There are two videos on Youtube which, judging by the comments below them, seem to convince people of Bruce Lee's brilliance.

Both videos are excerpts from a single film, apparently shot at the 1967 Long Beach Tournament and available elsewhere on Youtube.

  1. 'Bruce Lee's Only Real Fight Ever Recorded'

Surely any experienced fighter watching this would agree: Bruce's opponent here is absolutely terrible, and is a poor opponent against which to demonstrate one's abilities. He telegraphs every punch and kick loudly, not only by retracting his fists, but with unnecessary whole-body movement, often dropping both fists ridiculously low (to waist level) and his head as he moves in (see 2:22 for an example). This is true beginner stuff and no decent fighter would derive any pride from dismantling someone this poor. Many club fighters would have performed better against someone so incompetent. Someone may identify this fighter and point to his belt or reputational status, none of which alters the evidence contained in the footage.

Bruce's opponent maintains no defensive integrity and pursues Bruce stupidly, continuing to attack even though this is clearly ineffective. The 'ultra slow motion' section shows nothing but a rudimentary block (executed without any great skill) and also reveals a repeated failing of Bruce's. He displays virtually no lateral movement when under attack, which results in him being forced backwards and to be prevented from employing the counter strikes circular movement would enable.

This video seems constitutes no evidence that Bruce is a remarkable fighter (although his fist kick was decent). On the contrary, it suggests he is nowhere nearly as good as is so often claimed.

  1. 'Joe Lewis Tries To Teach Bruce Lee Karate........ Then This Happened'.

Anyone at home can replicate what Bruce did in this video. Admittedly the technique demonstrated bears almost no relationship to fighting skills, unless you think fights involve an opponent facing you with their arms at their sides, in an extremely weak stance.

Let's examine each punch.

In the first one against Joe Lewis (at the start of the video), Joe Lewis is standing square to Bruce, not in a fighting stance. The fact he was forced back has very little to do with power and a lot to do with balance. If you stand in front of someone with your feet square to them, it takes relatively little power to unbalance you and force you back. Additionally, Bruce's punch was less a punch than a push, which you can clearly see in the footage.

Bruce also employs a bit of deceptive stagecraft in the demonstration. Notice, that when he invites Lewis to punch the volunteer, the volunteer has no chair behind him. This allows him to backpedal freely and regain his balance. This is where Bruce plays his trick. Before demonstrating his punch, he positions the volunteer so the chair is behind him. The audience likely assumes this is for safety, but no, the chair actually increases the danger. The chair prevents the volunteer from backpedaling, and so he falls into it.

Also, if you pause the video, you will see the punch is nothing like a 'six-inch' punch (or the 'one-inch punch' for which he is lauded). His brings his fist back at least twelve inches (it looks like quite a bit more) and uses his whole body to punch through his opponent. There is absolutely nothing remarkable about the result. The fact the chair slid back so far is more to do with the participant's whole body weight falling into it after being unbalanced, and far less with the power of the punch. His display is consistent with claims he was interested in magic.

The trick is easily repeated. Try it at home with a friend (Use spotters, for safety reasons, and make sure the receiver is adequately protected both from the punch and the fall).

Yes, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence which seems to support claims as to Bruce Lee's virtuosity, but testimonials of this sort are worthy of considerable skepticism. It is not uncommon for myths to arise around certain historical figures, and for hyperbole to permeate apparently documentary accounts. We also know that testimony from friends and students and teachers (and others who may have had a personal or professional/reputationally dependent relationship with Lee) is far less reliable than independent testimony. Other analyses seem highly speculative; based upon vague accounts, opinions of 'experts' (such as famous fighters who never saw him fight), and upon tangentially relevant evidence such as Bruce's athleticism.

There is also footage - from the same tournament - of Lee performing sticky hand techniques whilst blindfolded. This is interesting and no doubt requires considerable skill, but there are again questions as to the competence of his opponent and to the utility of such skills in real combat.

I have reached no conclusion as to Lee's ability, but none of the footage I have seen reliably supports any claim he was a very good - let alone great - fighter.

Does any such evidence exist?

