Here we’ll be talking about probably one of the most iconic figures of martial arts and what people consider the godfather of mixed martial arts, because of his thinking and his philosophy of mixing up styles. We’re talking about the legend Bruce Lee.
In this specific article, we shall be covering the sparring between Bruce Lee and two of his students.
This is the only footage that shows the reactions of Bruce Lee in action rather than choreographed movements and attacks like in movies. This is with the students; there are moments in a few of these exchanges that get the instincts of Bruce Lee out there. Actually, he gets hit a couple of times in a sparring match.
Now we have to mind that this is 1967, I’m not trying to claim that in showing this I am insinuating that Bruce Lee can compete with the UFC fighters of today or the martial artists of today.
This simply shows that his skills and his reactions are ahead of his time. When you think about 1993, the first UFC event with Royce Gracie comes to mind, with many of these other one-dimensional martial artists that came from different backgrounds to compete with each other, I find that Bruce Lee’s reactions are even better than some of theirs. This competition right here was over 20 years ago before UFC 1.
What we see from Bruce Lee in this is, when he goes against his students. He always keeps a very wide stance to have a lot of options to move back, which he naturally would do in a lot of these exchanges. He would always move back to counter and never liked to move forward too much. He liked lateral movement as well, but he didn’t move like what a lot of people would think. He wasn’t super elusive but you can see that his balance is insane and he’s very quick on his feet as well on reacting, which tells you that he could be very elusive if he wanted to.
He always kept a very long distance between him and his opponent for kicking range. Always able to see things coming from distance when opponents try to attack from that initial point. He always kept his lead hand which is mostly his right hand forward.
Bruce Lee was right hand dominant so this shows that he was very reliant on the lead kicks and the jabs. That’s what you see here, especially. His line of defence is that front leg, especially the side kick and the jab which are very quick techniques to get the opponent away from you.
However, the thing about Bruce Lee in this is that he doesn’t use the jab like other boxers do. He doesn’t throw it out there constantly to set up something or get an angle on his opponent or just keep them away by consciously throwing it out there. When he threw his jab, he threw it very stiff. He would do it as if he is going to try and knock his opponent out with it. When he throws the jab he doesn’t move, he sits on it, stays in place and just thrusts it forward to his opponent.
Lee’s jab is a little bit weird; it’s not an elusive jab but it’s not a fluid jab either, it’s just straight power and speed. He tries to bulldoze you with that thing and tries to intercept you as you come in on him. He is good at catching his opponents when they try to cover so much distance on him because he keeps a very long distance. And his jabs are very powerful, you can just see the impact, you could see the power he throws in there as he sits on it very hard. In today’s world, it would be hard to catch someone like this, especially if someone’s moving around a lot and is being very elusive. It is going to be hard to catch someone while you’re sitting still like that unless you slip their punch and then counter them or if they’re just desperate to land that big shot on you, you might be able to land it then.
3. Barricade your opponent
You can notice the whole time as the lead hand is forward, similar to what Conor McGregor does in MMA (mixed martial arts). He puts his fist forward and extends it, since Bruce Lee is around 135 pounds roughly and he’s about 5ft 8, a long 135 pound man, so he uses that reach to his advantage and he uses that to barricade his opponent from coming in on him and makes him take a detour. He makes him to take another angle to attack him and he eliminates one entry movement from his opponent’s arsenal which is coming directly forward, so if they’re to go left, they have to go right or they could go under the lead hand or they could swipe away the lead hand, but this is all what he wants.
His opponent tries to swipe away the lead hand and he would move his lead hand out of the way of the swipe and catch his opponnt with the jab as they’re entering on him. Of course, his opponent’s attacks were a little bit too linear and a little bit too obvious.
His line of defence, that front kick is an amazing check; he throws it so quick and even doesn’t throw it like many people today throw. He throws it with a lot of power and a lot of snap and speed, because other people when they throw side kick they pretty much put their knee in and they throw their heel up. This loses a lot of power and a lot of speed and it could be unpredictable sometimes but it’s not an accurate shot. However, what Bruce Lee does is he lifts his knee, chambers it and then explodes and snaps with it.
