Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris represent the two most fabled hardmen in history. Whilst Bruce’s fists were so fast, he may as well have been called Sudden Lee, it was also rumoured for a time that Chuck Norris actually sported a third fist under his beard. In short, we’re dealing with two movie stars apparently so tough in real life that they have been mythologised as almost superhuman entities even off-screen.
The fight hype between the pair also differed wildly from the trash talk that dominates these days. Chuck Norris’ blue corner appraisal of Lee was a glowing one, as he once stated: “The truth is Lee was a formidable opponent with a chiselled physique and technique. I totally enjoyed sparring and just spending time with him.”
Adding: “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.”
And in the red corner, Lee was equally glowing about Norris during their time together as the pair grew to be friends and collaborators in pioneering new ways to bring martial arts to the big screen. However, he was never likely to be pressed on whether he would have bettered Norris in a fight, living instead by the philosophy: “Showing off is the fool’s idea of glory.” That being said, he also wasn’t afraid to break the rules to get things moving.
In 1972, the duo starred opposite each other in The Way Of The Dragon. This was Lee’s third Kung Fu film and it saw him take complete creative control, penning the script and directing the project. The grand finale of the Kung Fu epic is one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the genre as Lee and Norris face off in the Colosseum. Lee had been inspired by Spartacus and saw the grand Roman stage as the perfect place for a physical clash of cultures to occur. The main issue being that it was illegal to film there let alone fight!
While Norris’ evaluation of Lee mentions everything from his lightning speed to his stone-carved abs and philosophical persona, the one key element it misses is just how resourceful the martial arts master was. Thus, when it came to filming in the Colosseum, Lee fought the law and Lee won. A second philosophy he lived by was ‘when there is a will, there is a way’ and that was certainly in operation during his directing of The Way of the Dragon.
Lee actually took to bribing Roman officials so that they would permit entry into the Colosseum to him and his crew. This came under the unfortunate proviso that any equipment had to be smuggled in via backpacks and they had to pretend to be tourists. It just so happened that at one point two unassuming tourists stripped to the waist to reveal that they were He-Man incarnate and began battering the hell out of each other as a mass of people with video recorders watched on.
Absconded away in some far corner of the Colosseum, the pair had only an hour or so to get the sequence filmed. Thus, naturally, things got a little frantic and a few genuine blows were landed amid the melee of quick cut scenes. With such a short window and the threat of security closing them down at any time, all health and safety went out of the window and the two ‘had at it’ in one of the quickest martial arts sequences ever filmed (in both senses).
Thus, now when you watch the zenith of Kung Fu fight sequences back very little of it was actually cut. The vast majority of the clash of titans unspools as it happened in some shadowy corner of a Roman monument where the law was temporarily quashed to allow for one of the greatest combat sequences ever to occur. Additional shots were then put together in a Hong Kong studio and the rest is history. Good job they had trained and sparred together for around two years beforehand in Lee’s backyard.
As Norris would later conclude: “Bruce Lee learned from everybody. He had a very open mind. He never believed in only one martial arts style or that one was superior. He believed that everything had strengths and weaknesses and that we should find the strengths in each method.” Clearly, one of those methods was to do anything to get the job done and The Way of the Dragon certainly benefits from that.