When most people think of Bruce Lee, they think of the blinding speed, the fast hands, and his famous one inch punch. I mean, Bruce Lee is the guy who was giving out sweet chin music in the movies decades before Shawn Michaels ever stepped into a Wrestling ring. So it’s really unfortunate that people have no idea that Bruce actually studied grappling before he was learning how to kick people in the face. I mean, if you believe what Joe Rogan has been saying for at least a decade, Bruce Lee never knew anything about grappling until he met Judo Gene LeBell on the set of The Green Hornet in 1965 or 1966, but that’s not true.
So let’s talk about Bruce Lee’s REAL Judo Teachers who taught him about grappling years before he ever met Judo Gene LeBell. So in my last video on Bruce Lee, I talked about how Judo Gene LeBell pretty much saved Bruce Lee’s career, and people started asking me to talk more on Bruce Lee’s Judo training – who was his real teacher, when did he start learning, how long did he study?
Well, first thing, we really can’t say when Bruce Lee actually started learning about grappling. Bruce started out going to Tai Chi classes in the park with his father, and Tai Chi is actually a grappling art. Now some Internal Gong Fu people like to bring up how Tai Chi was Bruce’s first art, but we can’t really say that because Bruce was a like 6 years old following his dad to Tai Chi class, and little kids just aren’t going to find much of an interest in Taijiquan.
The other reason we can’t definitively say when and where Bruce first learned grappling is because Wing Chun has grappling in the curriculum too. Wing Chun like a lot of Chinese styles really was a bit of a mixed martial art because it had punching, kicking, and grappling. If you look at Bruce Lee training with Taky Kimura, well, you see him sweeping Taky and taking him down and that’s not Jeet Kune Do. That’s straight up Wing Chun that he is doing.
Bruce Lee didn’t get through the entire Wing Chun curriculum which is one reason why he created Jeet Kune Do, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, we’re talking strictly about Judo and Grappling in this video. So that brings us to the question of how Bruce started learning Judo and who taught him.
Hey man, shout out to John Bulcaster who waved the BS flag when I said that Bruce started learning Judo in 1960. And John, hey man, you can get your flowers, you can take a bow because I was actually incorrect. Bruce Lee started learning Judo in 1959 on the very same day that he met his friend, and first student, Jesse Glover. How Jesse Glover came to meet Bruce deserves its own video because the story is really interesting, so I might do it when I start my series debunking all the stuff from Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, but to keep things simple for this video, Jesse Glover had about 3 years of Judo before he ever met Bruce.
Now if you heard the interview with Ted Little on The Kung Fu Genius podcast, Ted said that whenever Bruce met someone that said they trained any kind of martial art, Bruce’s response was always,”Show me.”
The first private lesson between Bruce and Jesse Glover as at Jesse’s house. Bruce asked Jesse if he’d trained anything, and Jesse said he did a little Boxing in the Air Force and some Judo. Bruce, in form, responded with “Show me,” and Jesse performed his favorite throw, Osotogari. Bruce didn’t provide any resistance at all to the technique, and his head narrowly missed a sharp corner of Jesse’s bed.
That first group of guys training with Bruce in Seattle, they didn’t exactly have a Student-Teacher relationship. Like I’ve said in other videos, Bruce saw himself more in the role of Big Brother, and these were his friends and training partners. Bruce was teaching them by really testing his stuff against theirs.
Jesse and Bruce trained together for about 3 years before Bruce started more of an official school with what might be considered the second wave of Seattle students, but while Bruce and Jesse were training together, Jesse showed Bruce several Judo techniques that Bruce began to play around within his personal practice.
Something that gets overlooked when it comes to Jesse Glover was that he was a Judo brown belt when he met Bruce. He had started to compete in tournaments, and from 1959-1962, he only lost a handful of matches and they were all to black belts. Bruce attended all of Jesse’s matches in Seattle during that period, and Bruce would eventually be introduced to Jesse Glover’s teacher, Fred Sato.
If anyone could call themselves Bruce Lee’s official Judo teacher, it would have been Fred Sato. Fred Sato taught a Judo class at the University of Washington, and Bruce Lee’s college transcript shows that Bruce was enrolled in Sato’s class. If we assume that Bruce took a Judo elective every semester, and he was enrolled up to about his junior year, then Bruce had a little less than 3 years of formal Judo training in a class setting.
Bruce also trained at Sato’s house on Sunday evenings, and they continued to remain close even after Bruce left Seattle. Bruce continued to write and exchange ideas with Sato while he was working on The Green Hornet, and the letters show that some of the ideas Bruce exchanged with Sato would become some of the ideas fundamental to Jeet Kune Do philosophy.
The Seattle years came to a close when Bruce Lee moved to Oakland in 1964 where he was living with his friend, and student, James Lee. It was in Oakland that Bruce would meet Wally Jay, of Small-Circle Jujitsu fame. Wally Jay met Bruce Lee through a student who was actually Bruce Lee’s Cha Cha Dance instructor.
Wally Jay says he was blown away with Bruce’s speed and quickness. And although he was 44 at the time that he met a 24-25 year old Bruce Lee, he viewed him as a peer. Wally Jay, and his son Leon, both say that they shared more of a friendship where the two of them exchanged ideas and that there was never any kind of a student-teacher relationship.
What Bruce did take from his exchanges with Wally Jay sounds like a lot of joint manipulation, or what would be considered Qin Na in Chinese Martial Arts. When Bruce came to Wally Jay, he was already familiar with lots of throws in Judo, but arm bars and various other kinds of holds weren’t part of his repertoire at that time. This is something that I just realized, but the reason we’re even talking about Bruce Lee to this day is because of his involvement with Judo.
