“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water,” Bruce Lee famously stated in an iconic 1971 interview with TV host Pierre Berton, with the phrase from the movie star and martial-arts expert coming to define the icon long after his death.
Disrupting the Hollywood system during his rise to prominence in the late 1960s, in such TV series as Batman and The Green Hornet, before breaking American cinema at the turn of the ‘70s, Bruce Lee brought an unprecedented potency to the industry, making him an influential name in every corner of international culture. Though he found fame as a martial artist, actor and filmmaker, the real enduring essence of Bruce Lee was in his philosophical presence.
One of his most iconic outings was in the 1972 movie Way of the Dragon, a film that represents Bruce Lee’s very best cinematic work, well-reflecting his meticulous nature and ambition as a humble creative. Very much an international feature film, Lee brought himself outside his own Hong Kong comfort zone, travelling to Rome to tell the story of a man who visits his relatives in Italy, only to find himself defending them against a gang of brutal gangsters that included Colt, a dangerous martial-arts expert, played by Chuck Norris in his debut movie role.
Facing off against the American cult hero in the final scene of the movie, the fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris in the Roman colosseum became one of the most iconic cinematic sequences of the 1970s, still holding a great deal of cultural pertinence to this very day.
Appearing in the movie was a genuine surprise for Norris, with the actor receiving a call out of the blue from his good friend and old sparring partner in the late 1960s, where Bruce Lee told him he wanted to fight for the climax of Way of the Dragon. Recalling the moment in a Q&A with Combat Culture, Norris explains, “At that time I held the world title, and kiddingly I said to Bruce ‘Well, who wins Bruce?’ and he says, ‘I win, I’m the star of this movie”. I say, ‘Oh, I see, you want to beat the world champion, and he said ‘No I don’t, I want to kill the world champion’.
As two highly competitive individuals, there’s no doubt that there was a rivalry between both Lee and Norris, particularly earlier in their careers when they were both sparring together. Though, as late as the 1970 Lee, was aiming fire at Norris, stating in an interview that he would be able to handle national karate champions Joe Lewis, Mike Stone and Chuck Norris, “almost as a parent would a young child”.
Adding to his somewhat arrogant statement, he explains that his superiority would: “Be somewhat disconcerting to watch. It’s like walking into a saloon in the old west and seeing the fastest guy in the territory standing there with notches all over his gun, then in walks a pleasant little fellow who says ‘How many times do I have to tell you you are doing it all wrong and the other guy listens intently’.”
Chuck Norris, on the other hand, was a little more humble in his thoughts towards Bruce Lee, telling Black Belt, “The truth is Lee was a formidable opponent with a chiselled physique and technique. I totally enjoyed sparring and just spending time with him”. Continuing, the actor and athlete added, “He was as charismatic and friendly in the ring and at home as he was on film. His confidence and wit were dazzling, and sometimes even debilitating to others…Lee was lightning fast, very agile and incredibly strong for his size”.
Having sparred multiple times with the mid-20th century cultural icon, Norris had a strong understanding of Bruce Lee’s fighting style too, breaking this down in an interview with Physical Arts.
“He was very fast,” Norris explained, adding, “He learned from everybody, he had a very open mind. Bruce never believed in only one style, or one style is the best, he felt that there were so many ‘best’ of everything. He said that everything had strengths and weaknesses and what he wanted to do was find the strengths and use them”.
Good friends and professional partners, Norris and Lee had a competitive feud much like any eager sportsperson, though Norris never let this cloud his judgement of the man himself whom he learned much from. Asked by Black Belt whether he would’ve beaten Lee in a real competition, Norris responded, “You’ll forgive me for answering with another Bruceism: ‘Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory’”.