Bruce Lee was the final spark that I needed in 1973. At age 20, I saw "The Chinese Connection" and then "Enter the Dragon" and decided that I had to begin studying kung-fu. I had been a fan of the Kung-Fu TV show, but it was Bruce Lee -- the beauty of his movement and the power of his techniques -- that made me enroll in a class.
Bruce Lee changed my life.
Bruce Lee said that forms are dead and classical styles are useless.
Bruce Lee was dead wrong.
He died at the age of 32. That's pretty young. When I was 32, I didn't like forms. I didn't want to practice them and focused on sparring and fighting techniques. As a result, I did very well in sparring but just couldn't see the point of forms. In fact, I went to several tournaments before the age of 32 and never competed in forms.
Ken Gullette at age 30, sparring in a 1983 tournament in Cincinnati. He won first place.
So I can understand where Bruce was coming from. He was a young, opinionated guy -- extremely talented and a trailblazer -- but still a young man. Now that I'm almost 60, and will celebrate my 40th year in martial arts next year, I understand that if he had been given more time, Bruce Lee would have been able to see a little deeper into what he called "the classical mess."
Bruce was trained in Wing Chun, and when he was challenged in Oakland, he fought a representative from traditional Chinese schools who were angered that he taught non-Asians. Bruce defeated his opponent, but it took longer than he expected. At that point, he turned away from Wing Chun and created Jeet Kune Do.
So as a young man, he felt his "style" let him down. I believe this triggered an overreaction -- typical in young people -- that caused him to reject all styles. It's one thing to consider that perhaps you have been training in an ineffective style, and another thing to consider that perhaps there is another "style" that would be more suited to you and more suited to real fighting.
I have gotten deeper into classical styles, particularly Chen Taijiquan, Hsing-I and Bagua, I see arts that work -- but arts that are misrepresented.
For one thing, a lot of the demonstration videos are bogus. A "master" is attacked by a student who is playing along, so the "master" is able to do several techniques while the student doesn't put up much of a fight. I've seen a lot of Bagua videos that would never work in the street. You study with one of those teachers and then get into a self-defense situation, you are going to have a rude awakening, or a rude unconsciousness.
How many demo videos of Aikido have you seen where the instructor causes a grown man to flip in the air using two fingers? Sorry, folks. It can't happen.
And then, in Tai Chi, you have millions of instructors around the world saying that your main purpose is "chi cultivation." They make a very slight move and their student goes jumping and falling away as if hit with a two-by-four.
Well, of course their students won't be able to fight. Are these dead styles? They might be good arts, but in the hands of a wrong-headed instructor, they aren't fighting arts, and at their heart, all styles of martial arts should be effective fighting arts.
If you have a good instructor and will put the time and hard work into learning an art like Chen Tai Chi, you will achieve your goals in self-defense. Inside of classical styles are effective fighting systems that -- at least in the case of the internal arts -- require years of study and hard training under a good instructor. At age 32, I'm not sure I had the patience to do what it takes. By age 37 that changed.
I also began to appreciate forms by the time I was 37. By age 59, I understand how forms prepare you for fighting. They require discipline, and they reinforce the muscle memory for good body mechanics. In the internal arts, the people without good instructors, teaching good body mechanics, won't be able to use the arts effectively in a self-defense situation. And those who rely on fantasy and insane concepts such as "chi projection" are destined to fail in a fight.
I've practiced the forms that I know (at least 30) for years, and I feel like I'm just beginning to understand them. But the more I practice, the more value I find inside the movements, and the better my body mechanics become. I don't think Bruce had time to discover this.
Forms practice is just one part of training. You then take the body mechanics you've learned and apply them against a partner. You learn how to adapt, how to react, how to neutralize and counter. Sometimes, you need a partner who will allow you to work your techniques. Eventually, you need a partner who won't play along. At that point, you find out what works and what doesn't.
In recent weeks, I've been drilling hard in Bagua concepts and techniques. These are simple techniques that sometimes flow from one to the other depending on the situation. Some techniques can be used to break a joint very quickly. Others can be used for a takedown. Others are for striking, again depending on the situation. Putting your opponent off-balance, off-center, and then controlling his center are great concepts that also require a lot of practice and study. I've been putting together a DVD on these concepts and techniques and it will be finished soon.
It's very clear that the simplest techniques work best for self-defense. And depending on what happens after the first technique, other techniques happen. You practice and work and use realistic situations (padded up with partners who aren't playing along) and you internalize the techniques, body mechanics, and flow until YOU don't hit, IT hits by itself. That's one of Bruce Lee's main messages and it's a good one.
Where people get the wrong idea of what it takes to successfully defend yourself is in a school where impractical and ineffective techniques and one-steps are practiced so much that a false sense of security develops. But not all schools and not all classical styles are that way.
Don't take this blog post the wrong way. Bruce had what it takes to work hard and he developed -- for himself -- a great fighting philosophy. He was brilliant, amazing and he freed our minds to look at martial arts a different way. He also led the way to the development of mixed martial arts. That's okay, but it would have been interesting to see how his art and his opinions developed as he grew older.