James Lee is a person who connects Jesse Glover and Wally Jay to Bruce Lee. If Bruce hadn’t met Jesse Glover, he might not have known about James Lee. If he’d never gone to Oakland to live with James Lee, he wouldn’t have met Wally Jay. I’ve said in multiple videos how Bruce was basically discovered at Wally Jay’s lūʻau. He hit Bob Baker with a One Inch Punch, Ed Parker invited him to present at the first Long Beach International Karate Championship and it was there that he was spotted by Jay Sebring, and that eventually landed him the role as Kato in The Green Hornet.
So back to that last video about Bruce Lee and Judo Gene LeBell. Bruce worked with Judo Gene to learn how to bring martial arts to TV and the movies in a way that worked for the camera and without hurting his fellow stunt performers.
Now one thing I didn’t mention in that video was even after the finished with The Green Hornet, Bruce continued to train with Judo Gene LeBell for about a year, and Gene eventually awarded Bruce with the rank of Shodan, or a 1st degree black belt.
As far as what Bruce actually learned from Gene LeBell, well, Gene LeBell said it himself, he said he showed him some legitimate finishing holds, leg locks, and arm locks.” Gene said Bruce told him that he used a hold he learned from him on Chuck Norris in “Way of the Dragon.”
So contrary to what Joe Rogan has been saying, Bruce obviously knew something about grappling before meeting Gene LeBell. He got introduced to Judo by his first student, Jesse Glover. He studied with Jesse’s teacher, Fred Sato. And then he practiced Judo and grappling with Wally Jay while he was living in Oakland.
So, I mean, can we say that Gene LeBell put the capstone on Bruce’s Judo training? Like he trained with all those other guys, but maybe it was Gene LeBell who completed his training? Well, the thing is I don’t think that’s the case at all. I mean, think about this – Bruce Lee is in Los Angeles trying to evolve as an actor, a stunt performer, and a martial artist. He can’t go to Seattle or Oakland to train with any of the other guys that I have already mentioned. If Bruce has this continued interest in Judo, well, I mean, it only makes sense to train with Gene LeBell, that’s the person who can help him in all 3 of those areas as an actor, a stunt performer, and as a martial artist.
What I’m saying is that Bruce had the opportunity to not only learn as a martial artist, but he also had the opportunity to network in Hollywood. I mean, sometimes it really is about who you know and not what you know. And as far as martial arts goes, well, Bruce didn’t stop his Judo training with Gene LeBell.
See, in 1967 Bruce met Hayward Nishioka at the office of Black Belt Magazine right after Nishioka won a gold medal at the Pan-American Judo Championships. And Hayward Nishioka was also a 2-time national champion, and he would eventually win six consecutive national championships from 1965-1970. By this time, Bruce was established in Los Angeles, and he was teaching the Los Angeles Jeet Kune Do group at their Chinatown location. Bruce invited Nishioka into the group, and they would meet about once a month either at the Chinatown school, or at Bruce’s house. Nishioka says that they sparred together regularly, and although Bruce had no ground game, he was very good at everything else.
One thing I thought was interesting is that Nishioka said that Bruce was too fast for all of those guys who won those point-sparring championships, you know, the guys who would later go on to talk smack about how Bruce Lee wasn’t a fighter. Y’all know who he’s talking about. So this just goes to show that even when Bruce was off developing JKD and trying to get a bigger foot in the door with the Hollywood executives, he made sure to train regularly with a high-level Judo player.
Like I said, Judo made a lasting impact on Bruce Lee and Jeet Kune Do. According to Jesse Glover, “The Five Ways of Attack” were taught to Bruce Lee by Fred Sato. And if you look at Bruce’s letters to Sato, Bruce is discussing an idea that would eventually become “The Five Ways of Attack”. Also, Bruce said in an interview that he wanted Brandon’s first martial art to be Judo. Unfortunately, Bruce wasn’t around to raise his son as he hoped, but I think it says a lot about how Bruce viewed the importance of the skills that he believed people could learn from the study of Judo. So as you see, Bruce didn’t go around thinking he could kick people in the head, or that he knew nothing about grappling. I mean, at one time, Bruce felt like Judo was the closest thing someone could train to real fighting.
Now I know the Bruce Lee super fans are going to feel like “Bruce Lee was amazing, he mixed Judo with Wing Chun and Boxing. He was surely ahead of his time!” And I’m not sure how to turn this into a video but there were actually Kung Fu guys doing the same thing 20 years before Bruce was born, but unless you’re just a straight up Kung Fu geek, most people really don’t know too much about what was happening on the mainland in China back then.
So while Bruce Lee wasn’t necessarily “ahead of his time,” what he did do was bring some of these ideas other people had into the forefront. Like a lot of this stuff other people were doing, I wouldn’t have known about were it not for Bruce Lee. So I feel like he deserves his praise for helping introduce a lot of this stuff to the masses.
And since we’re talking about Bruce Lee introducing all this stuff about Kung Fu to the masses, hey, be sure to check out this video on how Bruce Lee started his Wing Chun training and then why Ip Man had to stop teaching Bruce. And also, if you haven’t already seen the video on how Judo Gene LeBell saved Bruce’s career, make sure to check out that video, too. While you wait on my next video, I hope that you will keep training, remember to breathe, and I’ll see you on the next video!
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