Thursday, November 18, 2010

Hero of the Month: Bruce Lee

First of all, I apologize for the lapses in this series.  I have no excuse, really, other than laziness.

If you haven't heard of this month's hero, Bruce Lee...  Actually, I don't even know how to finish that statement.  Crawl out from under the rock you've been living under?  Carefully reach down and remove your head from your colon?  I'm not sure...

I will admit that many people might not understand how far reaching Lee's influence was.  Lee is probably best known for being one of the most charismatic and visually impressive martial arts movie stars in history - his popularity was extraordinary, and was partially responsible for the explosion of martial arts awareness in the US in the 70's.  He was not only popular but innovative as a film star.  His action scenes and even the structure of his films were vastly different from the work that had gone on before.  But even if he hadn't made a single movie Lee would still be an important figure in martial arts history:
  1. He was one of the first to popularize cross training.  Lee studied not only different Asian martial arts but also Western boxing and fencing to try to cull out the best techniques for his own system.  He's been called the first mixed martial artist.  I can't say he was the first to do that, but he was certainly the most influential.
  2. Lee was an early adoptee of weight training and cutting edge (for the time) fitness and nutrition ideas - remember, this was at a time when most people thought weightlifting would make you "musclebound" and inflexible.
  3. He rigorously tested his ideas in combat, rather than accepting the old "my master taught me this way so this is the right way" ideology so prevalent in martial arts.  Lee was famous for taking on all challengers in no holds barred streetfights even while his fame grew as a movie star.
Bruce Lee was a scientist, a self-experimenter who constantly sought out new ideas in training and in fighting, tested them, and ruthlessly discarded the things that didn't work.  You can argue with some of his conclusions but you can't fault his methodology. 

There's a ton of material about Lee - movies about his life, biographies, and his own writings.  You can read inspiring stories - one after another - about his wife finding him on the floor in front of the television with a boxing match on while in a full split working a hand gripper in one hand with a book open in front of him.  He trained constantly - not jogging mile after mile, but working on his speed, his precision, and his art.  That combination of intellectual openness, work ethic, and intelligence made him a powerful force for change.

Lee's movies changed my life.  I was a kid during the kung fu explosion of the 70's, and the central theme of the martial arts film (which to me was always that with hard work and correct training a person could overcome literally anything) might never have trickled into my consciousness if Lee's films hadn't pushed so far into the public awareness.  Now what's interesting about this is that we can imagine that someone like Jackie Chan or Jet Li, had they been around earlier, might have had the same cultural impact if kung fu films hadn't been popularized by others before them.  But neither of those individuals were anywhere near as accomplished or innovative as actual martial artists.  Lee was, in that sense, an awesome talent.

And my hero.  This month.

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