EDIT: Member Macaco Branco provides this link, analysing the same footage, including another sparring display Lee performed on the same occasion

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    youtu.be/LcHPche3TXE might be an interesting watch, although he comes to the same conclusion that this shows Bruce was physically gifted, but not necessarily a great fighter. Commented Sep 30, 2021 at 15:55

1 Answer 1


This depends on what you call "reliable evidence". There are a few first-hand reports that the Inside Karate Magazine researched 20 years after his death, and they suggest he was a legit fighter, to the point that he refused any sports competition because it would limit his abilities by rules, going against the spirit of martial arts (not because he deemed himself "too deadly").

As the only source of said article that I could find was an obscure, Swedish forum I will cite the article in full for convenience. The caveat is that it fully relies on reports of people near him, probably all of them given after his death.

So there is a strong possibility it partly is more about the myth than the man. The sum of it, his training regimen and his own understanding of what martial arts should be like suggest some grain of truth, though:

Bruce Lee: Real Fighter Or Mere Showman?

By Paul J. Bax

Though it has been over 20 years since his death, Bruce Lee, the late martial arts movie action hero, continues to generate interest in his life and thrill audiences who view his on-screen performances. Despite his obvious fighting prowess on film, people still speculate that Lee was only an actor who had little, if any, real fighting ability. In contrast, people who actually knew and trained with Bruce Lee will vouch for his superior combative skills and attest to his explosive speed and power. Was Lee only a showman who only fought in movies, or could he actually end a real fight in a matter of seconds?

It is common knowledge that Lee never participated in tournament fighting. The late star felt such events proved nothing about one's fighting skills since a fighter's arsenal of weapons was limited, due to the rules of the match. How can one look at tournaments as realistic fighting when only certain areas of the body could be struck? Why were participants automatically disqualified for excessive contact when the goal of fighting is to annihilate their opponents? These were the factors that kept Lee away from sport competition. When evaluating Lee's fighting skills, one must first has to consider how he trained. His training equipment back in the 1960's was so advanced, it is still being used by his students. Considering the results that Lee trained for when using such equipment, one might begin to see that he was training to totally incapacitate his opponent. An example would be the punching devices Lee used in his training. They were constructed out of metal which simulated different parts of the head, such as the eyes, jaw and throat. While most martial artist were punching air, Lee was practicing to strike the most vital parts of the body. While most martial artist were simulating fighting by practicing kata's. Lee was participating in all out sparring matches with protective gear. While most martial artist were training to kick people in the face, Lee concentrated on kicking low and destroying his adversary's knee caps, groin and shins. Besides being respected as an innovator in martial arts training, Lee also was revered by top Karate champions of his era. Mike Stone, a top fighter in the sixties, once stated in the book, The Legend Of Bruce Lee, that, "For his size and weight, Bruce was one of the strongest people pound for pound, I have ever met. I think he would have beaten a lot of people much heavier and much stronger than he was. He would have done extremely well in competition. If anything, he would have been too fast for the officials. He was that skillful." Joe Lewis, voted the greatest karate player of all time, once noted in "Black Belt" magazine that Lee, "was probably the fastest man I've ever seen and by far the most intelligent fighter I have worked with. If Lee wasn't the greatest martial artist of all time, he was certainly the number one candidate."

The respect Lee garnered from other martial artist is obvious, but how did Lee actually do in the few fights that he had? Throughout his 32 year life he was challenged many times. Be that as it may, Lee fought very infrequently. In his youth, Lee claimed to be a street punk who went looking for trouble. Only two eyewitness accounts exist about his fights before he came to the U.S. at the age of 18. One was by his friend and training partner, Hawkins Cheung. In an article for Inside Kung Fu magazine, Cheung claims Lee fought another martial arts practitioner who used a style called Choy Li Fut, while Lee adhered to the art of Wing Chun. The fight was set up to last two rounds, with one opponent attacking in the first round and the other attacking in the second. Lee's opponent attacked first with a wild flow of techniques. Bruce handled the situation the best he could. At the end of the first round, Bruce wanted to quit. After much encouragement from his friends he channeled his fear into positive adrenalin and ended up breaking his opponent's jaw. In another account, Cheung witnessed Lee in a boxing match with the champion high school boxer of Hong Kong. Though Lee had never boxed before, he easily knocked out his opponent who had been champion for three years. After being encouraged to leave Hong Kong by his parents due to his constant fighting, Lee came to America a much more mature person and less of a trouble making individual. The days of roaming the streets looking for trouble were now only a memory.

