By Brent Matteo Alderson
The legend of Bruce Lee has grown over the years and now it’s hard to separate myth from reality. People that grew up with Bruce Lee still perceive him as the ultimate martial artist, the master. The popularity of his films has transformed Lee into an icon to the degree that he has almost become a fictional entity, a figment of pop culture.
Even though serious martial artists respect Lee’s accomplishments as a martial artist and readily acknowledge his mastery, they don’t acknowledge some of the myths that have spawned from his cinematic performances and are more adapt at separating his fictional performances from reality and don’t equate beating Chuck Norris and twenty other warriors in a movie to actually defeating them in combat.
Yet with the distortion of factual history, almost everybody still agrees that Bruce Lee was a genuine bad ass. Even Lee has been quoted as saying he could beat any fighter in the world and some people still claim that he was the best fighter (not boxer) in the world, while others doubt if Lee could have competed with 200 pound-plus heavyweights.
Joe Lewis, who trained under Lee’s private tutelage and was a world kickboxing champion and is generally considered to be one of the greatest karate fighters of all time, downplays Lee’s fighting ability and stated that “Bruce was not a fighter. He was an actor and a teacher. He was a great teacher.” In the same interview which can be found at www.bruceleedivinewind.com, Lewis noted that “Bruce was a wealth of knowledge and nobody knew what he had.”
I’m not here to debate Bruce Lee’s street fighting prowess, but to analyze his ability and accomplishments and try to hypothesize what type of career he would have had as a professional boxer and ascertain if he could have been to the Chinese what Manny Pacquiao has been to the world’s Philippine population; a legendary champion who popularized the sport throughout his region of origin.
There really has been a lot of conjecture regarding Lee’s hypothetical foray in the ranks of professional boxing. In an article in Black Belt Magazine, Dan Inosanto, one of only four people to be certified by Bruce Lee to teach his style of Martial Arts which is called Jeet Kune Do, stated "there's no doubt in my mind that if Bruce Lee had gone into pro boxing, he could easily have ranked in the top three in the lightweight division or junior-welterweight division.” Of course most of these claims and prognostications have come from outside of the boxing community because boxing insiders tend to be very cynical about unproven talent.
In analyzing Bruce Lee potential as a professional boxer, you have to look at the numerous physical attributes he would have brought to the game and assess them in conjunction with his experiences that would have had a significant barring on his aptitude as a boxer.
Different fighters utilize different physical attributes in the ring. James J. Jeffries and Rocky Marciano used their toughness and their ability to take punishment as well as their awesome strength to win fights. Most great fighters either have exceptional speed or power or a lethal combination of both.
Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali are widely recognized as the two greatest fighters in history and both had an amazing amount of speed. It takes 24 frames of film to create one movie second and it reportedly took Ali less than eight of those frames to throw his jab while Robinson could throw his in less than ten. Even today, the world’s most elite fighters, Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao are successful in part because of their devastating speed.
It’s just a fact, speed kills and its lesson that has been learned by many fighters. Just look at the first Ali-Liston bout or more contemporary fights such as Chavez-Whitaker and Jones-Toney. A fighter’s speed is probably one of the most important variables in determining the outcome of a bout, probably even more so than power and it’s a characteristic that Bruce Lee undeniably possessed.
In fact it was Lee’s incredible speed and crisp movement during an exhibition at the 1964 International Karate tournament in Long Beach that amazed Hollywood insiders and enabled Lee to earn a part in the Green Hornet television series.
And it’s probably that one quality more than any other which endured him to the public as well as to the martial arts community because his speed was so superior and so much more enhanced than other Karate Practitioners around the world. It really distinguished him from the rest of the pack. Kind of like how Roy Jones’s speed in his prime differentiated him from the other pound for pound fighters in the world. Speed was the underlining trait that made them both truly special.
In fact Bruce Lee’s speed was so infamous that most of the myths associated with the Bruce Lee legend revolve around tales of speed. Numerous sources which include books, magazines and websites claim that Lee could throw a handful of rice into the air and catch each grain before it landed. One website stated that Bruce could take a penny out of the palm of someone’s hand and leave a quarter within a split second.
A lot of these claims seem to be disingenuous and are hard to substantiate. After some quick investigative work a lot of the information regarding Bruce Lee, especially on the net, seems to be inaccurate.
For instant most websites with information on Bruce Lee state that a teenaged Lee entered a amateur boxing tournament in Hong Kong in 1958 and state that he knocked out his first three opponents in the first round and then knocked out his third and final opponent, Gary Elms, in the third round to win the Inter School Hong Kong Boxing Tournament, a local amateur competition. According to the eye witness testimony of Rolf Clausnitzer, Elms lasted the distance in a bout which was dominated by Lee. In his account of the tournament Clausnitzer commented “I honestly believe that Gary did not land even one single scoring punch throughout the entire three one minute rounds. Gary was knocked down several times, but he was not knocked out contrary to what has been reported in various articles and books!”
