Editor’s Note: The interview from which this segment is adapted was originally printed in the May 2008 issue of Black Belt magazine. (You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here and Part 3 here). At the time, interviewer Bob Landers wrote, it was “fitting for Ted Wong, the man many consider the foremost authority on Bruce Lee’s art, to go on the record.” During the course of his interview with Ted Wong — who, sadly, passed away on November 24, 2010 — Bob Landers’ goal was to “ask the questions that [had been] on the minds of martial artists but that [hadn’t] been addressed by a person of Ted Wong’s clout.” Ted Wong, age 70 at the time, was still evolving in his physical and intellectual understanding of JKD and still “tirelessly toured the world, educating students on the finer points of Bruce Lee’s legacy and honoring the memory of his teacher and friend.” And so it is, through revisiting classic interviews such as this, that Black Belt honors the memory of Bruce Lee’s student and friend — and its own Hall of Fame’s 2006 Man of the Year — Ted Wong.
You were present at many of James Coburn and Steve McQueen’s lessons — any interesting stories there?
On occasion, I was with Bruce during their sessions. James Coburn was more philosophically oriented. Bruce could be very philosophical, and I think this was the main draw for James.
I saw more of Steve McQueen. One time Bruce took me to Steve’s house in Westwood, Los Angeles. His house was built like an 18th-century castle. We would work out in the big courtyard, which had sandstone rock with a rough surface. Steve tripped and cut open his big toe, and there was this big piece of flesh hanging there. It was a bloody mess, and Bruce said we’d better stop. Steve said, “No, let’s keep on training.” Steve was tough and very physically oriented.
Joe Lewis once said you were an old and close friend of his and the only student of Bruce Lee’s he ever met while Bruce Lee was alive.
Quite often Joe Lewis would come to train with Bruce [while] I was there. Joe was an excellent martial artist and the top tournament fighter at that time. Bruce was working with him on how to improve his technique for tournaments, so sometimes I would work with him. Usually when Joe would come for training, he was very serious, but sometimes he’d be in a joking mood and we’d have a little fun. Later on, Joe became the full-contact champion. Some 20 years after Bruce passed away, Joe and I connected again, taught some seminars together and became very good friends.
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After Bruce Lee passed away, you must have had a void in your life. How did you go about putting JKD together to the degree that you have?
For me, it wasn’t easy continuing his art after he passed away because I had lost a teacher and wasn’t sure which way to go. Fortunately, I had my good friend Herb Jackson, who was also a longtime student of Bruce Lee, so we worked together on what we’d learned — mostly physical techniques. I managed to stay with what I learned from Bruce and never looked into other arts.
I also began to research his writings. It took me about 15 years to really understand what jeet kune do was all about and even more time to develop my skill. I really put a lot of time into it. Bruce left behind a lot of information, which served as a road map, but you have to study it and work at it to make it all come together. Through teaching for the past 15 years, I learned a lot about JKD and myself.
In your studies, did you discover things that Bruce Lee never taught you?
Having spent as much time as I have — 30 to 40 years — studying jeet kune do, I discovered many things in the art itself which Bruce never taught me. These are things within the structure of jeet kune do. Innovation is about understanding the inner workings [of the art]. When you understand this, you can further simplify. Everything I learned wasn’t from an outside source; it was inside JKD. Any discoveries I made were already contained within the art as Bruce designed it. Bruce’s notes and writings provide a road map, so by sticking to his principles, it’s still jeet kune do.
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Have you ever heard the term “jeet kune do lite”?
I heard of it back in 2001. What this particular JKD teacher meant was that most people were teaching a watered-down version of JKD. He was saying that people were over-commercializing JKD, kind of like a fast-food version of it. He was implying that people were motivated by greed, etc.
Some people charge from $2,000 to $4,000 for a two- to five-day course, after which the participants are certified as instructors.
I think Bruce Lee would turn over in his grave knowing people charge that kind of money for so little training and then promote people to be instructors of his art. The practice is absurd and motivated by greed. It takes years of training and practice to understand the art of JKD and be able to teach. If an instructor certifies someone after just one seminar, it shows a lack of integrity and respect toward the art and the martial arts in general.
What was Bruce Lee’s greatest gift to you?
I received so much from him; by nature, he was a giver, not a receiver. He spent all his life giving of himself and of his knowledge. I didn’t realize until many years later the magnitude of what I received from him. It took me many years to understand his art and realize that his art doesn’t just apply to martial arts; it applies to how you conduct yourself in all aspects of life. What I learned from his teaching — efficiency and other things — led to self-confidence, self-reliance and self-sufficiency. These are the greatest gifts I received from him.
Bruce Lee has been gone a long time. Do you still miss him?
Oh, yes. I miss him, but at the same time, he’s still here [even though] he’s out of sight physically. When I teach, read his notes or practice, I feel like he’s there with me. Of course, I miss his physical self, but I feel his presence. Even now, he’s still here teaching me.
About the Author:
A longtime student of the late Ted Wong, Bob Landers teaches a jeet kune do group in Tulsa, Oklahoma.