Some careers have the good fortune of ending too soon -- they petrify into myth. When Bruce Lee died at 32, on the eve of his first international hit, "Enter the Dragon," whatever he might have become lapsed into what might have been, into the realm of rumor and wish fulfillment and conjecture.
And perhaps no question about Lee is as trivial yet ardently pursued as this: Could Bruce Lee win a real fight? It's in some ways predictable that fans hungrily debate the skills of the man who refined and mainstreamed the martial arts film as we know it. Few actors have ever exuded as much physical charisma on screen as Lee. He makes you want to believe he's the real thing. When watching his films, one feels the nostalgist's urge to vindicate old affections. If, off screen, it turned out he wasn't so dangerous after all, so masterful, we'd feel duped. He left us longing -- in that way he was one of the great actors of his era. And so there are hours of Zapruder-esque YouTube videos dedicated to Lee's fighting prowess, bottomless Reddit threads obsessed with this nerdy, needy question.
Last summer, Quentin Tarantino, in his revisionist odyssey "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," added his impudent voice to the debate when he depicted Lee, played by actor and martial artist Mike Moh, as a vainglorious braggart who gets into a fight with Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth, a stuntman and former Green Beret. The portrayal angered many. Lee's daughter, Shannon, accused the director of replicating the racist contempt her father suffered while he was alive. "He was continuously marginalized and treated like kind of a nuisance of a human being by white Hollywood," she said, "which is how he's treated in the film."
The fight in "OUATIH" is partly based on Lee's first meeting with Gene LeBell, a two-time national champion judoka and legendary Hollywood stuntman who is credited with popularizing grappling in North America. They were introduced on the set of "The Green Hornet" in 1966, where LeBell promptly scooped up the not-yet-iconic actor, tossed him over his shoulders and carried him around the set in a fireman's lift.
Lee was not amused. But LeBell laughed anyway. He was introducing himself, in his way, as a fellow martial artist, not challenging Lee, who was frequently called out by daring stuntmen on his movie sets.
Lee and LeBell forged a friendship away from the set, training together for about a year in the late 1960s. (Decades later, LeBell would scandalize Lee's public by insisting his pupil Ronda Rousey could kick Lee's ass.) It was during those sessions that Lee started to incorporate grappling into his style. He would later use submission holds to finish opponents in his fight scenes, like his classic guillotine choke of Chuck Norris in "The Way of the Dragon." In addition to LeBell, Lee worked for years with the likes of Norris and Joe Lewis, two of the most celebrated non-boxing fighters of their day. Before he became an action star, Norris was the world middleweight karate champion from 1968 to 1974. Lewis won what is regarded as both the first kickboxing match in the U.S. and the bridge between the karate point fighting era and the full-contact kickboxing we know today.