One fight in Bruce Lee’s life completely changed his kung fu style. Long before he became a martial arts legend, Lee had a famous fight with Wong Jack Man in 1964. Their conflict with each other was the focus of the 2016 Bruce Lee biopic The Birth of the Dragon.
The actor is known for creating his own approach to kung fu, which today is known as Jeet Kune Do. Designed as a system of representations of martial arts, rather than as a real “style” of kung fu, Jeet Kune Do was designed to give the practitioner a way to react to any combat situation, rather than forcing him to rely on traditional stands and movements associated with the most ancient styles of kung fu. As for what he practiced before developing Jeet Kune Do, in his youth the actor used the popular Chinese style known as Wing Chun. As a teenager, he studied kung Fu Wing Chun under the guidance of Ip Man, a famous martial artist, whom Donnie Yen played in four films about Ip Man.
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It was in the mid-1960s when Lee began to abandon Wing Chun in favor of creating his own fighting style. The motive for this decision was Lee’s fight with Wong Jack Man, a martial artist who trained in Xing Yi Quan, Northern Shaolin and Tai Chi. Presumably, the two got into a fight over a challenge from Chinese kung fu masters who wanted Lee to stop teaching kung fu to non-Chinese. Who exactly won is up for debate due to conflicting reviews, but Lee’s own comments on the matter confirm one thing about the fight, namely that it made him realize that his current fighting style doesn’t suit him. The difficulties he faced in defeating Wong forced Lee to rethink his commitment to Wing Chun.
Without mentioning Wong Jack Man’s name, Lee said in an interview that he realized Wing Chun’s flaws by fighting a “kung fu cat” who tried to run away from him during their match [through All this is interesting]. He claimed that because his opponent turned his back on him to escape, Lee was forced to attack him from behind. According to Lee, his hand was swollen from repeated blows to the back of Wong’s head. He explained that it was at this moment that it occurred to him that Wing Chun was impractical. After the fight, Lee overestimated his fighting style, abandoned Wing Chun and began working on the principles that would define Jeet Kune Do.
Regardless of what actually happened when Lee and Wong Jack Man fought that day in 1964, it’s impossible not to notice the impact their fight had on the former’s fighting style and martial arts philosophy. It was thanks to the fight with Wong that Lee came to understand that traditional kung fu styles limit martial artists and prevent them from taking the steps necessary to win. Thanks to this realization, Lee decided that it was important to develop a system that would allow the fighter to adapt to the current situation. This philosophy is reflected in many of Bruce Lee’s ideas, including his quote “be water”.