Book Review: Bruce Lee by Matthew Polly

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I’m not sure why, but the other day I had a random desire to look up some of the superhuman things Bruce Lee was physically capable of. It is still impressive what he did. This led me to consider reading a biography of Bruce since I felt the need to fill in some gaps in my knowledge. I thought I knew a lot about Bruce but I had never read a proper biography. Enter Matthew Polly’s book: Bruce Lee, a life of.

Overall the book is good and if you have any passing interest in Bruce Lee it is worth taking a look at. It is also fairly new and popular enough you should be able to find it at your local library.

While reading this book I journaled extensively about what I was reading and how it affected me. One biography was enough to remove Bruce from my mind as a heroic figure. I wasn’t expecting this, I wasn’t expecting to grow cold to Bruce, to tire of him, to be disappointed in what I learned. I grew to realize Bruce was still very young when he passed. A lot of what he did was done while as a young man without a ton of mentorship. What Ip Man was able to provide in the Wing Chun school back in Hong Kong was not enough, in fact it didn’t seem like there was much mentorship at all.

I knew Bruce was a street fighter when he was young, but I had no idea he was an instigator. He would walk down the street in traditional Chinese garb in westernized Hong Kong in order to pick fights. He was, to be blunt, an aggressive bully. Bruce was a bit of a gang leader as well, and if it weren’t for the highly unique situation his family was in, being a family of means and connected to America, perhaps Bruce would have ended his days as some gang kingpin. He was a terrible student, held back multiple grades, and he did not hold back against his fellow students. Bruce took up martial arts because of his own security. He wondered what would happen to him if his boys weren’t with him when he was out fighting. He was extremely, fanatically competitive and had a burning need to be on top. I could gather that it was extremely difficult for Bruce to not be the alpha dog. He had to be better than anyone, and he never respected authority.

Needless to say, none of us would have wanted to be his pal or go to school with him. He was a troublesome kid, full of energy and he never calmed down, as I will explain later. Previously to this book I had thought martial arts was a way for young men to learn discipline and inner harmony. For Bruce that did not occur, it fueled his natural aggression. And aggressive he was, one of the patterns I picked up on through the book was how terrified people were of Bruce, including his close friends, who got very scared when Bruce got angry, and Bruce had a short temper. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a friend or colleague who you knew was very physically powerful and dangerous, but it is no fun to be around them when they begin to lose it.

I was surprised that the famous back injury Bruce suffered was a mere couple of paragraphs. It was almost an afterthought, like, “Bruce suffered an injury to his fourth sacral nerve while doing good-mornings exercises. He read through the works of Krishnamurti while on bed rest. Doctors thought he would never kick again but within a few months he was back to normal.” I used to think he had broken his back or done something so terrible his recovery was extraordinary. I now believe his injury was psychosomatic. The back injury happened during a time in Bruce’s life when his future was very uncertain. He was running out of money and trying to pitch a very difficult movie concept when Hollywood was still deaf to kung fu movies. If you’ve read the works of Dr. Sarno and others who deal with back pain and psychosomatic responses, I am fairly convinced this injury of Bruce’s was the result of the emotional turmoil he was in, especially for someone with his high-spiritedness. To me, this explains why he was able to recover and fully accomplish ridiculous physical feats (like when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in Game of Death, was pushing Bruce’s head down onto a spike and Bruce held his entire body up by his arms in a push-up like form and actually kicked, scorpion-like, over his back with his leg to hit Kareem. I mean, seriously, you can’t do something that athletic with a real back injury. Few humans are capable of this kind of move. The chronic pain from Bruce’s injury is the memory of it his body kept and probably nagged him with when things were too stressful.).

Bruce was innovative for such a young guy. Who else would have ever come up with the one-inch punch? It was all because he was an intense self-experimenter and wanted to figure out how to generate the most power behind his punch, so he tried to generate as much power as he could from shorter and shorter distances until he reached the shortest distance. This self-experimentation led to him to be the first mixed martial artist (don’t quote me on that “first” bit, but without looking it up, I assume he was the first since no one else seemed to be doing it at the time, and Dana White states that Bruce was the grandfather of mixed martial arts.). When you get to know Bruce through a biography you understand why he was able to innovate the way he did. First, he had to be the best. Second, he had an extremely aggressive and dominant personality, which would mean he would do whatever it took to make sure he was the best. He also rejected authority, including traditional kung fu if it didn’t serve his purposes. Jeet Kune Do specifically discards what is useless and only keeps what is useful. It is an incredible system and I am beginning to imagine how I could employ the philosophy in my own life in areas other than martial arts.

