Through the years one of the questions I’ve been asked most has been, ”What was it like to fight Bruce Lee?”
Of course we never actually fought off-screen, because Bruce didn’t compete with me in professional tournaments.
We did, however, periodically spar. Believe it or not, it was fun! I can say that because Bruce and I were friends, and we deeply respected each other as masters of martial arts.
My debt to Bruce Lee
In a way, Bruce gave me my first movie break in 1968, when he was the stunt coordinator for the ”Wrecking Crew,” starring Dean Martin. My part was a fight scene with Dean, preceded by one whole line of dialogue!
In 1972, Bruce was directing ”Return of the Dragon” and wanted me to be in it. ”I want you to be my opponent. We’ll have a fight in the Coliseum in Rome,” Bruce said with excitement. ”Two gladiators in a fight to the death! Best of all, we can choreograph it ourselves. I promise you the fight will be the highlight of the film.”
”Great,” I said, ”Who wins?”
”I do,” Bruce said with a laugh. ”I’m the star!”
”Oh you’re going to beat up on the current world karate champion?”
”No,” said Bruce. ”I’m going to kill the current world karate champion.”
I laughed and agreed to do the movie, after gaining twenty pounds at his request (he wanted me to look more formidable as his opponent)
Hotels, mannequins and denim jeans
That jabbing dialogue pretty much summarized our wit with each other. My mind races through other examples too.
One time we were in New York, staying at the same hotel. As we went up in the elevator, we started sparring and kept doing so in the hallway of our rooms until 4 a.m.! I still wonder why we weren’t turned in to hotel security. (Maybe we were, but they refused to detain us!)
Another time, when we both lived in Southern Calif., I was over Lee’s house. In his garage he had several mannequins set up for practicing martial arts techniques. He was particularly proud of the one with a head that bobbled.
”Do a round-house to its head,” he said with a smile.
Wearing then some pretty tight ’70s denim jeans (remember?), I told him, ”Not with these pants.”
After a little more prodding by Bruce, I quickly pivoted by body around and jostled its head like a teeter-totter in fast motion.
Of course we both laughed hysterically when my jeans tore in two at the crotch and literally dropped down to my ankles!
Giants come in small packages too
Lee, pound for pound, might well have been one of the strongest men in the world, and certainly one of the quickest. Whether doing one-handed, two-finger push-ups, or horizontally holding up a 125-pound barbell, Lee was impressively strong for his size, especially at only 140-145 pounds.
The fact is Bruce was a giant in so many ways.
I was so deeply saddened when he died in 1973, at only 32 years of age.
He was an inspiration to so many of us. And while he has been gone for 33 years now, his legend continues to live on.
Resolve to face your giant
Back on the filming of ”Return of the Dragon,” it was an eerie feeling standing with Bruce in one of the tunnels leading out into the Roman Coliseum. And I was humbly awed by the thought of real fights to the death that once took place regularly in the arena almost two millennia ago.
You may never engage in hand-to-hand combat with someone like Bruce Lee, or, even more, face real gladiators like others did back then, but the fact is you have your own giants with which or whom to contend. They come in all shapes and sizes: loneliness, addictions, hopelessness, dietary desires, relational incompatibilities, finances, physical inabilities, or maybe even a New Year’s resolution to finally obtain some lifelong goal.
Whatever the case, don’t let the Goliaths in your life intimidate you, even if they do! Don’t fear them, or admit defeat, even if they’ve dominated you before. I’ve failed many times in my life, but God has even used those to bring other successes.
You can’t win without risk and perseverance, plain and simple. Or as Bruce wisely and comically put it, ”A fight is not won by one punch or kick. Either learn to endure or hire a bodyguard.”
That was then, this is now
It’s strange to think Bruce and I were born in the same year (1940), and we would have shared our 66th birthday this past year.
If still alive, I’m sure we would have reminisced about old times and discussed recent ventures of martial arts advocacy and humanitarian assistance. But, most of all, I think we would have talked about how we were still striving to bring down the giants in our lives.
At 66, I’m still tackling those Goliaths, some personal and some professional, and attempting to make my life and this world a better place.
I don’t know everything that 2007 holds in store, but I do know this: I will forget the mistakes of the past and press on to greater achievements.
Lee similarly said, ”I am happy because I am growing daily and I do honestly not know where the limit lies. To be certain, every day there can be a revelation or a new discovery. I treasure the memory of the past misfortunes. It has added more to my bank of fortitude.”
Or as the Bible says, ”I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.”
A good word for a new year, from ”a few good men” and the Good Book!
Happy New Year!