Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author.
The Lee-Wong fight is one of the most controversial in martial arts history. With few witnesses, the details are not very clear of which man was the victor. While many accounts claim that Lee was victorious over Wong Jack, some claim that Bruce Lee’s undefeated streak was broken with the result of a tie in his fight with Wong Jack Man in 1964.
While Bruce Lee was an exceptionally skilled fighter, interviews with Wong Jack Man challenge the idea that Bruce Lee was undefeated. With varying accounts of the outcome, it leads us to the ultimate question: What really happened?
Who is Wong Jack Man?
Wong Jack Man is best known for his fight with Bruce Lee. Wong Jack was a Shaolin martial arts master teaching out of San Francisco when Lee was teaching martial arts in the same city. Wong did not believe in teaching Chinese martial arts to non-Chinese citizens. As a result, when Wong Jack found out Bruce Lee was teaching non-Chinese citizens, the feud between Wong Jack and Lee began.
Why Did Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee Fight Each Other?
The confrontation between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man resulted from a combination of factors simmering in the San Francisco martial arts community.
Professionally, Lee’s arrival on the scene and rapid success in attracting students created resentment from established teachers like Wong Jack Man, who saw him as an arrogant upstart.
Racially, Lee’s decision to teach kung fu to non-Chinese students challenged tradition and offended masters like Wong Jack Man, who had recently immigrated from Hong Kong.
Personally, Lee’s insults and aggression provoked Wong Jack Man in front of others, demanding a response.
While the details surrounding the fight remain ambiguous, it was clearly the culmination of these racial, professional, and personal conflicts. The fight was an opportunity for Lee to prove his superiority and legitimize his unconventional approach.
Who Really Won the Fight?
The fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man has become legendary, but the details of the match are varied and mythologized. It can also be very confusing to try to find out what really happened.
The debate around the outcome, and variations in the details, are likely due in part to the fight’s legendary status and the prevalence of mythmaking that comes with that.
While Lee is often described as the clear victor who decisively defeated Wong, there have been some questions about who the real winner was. Since the fight was not recorded on film, the only source of information about what happened at the fight is the eyewitness account at the scene.
Of all the eyewitness accounts who were present at the fight scene, two of the most convincing eyewitness accounts are those of David Chin and Linda Lee, both on opposing sides. That is, they both corroborate each other’s testimony that Bruce Lee won the fight.
This fight was a pivotal learning experience for Lee because it made him question how useful traditional martial arts were in real-life combat situations. This prompted him to develop a new fighting system called “Jeet Kune Do,” which is based on adaptability by incorporating effective and useful techniques from various fighting styles rather than fighting according to a prescribed set of rules.
What Did Wong Jack Man Say About the Fight?
According to Wong Jack Man, the fight took place in Oakland, California in 1964 at Lee’s studio. The fight was quick and aggressive. The following illustrates Wong Jack Man’s account.
Wong Jack Man began with him bowing and offering a handshake to Bruce Lee. But Lee responded by suddenly poking at Wong’s eyes with his fingers, an aggressive opening move that set the tone for the match.
Lee relied primarily on Wing Chun Kung Fu techniques, including quick jabs at Wong’s eyes, throat strikes, and kicks to the groin. He aggressively attacked Wong with these techniques while yelling and screaming.
Wong was forced to defend himself by stepping back and using arm and leg blocks to avoid Lee’s attacks.
When there were openings, Wong would counterattack by delivering blows to Lee’s head and body. But he did not press the advantage when he had the chance to harm Lee seriously.
At several points, Wong could lock Lee’s head under his arm, immobilizing him. But again, he chose not to take advantage of these opportunities.
In contrast, Wong Jack Man relied more on Northern Shaolin Kung Fu defensive techniques. He blocked Lee’s strikes and only occasionally counterattacked as he tried to avoid Lee’s aggressive and violent attacks. He believed that Lee intended to kill him, so his focus was largely on defending himself.
The fight ended after Wong Jack struck Lee three times in the head, causing him to stop attacking. But even then, Lee remained furious and enraged. The fight duration of the fight was intense and violent.
What Did Linda Lee Say About the Fight?
Accounts of the highly anticipated match between martial arts legends Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man vary widely. However, after analyzing and reviewing historical accounts from multiple sources, a clearer picture of the brief but intense fight emerges.
