top of page

Battling Bruce Lee: A Thought Experiment to Help You Improve Your Fight Quotient!

Updated: May 2

Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon

Black Belt Plus

Imagine that you’re a coach who trains martial artists for competition. Also imagine that you’re informed that in the first match of an upcoming tournament, one of your students will face Bruce Lee, and you can select which student it will be. How would you go about choosing that person and how would you train him to face Lee?

In this article — in essence, an elaborate thought experiment — I’ll give my recommendations based on the only available video of Bruce Lee demonstrating his fighting style, which is available on YouTube. While this is the best data we have, there are several limitations. First, the match lasted a little more than two minutes, as opposed to the normal three two-minute rounds we see in tournament sparring. Thus, it’s unknown what techniques

Lee would have used in a longer fight. Second, the video presents us with just 12 first attacks to analyze. Third, one can argue that it was not a true fight because Lee’s opponent was Ted Wong.

Who is Ted Wong? A member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame, he appeared in this magazine numerous times. Most relevant for our analysis of the video is that Wong was a longtime student of Lee’s and they frequently sparred. Thus, Lee was very familiar with his opponent’s approach to fighting, more so than a person would be in a typical tournament.

For example, the video reveals that Wong always initiated the attack, always attacked when in a closed position relative to Lee (i.e., both fighters facing each other with their right limbs in the lead), and always attacked with his lead hand or leg. Obviously, Lee would have been well aware of these habits.

Of course, Wong was also familiar with Lee’s fighting style. While this would appear to put the two on equal footing, that may not be the case. One could argue that out of respect, especially in a public performance, a student will not attempt to show up his teacher. It’s unknown whether this dynamic was in play in this video.

Despite these limitations, this is the best available record of Bruce Lee’s fighting style, and it’s better than nothing. To further analyze it for our thought experiment, I have divided this article into four sections. The first addresses what one could expect given the style of fighting that Lee exhibited — what he always did and what he never did in the video. The second section addresses what one might expect — in other words, what he occasionally did. In the third section, I give my recommendations on how I’d select the martial artist to oppose Lee. Finally, I list the strategies I’d teach to give him the best chance to win. Here is what one should take care before battling Bruce Lee.

Battling Bruce Lee: What One Should Expect?

The video reveals several aspects of Lee’s fighting style that are used repeatedly. This might have been because of his familiarity with Wong’s style and the fact that it’s essentially the same as Lee’s style, as well as their long history of sparring with each other. Thus, Lee likely knew which techniques would be most successful against Wong. 

When facing an unfamiliar opponent, Lee no doubt would have exhibited more variety. As noted, Wong initiated 12 attacks in the video. Lee always counterattacked or dodged the first strike. He didn’t block any of Wong’s techniques.

When Lee delivered counterstrikes, they were always with his lead hand or leg (i.e., the closest limb). His right limb was always in the lead. Thus, Lee never used his left hand — not to block and not to strike. Most of the time, his left arm stayed at his side. His right arm was always extended almost to its full length. When Lee punched, it was always a right hand to the face, never anywhere else. Likewise, when he kicked, it was always with his right (lead) foot, and Wong’s face was never the target. Lee did not perform any front kicks.

Black Belt Plus

What Can’t Be Predicted?

There are four main responses to any strike. The first is to block, which Lee never did in the video. The second is to dodge, which Lee did about 17 percent of the time. The third is to counterstrike, which Lee did 83 percent of the time. When Lee countered, 70 percent of his strikes were punches (three of his counters involved a second technique). As noted, all were done with his lead hand and all targeted the face. The fourth response is to counterkick, which Lee did in 30 percent of his counterattacks. The kick was either a side kick or a roundhouse to the abdomen.

While not directly applicable to a review of Lee’s unpredictability, it’s noteworthy that in 17 percent of Wong’s attacks, he couldn’t deliver the strike before Lee’s counter hit him. All of Lee’s punches and kicks hit their target, and sometimes Wong was knocked backward from the force of the blow. None of Wong’s strikes appeared to make contact.

battling bruce lee

Who the Opponent Should Be?

Here, I present my approach to fighting Bruce Lee as if I was coaching a group of tournament martial artists. I believe that the ideal candidate to confront him would have at least four important qualities. First, he would be an experienced and successful tournament fighter. I’m sure the person would be nervous about opposing Lee, but I’d remind him that there’s no record of Lee ever fighting in a tournament. This might increase my fighter’s confidence.

