Debunking Bruce Lee myths

Myth, rumour and innuendo come hand-in-hand when an actor dies tragically young. But in the case of Bruce Lee, who died at the peak of his career aged just 32, this is unusually amplified, perhaps because he appeared so physically, indomitably fit.

From the manner of his death to the authenticity of his martial arts skills, we look at some of the more outlandish claims out there…

The mafia killed him…

This is the big one, and depending which version you favour, it began circulating soon after Lee’s death in 1973. It was said that the Chinese mafia murdered Lee and covered it up because he was exposing too many martial arts secrets in his films. Rather more dramatically, but for much the same reason, some said it was Shaolin killer monks that did the deed.

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In fact, he died from a cerebral oedema – a massive swelling of the brain – which was deemed to have been caused by an allergic reaction to Equagesic, a strong aspirin and muscle relaxant given to him by a colleague, Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei, after he complained of having a headache. He was in Hong Kong to have dinner with James Bond actor George Lazenby, with whom he was planning to make a movie, but never made it to the engagement. He died at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong. He had been hospitalised for seizures and severe headaches just a couple of months previously.

The Triads had a grudge against his son…

The Triads were said to be angry with Lee for refusing to work in movies that they had funded. To add further distaste, it’s rumoured that they held the grudge they harboured against Lee and passed it on to his son, Brandon, who is also the subject of conspiracy rumours after he too died young, aged 28. Brandon was accidentally shot dead on the set of the film ‘The Crow’ when a real bullet was loaded into a prop gun instead of a blank.

A punch killed him…

Further speculation about Lee’s death came many years after his death, courtesy of Black Belt magazine. It ran a story suggesting that Lee may have died as a delayed reaction to a 'dim mak’, or 'touch of death’ punch, that he had sustained some weeks prior to his collapse.

Such a technique has been referenced in many martial arts films, including 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and 'Kill Bill Vol. 2’. Others have suggested it could have been a deadly 'quivering palm technique’ that killed him, a similar proposition to the dim mak but involving a wave of Qi or 'life energy’. In 1997, the United States National Institutes of Health said that such things 'are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information’.

The 'Paper Dragon’…

It is widely rumoured that despite Lee’s prowess on screen, he was a 'paper dragon’, and his fighting skills had never been put to the test in tournaments – rather they were based on private sparring and theory. It’s thought such rumour may have been started by tournament fighters. Others maintained that Lee was a teacher rather than a fighter.

In contrast, many cite the fact that Lee was brought up in Kowloon, and grew up fighting on the streets, which was among the reasons his parents ushered him into learning martial arts, beginning his Wing Chun training at 13. One story tells of how he defeated the son of a feared Triad family and it was at that point his father sent him to study in America because it was thought there may have been a contract out on his life. It’s said he eschewed tournaments because in the 1960s they were either no or light contact affairs, and deemed a waste of his time. Martial arts forums are split on whether he was a true fighter, and the debate will likely rage on for years to come.

The power of the 'One-inch Punch’…

The so-called 'one-inch punch’ was popularised by Bruce Lee, but is thought to have derived from the 'southern school’ of Chinese martial arts, or Nanquan. As it sounds, it’s a blow delivered from an incredibly short distance (from 0 to 15cm) using a technique called 'fa jin’, rather brilliantly meaning 'explosive power’.

Lee learned it during his Wing Chun training, and often demonstrated it, but was it much cop? Discovery Channel show 'Mythbusters’ once put it to the test using a force gauge. It was compared to a normal punch thrown, and compared unfavourably – the normal punch weighed in at 325 pounds, while the one-inch punch was measured at 153 pounds. But as it wasn’t tested against a human subject, the punch was deemed a 'plausible’ combat technique nonetheless. Whether it would be feasible in a fight situation remains a subject for much debate, and many deem it a 'push’ rather than an actual punch.

The 330lb punch bag…

It is claimed Lee had such strength that with a single sidekick he could batter a 300lb punchbag so hard it would swing up from its hanging position and hit the ceiling. This is widely disputed as an exaggerated urban legend, simply because of the enormous weight involved. There is footage of him battering a 70lb bag, but the 300lb claims are entirely unsubstantiated.

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