Shortly after arriving in the states, Lee began teaching martial arts. (First to keep his skill and later for money) Since he was always giving demonstration to attract more students, he also stirred up controversy. A particular black belt Karate man took exception to some of Lee's claims regarding kung fu and challenged him to a fight. Though he declined the match, Lee was the constant target of rude remarks from this particular individual. Finally, the man had the nerve to shove Bruce out of the way in a crowded hallway which resulted in Lee accepting his previous challenge. According to Jesse Glover, Lee's first student, the fight took place at the local Y.M.C.A. handball court. After a brief warm-up, the two faced off to begin their match. Lee's opponent began the altercation with a front kick that was easily blocked. Bruce proceeded to straight punch his opponent the full length of the court when finally the man's back ran into the wall. At this point, Lee's foe tried to grab him to which he responded with a double punch that lifted the now bloodied opponent off his feet. As his opponent's body hit the ground, Lee connected a front kick to his nose. Glover yelled for Lee to stop his attack. The karate man lay motionless in a pool of blood. Ed Hart, another one of Lee's students, reported in Black Belt magazine that the fight only lasted eleven seconds. Lee's first official fight in the U.S. was a success.

Another encounter happened as a result of Bruce Lee's non-conformance to a Chinese tradition of not teaching non-Asians. While preparing for class in his Oakland school, Lee was approached by a group of men who ordered him to stop teaching whites or close his school down. Bruce denied this request and bluntly said he would teach those he wanted to teach. After several minutes of discussion, the group of men decided Lee would have to fight one of them in order to defend his right to teach whites. If he won, they would leave him alone. If he lost, he would have to close his school down. Lee's wife, Linda, recalls in her book, The Bruce Lee Story that after her husband faced off with his opponent he produced a series of straight punches. Within a minute, Lee was already gaining the upper hand in the fight. Suddenly, the friends of the rival began to say the fight should be stopped but the fight continued. Finally, the confrontation ended with Bruce dragging his opponent to the ground pounding him into submission.

Though these are the only known fights that Bruce Lee had in the U.S., he also encountered trouble when he became a major movie star in the far east. On the set of his last movie, Enter The Dragon, co-star Bob Wall confirmed [in an interview for Black Belt] two incidents he witnessed where Lee had successfully defended himself. The first match was handled quickly and easily. Lee simply performed a choke hold after forcing his opponent to the ground. In the second, the challenger was a well known martial artist in Hong Kong who wanted to prove that Lee was just an actor and not a fighter. After becoming tired of the man's excessive derogatory remarks, Lee finally ordered him to, "Come over and have apiece of me." Lee's opponent tried everything he possibly could do to hit Bruce, but he couldn't touch him. Finally, Lee punched him and followed up with a foot sweep which landed the man on his back. After the man stood up again, Lee continued to pound him and eventually slammed the foe against a wall. The man, who was bigger and taller than Bruce, eventually begged him to stop. After this incident, Wall claimed there were no more challenges.

When considering the fights that Bruce Lee engaged in throughout his life, it is safe to say he was an actual fighter and not just an actor who performed martial arts, as many people have claimed him to be. Lee lived and breathed the martial arts. There will doubtfully ever be another practitioner who comes close to his dedication to the philosophy, teaching and disciplines of the martial way.

  • Yes. 'Reliable' is key. These accounts (as impressive as they might at first appear) just don't seem to match the footage. An initial reaction might be, 'Well maybe Bruce was having a bad day. It's only one demonstration bout'. But consider other elite fighters. 'Bad days' for them typically don't result in them losing their skills to such an extent. Their skills are still obvious. I can believe he was an elite athlete at this point, just not an elite fighter. So, what 'reliable' evidence can I hope to find? Maybe you've shown my question is futile in the absence of further footage. Commented Oct 29, 2022 at 3:42

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