On September 26, 1964, Bruce Lee’s wife, Linda Lee Caldwell, recalls that around 13 people, including herself and Wong Jack Man, gathered at Lee’s Oakland martial arts studio at 6 pm.
James Lee, Bruce’s associate, who died shortly before him, is the only other she identified.
Wong Jack Man remembers around seven attendees, including the Lees and himself. The only other witness for this story, tai chi teacher William Chen, recalls around 15 attendees but could not identify any others.
According to Wong Jack Man, he arrived at the studio with five others, though he said they “were only there to see the hubbub.”
Wong Jack Man states he rode with Chan “Bald Head” Keung, David Chin, two martial artists associated with Chinatown’s Ghee Yau Seah social club. Ronald “Ya Ya” Wu, Raymond Fong and Martin Wong, were also in the car.
In the studio were Bruce Lee, his 8-months-pregnant wife Linda, and his colleague James Lee, who had a loaded handgun “in case things spiraled out of control,” according to Linda Lee. This brought the total number of attendees to nine.
Linda Lee and David Chin, who were on opposing sides, both agreed that the fight was fast and violent. David Chin said, “The whole thing lasted…not more than seven minutes,” while Linda Lee claims it was no more than three minutes and recalled that Bruce Lee clearly won the fight as she quoted in the following:
“For an instant, indeed, the scrap threatened to degenerate into a farce as Wong actually turned and ran. But Bruce pounced on him like a springing leopard and brought him to the floor where he began pounding him into a state of demoralization. “Is that enough?” shouted Bruce, “That’s enough!” pleaded his adversary. Bruce demanded a second reply to his question to make sure that he understood this was the end of the fight.”Lee, Linda. (1978). Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew. Warner Books Inc.
Wong Jack Man’s Response to Linda Lee’s Story
In Wong Jack’s interview, he contrasts sharply with the stories of Linda Lee.
Wong Jack Man characterized the fight as a long, 25-minute, vicious encounter where Lee aggressively tried to harm him.
He states that he felt Lee actually wanted to kill him, and remembers thinking, ‘If he injures me, if he really hurts me, I’ll have to kill him.’
But according to Wong, “before that need arose, the fight ended due to Lee’s “unusually winded” condition than to a decisive blow by either opponent”. The outcome was a tie with no clear winner.
This is consistent with the witness of William Chen’s account, which is a bit vaguer than any other witness’s account.
Wong states that Lee asked him to refrain from discussing the match with the public, and Wong Jack agreed with Lee and kept his word. But, according to Wong Jack, when Lee later told the public in an interview that he had won a quick, unofficial match against Wong Jack Man, Wong Jack issued an open challenge.
Wong then published his own side of the story in a Chinese newspaper, contradicting Lee’s account and claiming the match lasted around 20 minutes and ended in a tie.
Before we left, Bruce Lee asked me not to discuss the fight with anyone and I agreed. But later he bragged to people that he had won, which is why I then I issued a public challenge on the front page of a local Chinese newspaper, inviting him to fight me in an open arena filled with witnesses. He did not respond.“Shaolin Master Wong Jack Man’s Last Interview.” Hunyuan Martial Arts Academy of San Jose
However, David Chin, who was on Bruce Lee’s opponent’s side at the fight scene, recounts a story that contradicts Wong Jack Man and yet closely aligns with Linda Lee’s:
Eventually Bruce’s relentless advance caused Wong to stumble over a small step, into an untenable position on the floor where Bruce hollered “Do you yield?” in Cantonese over and over while pummeling him repeatedly. Having lost his footing, Wong had no choice but to concede. “From there, he said he gives up and we stopped the fight,” recalls David Chin. “The whole thing lasted…not more than seven minutes.”Bruce Lee vs. Wong Jack Man: Fact, fiction and the birth of the dragon. VICE. (2016, October 4).
The match between Lee and Wong Jack Man was a pivotal moment in the development of martial arts. Among the many stories told of this fight, that is the truth that resonates—one that is ultimately a tale of evolution, change, and progress. Lee was its herald. Not victory or defeat, but innovation, marked this fight as history that moves, marches forth, and leaps ahead, much as Lee himself did in revolutionizing martial arts for generations to come.