Once upon a time I read an Art of Manliness article about great men and their libraries, this particular article being about Bruce Lee’s library. Before I read this article I had no idea Bruce read. Bruce is said to have over 2500 books and always had a book with him wherever he went. If I include my Kindle and my own personal library I have just under 2000 books myself. And of course I’m older now than Bruce’s age when he passed and I have been highly into books for almost two decades, often traveling to used book sales and scooping up bags of books whenever I could, and I still lag behind him by hundreds of books! More astounding than this though, is the selection of Bruce’s books. His library gives insight into his mindset and how psychopathically fanatical he was in his pursuit of martial arts. My library is very board, containing literature, history, classics, philosophy, science, science fiction, self-help, biographies, and esoteric subjects. Bruce’s library was almost strictly philosophy, martial arts, fitness, and self-help. His selections were purely for his own advancement and understanding of what he was trying to accomplish in the martial arts. I take it he cared nothing for the Western Canon or any canon or what anyone thought one should read in order to be cultivated and a more complete human being. Bruce had read 78 books on Fencing. I can barely read 3–4 books on a single subject before I get extremely bored and have to find something else, but then again I have never been locked into a single-minded pursuit of perfection like Bruce was.

Since reading the biography I’ve watched a few Bruce videos on Youtube and have poured over the comments. Tons of people wish he hadn’t died (as I did before I read the biography), tons of people are very sad he died so young, and then there are a lot of people dissing Bruce’s martial art ability, saying he was fake, he was an actor, he couldn’t hold his own against X fighter. The comments simply reminded me that most people have no clue about Bruce’s life. Many many people challenged Bruce and the top three American Karate champions of the era highly respected him and trained with him. We wouldn’t even have MMA or Ultimate Fighting or great martial arts movies if it weren’t Bruce. Without Bruce there wouldn’t be any discussion of who’s the greatest fighter (beyond Boxing). If those commenters were able to talk to the real Bruce they would find he would quickly accept their challenge and they would have to fight him. He was a street fighter who meant business and had to be the best. His level of competitiveness reminded me of Michael Jordan’s competitiveness, or Ronaldo. It’s this drive to be on top and do whatever it takes to get there. A bunch of weak untrained Youtube commenters would never be able to face that. They are talking down to a dead guy who was excited to spar with 7'2" Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Does anyone today want to spar with a professional basketball athlete of that height? He wanted to fight Muhammad Ali. He would want to fight the fighters of today, he would be excited to meet anyone capable of teaching him or showing him things. All you need to take away from this paragraph is that, unless someone has read a biography of Bruce, you needn’t take any comment anyone makes of him seriously.

There were some positives I took from Bruce, I will relate them in bullet-point format:

  1. Practice. Bruce practiced all the time, and guess what? It made him the best. He would punch makiwara boards in his car, he would punch them on a plane, he would punch 5000 times a day. He worked out when he read and watched TV, he did takes dozens of times to get the action scene perfect so it stood up to the quality he expected of his brand. People who knew him said he was almost always sweaty. Are you almost sweaty because you work hard at your craft? How often do you practice anything? If any of us practiced even a tenth of what Bruce did I am sure we would all be a lot closer to achieving our goals.
  2. Self-experiment. Bruce had to pave the way, no one else had done it. His defiance, his aggression, his need to dominate, his focus, this all led to his creativity and expertise. The lesson I took away from his innovative spirit is how we sometimes need to figure things out for ourselves and this requires taking action.
  3. Defiance. While I don’t think it’s wise to always and forever defy authority and authority figures, after all we live in a society, but we should question experts and authorities more, even that authority is your own voice that believes in some core belief. Some of my journaling has consisted of writing down everything I think I know and questioning where those beliefs came from. In a sense, I have been emptying my cup.