Second, the person would need quick reflexes. I wouldn’t expect him to be as quick as Lee, of course, but he would have to be quick enough to block or dodge at least some of Lee’s assaults. I would remind the person that from what we see in the video, Lee’s primary advantage is his speed. The key to overcoming that is anticipating that he’ll use the techniques he displayed in the video. Therefore, I’d train my fighter to concentrate on Lee’s lead (right) hand and foot. If Lee punches, I would tell him, he should immediately protect his face. If Lee kicks, he should immediately cover his side and abdomen.

Black Belt Plus

Third, the fighter I select would have a significant size advantage over Lee, who stood 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 130 pounds. Wong was the same height and weight as Lee, but I’d prefer my person to be at least 6 feet tall. I’d discuss with him that his reach advantage may negate to some extent the speed advantage Lee would have in his counterstrikes because my fighter might be able to perform side kicks and roundhouse kicks without stepping into range of Lee’s weapons — unless Lee moved toward him. Likewise, because of his size advantage, if any of my fighter’s strikes hit their target, Lee would feel it.

Fourth, I’d want my person to be left-hand/left-foot dominant. There’s a chance this could move Lee out of his comfort zone because 90 percent of people are right-side dominant. Thus, the majority of the sparring contests in which Lee engaged would have been with righthand dominant students. Several well-known martial artists match all four qualifications. The most obvious is Joe Lewis. Lee once called Lewis “the greatest karate fighter of all time.” Standing 6 feet tall and weighing 195 pounds in his heyday, Lewis was known for the speed of his left-hand punch and left-foot side kick, although I don’t know if this was his dominant side.

Two great MMA fighters also meet the qualifications. Both are left-side dominant and have extensive, and successful, fighting careers. One is Anderson Silva, who is 6 feet 2 inches and 185 pounds. The other is Lyoto Machida, who is 6 feet 1 inch and 205 pounds. In a hypothetical match with Lee, I’m not saying I’d bet the farm on any of these fighters. Rather, I’m saying that the qualities I’m looking for do exist and, although rare, there are capable martial artists who have them.

What Strategies Could Work

As for the general approach to competing against Lee, I’d offer these suggestions. First, I’d remind my fighter that there’s no pressure on him because everyone expects him to lose. All the pressure would be on Lee — even to the point of, were my fighter to lose by only a few points, it could be interpreted as a form of victory. With this in mind, I’d tell my fighter not to throw any first strikes. I’d advise him to dance around and wait for Lee to initiate. I’d instruct him to refuse to initiate even if the referee gave repeated warnings to both competitors to throw punches and kicks. What would Lee do then? If he refused to strike first, both would forfeit the match. Lee would not allow that to happen. He would have to initiate.

This strategy could throw Lee off his game plan. In an effort to further disrupt his style, my left-side-dominant fighter would be instructed to face Lee primarily in an open stance. (Lee’s right-side lead would be shoulder to shoulder with my guy’s left-side lead.)

Remember that in the video, Wong always attacked when in a closed stance. Because Lee believed in having one’s lead be his dominant side, he likely was accustomed to fighting right-handed students in a closed stance. My fighter’s strategy would force him to adjust. How difficult this would be for Lee is unknown, but what’s there to lose?

Black Belt Plus

Lee now would be forced to initiate attacks with his opponent in an open stance. In addition, his opponent would have a longer reach, making Lee’s approach to initiate a strike precarious. My fighter’s left leg could reach Lee before he moved into striking distance.

I would teach my fighter to do the unexpected even if it didn’t have a chance to score points — as long as it didn’t make him vulnerable to having points scored against him. For example, I’d advise him to include strikes from his rear (right) hand and leg. This would be relatively slow, and Lee wouldn’t have a problem avoiding the strike. However, Lee would know that he couldn’t become complacent. Thus, he would have more to think about, and this might reduce his focus on the strikes my fighter performs with hisleft hand and left foot. I also would advise my fighter to repeatedly practice one unexpected technique that has the potential to score: a front kick executed with the lead (left) foot. Wong never attempted a front kick in the video, and Lee never countered with this kick. It’s possible that the lead-leg front kick, which reaches its target more quickly than any other kick, might have had little emphasis in Lee’s training sessions.

Tying this final strategy with some aforementioned items, I would tell my fighter to front-kick after having covered his face with both arms because the technique would require him to get close enough that Lee could reach him with those lightning-fast hands. Because Lee’s punches in the video were always to the face, my fighter would have this area protected, which might increase his chance of success. So that’s my analysis of Bruce Lee’s fighting style and the way I’d train a martial artist to compete with him in the ring. Now the question is, What would you do if you were competing against Lee?

Joel Kupfersmid, Ph.D., is a psychologist with a third-degree black belt in karate and jujitsu.

This article originally appeared in a 2021 edition of Black Belt Magazine

bottom of page