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Bruce Lee Kick Started Modern Martial Arts

Reposted from: San Francisco Chronicle

“He motivated young people and changed things by thinking out of the box,” said Grandmaster Joe Olivarez of U.S. Karate and Boxing in Hayward. “He combined holds and kicks, tae kwon do, judo and boxing and made the old system better.”

Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940, then lived and worked in Hong Kong before moving to Seattle, where he attended and dropped out of the University of Washington. He opened his first martial-arts school in Seattle, but his second would be at 4175 Broadway, a couple of blocks from Oakland Technical High School. That’s where he proceeded to change his sport forever.

The Oakland school was not particularly popular, but it did attract non-Chinese students. And that cross-cultural innovation — spreading his teachings to non-Asian students — would prove to be Lee’s legacy. When he started it, however, that practice did not sit well with traditional martial-arts masters and teachers. San Francisco’s martial-arts elders denounced the practice, setting up an epic showdown in which Lee literally would fight for the right to bring his innovative martial-arts teachings to the masses.

Bruce Lee Kick Started Modern Martial Arts San Francisco Chronicle

Here’s how the legend goes (and it should be acknowledged there are several varieties of this story): Lee was challenged to a fight — one account has the challenge presented to him on a scroll. The stakes were simple. If Lee lost the bout, he could not teach Caucasian students any longer.

That is the popular version of the story, but even Lee’s supporters admit there are other possible scenarios.

“It was something out of a movie,” said Gary Cagaanan, who later studied with Lee at his second Oakland school. “Bruce was training non-Chinese people and the kung fu masters in San Francisco took exception.

“But there is another story — that Bruce offended someone — and that’s how it started.”

One fight, many tales

The fight between Lee and Wong Jack Man — a master who would teach near Fort Mason for 45 years until 2005 — took place in Oakland behind closed doors. It was December 1964. There were no rules, which might or might not have been a point of contention.

Linda Lee Cadwell, Lee’s widow, was there and has said Wong (5-foot-10) ran around the ring until Lee (5-7) chased him down and knocked him onto the canvas. That’s also the version that Cagaanan heard from the late Jimmy Lee (no relation), a disciple of Bruce Lee who one day would open the legend’s second school in his Bay Area garage.

According to Cadwell and Lee, there were 13 people present for the bout. They say Wong, from San Francisco’s Chinatown, lasted only three minutes.

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“Bruce pounced on him like a springing leopard,” Cadwell wrote in her book, “Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew.” The book said Lee “brought him to the floor where he began pounding him into a state of demoralization.”

In the big-budget 1993 movie, “Dragon,” the fight lasted one minute, complete with a Lee back injury and then a big Rocky-like flourish.

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“I think everybody agrees that was an exaggerated depiction,” Cagaanan said, smiling.

Wong’s followers insist the fight ended in a draw, and there are some accounts that it lasted 25 minutes. And Wong, who said there were only seven witnesses, wrote that he had Lee in a headlock three times before realizing the fight was not going to end well if it wasn’t a draw.

“He would never say he lost until you killed him,” Wong wrote. “I remember thinking, ‘If he injures me, if he really hurts me, I’ll have to kill him.’”

Win, lose or draw, what came out of the confrontation can be seen throughout the Bay Area.

Lee was able to teach his new versions of “gung fu,” the authentic pronunciation and spelling for the popular martial-art form — compared with the popularized “kung fu” — to students of all backgrounds and ages. Lee incorporated more kicks and a free-flowing style in yet another offshoot he pioneered and named “Jeet Kune Do,” which means, “the way of the intercepting fist.”

Lee was looking for efficient use of arms, legs and body weight and borrowed not only from other styles of fighting but also from fencing. The stance, footwork and some of the strategy of Jeet Kune Do come from fencing: Intercept your opponent when he is at his most vulnerable position, his attack.

Lee liked a lot of the body mechanics and hip rotation that he saw in boxing.

A second opportunity

The downtown school on Broadway closed after two years because of a lack of business, and Bruce Lee and Jimmy Lee opened a martial-arts studio in the garage of Jimmy Lee’s home at 3039 Monticello Ave. in Oakland. Bruce Lee, his wife and son Brandon also lived there.

Cagaanan would train at the Monticello school in 1969.

“It was a very special time,” he said. “Bruce believed in nonclassical techniques and many thought that was radical. But Bruce thought traditional teachings put limitations on people, and he didn’t want to be bound by rigid rules.”

Cagaanan remembers being in awe the first time he met Lee.

“He was getting big, he had just finished doing the ‘Green Hornet’ television show,” Cagaanan said, referring to Lee’s first foray into mainstream American entertainment. “People thought he was arrogant and cocky, but he wasn’t. He just had a disdain for classical gung fu.”

Bruce Lee, in one of his movie-industry screen tests, described classical martial arts as “an iron bar,” whereas his more adaptive version was “an iron chain with a ball attached at the end.” Apparently, Hollywood and Hong Kong were impressed. Lee had a storied career on the big screen.

But, before he became an international movie star, Bruce Lee wrote a book with Jimmy Lee, titled “Chinese Gung Fu: The Philosophical Art of Self-Defense.” You could describe it as Jeet Kune Do mixed with Taoist philosophy. It was a fighting style that had a starting point, some guidelines but no limitations, in the Lees’ minds.

Gone, but not forgotten

Oakland was at the heart of that movement, though not many realize that. And, sadly, the movement’s driving force was short-lived. Lee died in Hong Kong in 1973, at the age of 32, from a reaction to medication.

Five years ago, there was an effort led by then-Oakland mayor and avid martial artist Ron Dellums to recognize Lee in the town where he made his mark. Dellums wanted to put up a plaque downtown and host a martial-arts tournament at what would be a cultural and historical landmark.

Those plans stalled and Cadwell later dissolved the Bay Area Lee Advisory Committee and focused on the Seattle area and commercial opportunities. There is a Bruce Lee Tea coming out soon.

But that famous fight in Oakland — where Bruce Lee literally fought to bring martial arts to the masses — will live on. And it will be given new life on the big screen soon.

“Birth of the Dragon” goes into production at Vancouver’s North Shore Studios at the end of October. The film will be directed by George Nolfi (“The Adjustment Bureau”) from a script by Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen Rivele, who earned an Oscar nomination for the screenplay for 1995’s “Nixon.”

Producers say the movie will be a mix of reality and fiction, which is fitting for a larger-than-life character.

“People, the traditionalists, took it personal when he made martial arts better,” Olivarez said. “But he didn’t change things just for the sake of change.”

It’s one reason that Cagaanan and Olivarez think Lee would embrace the growing sensation of mixed martial arts if he were still around.

“He would like it and study it,” Olivarez said. “He wouldn’t be the same Bruce Lee. If he is the Bruce Lee that I thought he was, he would continue to grow. Just like martial arts has.”

Vic Tafur is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @VicTafur

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