"BRUCE LEE'S TOUGHEST FIGHT"
by Michael Dorgan
(from Official Karate, July 1980)
Considering the skill of the opponents and the complete absence of referees, rules, and safety equipment, it was one hell of a fight that took place that day in December. It may have been the most savagely elegant exhibition of unarmed combat of the century. Yet, at a time when top fighters tend to display their skills only in huge closed-circuited arenas, this battle was fought in virtual secrecy behind locked doors. And at a time when millions of dollars can ride on the outcome of a championship fight, these champions of another sort competed not for money, but for more personal and passionate reasons. The time was late winter, 1964; the setting was a small Kung Fu school in Oakland, California. Poised at the center of the room, with approximately 140 pounds packed tightly on his 5'7" frame, was the operator of the school, a 24-year old martial artist of Chinese ancestry but American birth who, within a few years, would skyrocket to international attention as a combination fighter/film star. A few years after that, at age 32, he would die under mysterious circumstances. His name, of course, was Bruce Lee. Also poised in the center of the room was another martial artist. Taller but lighter, with his 135 pounds stretched thinly over 5'10", this fighter was also of Chinese descent. Born in Hong Kong and reared in the south of mainland China, he had only recently arrived in San Francisco's teeming Chinatown, just across the bay from Oakland. Though over the next 15 years he would become widely known in martial arts circles and would train some of America's top martial artists, he would retain a near disdain for publicity and the commercialization of his art, and consequently would remain unknown to the general public. His name: Wong Jack Man. What happened after the fighters approached the center of the room has become a chapter of Chinatown's "wild history," that branch of Chinese history usually anchored in fact but always richly embellished by fantasy, a history that tells much about a time and place with little that's reliable about any particular incident. Exactly how the fight proceeded and just who won are still matters of controversy, and will likely remain so. But from the few available firsthand accounts and other evidence, it is possible to piece together a reasonably reliable picture that reveals two overriding truths. First, considering the skill of the opponents and the complete absence of referees, rules, and safety equipment, it was one hell of a fight that took place that day in December. And second, Bruce Lee, who was soon to rival Mao Tse Tung as the world's most famous Chinese personality, was dramatically affected by the fight, perhaps fatally so. Due to the human desire to be known as an eye witness to a famous event, it is easier to obtain firsthand accounts of the fight from persons who were not there than from those who were. As to how many persons actually viewed the contest, even that is a point of dispute. Bruce Lee's wife Linda recalls a total of 13 persons, including herself. But the only person that she identifies other than her husband and his associate James Lee, who died of cancer shortly before her husband died, is Wong Jack Man. Wong, meanwhile, remembers only seven persons being present, including the three Lees. Of the three persons other than the Lees and himself, only one, a tai chi teacher named William Chen (not to be confused with the William Chi Cheng Chen who teaches the art in New York), could be located. Chen recalls about 15 persons being present but can identify none other than Wong and the Lees. So except for a skimpy reference to the fight by Bruce Lee himself in a magazine interview, we are left with only three firsthand accounts of the battle. They are accounts which vary widely. Linda Lee, in her book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew, initially dismisses the fight as follows: "The...
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