Throughout history there have been exceptional people who’ve inspired us by the way they lead their lives and accomplish success, chief among them, Bruce Lee.
Anyone that’s made it on the silver screen has the potential to integrate into popular culture. If they’re “lucky” enough to do so, the rest of us usually end up glamorizing their life, regardless how admirable their actual life is or was. In Bruce Lee’s case, we probably don’t glamorize him enough. The guy accomplished more in his 32 years than most do in a lifetime.
Yet his image is tied to his sculpted figure and insane kung-fu moves. Many of us think of him as no more than a film star, like Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Steve McQueen, or John Wayne. The reality is that those adored actors can only compete at the lowest-common-denominator criteria for which Bruce Lee’s badass-ness can be evaluated.
1. His rigorous physical conditioning didn’t come close to his mental discipline
While standing at just 5’-7” hovering somewhere between 140–150, Lee’s physical appearance was statue-like, and he couldn’t have done it without a rigid physical discipline.
Here’s one of Lee’s 1965 gym cards, from the book, “The Art of Expressing the Human Body.”
We can see that Lee was all about building tightly wound endurance muscles, with each exercise consisting of 3-5 sets. If you’re interested in bodybuilding but still want to look like you can wipe your own ass, learn about the exercises in closer detail here.
As regimented as this sheet looks it’s a mere complement to Lee’s reading, meditating, and writing focus. He left behind 7 volumes of writing — everything from quantum physics to philosophy. He even wrote poetry. Is there anything more badass than a lethal man who writes poetry? On top of this, he also kept daily journals and workout regimens like the one above throughout his adult life.
In fact, if it wasn’t for Lee’s intense mental fortitude, he might have never recovered from a serious back injury in 1970. Instead, Lee spent the time writing and feeding his mind, setting new goals mentally, spiritually, and physically until he was healed. Without such mental focus and discipline, Lee likely would’ve floundered in bed feeling sorry for himself, letting his mind stymie his physical recovery. Lee focused, his mind accomplished. It’s a lesson all of us could learn from time to time.
2. Wong Jack Man Fight
When Lee moved to Oakland and opened a gym to teach martial arts, he wasn’t so popular on the other side of the Bay Bridge. Popular accounts claim it’s because Lee taught martial arts to white people, something frowned upon by the martial arts community, but according to those familiar with the ‘60’s Bay Area martial arts scene, like Leo Fong, the Chinese-only martial arts sentiment started to deteriorate around that time, and even respected Chinatown teachers were willing to teach any student. “It was never about that. It all really had to do with Bruce’s personality,” said Fong in a Viceland piece about the fight.
Bruce wasn’t afraid to speak his mind on other kung-fu disciplines being taught, and things really boiled over when he gave a lecture and demonstration at Chinatowns’ Sun Sing theater. During the demonstration Lee criticized two of the most revered local teachers in TY Wong and Lau Bun. Conflict was eminent.
Oddly enough, a recent martial arts transplant named Wong Jack Man was the man to call Lee on his claim, having a mutual acquaintance deliver a note to Lee’s Oakland gym. Lee accepted without hesitation, and later when Wong requested fight guidelines on kicking the head and groin, as well as on eye jabs, Lee refused. The fight became an “anything-goes” affair.
The details of the fight are a little hazy with no video footage and only nine witnesses, but it apparently started with Lee delivering an opening blow to Wong’s temple. However, unlike in past fights, Lee was unable to quickly put Wong away, only being able to do so after a flurry of advances caused Wong to lose his footing. Wong had to yield giving Lee the win. The whole thing lasted between three and seven minutes.
Many say the fight was a seminal moment for Lee’s development. After all, he hadn’t destroyed Wong quickly like past foes and the fight had exposed serious flaws in his technique and conditioning. It was a fight like this that paved the way for the ultimate development of his non-traditionalist Jeet Kune Do martial arts style.
3. He Changed Martial Arts Acting
There probably would not have been a Jackie Chan or Jet Li had there not been Bruce Lee. Even though Lee appeared in several films as a child actor in Hong Kong (his first role was at 3 months old!), he faced resistance in Hollywood, partly due to stereotyping (shit that still goes on today) and partly due to his disinterest in meathead roles.
So Lee took things into his own hands. Refusing to play Hollywood’s game, he stopped auditioning for martial arts films and started doing gung-fu demonstrations. Eventually a producer noticed him and cast him as the sidekick in the 1966 TV series, “The Green Hornet.”
Prior to Lee, martial arts films were a joke; actors couldn’t even do proper kicks let alone their own stunts. Lee took it a step further by writing scripts and choreographing fight scenes.
But the resistance wasn’t over, particularly when it came to Lee’s vision for his films. When Warner Bros decided to remove the philosophical elements from “Enter the Dragon,” Lee stopped showing up on set. After two weeks the studio caved and the film would become known for its unique fusion of philosophy and kung-fu.
4. An Artist of Life
Lee was an actor, a martial artist, a teacher, a philosopher, a husband, a father, but he was an artist of life at his core. Here are a few nuggets of Lee’s wisdom.
• “Defeat is a state of mind; no one is ever defeated until defeat has been accepted as a reality.”
• “Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.”
• “Keep your mind on the things you want and off the things you don’t.”
• “Pessimism blunts the tools you need to succeed.”
• “By martial art I mean, like any art, an unrestricted expression of our individual soul… The human soul is what interests me. I live to express myself freely in creation.”
• “The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the beginning.”
Also see Lee’s views on self-actualization and the difference between pride and self-esteem.
All the above being said, Bruce Lee was also badass in the traditional sense, as we can see in this recently surfaced video that appears to be Lee sparring with (read: absolutely schooling) one of his top pupils, Ted Wong, in a rare recorded session that’s since been restored for ultimate goose bump effect. Enjoy.
Read about other inspiring men, women, places, and moments in time, all a part of VK Nagrani’s Badass series.