In the summer of 1968, Joe Lewis sold his karate school to friend and fellow champ Chuck Norris. Following the urging of his teacher, Bruce Lee, Joe Lewis had decided on a new career: offering private self-defense lessons to wealthy clients in Los Angeles. To promote the endeavor, Joe Lewis set up demonstrations at UCLA to prove that jeet kune do was superior to classical karate.
The week before a demo was scheduled, Joe Lewis, who’d taken JKD lessons from Bruce Lee since 1967, would pore over the details with his teacher. They’d work out a program to showcase self-defense techniques using Bruce Lee’s protective gear. The day of the demo, Joe Lewis would drive to Bruce Lee’s house to pick him up, then make their way to the UCLA fraternity that was sponsoring that particular event.
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Wearing a suit and tie, Bruce Lee would take a seat near the stage, and Joe Lewis would begin by announcing that jeet kune do was superior to other arts. The karateka would run through a series of JKD strikes and kicks against the focus shields Bruce Lee had brought. “He would spend hour after hour training me to be able to show exactly what he wanted people to see,” Joe Lewis recalled.
As part of the demonstration, Joe Lewis would place a phone book against a volunteer’s chest and, using a JKD close-quarters punch, send him flying backward.
At the end of the program, Joe Lewis would don gear and spar with a karate black belt. His purpose was to show how JKD made it easier for him to hit his opponent. With the audience invariably impressed, Joe Lewis would introduce his teacher, and Bruce Lee would take the stage. “I think Bruce liked the idea that I first demonstrated the skills and then told people that he was America’s top teacher,” Lewis said.
Bruce Lee’s Training Sessions
“Bruce and I never sparred in demos or in training—the subject never came up,” Joe Lewis continued. “The only time I ever saw him spar was when he paired up with Danny Inosanto at the 1967 International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California. Both of them wore full-contact protective gear.”
In their workouts, Bruce Lee and Joe Lewis engaged in something that may have been more beneficial than sparring: interaction drills. “They helped me become cognizant of proper distance, timing and rhythm,” Joe Lewis said. “Those are the cornerstones of tactical fighting, but few fighters ever master them. Most instructors have no idea as to the best way to teach students how to use these skills. With rhythm and timing, a fighter can beat a faster or stronger opponent.”
Despite the fact that Bruce Lee seldom sparred, he encouraged his advanced students to do it. “There is nothing better than freestyle sparring in the practice of any combative art,” Bruce Lee once said. “In sparring, you should wear suitable protective gear and go all out. Then you can truly learn the correct timing and distance for the delivery of kicks and punches.”
Bruce Lee was meticulous when it came to teaching his students how to perform those kicks and punches, Joe Lewis said. “Bruce would make sure my hand was in just the right place, my elbow perfectly in line. He had a specific stance that I was to use. I hear people say there’s no technique in jeet kune do, but the way Bruce taught it, there were techniques he expected you to learn.”
One thing the two martial artists never practiced was kata. Bruce Lee wanted his students to understand that “creating fancy forms and classical sets to replace sparring is like trying to wrap and tie a pound of water into a manageable shape [in] a paper sack. For something that is static, fixed or dead, there can be a way or a definite path; but not for anything that is moving and living, like jeet kune do.”
Sparring, Bruce Lee said, “lives in the moment. The highest technique is to have no technique.” Once the fighter steps on the mat, he no longer represents a style. He’s free to adapt and survive—which is exactly what Joe Lewis strived to do.
Learning Footwork and Jeet Kune Do Techniques from Bruce Lee
“When Bruce and I worked together, he wouldn’t use words like strategy or tactic,” Lewis said. “When we would study fight films, he would point out the importance of why a certain principle or strategy was working. For example, when Jack Dempsey, known for his explosiveness, would bridge the gap against an opponent, Bruce would emphasize to me why his trigger squeeze and quickness destroyed his foe’s defenses.”
Joe Lewis claims that Bruce Lee was fond of the concept of relaxed explosiveness. “This principle was one of the keys to why his system worked so well for me,” Joe Lewis said. “I had many opponents tell me after I beat them that I was so fast that they never saw me coming. Some were so overwhelmed that they would ask me what technique I used to hit them because they never saw it coming.”
The secret of his success was his mastery of the skills Bruce Lee taught. Those jeet kune do techniques were conveyed for the most part during weekly Wednesday workouts at Bruce Lee’s house. Being friends, the two spent many weekends socializing, often watching boxing films. “Willie Pep, reputed by many to be pound for pound the best boxer of all time, was the fighter whose footwork Bruce and I would study,” Joe Lewis said.
