, Jeet Kune Do meandered through the 1970’s and 80’s being passed down from Lee’s students to handfuls of second generation practitioners. Lee never named a clear successor to his art, so it was eventual that multiple Jeet Kune Do philosophies emerged. Several JKD organizations exist today, all of which believe they teach what Bruce Lee would have wanted. These can generally be broken down into Original Jeet Kune Do, Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do, and Advanced Concepts Jeet Kune Do.
OJKD teaches Bruce Lee’s techniques from his Jun Fan Gung Fu period in Seattle and focuses on trapping hands with a Wing Chun influence.
Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do (literally translated as “Bruce Lee’s way of the intercepting fist) is legally trademarked by the Bruce Lee Foundation along with the rights to his name, likeness, and personal martial arts legacy, including personal photos and countless personal effects and memorabilia. But the Foundation, run by the Lee family, does not take a side in the “my JKD is better than yours” argument. “My father would be appalled by the argument about whose JKD is better,” says Shannon Lee. “I don’t get involved in those. The in-fighting about it makes me mad.”
Advanced Concepts JKD believes the art should continually evolve with infusions of fresh ideas. Advanced Concepts integrates elements from many other martial arts into the main fold of its teachings (most notably, grappling and Kali / Escrima material) based on the individual’s personal preferences and physical attributes. Advanced Concepts JKD is a dynamic art that looks more like Mixed Martial Arts than the original Jeet Kune Do did because it borrows anything that works and applies it to each individual’s style to build their personalized system. Though he never asked for it, Dan Inosanto is the de facto figurehead of the Advanced Concepts side of JKD.
“I don’t think there’s a rivalry, but some people do,” says Inosanto. “I don’t see it as two factions. Some want to keep the framework and art the way it was when Bruce was alive, which is fine. But when I was training with Bruce he was changing so rapidly, especially just before he passed away. Bruce Lee taught very dif- ferently in 1960 than he did in 1970 because he learned constantly and was always on the cutting edge. He believed the structure had to change with the times.”
MMA IS REALLY JKD?
“I wouldn’t have evolved without the JKD guidin
g philosophy,” Ben Saunders says. The TUF season 6 veteran and current UFC welterweight has been practicing Advanced JKD Concepts since he was 8 because he felt it was the best way to get multiple martial arts at once. JKD’s multi-pronged curriculum of Muay Thai, Savate, Kali, and Wing Chun was the blended scotch that appealed to him more than the single malt. When he was old enough to work, he got a job at McDonalds to pay for his Jeet Kune Do lessons.
”It’s that principle of constant growth that sets it apart from everything else,” he says. “I’d be years behind everyone else and still stuck in the stages of learning one martial art if it wasn’t for JKD. I probably would have jumped on the Gracie Jiu Jitsu bandwagon.”
If you haven’t figured it out by now, Mixed Martial Arts was essentially what Bruce Lee was moving toward and his impact on the current sport is deeper than one might think. On the surface there are few avowed JKD practitioners like Saunders in the upper echelons of MMA. But a deeper look will reveal six degrees of separation that end up with UFC brass around its waist. For example, Bruce Lee taught Jeet Kune Do to Dan Inosanto. Dan Inosanto taught Erik Paulson and Greg Nelson, accrediting both of them. Erik Paulson and Greg Nelson taught Brock Lesnar. So Brock Lesnar is actually a direct product of Bruce Lee.
Did we just blow your mind or what?
“I use a lot of the principles still,” says Erik Paulson. “Broken rhythm, trapping hands, pausing. It’s not like Wing Chun trapping, but it’s the same principle.”
Greg Nelson agrees. “I still adhere to Bruce Lee’s principles, like ‘absorb what is useful, reject what is useless’, ‘accept what is your own.’ Everyone has to have a personal system. Look at Sean Sherk. He’s a world-class wrestler. He’s not going to be fighting off his back, so we tailor his skills to adapt to other situations he might find himself in.”
Though he never knew Bruce Lee, MMA’s greatest trainer shares a similar history of combatives trial and error as a youth. Greg Jackson was raised in the barrios of Albuquerque and trained in various disciplines like Tae Kwon Do and Judo, but to no avail. “None of that stuff worked against Spanish boxers,” Jackson says. “So I would throw it away and go back to the drawing board and rethink what worked. It was the same principle as Jeet Kune Do: find what works for you and forget the rest.”
MMA stands on the shoulders of Jeet Kune Do.