A Bruce Lee Fight Without Cameras Changed Everything

Yahoo Contributor Network

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Bruce Lee's untimely death at age 32, there are Hollywood plans for another movie about him. Despite his short life, he is regarded as the greatest martial artist of modern times. "Birth of the Dragon" filmmakers say the movie will not be another biopic; they intend to focus on something that happened in Bruce Lee's teaching studio at 4157 Broadway in Oakland, California, before his rise to international stardom: a fight with Wong Jack Man on an autumn evening in 1964. According to the producers, Hollywood's screenplay will tell its own version of the story by injecting fantasy. The real reasons for the fight and the outcome of it have been debated for almost 50 years, but Bruce Lee is gone and Wong Jack Man is not talking. One thing is clear, this was the most significant fight of Bruce Lee's career.

Background From Rick L. Wing

As an early Bruce Lee fan, I wanted to find out more about that 1964 event. The following was related to me over noodles and rice in March by Rick L. Wing, the martial arts master to whom Wong Jack Man entrusted his San Francisco school upon his retirement in December 2005. Sifu Rick Wing attended more of Sifu Wong's classes than anyone, accumulating nearly 33 years as his student. As Wing explained, "As a grandmaster, Sifu Wong is enormously well respected, highly skilled -- an old school-style teacher whose doors were open to all that sought his instruction. As a man, I describe him as extremely soft-spoken, kind, modest, fair, and very private."

When I asked about this match with Bruce Lee, Wing said, "Sifu Wong will not talk about it." Whatever he has had to share about the fight is contained within the e-book pages of "Showdown in Oakland: The Story Behind the Wong Jack Man - Bruce Lee Fight" by Wing.

A Bruce Lee Challenge

In 1964 at Jackson Street's Sun Sing Theatre in San Francisco's Chinatown, the movie "The Amorous Lotus Pan," starring Diana Chang, played to a packed house, as the 28-year-old Hong Kong starlet was to perform onstage. Her onstage cha-cha dance partner was a former Hong Kong amateur dancing champion named Bruce Lee. The audience was also treated to a kung fu demonstration including one of Bruce's signature moves, his powerfully focused one-inch punch, forceful enough to send an audience volunteer reeling backwards. On this occasion, Bruce's first attempt was unsuccessful. In response to the audience's reaction, he issued a challenge for anyone to come to his Oakland martial arts studio and best him. That remark set tongues wagging and launched the events that followed.

A Wong Jack Man Acceptance

Eleven gathered to watch Bruce and Wong Jack Man, a martial arts expert one year his junior, who had accepted the challenge at the prompting of others. These martial arts practitioners, plus Bruce's 19-year-old wife, Linda (Emery) Lee, were eager to witness a private demonstration of skill. Why not? These two guys were young, extremely fit, and in the mood to settle the score on a dare. Bruce was an Oakland-based martial arts instructor and a father-to-be just shy of 24. Wong Jack Man had arrived in 1963 from Hong Kong to teach Northern Shaolin Style from his studio at 880 Pacific Ave., his reputation preceding him. There were no political overtones, no gangs, no love interests, no ultimatums involved, despite later reports claiming otherwise. However, there may very well have been a great deal more bravado on display that evening than was intended or called for.

Jeet Kune Do Is Born

On the morning following the fight, Wong Jack Man reported for work at the Jackson Cafe, as usual. Bruce and his wife had gone home with their older friend and partner, Jimmy Y. Lee, whose house in Oakland was where they were living at the time. Everything had changed for Bruce. The Bruce Lee Foundation indicates that in the immediate aftermath of the fight, Bruce revised his methods and philosophy, creating the personal brand he called Jeet Kune Do, meaning "Way of the Intercepting Fist." Jimmy's son, Greglon Lee, writes that Bruce began "to think more analytically about how to improve his own fighting skills, especially his footwork, his timing, and his ability to bridge the gap with his opponent." Linda concurs, writing in her 1975 book, "The Wong Jack Man fight also caused Bruce to intensify his training methods. From that date, he began to seek out more and more sophisticated and exhaustive training methods."

Immediate Aftermath

Readers may appreciate knowing that an agreement of confidentiality between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man transpired at the conclusion of their private fight. However, one month after the fight, there was coverage in The Chinese Pacific Weekly picked up from a Hong Kong newspaper. Lee responded in his own defense three weeks later. On January 7, 1965, another report of the fight appeared, then another. Wong responded in his defense on January 28, 1965, offering a public second match with Bruce to which there was no reply. Bruce and Linda's baby boy arrived four days later. Lee was soon to be further distracted by action adventure on the small screen, then the big screen. Meantime, Wong closed the book for good. For Bruce, great fame, reputation, and success followed shortly.

A Conclusion

In the end, sadly, Bruce Lee died young. Like those of others with outstanding talent and charisma who have met an early demise, stories about his life and death are passed from one to another, taking on lives of their own. It is not unlike what happens in a child's game of Telephone, also called Chinese Whispers. As Wing told me, "You be the judge."