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Bruce Lee Versus Craig Myers
Addendum to Was Bruce Lee the Baddest?, and Rhee, Lee, Ali and Me
© 2014 James LaFond
JUL/20/14
I have done two article now that come off as critical of Bruce Lee, who, in my opinion set fire to the martial arts world and was the key conduit from the dark ages of purely parochial martial arts to our present age of experimental and mixed martial arts. When asked a question, or addressing a specific issue, it is my function as a writer to focus, not expand the discussion. The novice writer's impulse is to expand that one question continuously until it is a book, the answer published at length some years from now.
In both of these articles I mention a story that a karate friend of mine told me in my teens, in 1977, about Bruce Lee defeating Mohamed Ali, world heavyweight boxing champion, in a secret death match in which Lee magnanimously permitted the dunce boxer to live. So, when asked this question by a man who said in that same conversation that Lee could have beaten Ali, I kind of focused on that.
I then took the—to many—insulting step of claiming that a local Baltimore fighter I train, Craig, could have beaten Lee in an MMA match or street fight. I am certain Craig would disagree, as he believes in skill over will, and wants dearly for the legend of Lee to be true. What the legend of Lee is at its root is the nerd martial artist's belief that there is a holy grail out there, a skill set that will permit him to defeat the superior human animal in combat. In other words, Lee must have been capable of beating Ali, or your pursuit of Save-My-Ass-Brawl-Do is all for nothing.
I too want to believe that my superior combat skill set would permit me to prevail in a brawl against an NFL thug like Ray Lewis. But really LaFond, wake up. Here is an even better assessment. Did you know that in pure technical terms, I, James LaFond, pot-bellied fifty-year-old former crappy amateur boxer, possess a better jab than Ali ever did? It is true. It then follows that since the jab is key to boxing, and that Ali made his career behind the jab, that I would whoop his ass, right? We all know that I would be unlikely to touch Ali, and that if I did, I could not hurt him, that Ali would be the cat to my mouse. In my mind Ali versus Lee would be essentially the same thing. Lee had a better jab than Ali, but he would have been squashed.
So, to return to my insulting contention that Craig could beat Lee, let me explain the reasoning behind this, which is purely the reasoning of the trainer.
Psychology
The first consideration of the trainer is psychological. Neither Lee of Craig are ideal in this department, for they both have their sights set on something other than being a world champion fighter. They would both be a nice addition to any trainer's camp, so I would want them as fighters. Having conducted the initial interview I would steer Lee towards easy fights just to build some ring-cred for his teaching and acting careers. The guy is a genius so I don't want him in with anyone who could damage his brain.
Craig on the other hand wants to prove himself to himself, has engaged in fighting as a spiritual quest to prove he can get through the worst shit that life throws at him. I would throw Craig into fights that he does not figure to win as this is what he craves, and steer him toward coaching, as no coach is more valuable to an aspiring champion than the guy who fought over his head and has the wisdom to put it in context and use that experience as a coaching platform.
If my fighter, I would permit neither man to fight with that certain type of fighter who might damage them critically; the Dempsey's, Tyson's, Marciano's. In sparring Lee would murder Craig, even though Craig is three weight classes higher. But, if they fight, the first thing I tell Craig is, 'Will not skill. You can take a beating. Get him to tee off on you so you can counter and clinch.'
It is often the case that the man who dominates sparring in the gym does not adapt well to competition, as that is not just the skill test that sparring is, but a test of one's genetic material.
Physical
The primary assessment here is size—it is the baseline because size is a big deal. By the third go around of the no weight class NHB version of the UFC, everybody under 200 pounds had basically been excluded. Royce Gracie soon faded out of the picture as did other small men as the giants and mid-sized men came to dominate.
Again, in sparring, in the gym, even going full contact, fighters are not going into overdrive and pushing at the weak links like they do in a fight. Middleweights murder heavyweights in almost all gym sparring. But, middleweights do not fare well against heavies in competition. The first command the heavy in competition against the middle gets is, 'Let him hit you, make it ugly, trade; do everything you are not supposed to, because you can take it and he can't.'
Now, for fighters—being a striking coach—I look at Lee and see a very durable head, a bit too square and liable to cut and torque the neck, but a nice middle-weight size head on a lightweight body. I figure no lightweight will stop Lee with head shots. The problem is, Lee has a lightweight neck, maybe welter.
Craig has a rounded bullet dome that he once head-butted me with by accident. It felt like I had been hit by a bowling ball! I have a hard head, and have never been KO'd by head shots in boxing, and my head felt like a piece of cheese on impact with his. Craig's eyes are as far apart as a heavyweight's eyes, and his head is round enough to deflect and save his neck. Understand that a square head like Lee's gets caught easier and imparts too much force to the neck. The neck is where the KO happens. Craig is a grappler with a light heavyweight neck. You see where this is going right. Craig can still lose the exchanges and win the fight through attrition.
When we go south to the body, Lee has a welterweight torso, and Craig has a light heavyweight one. Small fighters get wrecked by body punches when they fight big men who know to go to the body.