5. Switching Stances
A few times, Bruce Lee is very quick to switch stances to close the distance, because when you switch stances, when you go back you’re creating more distance and when you’re going forward you’re closing distance. It’s almost like walking. He is very quick to switch, either if he’s moving back or forward. Whenever he sees his opponent open, he keeps switching his stances to get that angle to close the distance on his opponent, potentially land and strike on them.
6. Mind Games
And unlike what people would probably think about him, he is not one to not taunt his opponent. He likes to play mind games with his opponents out there and even with his students. You will see him taunt his opponents and you’ll see him put his head out there for them to hit him. You’ll see him start waving his arms, switching into different types of stances after he throws strikes, to almost intimidate them and increase those moments for himself to get an angle on his opponent or halt the action just enough so he can reset himself.
Bruce Lee is naturally a counter-striker and he doesn’t like to lead. He likes his opponents to open up and then he will strike quickly because his movements and his kicks, especially his jabs have great speed.
Especially towards the end with a second student, when his opponent goes and throws that right hook and he drops it; Lee sees that opening and throws out a right roundhouse head kick while his opponent’s punch is still out there. And it’s extremely quick, one of the fastest of Lee’s leg roundhouse kicks.
Even when his opponent would catch him or land a body kick on him while they jump in with a round kick to the body, Lee is so quick at catching openings with precise shots.
There are moments where his opponent leaps in there with a round kick to the body which catches Lee as he tries to land the jab. But his opponent will duck right under it and slip his head on the outside as well. It’s a little bit too heavy of a dodge, and right after, while his opponent’s head is down there Lee goes in terms to throw a knee up. Of course he doesn’t try to land it on his opponent as it could have been devastating. Given the angle, it’s a little hard to see if the knee would land rather than the thigh; however, if this was a precise shot this could have been devastating.
Lee was very good at adjusting as well. Seeing the first time, his opponent would duck after throwing the leaping body kick because he knows that Lee would throw the jab at him, Lee adjusted right away after it.
So what Lee would do is, he’ll leave his head out there for his opponent to attack him and his opponent would leap in and go for the body kick. So what Lee does is, he fixes his mistake because the reason why he missed the jab was because he waited for his opponent to get all the way in without knowing what he was going to throw. As his opponent leapt in on him, Lee waited to see what he was going to throw on him and once he landed the body kick, Lee threw the jab but it was too late as his opponent was already ducking.
What Lee does to fix his mistake is, when his opponent was slipping in, he already knew what to do. When his opponent is slipping in like that he’s almost defenceless. He doesn’t keep his hands up or anything like that since it’s kind of hard to do so when you’re throwing a leaping round kick to the body and Lee completely intercepts them with that jab as he’s coming in, before he even lands the kick.
Lee catches him before the kick even lands, rather than before he got hit by the kick and then threw it because he didn’t know what to expect. So he goes and catches him with the jab but it actually doesn’t seem to land too clean. It looks like it hits his headgear and then it rolls off of it but it seems to still rattle him a little bit.
His opponent will act according to his instinct which is what he was already going to do and ducks to his left, like he did before and Lee instantly throws up the right head kick. However, he doesn’t follow through with it because he doesn’t want to potentially hurt his student. If this was a real fight it most likely would have been done.
9. Everyone makes Mistakes
Of course, Bruce Lee didn’t do everything right in these two sparring matches and he did get caught a couple of times. He got caught by body kicks from the first opponent and although Lee would counter him with a jab, he still gets hit by those body kicks.
There was one point where he almost got caught being a little bit too relaxed. His opponent came in to throw what is seems to be a sloppy back kick, but he spun a little bit too hard and landed on the leg of Bruce Lee, as Lee pushed him with his right leg, getting his opponent off balance and then switch stances to get the angle on him.
I still haven’t seen much of this in the UFC matches, where fighters would create angles simply by just switching stances as they would dodge their punches or get their opponent off balance. There’s a couple of times where that happens, but it’s not too common.
