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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January 6, 2020

JKD & Boxing

The True and Practical Origins of JKD

Excerpt from the upcoming book, “JKD Infighting”

For all the hand-wringing and overly philosophical meanderings about what JKD is or is not, let’s get this out in the open.  Let’s not meander and make a big deal out of what should be patently obvious to one and all – as obvious as the day of the week.  Bruce Lee’s JKD is a self-defense/martial art offshoot of old-school boxing.  His foundation was Wing Chun and he saw that as a practical system of combat but for two reasons he adapted a more boxing framework to his JKD.  

First, he couldn’t finish his Wing Chun training.  When Lee left Hong Kong in late 1958 he left behind the Ip Man school.  Ip Man’s approach to teaching, we should note, was very much based on practicality.  He encouraged his pupils to test the theories and training for themselves rather than blindly taking his word for it.  This was – especially for a Chinese fighting method in the 1950’s where loyalty to the Sifu was paramount – a radical thing.  I contend that it was this that was the central aspect of the Ip Man school and gave rise to men like Lee as well as his senior, Wong Shun Leung (who was also responsible for Lee’s training under Ip Man).  

At that time in Wing Chun history, the method wasn’t considered a classical art.  Ip Man was an upstart in the Hong Kong community.  He’d been chased out of mainland China by Mao’s forces and left without his family and forced to scratch out a living in a city still recovering from the ravages of Japanese occupation in WW2. During that period from December of 1941 thru August 1945 food had been so scarce that hundreds of thousands perished.  When the occupation began there were nearly 2 million people in Hong Kong.  By the time they left there were only 700,000.  It was a time that’s hard to imagine for the modern westerner when one of the greatest health threats facing the impoverished in America is obesity!  In Hong Kong at that time, the people were literally starving to death.  Please keep that in mind when you see old photos of that era.  

At any rate, we can understand the toughness of a people who’ve survived such a war and such horrific deprivations.  And it was to these survivors – men like Wong Shun Leung – that Ip Man broke from tradition and told to go test the stuff to see if it worked. 

Which brings us to the second reason that Lee moved toward boxing in his later years.  

Quite simply, in America, which had been, by comparison, untouched by the ravages of war, and was awash in material wealth, there wasn’t a culture of “trying things out” in the  martial community like there had been back in Hong Kong.  But driven by the philosophy of Ip Man, that being that a theory had to work in practice, Lee was hell-bent on practicality.  Boxing offered this to him.  It gave him the ability to test things out and, not only that, but a rich history of adaptation and change.  In short, to Lee’s mind, boxing was the logical extension or, perhaps more accurately, the martial sibling to his foundation art of Wing Chun.  

The proof of this is a letter that he sent to his senior and mentor in Wing Chun, Wong Shun Leung.  Here’s the letter:

“Dear Shun-Leung, Jan. 11, 1970

“It has been a long time since I last wrote to you.  How are you?  Alan Shaw’s letter from Canada asks me to lend you my 8mm film.  I’m sorry about that.  It is because I have lost it when I moved my home.  That film is already very old and I seldom use it, so I have lost it.  I am sorry for it.

Now I have bought a home in Bel-Air.  It is about half an acre.  There are many trees.  It has the taste of a range.  It is located on a hilltop near Beverly Hills.  Moreover, besides my son Brandon, I have had a daughter, Shannon, who is seven months old now.  Have you re-married?  Please send my regard to your sisters.  Recently, I have organized a film company.  I have also written a story ‘The Silent Flute’.  James Coburn and I will act in it.  Stirling Silliphant is the screen-play writer.  He is a famous screen-play writer (In the Heat of the Night).  We plan to make the first fighting film in Hollywood.  The prospect is good. About six months later, the filming work will begin.  All who participate in this film are my followers.  In the future, Steve McQueen may also work together with me.  

“I am very excited about this plan. As to martial arts, I still practice daily.  I meet my students and friends twice a week. No matter they are western boxer, Tae Kwon Do learner or wrestler, I will meet them as long as they are friendly and will not get angry.  

“Since I started to practice realistically in 1966 (Protectors, gloves, etc.), I feel that I had many prejudices before, and they are wrong.  So I change the name of the gist of my study to Jeet-kune-do.  Jeet-kune-do is only a name.  The most important thing is to avoid having bias in the training. Of course, I run everyday, I practice my instruments (punch, kick, throw, etc.).  I have to raise the basic conditions daily.  