Power
By all accounts Lee hit at a heavyweight level. Lee's ability to hit hard was all about skill and athleticism. His jab for instance encompassed three times as many body mechanics as Craig's, making his 'straight blast' a potentially more effective weapon than Craig's blind jab or power jab, but being—like all complex weapon systems—more likely to fail as there are more variables.
Craig has heavyweight power. Craig rolled out of bed with heavyweight power. Where Lee's natural gift is athleticism Craig's is in natural 'sick, makes you want to shit when he hits you' power. Craig carries his power when tired, when hurt, when out of position. Lee is a technician who needs his ducks in a row. If the two engaged in a boxing match it would look like Billy Conn versus Joe Louis, in which the light heavyweight Conn beat the snot out of the heavyweight Louis for 13 rounds, and then got hit. I have been on both sides of these kind of match-ups and understand the mechanics.
If I was coaching Craig I would say, "Get in there and get hit, let him think he's got you, let him tee off with the same combo three times, and then meet him in the middle trading just when he figures he's got you."
Craig would say "Yes sir" and soldier on, with what I would rate at about a 60% chance of success, because you can never count a jumping bean like Lee out.
If I was coaching Lee I would say, "Look man, just win on points and stay the hell away from this meathead. His only chance is the KO."
Now Lee, like all stellar bio-mechanical wonders, would probably get bored with this, correctly assess that he can KO Craig, and also be seduced by the challenge of KOing the bigger guy. When he comes back to the corner after the first round I'd say, "Dude, I know what you're thinking, that you can KO this guy. Look, don't go there. All he can do is KO you—that's his only game. You can take a unanimous decision."
Lee might say, "I know you care about me old man—but just relax; flow like water brother. None of us are getting out of this life alive. It is the journey not the destination."
When Lee goes out for the second round and I see him wade in for the KO I'd be on the ropes screaming, "Don't be a fuckin' hero!"
Across the ring, watching slighly as Craig—his nose already broken from those sick jabs but still soldiering on in disciplined fashion—would be my evil step-brother, snickering under his breath at Lee, "Just throw one more hook Hot Shot, just one more hook and it's time to meet the tooth fairy!"
The Art of it All
Still, what we have here in this above fantasy fight is an experiential journey for Bruce who is testing his skills and theories and Craig who is forging his soul in a furnace. This is still an amateur event. Imagine these guys—being these guys—fighting a monster of their own size range like Haggler, Duran, Hearns. Pro fighters at this level are physically able at Lee's level, physically durable far beyond Lee's or Craig's level, and psychologically immersed in a career of combat to a degree that is not really possible for Bruce or Craig. Prize-fighters at this level are functionally insane, willing to die in the ring, willing to leave their mind in the ring like Ali. Now, if I am handling one of those guys, I want Craig as a sparring partner, and I would step into a management role as Bruce took over training. This is where it all gets lost in the question of 'Who's the baddest man on the planet'.
Bruce Lee does not slot as the mere combatant, but as the mastermind behind the fighter; the coach who can actually show you how it is done because he is as athletic as the fighter; the quintessential martial artist.
Think of any sport you are into as a spectator or participant.
Who is the best coach today?
I bet he was not the best player of his day. It is more likely that he worked as a trainer or as a mediocre athlete under the best coach of his own day.
Where are the champion boxers that Ali trained?
Where is the basketball team that Michael Jordan coached to six NBA championships?
What NFL team won five Superbowls with Terry Bradshaw as the head coach?
In military history the corollary is the small unit tactical leader, like John Bell Hood, who wins battles at the field level, and then gets promoted to general command and blows the show. In terms of individual combatants the fighter himself represents the soldiers who fight [that would be his body] and the field officers who lead [that would be his mind], while the strategic concerns are handled by a trainer or coach, which would equate to the general officer who manages the affair. Nowhere can these analogous relationships between the war-fighter and his officers and the prize-fighter and his trainer be more clearly visualized than on the football field, where it is all broken down very graphically.
The Baddest Man
He is out there and we do not know his name. At the moment you read this he is probably making the 'shush' sign to some little girl in an apartment in Yemen while he glides down the hall to slit her father's throat on orders of the CIA station chief in Cairo.
So, my more considered answer, from outside the narrow perspective of the trainer, to the question of whether Bruce Lee was 'the baddest man on the planet' is that he appears to have had the ability to be the best pound-for-pound fighting martial artist, but decided that he'd rather be the most transformative agency in martial artistry. Given a choice, almost all of us would choose as he had, to be the later.
Only a select special few, the kind of primal man who will eventually be outlawed by our feminist society and encased in a glass resuscitation unit with a sign that reads, 'break glass in case of an alien invasion'; only those few raw men with the grit to claw their way through doubt, injury, insanity and even death, would answer, 'I'd rather be the baddest man.'
When we compare Bruce Lee to Sugar Ray Robinson—of whom Ali was but a cheap imitation—we are comparing not apples to oranges, but alfalfa sprouts to steak.
‘Was Bruce Lee the Baddest?’
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David     Jul 22, 2014