Regardless of the validity of these contradicting reports, Lee still dominated the first amateur boxing tournament he entered and beat the three time defending champion in the process and obviously demonstrated that he was a naturally gifted puncher. Around the same time period Lee also won the Hong Kong Royal Crown Cha Cha Dance competition which is tantamount to his coordination and rhythm, two attributes that most successful prize fighters possess.
Another characteristic that Lee possessed which a lot of world class boxers have is phenomenal strength. Bruce Lee’s ripped physique and his commitment to training and fitness has been well publicized and a lot of his physical feats have been validated. Lee regularly performed two finger one armed push-ups and could hold the sitting v-position for periods exceeding thirty minutes and performed curls with 70 pound dumbbells, which is an incredible amount of weight for a man who usually weighed around 140 pounds. This type of strength usually doesn’t translate into knockout power, but can still be used advantageously in the ring. Carlos Baldomir doesn’t have knockout power, but one of the things that make him a world class fighter in lieu of his many deficiencies is his strength that enables him to wear down more skilled fighters just as it did in his bouts with Arturo Gatti and Zab Judah.
As a professional prospect, potential fight managers would have viewed Lee as a diamond in the rough. They would have seen him for what he was, an extremely gifted yet a very inexperienced amateur who had won the first amateur competition he entered that possessed blazing speed, awesome power, and athleticism, a physical package that embodied the qualities of a great fighter.
So in all likelihood Bruce would have been considered a promising young prospect with a bright future, but his success in professional boxing definitely wouldn’t have been viewed as a sure thing. Because his father had been an entertainer and because he already had attained a certain level of notoriety for having appeared in 20 films by the age of 18, potential investors and fight managers probably would have been committed to handling his career in a very prudent manner.
Some managers just throw their fighters to the wolves which hinders their development and changes the trajectory of their careers. A guy like Freddie Pendleton is a prime example of this type of mismanagement. Pendleton had a pretty successful career, but if he had been maneuvered properly he would have had a great one. He still won a world title and had a chance to tangle with some of the best boxers of the last 25 years, a list that includes Pernell Whitaker, Felix Trinidad, Frankie Randall, Livingstone Bramble, and Ricky Hatton just to name a few. Pendleton didn’t have a good team behind him and in the early stages of his career was focused on immediate short term financial gain, trying to make some decent purses without thinking about his long term development.
Undoubtedly if someone would have invested in Pendleton like they would have in Bruce Lee and provided him with a stipend so he could have concentrated on training and provided him with world class sparring, and guided his career in a purposeful manner which included matchmaking aimed at developing him into a star. There is no doubt in my mind that Freddie would have been one of the best pound for pound fighters in the world in the late eighties and early nineties. That’s how important it is for fighters to have a good team around them. And it’s something that Buce Lee surely would have had which would have significantly increased his chances of becoming a world class boxer.
Even with his talent and solid managerial support it’s just unrealistic to think that Bruce Lee would have been the Chinese version of Manny Pacquiao because having amateur success and physical gifts doesn’t always translate into professional success.
Fighting professionally is a completely different endeavor. There have been some guys that have boxed with little amateur experience, guys like Jeff Fenech that became world champions within a couple of years of starting boxing, but for most young prospects professional boxing becomes a failed endeavor.
In fact there have been countless prospects, guys that had extensive amateur backgrounds and who were just as talented as Bruce Lee and seemed to have possessed all the components necessary to be successful, and failed miserably. Guys like Paul Gonzalez, Mark Breland, David Reid, Francisco Bojado, and Andrew Maynard were all Olympians and successfully competed at the most elite amateur levels. And they all entered the game with television backing, managerial support, and an abundance of talent and all of their careers failed to live up to the potential that was foreseen by a lot of people.
So with his natural physical talent and some good management Bruce Lee probably would have developed into a world class fighter on the fringes of contender ship or at least a serious regional contender, but he would have had to taken his career seriously and dedicated himself to learning the sport in a steady progressive manner. I think it’s ludicrous to think the Lee could have trained for a few months and been a world class fighter. I don’t care how gifted he was, he would have been chased out of the ring if he had been matched against a world class opponent within a year of turning pro.
Bruce Lee was actually born in the United States in San Francisco California.
I am actually a fan of Bruce Lee and did not write the article with the intention of diminishing his accomplishments.
Brent Matteo Alderson, a graduate of UCLA, has been part of the staff at BoxingScene.com since 2004. Alderson's published work has appeared in publications such as Ring Magazine, KO, World Boxing, Boxing 2006, and Latin Boxing Magazine. Alderson has also been featured on the ESPN Classic television program “Who’s Number One?” Please e-mail any comments to BoxingAficionado@aol.com