Was Bruce Lee fast?
That’s like asking if the Avengers franchise made any money.
Or if the sun is hot.
Anyway, with all the bickering and disagreement in the JKD/Wing Chun world, one thing everyone can agree on was that Lee was exceptionally quick. He was so fast, in fact, that it seems hard to imagine him being so popular without all that speed. But, more to our point, the very system of JKD is built on – and absolutely requires – a fair degree of speed. I’ve said before that the system is built around the stop-hit, which is to say, counter-attacking, and you can’t do that if you’re too slow. That would be like an ugly model, or a clumsy dancer…or an honest politician. Slow JKD is a contradiction in terms.
Now, you might think that speed is an essential quality in any fighting art but that’s actually not true. Speed will help, of course, but it’s far from the dominant attribute of, say, BJJ. JKD, on the other hand, rests upon the foundation of quickness and without it the whole structure comes tumbling down.
But what kind of speed are we talking about here? And how do we train for it?
First, we must have the right technical/tactical structure of the ready position, footwork, and straight, non-telegraphic strikes – preferably from the forward side. Each of these three technical points integrate without contradiction into the tactical framework of what JKD aspires to do – stop-hit the bad guy! Lee was obviously gifted with good genes for movement speed, but he understood how important it was to not waste movement and/or have a bad plan of attack.
If there was a secret to the whole thing it was Lee’s understanding of the importance of foot-speed. Most people treat footwork like an afterthought. In JKD, it’s the central thing. Always. Fighting is about moving and distance control. The man that controls the distance controls the fight. This being the case, he worked assiduously on foot-speed both in technique training (footwork) and physical conditioning. He favored footwork that was cat-like and efficient. And by all accounts, Lee didn’t jog – he ran! Fast. Like he was getting shot at. Up hills. And he rode a stationary bike full speed too – with the resistance as high as it would go. Oh, and you may have seen photos of him on a trampoline. He used that for more power and explosiveness. All of this translated into an amazing level of movement speed. Thus, the first big secret to his speed was in his legs.
You see, Lee knew something about fighting that most people simply ignore: good footwork can and will beat every attack. It’s a basic but painfully true fact that if you can cover ground faster than your opponent, you have a significant advantage. And this was Lee’s goal with all of that conditioning. In JKD, we preach the “four hits” – hit first, hit straight, hit hard, hit often. Without foot-speed, you aren’t going to hit first because you’re at the mercy of the other guy’s movement. Being first is the heart and soul of JKD philosophy and training because action is always faster than reaction.
If you take a look at the vast majority of fighters, they move around, or they fire their techniques. Rare is the fighter that uses footwork as part of their technique. One such fighter was Roy Jones Jr. In his heyday, Roy was always boxing from the fighting measure – too far from his opponent to be reached without footwork. In fact, he used distance like a JKD fighter would – as his primary means of defense. He’d counter-attack expertly from the rim and he’d attack with lightning quick shots when his opponent wasn’t set, darting in and then shooting back out (or angling offline). He never hung out inside the pocket, awaiting a receipt, so to speak. Yet, while everyone was amazed at how fast Roy’s hands were – and sure they were blazing fast! – it was his explosive footwork that carried him expertly in and out of range. He was so good at this that one time, against a poor fellow named Richard Hall, he actually ended up behind the guy at one point. For a terrible moment, Hall actually didn’t know where Jones was! He did this, lest you forget, against another professional – a man paid to fight!
Add to this that Lee favored straight hits for JKD. Many fighters lose their discipline under pressure and use round-house type punches and kicks. But the straighter the strike, the more direct it is, the faster it is. More still, you can throw combinations better and the straight hits integrate into your footwork/ready-position mix too, allowing you to move and adjust distance with an incredible rapidity.
But there’s something else. Movement speed is only one part of the equation. A fighter must have good timing too. To be fast in fighting is to be fast “on-time”. Simple movement speed is superfluous if an action is executed at the wrong moment. In fact, timing can be said to be the most crucial element in all of combat because nothing – literally nothing – works without it. Lee understood this and meticulously added timing drills to JKD training. One example is the Jab-to-Jab drill. There are several variations of this essential drill but the most basic one is for you and a partner to stand opposite a heavy bag. One partner initiates an attack with their jab and the other tries to counter-jab as fast as they can. While the reacting partner is getting the best work in during this drill, both parties actually benefit. The initiator must be cognizant of their pacing, not falling into a predictable rhythm. And, above all else, he must not telegraph his strike. Of course, the counter-puncher is trying to beat his partner to the punch. You can add difficulty by having the initiator step back so they have to use footwork with their attack. You can also allow the starter to fake too! Lastly, the counter-attacker can use different counters like the side-kick or cross to the body.
Pop-ups on the mitts work wonderfully too. Have a trainer “pop” a line (like a jab or kick) and hit the target as fast as you can. The unpredictability is key.
So, in all, remember that a fast punch or kick is nearly useless without footwork and timing. With them, though, you have a nearly unbeatable combination of qualities because speed kills – your opponent if you have it, or you if you don’t.