Sitting in Chicago (hate it) and enjoyed the follow up. As I previously stated I am a fan and by lineage a student of Bruce Lee. I don't know Craig at all, but know many very very good amateur and low level pro boxers who are amazing with their power. I have "fought" a number of them and did what any non boxer would do. I took them down on the ground. They still hurt even there. I think by luck I avoided knock outs because surely they could even kill me with a good head shot as powerful as they hit. Antonio Inoki actually fought Ali in a joke of a match where Inoki kept dropping to the ground and kick Ali in the knees and legs. It was a boring match. Ali didn't hit him and could not deal with the kicks, but they did nothing to "end" the fight. As for Bruce Lee. He had phenomenal skill and athleticism. He was by all accounts a true mixed martial artist. However, he did not have many real fights so YES, his ability as a fighter is of question. With that said, I "think" Bruce Lee could beat many martial artists today and many MMA guys once he had a good background in BJJ, grappling, which he admittedly did not add to "JKD" much later as he realized its benefit. As for Royce...everyone learned the game. So the better athletes, better strikers learned the BJJ game enough to counter Royce. By the current standards Ken Shamrock beat Royce in their second Super fight. It still all comes down to the basic issue: Knowledge in all ranges of combat, efficiency in the basics (kick, punch, grapple), fighting spirit, and physical skill. On that note, here is my question: How do you think the gladiators in their prime would do in a MMA fight? By history they fought empty handed as well. Pankration was one of the original sports of the games when they actually allowed small joint manipulations, etc.
James     Jul 22, 2014

