The early history of Bruce Lee, “one of the most influential martial artists of all time”

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Brian Burmeister[1]
Iowa State University


Charles Russo Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America 272 pages, hardcover. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2016 ISBN 978-0-8032-6960-6

Charles Russo
Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America
272 pages, hardcover.
Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press 2016
ISBN 978-0-8032-6960-6

While the Ultimate Fighting Championship is institutionally responsible for mixed martial arts’ incredible growth in popularity over the past two decades, perhaps no one individual was more instrumental in laying the groundwork for our collective curiosity and enthusiasm than film star Bruce Lee.

In Striking Distance, author Charles Russo examines Lee’s role in shaping the evolution of martial arts over the course of several decades. Primarily focused on the martial arts revolution occurring in the San Francisco Bay Area throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, Russo showcases the myriad of prominent martial artists and instructors (including Lee) who made that era in that place such a significant and pivotal part of martial arts’ transformation and expansion.

This history in these pages is fascinating. Readers are given a real sense of the Bay Area, its culture, and the social challenges of the time. Russo nicely balances martial arts history with social history, covering a wide spectrum of martial arts philosophy (e.g. Which style is best? What is the ultimate purpose of studying martial arts? Should martial arts be taught to non-Chinese athletes?).

The book also showcases some of the broader artistic endeavors within the Bay Area’s Chinese community (Russo often speaks of significant theatrical and musical performances) and gives a brief overview of some of the racial tensions at play within the community and the country as a whole. This combined history is not just compelling, but impressively well-researched; Russo has a combined 60 pages of notes and bibliography at the end of the text, demonstrating his exhaustive efforts to accurately portray this historic chapter.

As for Lee himself, the picture drawn throughout these pages is of a fascinating, charismatic young man. His athletic talent, confirmed through Russo’s retelling of several detailed anecdotes, is noteworthy. But perhaps more remarkable was Lee’s confidence and determination. Considered by many in the Bay Area martial arts scene to be “cocky, hyperactive, and outspoken,” Lee, despite then being only in his early twenties, passionately believed he could change the study of martial arts for the better.

Having assessed that the vast majority of marital arts training was simply impractical and too focused on forms that would never be useful in an actual confrontation, Lee hoped to perfect a style of fighting that was efficient and valuable: the kind of fighting you could use to win a street fight. His was ultimately an “integrated fighting approach” that drew upon aspects of various combat sets—very much the precursor to today’s mixed martial arts.

Throughout the book, Russo makes it clear how truly significant the Bay Area’s masters were in building a foundation of martial arts in this country.

Lee’s boisterous selling of this style provides some of the most memorable moments of the book. The young athlete so deeply believed in the product he sold all over the Bay Area that he openly and repeatedly admonished all other styles. Understandably, many of the martial arts masters within the community did not take kindly to Lee’s words. Feelings of disrespect and resentment grew from many of his elders who, like Lee, truly believed in the styles they taught and took great offense when Lee referred to their own styles as classical nonsense and the masters themselves as “old tigers” who “have no teeth.”

After years of tension, the war over styles eventually boiled over into an actual, physical fight between Lee and a representative of another camp. The fight – also detailed by Russo – has since become the stuff of legend.

For anyone interested in learning more about the origins of martial arts in this country, Striking Distance is a tremendous read. The stories from the Bay Area during the 1950s and 1960s are engrossing, exciting, and even humorous. Throughout the book, Russo makes it clear how truly significant the Bay Area’s masters were in building a foundation of martial arts in this country.

To those who simply want to learn more about the films of Bruce Lee and their role in propelling martial arts into the national consciousness – I must concede that this is not the book for you. Although Bruce Lee’s name is displayed prominently on the book’s cover, the scope of the book (while quite large) focuses most of its attention to the years during which Bruce Lee was in his late teens and early twenties. While not a problem for this reviewer, the narrative ends just as Bruce Lee travels to Hollywood to begin his film career, cutting short what many readers might expect to be the main thrust of the book’s narrative. However, if you love Bruce Lee, love martial arts, or – better yet – love both, I can’t recommend Striking Distance enough.

Copyright © Brian Burmeister 2016
Originally published in Aethlon


[1] Brian Burmeister is an educator and social justice advocate. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment from Iowa State University, where he was President of Ames-ISU for Darfur. His writing has appeared among others in Cleaver Magazine, Thin Air Magazine,and The Furious Gazelle. He can be followed @bdburmeister.
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