But "best martial artist ever" is just as meaningless a title as "best artist ever" or similar. Bruce was a tireless self-promoter both as a martial artist and as an actor -- I don't mean this in a negative sense because he played an important part in transforming both martial arts culture and action-oriented cinema -- and there have undoubtedly been hundreds or even thousands of martial artists who were every bit his equal in any empirical measure other than fame, people who perhaps gained the respect of other proponents or the people of local areas in China, or wherever, but who went largely unnoticed by the larger world. Even among better-know martial artists, there have been an endless array who, on any given day, probably could have bested Bruce Lee. Added to this, and vastly more significant, is that even if you consider only Chinese martial arts you're talking about a dizzying array of different martial arts and meaningful comparison of one style or one student of that style with another is fraught with difficulty; to some degree, even in terms of practical efficacy (under what conditions? within what ranges? on what kind of terrain?), it's the old apples vs oranges situation. Yes, at the highest levels most complete Asian fighting systems of legitimate lineage end up looking and feeling like tai chi -- 'tai chi' means 'grand ultimate' and, in typical Chinese fashion, even if it might not usually look like much of a fighting art it sure as hell feels like one when you go against a skilled proponent -- but there're still a myriad of differences and a corresponding myriad of ways in which martial artists could meaningfully be referred to as truly great at what they do.
There're a great many prominent martial artists in Chinese lineages who by all indications were phenomenally capable and influential. The further you go back in time (excepting some shameless frauds who create or embellish their histories, at least one of whom has a very successful franchise of schools...instant Shaolin, basically...***cough***Sin Kwang The***cough***), the harder it gets to tease apart legend and fact. A little over a hundred years ago Wong Fei-Hung, the best-known proponent of hung gar, became a legend within his own time and is still so famous that every second Jackie Chan film seemed to be about him. The Ten Tigers of Canton, too (oh, what I wouldn't give to be part of a group with a name that cool!), became folk heroes. Then there's Ku Yu Cheung, northern Shaolin folk hero of the Twentieth Century, and his iron palm:
In Japan and Okinawa you had the likes of Gichin Funakoshi (shotokan), Musashi Miyamoto (samurai/swordplay), Mas Oyama (kyokushin), Morihei Ueshiba (aikido), and, of course, Steven Seagal (blowhard a**hole liar, outdone in this respect only by the likes of Frank Dux). All of these men, except the last one (whose stories of derring-do usually belong to someone else) were pretty amazing cats whose physical prowess was usually balanced by prodigious spiritual and intellectual qualities.
Even now, right here in the USA, you've got dudes like Chan Poi (Wah Lum mantis), Kwong Wing Lam (northern Shaolin), Tat Mau Wong (choy li fut), Yang Jwing Ming (white crane), and many others, and their students, who seem to regularly defy laws of physics (and aging) with the things they can do with their bodies and with weapons that are extensions of the same. Then there're those who've taken their skills to the ring to great success -- Chuck Norris (before he went insane), Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Judo Gene LeBell and a few other leap to mind -- as well as those who've quietly helped people more effectively and efficiently defend themselves (Wally Jay is a good example -- I seem to recall Bruce Lee learning from him, too -- as was kenpo impresario Ed Parker, the man who really helped get Bruce's career in the spotlight kickstarted).
I don't know about you, but I sure wouldn't want to be given the finger by this dude (unlikely, given he died 20 years ago)...I imagine it'd hurt:
Bruce Lee learned elements of many traditional Chinese martial arts styles. From his father he learned tai chi, that I believe he kept up under other teachers, and he also learned at least the basics (though Bruce was a very quick learner so he may have accelerated into the upper levels of some styles) of various other Shaolin-based styles, like tiger, southern mantis, etc. Of course, his big early influence was wing chun, and even later its infighting nature was apparent even in the more showy and high-kicking 'movie style' that he adapted to the screen. He studied Western boxing and fencing along with styles that'd increase his leg work (wing chun is sparing with kicks and usually none are delivered above the waist, and most kicks are rarely above the knee) and grappling facility. Again, his movie style was exaggerated for effect and not very realistic to a degree, to a great extent divorced from his actual fighting style and approach. When he got around to teaching, as with most teachers in older systems, the students he had early on learned a totally different 'style' than did those later, and even among his later students some were taught more of one element of his style (grappling, escrima, etc) than another. None of this was a departure from SOP in martial arts; Yip Man did the same within his school of wing chun, accounting for the legendary rivalries and posturing among his immediate and second-generation students, all claiming to posses the one true art.
