The Time Bruce Lee Was Challenged to a Real Fight

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When David Chin walked through the entrance of Bruce Lee’s martial arts studio in Oakland, California in the fall of 1964, he found Lee stretched out on the floor. Classes were not yet in session, and the 23-year-old instructor was passing time by reading a novel.

Chin approached Lee and handed him an envelope. The contents were written in Cantonese; when Lee finished reading, he looked at Chin and laughed.

The letter expressed a measure of irritation at the way Lee had conducted himself during a demonstration in San Francisco just a few days earlier. It was authored by affiliates of the Gee Yau Seah Academy, some of whom had been in attendance to see Lee’s display of skill and bravado. At the time, Lee had some brash, heated words for anyone who felt they could match his skills.

The letter proposed a meeting between Lee and Wong Jack Man, a fellow Wing Chun stylist who ran a school less than 15 miles away. It was the second such request for Lee to back up his words in a physical confrontation—this time hand-delivered, to ensure Lee received it.

Lee quickly wrote a letter of his own accepting the match, which he gave to Chin. In less than a month, he and Wong would be standing opposite one another. Before they engaged, Lee told Wong about Chin’s messenger services.

“You've been killed by your friend,” Lee said.

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In October 1964, Bruce Lee had a pregnant wife, an unfinished drama education from the University of Washington, and little else. He had left Hong Kong in 1959, eager to bring the martial art of Wing Chun to Western students. Though he had been a child actor in his native Hong Kong, international film stardom was several years away.

To promote his school, the Jun Fan Gung Institute, in Oakland, Lee frequently gave demonstrations of his skills. Though he had not fully sculpted the action figure physique he would become known for, Lee had a series of theatrical displays that usually left audiences impressed.

The best known was Lee’s “one-inch punch,” a strike with no wind-up that was delivered from an incredibly short distance. While appearing at the Sun Sing Theatre in San Francisco that October, Lee invited a spectator to come and hold a pad. It was expected the man would be knocked backward, just as Lee had done dozens of times before.

Lee threw his punch, but the man was unmoved. Frustrated, Lee committed to a second, which sent the volunteer flying and complaining he wasn’t prepared for another strike.

It played like a comedy routine, and the audience began laughing. Lee, who had a tendency to lose his temper in record time, began seething. Some spectators flicked cigarette butts at his feet.

Annoyed, Lee invited anyone who thought they could do better to the stage. He was the best man there, he said, and the best fighter in San Francisco, and would welcome any challenges to be proven wrong.

While Lee was likely trying to recover from a rare embarrassment, not everyone in the audience took his comments lightly. The martial arts establishment thought his attitude was cocky. The man on stage, after all, wasn’t yet celebrated for his onscreen presence; he was a newcomer to the area who was running his mouth, and it wasn’t appreciated.

David Chin, a Wing Chun enthusiast who wasn’t present for Lee’s speech but had heard of it, suggested his friend Wong Jack Man could offer a needed dose of humility. Wong’s Wing Chun was slightly different than Lee’s—three inches taller, he preferred fighting at more of a distance—but he was roughly the same age and still made decisions based on a surplus of pride. Wong agreed, and Chin helped compose the letter agreeing to a match before delivering it.

Lee was no stranger to fights, having grown up getting into altercations in the streets and occasionally brushing against the law. After Chin visited, he insisted Wong come to his school in Oakland; after a few phone calls to finalize a time, he welcomed his challenger in the evening hours.

As Lee had his friend, Jimmy Lee, lock the front door, Wong and his associates came to a realization: there was a discrepancy in how each man was approaching the bout. Wong saw it as a sparring match with the volume turned up, a demonstration of skills; Lee was going to treat it like one of his street fights, where nothing was off-limits.

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Lee would later tell Black Belt magazine his encounter with Wong would change his way of thinking forever, evolving from a strict Wing Chun style to his own Jeet Kune Do, which incorporated a variety of techniques. But while he later dismissed his fight “with a kung fu cat” as nothing more than a rabbit chase where his hands swelled from pummeling his foe, other accounts have presented a very different take.

According to writer Rick Wing, who tracked down as many of the surviving 11 spectators as he could—along with Wong himself—the fight was not as one-sided as Lee described it. Lee began by lashing out immediately after a handshake, cutting Wong’s forehead, and then proceeded to launch a series of groin kicks and high-volume punches, most of which Wong absorbed in the chest.

Wong moved laterally, and was not as aggressive as the temperamental Lee; he had told his friends he wouldn’t be using kicks, which he considered his most dangerous weapon, because he didn’t want to permanently injure Lee. He did, however, sport a pair of leather bracelets he wore over his wrists, and one of his strikes caught Lee near his neck, staggering him. Wong followed up with a headlock, but chose not to strike while Lee was doubled over.

After 20 minutes of Lee pressing the action and Wong picking his spots, Wong lost his footing and fell to the ground, where Lee tried to pounce on him. Observers told Wing they feared Lee was getting too heated and stepped in to break up the bout.

Lee later told his wife, Linda, he felt the fight had gone on too long, and that he should’ve been able to dispatch Wong easily. The frustration led to an increased devotion to training. In a few months’ time, his son, Brandon, would be born, and his screen test for a television series would lead to a co-starring stint on The Green Hornet. When he returned to San Francisco for martial arts exhibitions, he referred to Wong as “the runner.”

Though the men had agreed not to discuss the fight, news circulated in Chinese newspapers. The printed version started as gossip fodder, distorted to attribute the reason for the bout as being over a woman—a Chinese actress, Zhang Zhongwen, who had briefly danced the cha-cha with Lee before his infamous demonstration.

It wasn't true, and Lee agreed to be interviewed to correct the story; Wong then tried to refute Lee’s version, which had him winning. The scene was also dramatized in 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, where a stand-in for Wong breaks Lee’s back.

Now in his 70s, Wong still resides in the San Francisco area. He rarely speaks of the Lee bout. When the actor died in 1973, he sent flowers.

Though no one can say for certain, it appears Lee and Wong met just once more after the fight, when Lee came to the café where Wong was a waiter. A relaxed Lee mentioned they were both Chinese, had come from the same martial arts lineage, and had no reason to quarrel.

“Hey, man,” Lee said, “I was just trying to advertise my school.”

Additional Sources:
Showdown in Oakland.

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