Bruce Lee 41st Anniversary: Robert Lee 2013 flashback

Bruce Lee brother Robert Lee at ONE FC Asia MMA Summit 2013 keynote

A look back at Robert Lee’s keynote at ONE FC Asia MMA Summit 2013 on the earlier days of his brother Bruce Lee and his philosophy

Robert recalls how much respect Bruce Lee had for Muhammad Ali

Yesterday (or now, depending where you are in the world), 20th of July, was the 41st death anniversary of the greatest martial artist of all time and one of the most influential people in the world, Bruce Lee Xiao Long (birth name: Lee Jun Fan). As small tribute here for the late legend, let me take you back to last year where I had the honour to meet Robert and Phoebe Lee, Bruce’s siblings, at the ONE Asia MMA Summit. It was probably a once in a lifetime chance and I truly appreciate ONE FC for the kind invitation.

Bruce Lee was the one who brought kung fu to international limelight, influenced the direction and tone of martial arts films, and is widely regarded as the father of MMA (as you can in the image above, those MMA-like gloves existed before the sport existed). But instead of just focusing on his life’s work, let’s also talk about his younger, more innocent days before he became “the dragon”. During Robert Lee’s keynote at the event, he reminisced his late big brother’s earlier days, like what he was like when he was a kid, and the events that, perhaps, contributed to the man he becomes. Much of these were actually portrayed in Robert’s 2010 Hong Kong biographical film, Bruce Lee, My Brother (李小龍), do go watch it if you haven’t.

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As a young teenager, Bruce was an ordinary kid who’s full of energy, lively and hyperactive. He was into high fashion like most teenagers, and would visit different tailors to have his clothes made. Robert, in his speech, said that while that gained him a few attractive female friends, it also brought him envious male classmates who eventually ganged up on him. They gave him a good beating and bruised his ego, which got him picking up the martial art, Wing Chun. He continued to get involved in fights, so often that the police warned that they would arrest him if this went on. This caused his parents to send Bruce to the United States to further his studies. Being on his own in a completely new environment with only $100 in his pocket, he learnt the reality of life. He finished high school in Seattle and went on to take philosophy as his major at University of Washington. He taught Wing Chun to fellow students as a part time job.

Bruce began absorbing other fighting styles from watching martial art tournaments and demonstrations, and begun teaching them as well. As he matured, he became an innovator and philosopher. He was way ahead of his time in martial arts, constantly creating new techniques and training tools to help improve speed and power. Robert guessed that many most people know Bruce had been practicing mixed martial arts since the late 60s to the early 70s as demonstrated in the 1973 movie Enter the Dragon. Robert recalled that Bruce was very impressed with boxing legend Muhammad Ali‘s footwork and movement (as Wing Chun’s fighting style was more formalistic and stationary), and he watched his videos on tape recorder over and over again to study his footwork and techniques. Bruce told Robert that if he had a chance to fight Ali, it would not be under boxing rules as he would stand much of chance if he got punched in the face due to Ali’s size differences and power.

Bruce Lee's sister Phoebe Lee demonstrates at ONE FC Asia MMA Summit 2013

Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water.” Bruce founded a martial art system he casually called Jeet Kune Do (literally means “the way of intercepting fist” in Cantonese) based on his philosophy of “the style of no style”, a belief of his that there should not be a strict way of fighting and that there is no limit in using different combinations of different techniques and existing fighting style or even creating new ones (this is why Bruce was way ahead of time, just look at MMA today!). He said that since the world is constantly evolving and changing, one should also advance with the evolution of hand-to-hand combat.

Robert remembered that Bruce used to own a miniature grave replica made by one of the students that’s engraved with “here lies a once-fluid man overcome by the classical mess”, which signified that Bruce did not believe that one should not be bound by fixed forms and styles. Bruce pointed out that martial arts is a combination of all forms and styles of fighting. Once you learn how to relate to an opponent, you’d able to move with him, like in a non-improvised stance except with broken rhythm so that no move could be anticipated, not even to oneself.

Don’t think! Feel.” Bruce believed that an experienced martial artist should not need to think about his next move and should be able to feel and adapt to his opponent naturally, like breathing. Robert said that he had actually seen Bruce, during sparring sessions with his students, tell out aloud what his opponents’ next move would be, before they actually made their move. The following is Robert’s elaboration on this. It was a brief demonstration with two volunteers from the crowd, who’re MMA fighters if I’m not mistaken. Sorry for the poor video quality, I recorded it with an old toaster… I mean the phone I was using last year.

Phoebe then joined Robert on stage as they continue to share about their little brother’s life with everyone in the hall. It was heartwarming and it reminded everyone that Bruce Lee was not born a legend, he was an ordinary naughty boy who had grown to learn, work and earn his legacy which influenced the world in the away even he himself probably didn’t expect. Bruce Lee will not be forgotten, and I hope Robert, Phoebe, his daughter Shannon and their generations to come will continue to their work (hopefully together as one family) in sharing his knowledge, wisdom and life with the world.

Tony Teh with Bruce Lee's siblings Robert Lee & Phoebe Lee

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