“Although the principle of boxing is important, practicality is even more important.  I thank you and Master for teaching me the ways of Wing Chun in Hong Kong.  Actually, I have to thank you for leading me to walk on a practical road.  Especially in the States, there are western boxers, I often practice with them too.  There are many so-called masters in Wing Chun here, I really hope that they will not be so blind to fight with those western boxers may make a trip to Hong Kong.  I hope that you will live in the same place.  

“We are intimate friends, we need to meet more and chat about our past days.  That will be a lot of fun?  When you see Master Yip, please send my regard to him.  Happiness be with you!

“Bruce Lee.”

When we couple this letter with the fact that Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do, published posthumously and originally intended to be a manual for his personal students, was actually copied itself from old boxing and fencing manuals, we have settled the issue of JKD’s origins.  Our contention that Lee’s JKD followed the principles of boxing and that he owed this to his instruction in Wing Chun from Ip Man isn’t speculation but, rather, the direct words and deeds of the man himself.  In the famed Tao, often seen as evidence of Lee’s martial genius, he literally copied dozens of pages from old boxing and fencing manuals. Modern boxing had grown out of the fencing era, relying on straight hits, footwork, timing and deception.  So, indeed, he was a genius but a different one than most of us are led to believe.  

The infighting presented in this book, therefore, will have a greater streak of boxing running through it than the JKD Foundations book.  At long range, JKD can resemble fencing a bit more but that’s all gone when you are fighting in the trenches.  A thing to note, of course, is Lee’s own words in the letter to his mentor.  He says that though boxing principles are important, practicality and realism are the key.  What this means is that Lee built his JKD on the well vetted and tested principles of boxing.  Modifications made for street-fighting – such as takedown defense, head-butting, eye jabs, low blows, etc. – while necessary and extremely helpful in the cause of personal defense, are still in orbit around the boxing principles.  Those principles are what Lee liked to call aliveness.  In particular, they’re evasion, powerful striking from any angle, and mobility.  

If you were so inclined to say that JKD is simply boxing then, we would disagree.  There’s a difference in building on the foundation of a thing and being that thing. A boxer can cheat but he would have to make a conscious effort to override his muscle and tactical memory in order to do so.  The JKD approach is a scientific “cheating” – a highly organized, yet simple adaptation of the boxing methodology in order to help keep the self-defender as safe as possible in the event of a sudden and violent encounter.  Thus, JKD is like boxing but isn’t boxing.  On the other hand, those JKD variants that are less like boxing and more like something else – like say, Kali – are less like JKD too.  To jettison the boxing roots of JKD – especially on the inside – is to cut oneself off from the scientific nature of the combat. 

To prove my point, I’d like to offer this example.  

Back in 1996 my school was very small.  I had a 400 square foot place on Wade Hampton Boulevard in Taylors, South Carolina.  (Talk about humble beginnings…the Lord has blessed my work mightily!). One evening a guy came in and asked why I wasn’t teaching BJJ.  He went on to explain that unless I was teaching Gracie style BJJ that I’d be out of business in short order.  The strength of his argument rested upon the small sample-size evidence of the recent UFC matches in which Royce Gracie was dominant.  

Well, to this I replied that boxing was still the king in any universe where people throw punches at each other.  As soon as the fighters adapted their tactics to account for BJJ – that is, learned to sprawl and punch properly, you’d see a radical reordering of the UFC.  He laughed derisively at that and shook his head in a way a man shakes his head when someone tells him he was once abducted by aliens.  Or that 9/11 was an inside job.  Or that you can trust Congress.  

Anyway, here we are over 20 years later and we know that a UFC fighter without boxing is an accident waiting to happen.  

We must add, though, that the old-school boxing we present – and that being Jack Dempsey style predominantly – is better suited for all-out fighting than MMA.  This is due to the variables like asphalt rather than mats, headbutts, eye, throat and groin strikes, multiple opponents and so on. We’ll cover all this in more detail as we go but we remember that Lee’s goal was realism and that he once remarked that boxing was “over-daring” due to its reliance on rules.  It was his belief that a martial artist was training for war, not sport and that sport, while extremely helpful in regard to testing certain aspects of one’s game, if left unchecked, would dominate one’s understanding of self-defense and thus weaken it.  We remind the reader that if you aren’t cheating in combat you aren’t trying to win insofar as we define cheating as the use of tactics and targets that are the most difficult to defend.  

In closing, if you think that Dempsey or Tyson were destructive, and they certainly were, then you need to understand how and why that was the case.  That’s what made Lee such an outstanding thinker.  He saw people getting the results he wanted and began his research there.  JKD infighting is, therefore, the extrapolations of close-quarter boxing applied to street-defense – all-out, life-or-death combat.  

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