Food for Thought
A lot of people make a big deal, one way or the other, about Bruce Lee, and lately I’ve heard people trying to downplay his role in revitalizing martial arts worldwide, especially mixed martial arts. Ultimately for the master, all martial arts become a matter of, as Bruce said, “Authentic self expression.” In the 1950s, when American music became so bland that Pat Boone was the most exciting thing on the radio, Rock ‘n’ Roll became an inevitable necessity, and without Chuck Berry we would never have had Little Richard, Elvis or the Beatles. When Bruce came on the scene, martial artists everywhere had become mired in tradition, down to copying their instructor when he did a move incorrectly, which is still a serious problem the further you get away from a grand master, and sometimes even they fail to get one move down correctly, and everyone’s afraid to correct them. “Oh, he must be right. He’s….”
The first person I know of promoting martial arts widely in America was Teddy Roosevelt, who opened a Jujutsu dojo in the White House. He had been a sickly kid, and credited his good health to constant practice. Even today, many schools refuse to fix a bad technique that all other schools can see is crap because “well, they’re not part of our lineage. This is how we do it.”
No, Bruce was not the greatest martial artists ever to live, but he may have been one of the fastest. No, he did not surpass his master. In fact, he was fourth down in the lineage of Yip Man, and everyone who outranked him could beat him. Yes, he was also an actor, but he was an actual fighter as well, and if you think that’s the important thing, you’ve missed the point of martial arts in the first place. Skin color, country of origin, luck of physical endowment, and style of martial art are not the important thing. I have difficulty remembering people’s names, and honestly the names of styles that I have not practiced. I am also not an expert linguist, mastering the traditional languages of the half dozen places of origin of the styles I have practiced. Yes, sometimes I annoy my students by using German, Spanish, Japanese, Thai, Cantonese and Mandarin in the same lesson.
However, this isn’t about me, and martial arts isn’t about famous personalities. Do you think when Jet Li was the all-China Wu Shu champion and nobody in America had heard of him that therefore Joe Corley was a better fighter?
The first rule of all martial arts is, “If at all possible, run.” but the second rule is, “If it works, use it.” By the way, the first rule of yoga is, “Pain is nature’s way of telling you you’ve done something stupid.”
The greatest martial artist on Earth is probably entirely unknown. The greatest martial art on Earth may well be being practiced by someone who is weak, uncoordinated, and has major health problems. While he might not be able to beat anyone else, it is keeping him alive and teaching him mastery. Some of the most famous grand masters have been really bad teachers, and some half-way decent martial artists have been great teachers, and very few of the people who are good at choreography are really any good at the other two.
So, ultimately, Bruce Lee was an inevitable necessity for martial arts in his time period.