March 5, 2024

Simple, Not Easy

I once asked Ted Wong what he thought was the greatest obstacle in teaching JKD.  Without hesitation he replied, “having to repeat yourself.”  What he meant was that most of us are always trying to learn a new trick or some special secret instead of mastering the basics and keeping the main thing the main thing.  We all have this tendency to major in minors, don’t we?  Just look at the diet industry.  We spend billions buying products to help us get thin when it’s rather clear that we need to put the hamburger down and go for a jog.  But it’s always easier to eat the cookie…and then another. That’s the rule of life. Simple doesn’t mean easy; it takes great discipline to stay focused.

Moreover, by not keeping things simple – that is, applying the basics to life – we find that an increasingly stressful “complexity creep” sets in. The rule is: hyper complex systems are always downstream of bureaucracy and bureaucracy is the result of people forgetting what the main goal is. Focus on a derivative point instead of the primary thing and we find ourselves buried under a thousand illogical burdens. Ever work at a big company? Or at the biggest – the government? They’re classic examples of complexity creep swallowing up simplicity.

In that case, working in a bureaucratic nightmare, stress might kill you. Yeah…but under the pressure of a violent assault complexity can and will literally kill you. The genius of Bruce Lee was that he had the courage to not only understand this but he resisted all attempts to complicate matters. Since his passing, and despite the much appreciated work of Ted Wong, his protege, JKD has often fallen prey to the exertions of martial bureaucrats. Something catches their fancy…something draws their attention rather than the simple goal of keeping oneself as safe as possible in an unavoidable violent encounter and here comes that regrettable avalanche of complexity. And confusion.

JKD shouldn’t be confusing.  It’s simple but not easy and the key to understanding its application is actually hiding in plain sight.   Where?  Well, in the very name – jeet kune do, which means, of course, the way of the intercepting fist.  Now that should clear up some confusion right away as to what the intent of the system was/is and keep us from running down a multitude of rabbit holes.  

So, what’s in the name?  Well, for starters the word “jeet” generally comes into English meaning to intercept.  From this we derive the idea of stopping or cutting off an attack with one of our own.  When people ask me what JKD is I bring them to the name to illustrate its foundational purpose.  Countering an attack scientifically has the great and underappreciated value of diminishing one’s risk of the reverse: running into a shot yourself.  So many knockouts happen because the attacker ran into a strike he/she didn’t see because, well, it’s impossible to keep everything covered when attacking.  To diminish this great risk, the counter-attack is indispensable.  In fact, the all-time boxing great, Peerless Jim Driscoll, devoted an entire chapter of his book, The Straight Left, solely to the stop-hit.  

In real world fighting, people don’t stand still.  Watch the average demo on YouTube and you’ll see the other guy pause while Sifu Fantastic does his super-duper-awesome stuff.  Lee called this dissecting a corpse.  Real people keep firing back, often swinging wildly with haymakers and hooks.  If one of those connects – goodnight.  Bruce Lee understood this and realized the danger of complex motions in fights and instead relied heavily on the interception tactics to keep himself from getting unceremoniously KO’d by some knuckle-dragger’s haymaker.  The best defense, of course, is a good offense and the best offensive tactic is to meet an on-rushing attack with a well-timed counter-attack, thus borrowing great force from the attacker.  There’s tremendous shock value in getting the bad guy to run into a counter-strike.  More on this later.  

So, basically, this is the main goal of Bruce Lee’s JKD – to use counter/interception tactics against attacks.  

Straight hits like the lead punch, eye-jab, side kick, or straight kick, best facilitate the intercepting concept and leave the JKD fighter with less exposure to danger than roundhouse strikes.  Thus, JKD was built, like its parent arts of Wing Chun and old-school fencing influenced boxing, around straight hits.  Take a look at Lee’s own work in the Fighting Method series.  In one volume he covers ways to deal with different attacks.  Take a look at the photos.  An attack while walking down the road: low side kick.  An attack while getting in your car: low side kick.  An ambush from behind: low side kick.  Ah!  You can see a pattern here.  The obvious being (besides the apparent danger of walking in a bad neighborhood while wearing sissy-white pants) that Lee preferred cutting off the attack with an attack instead of anything more complicated.  

Now, some controversy comes in at this point from those that say such interception tactics won’t work for everyone because they aren’t as fast as Bruce Lee was.  Their answer to this false dilemma is to insert other complicated techniques to solve the problem.  It’s a false dilemma, though, because it leaves footwork and evasiveness out of the equation.  Think of the intercepting kick or punch like a gun shot.  If a man was running at you with a knife and you have a gun, and the distance was fairly close, it would certainly be to your benefit to move while firing.  Likewise, if an attacker rushes you, the assumption is that you will likely have to move to avoid the attack.  The genius of JKD is that like a gun, one can fire the straight lead punch while moving, hence achieving interception and defense simultaneously.  There are other means of doing this, like slipping and hitting, or parrying and hitting, but the goal is always the same: avoid being a target and hitting back at the earliest possible moment.  If you’re fast enough to nail him right away, great.  Do it.  If not, hit and move.  Still simple. 

This is quite literally why Lee coined his method the way of the intercepting fist – the straight punch and/or eye-jab are the only weapons one can consistently fire while on the move.  A hook or cross or some other tool can only be thrown once with movement and then the fighter has to reset.  The straight punch, though, demands no considerable disruption of balance so the JKD fighter can fire multiple shots while in transit and/or until the attack ceases or another good target (groin or shin/knee come to mind) becomes available. Lee didn’t call the straight punch the backbone of JKD for nothing.  The whole of the system is a set-up for it.  An opponent that runs into a heavy counter lead punch – delivered by a bare fist – makes himself decidedly less good looking in short order.  That’s why the bare knuckle fighters of old leaned slightly back in their stance.  Getting punched by a bare fist is slightly less pleasant than trying to find a parking spot at the mall during Christmas season (which leads to wanting to punch people in the face, but that’s another article).  

This was the simple truth that Lee built JKD around – this is the rock and the foundation in which everything else is in orbit.  The intercepting straight punch or kick, from the JKD on-guard, supported by footwork, slipping, parrying, and the other weapons when applicable.  It’s simple, yes, but not easy.  

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