Was Bruce Lee Actually Good at Fighting?

Bruce Lee may have died 42 years ago, but one question has managed to plague the internet like a bad case of ringworm—was he actually good a "fighter?” Though his status as martial arts philosopher, teacher, practitioner, and fitness guru are well documented, how well he would actually “do in a fight” doesn’t seem so cut and dry. 

Was he just an actor? Would he do well in the Octagon? In a back alley? Digging through the elephantine pile of forum posts, articles, and anecdotes, the evidence seems to be pretty clear.

Bruce Lee Was a Teacher, Not a Fighter

1. He didn't have a lot a ton of experience taking punches to the face.
Compared to MMA guys or boxers who constantly take damage points during their fights, Bruce avoided—wisely—getting bashed around. If someone with some mass hit him, would he fall like Zach Galifinakas in The Hangover or would he pick himself up like master Wayne? Street fights might be short, but there's a lot of time on that clock in the ring.

2. He rarely fought.
For someone who devoted their life to studying martial arts in both a practical and scholarly manner, Lee rarely got caught up in impromptu duels of fisticuffs and did not participate in tournaments like Chuck Norris, for example.

3. Most of his fights are poorly documented.
Despite having only fought a handful of times, a solid chunk of the documentation is anecdotal or straight-up hearsay. Considering the significant legend status all of Bruce's hagiographers have produced, it's hard to know what to believe.

4.There are rules in the ring, not so much on the street.
Lee's training and interests were almost purely utilitarian, devoid of considerations to a ring, mat, or any kind-of-gon. If anyone had ever wanted to put a "Bruce Lee vs [whoever]" they would have had to do it with restrictions, because a fight to the death isn't really an option.

5. He was an actor.
To many people, this is damning evidence against his skills. It's unclear why, but due to its near bacterial presence on the internet, it seems worth a mention.

Bruce Lee Was a Teacher, AND a Fighter

1. A ton of people who probably know what they're talking about say so.
Mike Tyson says so. Inside Karate Magazine wrote an article weighing the evidence and said so, and quoting people like Mike Stone (“strongest pound for pound, much stronger than I am") and Joe Lewis (“fastest and most intelligent. Greatest martial artist of all time.) on Lee's excellence.

2. He would do well if the fight was dirty.
Lee's interest in anatomy and physiology is well documented, so he knew where it could hurt. If the fight was no-holds-barred, you can be sure he would have used all of this knowledge, which extended past the eyes and groin. It's not "dirty" if it's to the death. The tournaments Norris did (that Lee didn't do) would disqualify someone if they hit too hard. They were more like chess matches and were not representative of an actual fight. 

3. Lee possessed the qualities a fighter needs.
His reflexes were faster than a jaguar hopped up on methamphetamines. He was in incredible shape. He could knock a large man over from an inch without cocking his fist back.

4. He sparred and practiced on metal dummies.
Inside Karate Magazine's article says he frequently trained by hitting metal, which toughened his fists. Though he didn't fight much, it wasn't like he was punching in the air.

5. He was incredibly good at blending martial arts.
Lee learned grappling and was really good at blending them together, making him a formidable opponent on his feet or on the ground.

6. He actually did fight people. And win.
Though he didn't fight much, he did sometimes. He beat the boxing champion of his high school without being a boxer. People occasionally said he was just an actor and tried (and failed) to prove it. This happened on the Enter the Dragon set and begging ensued. His widow Linda said he fought a master in the U.S. who didn't want him to teach to people of non-Asian descent. He won with his Wing Chun skills but didn't think he won fast enough and invented his own martial art. He also destroyed a black belt Karate dude on a YMCA handball court. In 11 seconds. The mat was red. Former student Skip Ellsworth says he "could end any physical confrontation within three or four seconds."

The Jury is In

Was Bruce Lee a real fighter? Obviously. Could Bruce Lee win in a fight against Chuck Norris? It's hard to say for sure, but poring over stories and information from the people that knew him, it seems that he was incredibly legit. The blog Without Writing puts together a pretty compelling case that Chuck Norris would be mopped up after. Against heavyweight mixed martial artists or Muhammed Ali, not everyone agrees. But some say he'd stay low and kick the legs like Inoki and use his endurance to wait a big man out. Too bad we never got to find out. RIP Bruce.

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is Deputy Editor at Supercompressor. He arm wrestles from time to time. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.