“[Muhammad] Ali was another master of rhythm,” Lewis added. The boxer’s footwork can be seen in Return of the Dragon, he claims.
Most fighters today would do well to study the footwork of the JKD founder, Joe Lewis said, because the majority of martial artists still fight by attacking straight in and straight upright. “This outdated style of fighting makes you an easy target,” he added. “When you move using good footwork, called ‘rhythm sets,’ you can keep an aggressive opponent contained, set him up and make it difficult to get hit. If you get hit, movement allows you to absorb and dissipate the incoming energy.”
Demonstrating Jeet Kune Do Concepts
Joe Lewis said that Bruce Lee helped him better understand how to conceptualize the facets of fighting, including ring strategy. “Without strategy, a fighter has no way to anchor his concentration of focus and has nothing on which to base [the] timing [of] his trigger squeeze,” Joe Lewis said. “He’s left without any idea as to how he might best set up his opponent or what tactics would work best against him.”
To clarify, he offered an example: “Anyone fighting a taller opponent must know three basics tactics: how to move on the outside; how to fight him from the pocket; and how to line him up, walk him to the ropes and turn him. I work a great deal [on] teaching the cardinal rules of strategy that I learned over many years. Movement and turning—a couple of things I learned from Bruce—are some of the best tricks I’ve used in competition.”
Joe Lewis was the first to teach such principles to sport-karate competitors. It all started when other fighters began ridiculing Joe Lewis for listing Bruce Lee, whom they identified as merely a kung fu practitioner, as his teacher.
Rewind to 1967. Joe Lewis had just signed on as an official student of Bruce Lee’s, and Bruce Lee was ringside at an exhibition match pitting Joe Lewis against top-rated Japanese stylist Tonny Tulleners. “Bruce sat in the front row behind my corner and coached me between rounds,” Joe Lewis said. “That night, I used a double side kick that Bruce and I had drilled on.”
After Joe Lewis won, Bruce Lee said, “That’s the broken-rhythm principle I taught you.” The fighter went on to win the internationals and the Jhoon Rhee Nationals that year.
By the end of 1968, Joe Lewis had mastered the principles of jeet kune do as they applied to sport fighting. At the U.S. Karate Championships in Dallas, Joe Lewis, undefeated in his 10 most recent title fights, prepared to enter the ring. To quell the complaints he often heard about the “kung fu guy” who never competed, Joe Lewis told the promoter that he wanted to give a JKD seminar before the bout so his opponents would know why he was sold on Bruce Lee. Joe Lewis then demonstrated the principle of independent motion and the five angles of attack.
“I taught jeet kune do principles, either directly or through others, to many of the top fighters from the ’60s and ’70s,” Joe Lewis said. “Steve ‘Nasty’ Anderson came from our system. Before he started cleaning house with all the top black belts, he’d won 70 straight brown-belt titles. We knew before we made him a black belt that he was going to be great. He was a master of timing and distancing, two key principles which Bruce encouraged me to perfect.”
Joe Lewis’ Favorite Jeet Kune Do Technique
The JKD principles he learned from Bruce Lee still work in the ring, Joe Lewis said. “The problem today is that many instructors never field-test the material they teach. Most of what’s being taught was created on someone’s desktop or in someone’s mind but was never tested. I was Bruce Lee’s test tube. In 1968, during the peak of our training relationship, I won 11 straight championships.”
Joe Lewis contends that the theories Bruce Lee advocated, including putting one’s power side forward, worked for all three original full-contact champs: Jeff Smith, Bill Wallace and himself. “I won my first kickboxing fight using Bruce Lee’s JKD material with my power side forward,” Joe Lewis said. “Jeff and Bill are both left-handed and based their entire fighting careers on putting their power side—their left side—forward.”
One jeet kune do technique remains Joe Lewis’ favorite: the lead-hand punch. He trained intensively with Bruce Lee for nine months to polish it before he tried it in competition. Back in the 1960s, the lead hand was seldom used in karate competition because it was thought to have insufficient power to effect a “killing blow.” Joe Lewis’ secret entailed retracting his hand as though he was doing a backfist, which prompted referees to label it a back-knuckle strike. “Actually, it’s more like a fencing thrust using the fist,” Joe Lewis said.
Joe Lewis contends that the lead-hand strike, done the way Bruce Lee intended it, is a viable technique for the 21st century, whether you’re sparring in a ring, battling in a cage or defending your life on the street. Like most of the moves Bruce Lee taught, it can give you the edge you need to win no matter where you fight.
(Dr. Jerry Beasley was Black Belt’s 2000 Instructor of the Year. A professor at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, he’s written books about jeet kune do and classical karate.)