The last positive is a bit twisted: Bruce’s life is a cautionary tale. There has been a lot of conspiracy and speculation as to how Bruce died, and Mr. Polly puts forth what I think is an excellent theory, that Bruce died of heat stroke. It makes a lot of sense because weeks before his death he had almost died of heat stroke. He had all the symptoms, he had been overworking himself considerably more than normal during the filming of Enter the Dragon. Bruce intensely burned the candle at both ends. I honestly believe if Bruce had ever learned how to calm down and take a step back he would still be alive. Bruce died because of hubris. There, I said it, he died because he was pridefully performing all of the fight scenes from Enter the Dragon for his mistress. That was another sad failing of Bruce I learned, his extra-marital affairs. Seriously, if he hadn’t had such a need to show off and be full of himself he wouldn’t have fallen prey to heat stroke. I originally thought he had died of a brain aneurysm but it was really a cerebral edema, or swelling of the brain, since the autopsy showed his brain to be considerably heavier than a normal human brain. Other than that there was only traces of cannabis and aspirin in his system, and since you can’t overdose on cannabis, the only other explanation is that he died from an aspirin. No one buys that. The guy died on the hottest night in Hong Kong of that year. He performed a series of kung fu exhibitions for his mistress. He had recently lost 20 pounds from the filming of Enter the Dragon because he pushed himself so hard. He had recently had his armpit sweat glands removed so he would appear more aesthetic on screen. He had previously been rushed to the hospital for collapsing and was barely saved. Anyway, I can’t explain as well as the biography did, but Bruce pushed himself too hard. He showed us the incredible capabilities and resilience of the human body, but even still we are only mortal and can overdo it. If he hadn’t died shortly after Enter the Dragon he probably would have died after or during another movie, because he would have been coming out with many movies. We all need to learn how to deal with stress and not snuff our candles out too early.

Final takes:

  • It is easy to forget how young Bruce was. He was still an immature, young guy who had yet to reach the years of wisdom. We can’t expect a young man to be a paragon of virtue and correct-living. We shouldn’t try to emulate how he lived beyond a few simple things you can apply to your own life.
  • I found it very ironic that Bruce was dismissed from the draft because he was deemed unfit. Here we have one of the most fit persons to ever live and he is rejected by the army. For what, you may ask? He had some rare disease that caused one of his balls not to drop and it could mean he would be infertile or get testicular cancer.
  • Bruce may not have been able to handle the riches and fame he was coming into at the end and would have been continuing to get. He was having affairs, he had no discipline with his money, he was losing face with the media and making enemies, the public was souring on him. He was definitely being set up for a hard fall or blow up.
  • He was remarkably ahead of his time, with race relations, with martial arts, with movie-making and entertainment, and fitness. I believe this to be because of his insane perfectionist mindset, a mindset I do not condone.
  • It baffled me how much of Bruce’s success depended on the uniqueness of his circumstances. If he hadn’t been born in America, if his father hadn’t been an actor who survived the purges and WWII Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. Because of Bruce’s father’s wealth, and the gentleness of his mother, they were able to put Bruce into good schools and not give up on him, including sending him to America. If Bruce grew up poor he would’ve died an obscure gangster in Hong Kong. He was tornado that needed to be tamed and it took monumental efforts on behalf of the adults in his life to keep him from becoming too much of a problem. If it weren’t for his parents he would have gotten into real trouble after he beat up a well-to-do person’s kid who went to the police. If the cha-cha dance hadn’t been a craze in Hong Kong and then America when it did, and if Bruce hadn’t become enamored with it, Bruce wouldn’t have had a means to open his first classes in the U.S., giving him the eventual idea of opening a kung fu school since some of his cha-cha students were able to see him showing off his kung fu between lessons. There are many many more little things that had to be just right for Bruce to get to where we all know of him now and I find stuff like that amazing, especially because one of my biggest questions going into this biography was how someone was able to pack so much into such a short life and leave such a lasting impact.

And finally, I’m glad I scratched the itch of wanting to have a more thorough understanding of Bruce Lee. He had been a hero of mine since I was a small child and asked my older brother who was the greatest fighter of all time. Was Bruce the best? The answer is that it doesn’t matter, he would have wanted to meet with anyone better than him and learn from them, but most people of his time were stuck in their ways. It felt good to dispatch the inner beliefs I had of Bruce being a good guy who was sadly struck down too early. It is a dangerous thing to make heroes of people. For one thing Bruce didn’t ask to be anyone’s hero and he didn’t ask to be held up as an example of virtue. It’s unfair for us to label him as something like a hero. I think he would prefer to be thought of in a more human sense, as someone who was able to teach and reveal some truth about humanity. Finally, it was unfair of me, both to myself and to Bruce, to think highly of him. This sounds backwards, but to think highly of him almost dehumanizes him, or fictionalizes him. It creates a fantasy version of him in my mind that is deceiving because it is unreal. It holds him up to standards he can’t possibly live up to, and in that way I am only setting myself up for disappointment, as I felt often when reading his biography. Now I have the gift of being able to see more of who he was as a person.




I am a teacher by trade but learning to code, I write about improving your life and topics that interest me.

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I am a teacher by trade but learning to code, I write about improving your life and topics that interest me.

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