The Wandering Sage

In this periodic column, martial arts enthusiast and old China hand Shannon Roxborough explores the claims depicted in kung-fu cinema, putting them into historical, cultural, philosophical, martial and common-sense context.

Image courtesy of Concord Production, Golden Harvest and Kam and Ronson.

Think of it as Fantasy Martial Arts.

Today, M.M.A. allows fans to watch their favorite fighters touch gloves then engage in a testosterone-fueled blood sport, but what if some of the most storied names in hand-to-hand combat squared off? What if, for example, Muhammad Ali faced Mike Tyson, both in their prime? Or, in the world of our chosen fighting arts, Bruce Lee had a real-life knock-down-drag-out with Chuck Norris? Which man would have raised his hands in victory? And who would have suffered the agony of defeat?

Of course, we will never know the answer to this hypothetical question. But let’s suppose, for a moment, that we could move the debate into the realm of reality with the help of some thoughtful analysis.

First, it makes since to swear off the “greatest of all time debate”—even if Lee’s popularity and on-screen dominance steer many in that direction—and take a look at the tale of the tape.

Bruce Lee Chuck Norris
32 Age 32
5’7″ Height 5’10”
145 Weight 170
Jeet Kune Do (an eclectic art based on Wing Chun, Praying Mantis, boxing, wrestling and elements of other disciplines) Styles Tae Kwon Do (the first Westerner to earn an 8th-degree black belt) and Tang Soo Do

*At the time of the filming of “Way of the Dragon” in Rome, Italy.

Bruce Lee exhibited cat-like quickness and remarkable strength for his size. His foray into various complex arts gave him a high level of technical skill, but for all of his impressive physicality, extreme training regimen, movie-star fame and charismatic presence, he was virtually unproven as a fighter—having only won a boxing competition in high school and never been tested in martial arts tournaments or on the street.

For his part, Chuck Norris, though lacking the speed of Lee, made up for it with size and sheer power, along with toughness and practical techniques honed from years of experience as a battle-tested full-contact karate fighter.

Lee gave up a few inches in height and some 25 pounds to Norris. Though by no means a hard, fast reality, in general terms, the height advantage would have given him a longer reach, more leverage and greater striking power.

So, who would come out on top if the two men squared off in a no-holds-barred contest of martial skill, endurance and guts?

Unfortunately, there is no way to be sure. But, like the fight scene in the movie, it would have been an intriguing and dramatic contrast of styles: Lee’s dynamic, wide-ranging offensive-defensive capabilities and Norris’ simple but direct no-nonsense traditional approach.

Theoretically, from a tactical standpoint, if Norris were able to fight tall and keep Lee at a distance, he would likely have been be victorious, but if Lee were able to utilize his quickness and footwork to close the gap and go on the offensive, he would have proved a problematic matchup for Norris.

By all accounts, the two had a healthy dose of mutual respect, so a real-life face-off would have highly unlikely. So, we have to accept the fact that we will never know (or agree) on exactly what would have happened if the epic battle had occurred.

Let’s just say that both men provided some inspiring entertainment and contributed much to the popularity of the martial arts. And that is something for which we can all be grateful.

—Shannon Roxborough

About the Author
Shannon is a widely published veteran freelance writer and editor who began practicing Chinese kung-fu, chi kung, Taoism and health and healing arts in 1980 and spent 1987 and 1988 studying in China as the initiated apprentice of a Taoist priest, kung-fu master and traditional Chinese doctor. A former magazine correspondent and popular newspaper columnist, as a freelancer his news shorts have appeared in Inside Kung-fu and Black Belt while his articles have been published in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Alternative Medicine (now Natural Solutions magazine) and the defunct New Age Journal, among others. He also wrote a regular column for the now-ceased “The Okinawan” magazine exploring various aspects of Okinawan, Japanese, Chinese and Korean cultures—from martial arts and traditional art forms to history, philosophy, etiquette and travel.

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