The Long, Straight Lead of JKD

Continuing with our little series on crippling myths of Bruce Lee and his enigmatic intercepting fist method, I’d like to call attention to a problem so obvious and so ubiquitous that it rivals the false notion that Lee abandoned Wing Chun after his fight with Wong Jak Man. In fact, this error is so common that Joseph Goebbels himself would be impressed, though it’s not the result of propaganda as much as sloppy thinking.

As many of you know, there are different styles of Wing Chun. One lineage does it one way, yours another, and mine the correct way…sorry, bad joke, but you get the point. There’s simply different – and valid – interpretations of using the concepts and structures of Wing Chun. That’s pretty much assumed by most that don’t run the Kool-Aid stand. Well, it’s the same thing with boxing.

A lot of confusion clouds our thinking about Lee’s JKD when we say, “oh, Bruce then studied boxing…” Sure. Fine. But – and this is the million dollar question – what style or type of boxing? For the educated student that would be the logical question. To just think that all boxing is the same is to allow serious error into the fabric of one’s understanding of JKD and to throw things quite out of whack. You see, outside of thinking that Lee rejected Wing Chun completely in developing JKD, the next greatest misconception is that he began to nail together disparate systems from across the globe, using only the best, of course, and then zapping it with his inimitable genius and yelling, “it’s alive!” So, in this rendering, JKD is kind of a martial Frankenstein, an unseemly hodgepodge of different things.

But there’s absolutely no evidence of Lee ever tinkering around with all of the world’s fighting systems. How could he have done that in such a short period of time anyway – especially without Wikipedia? Seriously, though, watching him spar during the Long Beach demonstrations we see a curious approach to combat, which is the same thing he literally taught in the world’s first and largest JKD lesson ever on the Longstreet episode. And it’s the same thing he taught to Ted Wong and even to Joe Lewis. What was it?

Simple: it was his own modified Wing Chun system. What did he modify it with? Certainly not with the “everything under the sun” stew of arts but with classic, old-school boxing. To read the Tao of Jeet Kune Do is to take a tour through the old boxing manuals and fistic generals that Lee was studying. Yes, he was studying boxing but not just any style of boxing – he was studying the all but forgotten straight hitting, counter-attack style of the bare-knuckle days. Bruce Lee was certainly no martial Dr. Frankenstein, trying to give life to what was dead by sewing things together and hoping for the best. No. He brilliantly realized that the old boxing methods, which used the vertical fist and was designed to be used for self-defense rather than sport, fit rather nicely into the Wing Chun structure he had already developed.

It’s a terrible mistake to simply say that Lee studied boxing because without narrowing down exactly the style of boxing he found compelling leads one, invariably, to misunderstand the connection between Wing Chun and JKD. For example, there’s not too much similarity between Mike Tyson’s peek-a-boo style and Floyd Mayweather’s more upright, counter-attack style. They’re both obviously still boxing but each utilizes boxing techniques and concepts in unique ways adapted to their respective physical attributes, temperament, and goals (Tyson wants to knock you out, kill your family, insult your mama, and take your women whereas Floyd just wants to win a decision). Lee obviously wasn’t interested in sport orientated boxing so adapting the more current incarnation of the noble art of self-defense would have been illogical. Instead, he noticed by studying the works of the past masters – especially the great Welsh boxer, Peerless Jim Driscoll – that people had already been getting the results he was looking for. Thus, no need to go on a global quest for fighting truth – he already found it.

According to Ted Wong, it was Driscoll in particular that influenced Lee the most with his emphasis on using the straight lead (as the jab was called in those days because they saw it as a power punch) as a stopping, or intercepting weapon. Driscoll, nearly 60 years before Bruce Lee, and having never attended a JKD seminar, called the long, vertical fist lead against an on-rushing opponent, the “stop-policy.” Not much film remains of Peerless Jim’s fights but watch him, read his book, and then compare it to Lee sparring in Long Beach and you’d have to be a political activist not to see the similarity. Lee’s genius was that he saw the structural and tactical connections and adapted them into his Wing Chun foundation.

Today, virtually no boxer realizes the self-defense origins of his method, nor the fact that the old-style was very much influenced by fencing. Driscoll points this out in his book and it was keenly understood by Lee. This is, in fact, where the fencing connection comes into JKD – through boxing. Many tactics spillover from fencing in the old-school, straight lead style and Lee happily incorporated them into his own method. Thus, by giving boxing a scientific clinch game for all-out fighting, derived from Wing Chun, and using the long range interception tactics and footwork of Driscoll, Lee transformed the sweet-science into the sweeter-science of JKD. He saw the long side kick and eye jab as a type of fencer’s attack as described by Driscoll and the other past masters of pugilism.

In all, it’s true that there’s no new thing under the sun (to quote another old source). Lee’s brilliance was that he sought out the root, the foundation of things and stayed true to his principles. So, in doing this, rather than creating something new, he reordered the old that had been forgotten. When we understand this, we see how much treasure awaits us when we look deeply at the systems that developed Lee – Wing Chun and old-school boxing. Doing this, we steer clear of simply copying him and can use the principles, techniques and strategies in our own unique ways.