Thanks David. I hope they haven't started applying the hot coals to your feet yet and that I'm not too late...

Realistically, we should only consider Lee as a man of his size. In combat sports small guys only dominate the larger in mixed-weight events when rules have just changed, or when they change them, and they generally get hurt in the process. So, to seriously ask this question we should say, 'Was Bruce Lee the baddest lightweight on the planet in 1973?'

My guess is, that even though he was untried, that he was probably in the top five, which would include Roberto Duran—which would be my dream fight. Some guys, have done really well with out a build up—their first time out. I don't know who was kicking and grappling at his weight back then.

As for the pankration, that was not a gladiatorial discipline. Gladiators fought in military style funeral rites while the pankratiasts fought naked at religious festivals. Now, gladiators did train Roman soldiers, and worked as bodyguards. Pankratiasts generally served as ambassadors, heavy infantry officers, and bodyguards in the Greek period. Once the Roman's took over the pankratiasts did fight on the sands between the animal hunts and executions and the munera—which were the gladiator duels. A gladiator had an empty hand set that was probably limited to grappling. Roman officers however, boxed as well.

As for the pankratiasts, the very best one fought around 197 A.D. at the gladiatorial peak. Most of the fighters would have been in the modern middle and light heavy category—the size thing again. The only thing that was not allowed was biting and gouging but you could still do it so long as you did not kill the guy! Head-butting and spearing the eyes was okay! Small joint manipulation was the specialty of a guy from the 350s B.C. who they called 'mister fingertips' a ferocious dude that snapped fingers for twenty years, like Hendo with pliers. So again, are we fighting in his sand box or our cage, or in an alley?

Okay, in the sand box kiss John Jones and the rest goodbye.

I think, at the same weight, the ancient has the advantage in the alley for the following reasons: 1. he fights oiled, so is better at gorilla takedowns which has really been a big factor for some of the American wrestlers and would totally suck on concrete, but he would be at a disadvantage against modern submissions in the first round of a cage bout, 2. cage or sand, the ancient has the center ring advantage, because he lost if he allowed himself to be pushed out of the sand. An ancient pankratiast never fought anywhere other than the center of the octagon—we are talking great hips. Aclepius was famous for 'never' having been pushed out. Mind you they could win like a sumo wrestler so would be good at keeping it center ring which would help nullify the modern guy's cage advantage, and rally rule in the alley, in the sand our modern guys—except for the psychos—pretty much all step out and get disqualified for cowardice 3. the ancient had more opponents and better stamina as he fought in single elimination tournaments and fought to the finish—so if it's just a Hong Kong movie style scrap that is huge, as is the fact that he fought barehanded. As you can see it all comes down to the rules and settings. The MMA guy probably wins in the cage and the pankratiast wins on the beach. But, the pankratiast was a weapon fighter too, so you put these guys on a martial arts movie set or in my alley and they eat the MMA guys alive when weapons come into play.

Craig is one of Tony Cygan's sparring partners and he went to Jamal's ju jitsu dojo. He hits almost as hard as Tony—not quite at the 'turn the blood to battery acid level' but drops heavyweights reliably in sparring. In closing I'd have to say two things:

1. I can't edit on this comment board like I prefer so promise to do an MMA versus pankration article, and

2. The only real problem I have with the martial arts mentality when it comes to judging an untested elite martial artist's prospects in either a prize-fight or some kind of 1970s let's fight to the death on the parking lot empty hand duel is this, guys with Lee's level of athleticism don't get hit a lot because they are essentially a pro prospect in an amateur setting. At least your boxers and kick-boxers, despite having a more limited toolkit, have been hit by guys at their level, they know what it is like 'to get hit by me.' that is such a clutch psychological hurdle. Craig was boxing in Georgia and Virginia and got used to knocking guys around, he came to me after he came back to Baltimore and stepped into the ring with Alex, whose a light heavy that hits like Tony [real nasty, used to be #3 in the nation]. He walked into the dojo and said, 'James, I need to learn how to box—I need to get crafty. Alex hit me! It was worse than Tony.' So, being that guy like Lee, who did not have to wear headgear because his guys couldn't hit him, and who had to wear body armor and full face headgear to deal with him. What happens mentally, and by extension physiologically, when he hits Duran with that side kick that he cuts heavy bags in half with and the evil Panamanian leaps up and shrugs it off, or when Duran sinks in a liver punch? At least the prizefighter has hit that wall before. Since we know at that level both of these guys get hit, I like betting battle tested bodies over the perfect toolkit.

To me, in knife terms, Lee is the Swiss army knife and Duran is the ice pick—that would have been so cool—we'd still be talking about it!

Thanks David.
David     Jul 22, 2014

Thanks professor! It has been my thought based on my limited knowledge and research that the gladiators of that age in a life/death fight would eat the best of MMA guys alive. This is simply a product of specific adaptations to imposed demands, like fighting to live! I agree with Duran vs. Lee. I would love to see Sugar Ray Leanord versus Bruce Lee as well. Independent of weight classification, Roy Jones also. This is liking talking Orioles baseball of the 70's for me, so thanks for a wonderful diversion from the crap of life.
James     Jul 22, 2014

I think the boxers that really fall victim to the kickboxer are the outside boxers like Leonard and Ali. Jones and Duran fought in and around the pocket on a lot of angles and would give kickers a hard time, but not grapplers. Grapplers are going to have a harder time with the movers like Leonard. Haggler was definitely my favorite of the period.

As far as the ancient gladiators a lot depends on their origin. Some Greek athletes with classical athletic education signed up. All of them would be what we would call today a Greco-Roman wrestler with a boxing background; basically Don Frye, and a few pankration—they would be really nasty.
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