I met Bruce Lee for the first time during the filming of the TV show The Green Hornet, on which he played a butler. He was a nice fellow. The stunt coordinator hired me, and I worked on quite a few episodes. During that time, I was able to get to know Bruce a little bit, and we even worked out together. He was the best martial artist of his time.
Bruce and I had a bond with the martial arts, and we would get together frequently. We worked out about 10 to 12 times at his place in Los Angeles’ Chinatown and at my place.
Gene LeBell with shootfighting standout Bart Vale.
When I went to his place, he showed me what he did, and I showed him what I did. Although he seemed to love the finishing holds of grappling, it just wasn’t commercially attractive at the time. Actually, it was because of my grappling and tumbling background that I was hired to do the television show — because I could take falls for Bruce.
Bruce Lee was an entertaining fellow who was very knowledgeable and very good at what he did. People may wonder just how good a martial artist he was. Well, as I said earlier, he was the best of his time. Also, many of his former students are doing very well today. That’s a sign that he was a good martial artist and that he was able to make his students into good martial artists.
Bruce developed and performed his own style of kung fu, and a lot of the traditional guys didn’t like it because it broke from Chinese tradition. I know what that is like because I had the same trouble when I tried to improve different martial arts by changing things for the better. I believe that anytime you can have an open mind and learn something new, then add it to your repertoire, it’s a good thing. It will only make you and your students more knowledgeable.
Black Belt honors the 75th anniversary of Bruce Lee’s birth in its August/September 2015 issue, on sale now.
At first, Bruce Lee was not particularly receptive to the grappling art that I practiced, but he eventually warmed up to it somewhat. I thought that was great. I’ve always been a big believer in cross-training, and I’ve practiced most of the major martial arts, as well as boxing and wrestling. I believe that a person who is involved with the martial arts should know as much as he can about all styles. The martial artists that I disagree with are the ones who know only their art; they don’t know anything about other styles and they don’t like anything else.
As I said, Bruce started out with sort of a negative opinion of grappling, but after we worked out, he demonstrated that he had an open mind when he acknowledged how practical it was for certain things in certain situations. Some of the techniques I shared with him were leg locks, arm locks, hold downs and judo throws.
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Bruce Lee and I didn’t agree on everything. For example, I’ve always been a believer in bobbing and weaving to avoid an opponent’s punches — instead of blocking with your hands. Bruce’s theory was to block a punch and then strike back with your open hand or fist. My point of view was that if you can avoid absorbing blows in a match or a fight, and then come in with offensive moves, you’ll live a lot longer.
Although no one in the martial arts community today seems to have the same charisma that Bruce had, there are many great martial artists out there teaching and competing. This statement is not intended to take anything away from Bruce Lee. He was a leader and trendsetter. I wish he were still with us today.
(“Bruce Lee” is a registered trademark of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC. The Bruce Lee name, image and likeness are intellectual property of Bruce Lee Enterprises LLC.)
Gene LeBell photos by Rick Hustead.