Bruce Lee was unusual in that to an extent he revolted against the confines of 'style' (while definitely not abandoning the things he learned from systematized styles), thus the irony in some proponents of Jeet Kune Do and Jun Fan being so adamant that they teach Bruce Lee's style, a personal style that was ever-evolving and very individual (hell, I could say the same of myself, except that I never dedicated myself to it as utterly singlemindedly Bruce did, in that I've gone to high levels in a couple of systems but had tastes of a pretty wide assortment, all of which inform my own fighting style to some degree even if the result is not as self-defined and relentlessly self-analyzed was Bruce Lee's). Of course, Bruce is hardly unique in this journey: after all, all those old monkish dudes of yore sitting around on Chinese hilltops watching mantises fight and all of that were open to new directions, too, and combined elements of existing styles to create new ones. I would not be surprised if, had he lived past 32, Bruce Lee would have eventually incorporated more and more tai chi into his own style and the result would appear far 'softer.' I also could see him being less adamant about the confining nature of traditional styles, given that the truth is that all martial art styles by necessity and by sheer inevitability evolve from one generation to the next and, occasionally, within some nuclear-reactor of a martial innovator like Bruce Lee, make leaps within a single generation. I think he did a lot of good in drawing people's attention to the constraints of style, even if I think much of what he said in that regard has been misunderstood.
As much as I'm impressed by his mixing seemingly disparate influences, no matter that some of the results were already in the Shaolin playbook from way back (the stop-hit idea he got from Western fencing, for example, is an old Chinese trick...not much new under the sun in that part of the world, it seems), it's his sophisticated and constantly questioning philosophy of martial arts (and of life) that really impresses me. He was way, way ahead of the curve at a young age and to anyone who sees him as merely another kung-fu film star (not that there's anything wrong with that) or -- like Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li and most of the others -- as much or more a product of Peking Opera or state-standardized performance wushu than of traditional martial arts, I'd point out his widely available musings on philosophy and on combat theory. The man knew his stuff. He was not just a pretty face, taut body, and very fast and gifted martial artist; he was the real thing. And, yeah, as the screen presence that most of us knew him as he's sort of like James Dean, dead before most of us knew who he was or saw any of his movies but unquestionably singularly talented within the roles he inhabited. Although many martial arts movies have since come out, especially since the late '80s, that probably eclipse Enter The Dragon in most or all respects, that 1973 movie will, I suspect, always remain my automatic pick for the ultimate martial arts movie. Also, in the short term, he was largely responsible for the kung fu and karate craze that smacked the US and the world like a spinning backfist circa 1974, when everybody was kung-fu fighting and I was watching Hong Kong Phooey on TV. Just as newer musical bands may well have already or may well one day produce music that outdoes Elvis or the Beatles by any meaningful measure, and just as to many of us the likes of Elvis and the Beatles will still remain the benchmarks for influence and quality, Bruce Lee made such a mark on the world in his very brief period of relative fame that he's still the standard now that he's been dead longer than he was alive.
EDIT: forgot to add that Bruce was hardly one for whom it all came easily...I mean, it may have in some ways, largely emotionally and intellectually, but he had to overcome a few obstacles to become as good as he did, perhaps one reason he DID become that good, better than most of his peers. For one, his mother was half German and even that much European blood in him made Bruce an undesirable student to many Chinese teachers in Hong Kong and even in Yip Man's school some classmates refused to associate with him. Bruce grew up in an affluent family but to become what he did he worked unbelievably hard -- he was born with one leg shorter than the other and was terribly near-sighted (characteristically, he turned both to advantage, using his slightly off-kilter leg imbalance to add power to kicks and compensating for his poor vision by becoming very adept at the infighting skills promoted by wing chun, including chi sau sensitivity training. I've always been one who wonders if Bruce's drive to hone his body into an incredibly highly-tuned fighting machine (just look at his physique in Enter The Dragon compared with his earlier films, in which he still had a slightly more rounded appearance with at least a few ounces of subcutaneous fat) helped do him in, if he basically just overtrained.
Putting the 'mod' in 'module'
This is what a custom module looks like.
Oh, look....it shows pictures, too:
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