What Bruce Lee does right after that is that he sits in his stance like he does a couple times throughout these sparring matches and looks at his opponent as he gets up. Bruce lee stands up completely straight, completely relaxed, casually, just walking and almost gets caught by the jab of his opponent. And Bruce Lee’s reaction was there, he was able to quickly get away from the punch. He would slip back, almost deflect the jab of his opponent and step back as well. This is also one of the moments where you see that if Bruce Lee wanted to be elusive, he probably could have because his footwork was pretty nice.
10. Be Balanced
Another thing you can notice throughout this whole thing is that Bruce Lee was always balanced. He never lost his footing even when he was doing those head kicks, when he was throwing the jabs. Everything he was throwing was in complete balance. That comes with good form, a lot of practice and just pure experience.
11. Don’t leave yourself exposed
But let’s be honest, one of the reasons why Bruce Lee was catching his opponent so easily was because they left themselves open a lot of times, especially the second guy. In his first sparring match his opponent slipped in there with those round body kicks and caught Lee a couple of times with them but he left himself so exposed for the jab, or any strike to the head. He would try to slip to the left every time he threw it but all the times he did that he would have been caught by a knee and he would’ve been caught by a high kick.
And Lee’s other opponent had his hands down throughout the whole thing. There were times that Bruce Lee was trying to land right head kicks the whole time, kept throwing them at him. Although Bruce Lee did have his hands down especially his left hand, his backhand was even lower than his front hand which is a little bit awkward. But Lee is a counter striker, he’s a counter fighter and when you see his opponents they look more like aggressive fighters or they’re more aggressive than Lee because Lee was the one that was baiting them the whole time.
12. Don’t cross feet while moving
Another thing Bruce Lee did was he crosses his feet a lot when he’s moving laterally, he doesn’t almost shuffle when he is moving side to side. He likes to walk as he’s moving left or right, crossing his feet and this is dangerous to do because you don’t have power when your feet are crossed. When you are at that moment, you have almost no power and you’re almost completely off-balance, and they can just push you the other way and you would fall over if you’re not fast enough to catch yourself.
Due to Bruce being unbalanced he is very open to strikes and he won’t be able to defend effectively, if they can land a high kick let’s say if he were to block it, he still might fall from the strike. But all in all this is very fascinating.
Now a lot of people think that Bruce Lee was never a fighter, he doesn’t know what he’s doing, he doesn’t know fighting, doesn’t know techniques, doesn’t know anything. But when I look at this I don’t see that. Obviously, he has some experience in something. You cannot develop these reactions and instincts out of nowhere, you develop them through years of drilling your techniques and sparring and visualizing. These instincts don’t just come to an actor like that.No, is he the best thing I’ve ever seen? Is he the best fighter? Would he be like Dominick Cruz and Cody Garbrandt and Demetrious Johnson? I’m not saying that at all.
Another thing you have to remember is that this was 50 years ago in 1967. 50 years of advancement and evolution of martial arts in general. And once it hit 1993 -First UFC event- and on, the evolution was rapid, more than it’s ever been. The UFC especially, evolved martial arts in general more than any time, probably ever. The last 30 years were just absolutely rapid for the evolution of martial arts.
So imagine 50 years ago, this guy was doing things that people still do today. The sidekicks to the leg, the sidekicks of the body, to check their opponent, the elusive movements, keeping the hand forward to barricade the opponent, everything he does people still utilize today.
The sidekicks to the leg that Bruce Lee incorporated in his movies, were not present in the UFC until Anderson Silva, Jon Jones started fighting then people started to incorporate these moves and see how effective they are. There was a time when people thought sidekicks were worthless. For me especially, I don’t think there is a right way of fighting, I don’t think there is a wrong way of fighting. I think all techniques besides the obvious, ridiculous ones can eventually work in a real fight if practiced and drilled to mastery.
For the longest time, so many fighters in the UFC in the “Golden Age”, had this narrow stance and used almost no lateral movement. There were a few guys who used a little bit of lateral movement, but there was no one like, let’s say Dominick Cruz today or WonderBoy Thompson. People were very worried that if you do that you might get taken down easily.
Now you can see that most people are elusive in their footwork. Back then, 10 years ago, most people were very static, very plotting in their movements. So yes, Bruce Lee was amazing.