Widely considered the greatest martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee left a legacy that few fighters have ever bettered. Through films like Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury, Lee popularized Hong Kong action movies and helped broaden the appeal of Eastern martial arts. But while much of his life – and even his 1973 death – remains shrouded in mystery, these illuminating facts reveal many layers to the enigmatic star. And they all confirm just how much of a legend Lee really was.
20. He was born under fortuitous circumstances
From mastering martial arts to becoming an international movie star, Bruce Lee would go on to achieve many great things in his lifetime. And it seems that destiny had sealed his fate at birth. That’s because the future star was born on the hour and year of the Dragon – which, according to Chinese lore, is a signal of great things to come.
19. He was originally called by a girl’s name
Though martial arts and movie buffs would come to know him as Bruce Lee, the fighter was in reality named Lee Jun Fan. And this wasn’t the only name he’d be called as a child. During Lee’s infancy, his mother affectionately called him Sai-fon, meaning “Little Phoenix,” which was actually a girl’s name. Because her first son died young, she believed this would ward off further boy-hating spirits.
18. He was a star long before he picked up Wing Chun
Many people associate Lee with his Hong Kong action flicks, but his film career actually started long before this era. In fact, the budding brawler made his movie debut at three months old in 1941’s Golden Gate Girl. In total, Lee would make 20 films during his adolescence and even gained his first lead part aged just ten, in 1950’s The Kid.
17. He possessed incredible reflexes
One thing that continues to amaze fans about Lee was the star’s superhuman speed. Certainly, his reported ability to connect a punch from five feet in 0.05 seconds is almost beyond comprehension. However, the martial artist’s most impressive trick perhaps came through his ability to catch a single falling grain of rice with nothing but chopsticks. We bet he never spilled a morsel of food.
16. He was too fast for the camera
By all means, Lee’s insane agility contributed to his impressive legacy. In fact, the actor was so fast that film equipment had trouble keeping up with him. During his stint on The Green Hornet, Lee was asked to slow down because his movements weren’t visible on camera. “Even when I slowed down, all the camera showed was a blur,” he furthermore told reporters.
15. Racism nearly ended his career in the United States
Before he hit the big time in Hong Kong, Lee gained his first taste of fame in America as The Green Hornet’s Kato. Unfortunately, the show’s 1967 cancelation coincided with the Vietnam War, and growing hostilities towards Asian-Americans made it impossible for Lee to land a new production. Subsequently, the star moved back to China, where his international recognition was warmly welcomed with fresh roles.
14. He helped launch Chuck Norris’ career
While living in America, Lee formed a friendship with fellow martial artist and future Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris. Besides regularly engaging in friendly competition with a then-unknown Norris, even once sparring with him till 4:00 a.m. in a hotel corridor, Lee helped the eventual icon break into Hollywood. In 1972 he cast the then-title holder in Return of the Dragon because, as Norris revealed to WND in 2007, Lee wanted to “kill the current karate world champion” on screen.
13. He beat up a young Jackie Chan
In addition to breaking Chuck Norris, Lee also struck Jackie Chan while shooting 1973’s Enter the Dragon. As Chan revealed to George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight in 2013, Lee accidentally hit the future Police Story star – then an extra – during a fight scene. And though only dazed, Chan adorably faked a bigger injury to get sympathy and attention from his favorite actor.
12. He needed extra-large punching bags
Due to his immense strength, Lee faced many difficulties training with standard gym equipment. In fact, he used specially designed 300-pound punching bags, as regular-sized pads couldn’t stand up to his kicks. But even these weren’t enough to contain his power. On one occasion, he even dislocated reporter Roger Shimatsu’s shoulder after the unlucky journalist agreed to hold one of his bags.
11. He didn’t need a whole hand to do push-ups
Besides showing immeasurable power with gym equipment, Lee was also capable of performing incredible exercises with nothing but his body. In particular, the star was known to amaze fans by completing push-ups with just one finger. He also pioneered a core technique known as the Dragon Flag, which involved elevating his entire body while lying on a flat surface.
10. He was an exceptionally creative soul
While his awesome skills may have given him a fearsome reputation, Lee was actually quite a sensitive character. And when he wasn’t kicking ass, the martial artist loved nothing more than to nurture his creative side. To this end, Lee began penning poetry aged 18. He also showed great talent as a sketch artist throughout his life.
9. He had some fancy footwork
Naturally, Bruce Lee wasn’t afraid to show off his softer side – and the fighter loved putting his agility and footwork to good use on the dance floor. In fact, the star was a gifted dancer; he even won Hong Kong’s Cha Cha Championship in 1958. What’s more, he actually earned a living as a dance instructor when he moved to America the following year.
8. His book collection would put some libraries to shame
Despite his awe-inspiring physical strength, Lee was an ardent believer that true power came through knowledge. As a result, the actor spent what little free time he had reading and amassing a sizable collection of books. At the time of his death, Lee’s library featured an impressive 2,500 volumes.
7. He was missing some vital life skills
Though Bruce Lee undeniably had a mastery over many fields, the star actually failed to learn some everyday abilities. As his siblings Phoebe and Robert admitted to Singapore Now in 2013, the fighting legend couldn’t swim, and nor could he ride a bike. “He knew his limitations,” opined Robert. “He knew what he could do, what he should do and what not to do.”
6. He trained some Hollywood icons
After breaking into Hollywood with The Green Hornet, Lee went on to rub shoulders with some truly iconic stars. But his relationship with cinema royalty went further than the odd meet-and-greet. To wit, he actually taught martial arts to both Steve McQueen and James Coburn. Furthermore, his friendships with the two were so close that they were even pallbearers at his funeral.
5. He looked up to another legendary fighter
While Bruce Lee certainly had few equals, the martial artist admired a fighter in a completely different field. According to Enter the Dragon director Robert Clause, Lee was a huge fan of Muhammad Ali and practiced his moves to the boxer’s bouts on TV. However, the actor didn’t fancy his chances against the sporting legend. Reportedly, Lee admitted that Ali would kill him in a dustup.
4. He wasn’t fit enough for the army
He may have been one of the toughest individuals on the planet, but there was one institution that Lee was deemed unfit for: the U.S. Army. In 1963 the actor was drafted into service and failed the prerequisite physical. Surprisingly, he was rejected for his less-than-stellar eyesight, an unspecified sinus problem and an undescended testicle.
3. His friend made him the unwitting star of a bootleg movie
Following his success in films like 1971’s The Big Boss, Bruce Lee became hot property. Unfortunately, even his best friend tried to exploit the star’s new-found fame. After agreeing to choreograph his pal Unicorn Chan’s 1973 film Fist of the Unicorn, Lee was secretly filmed rehearsing. And to the actor’s chagrin, Chan incorporated the footage into the finished product, which was then billed as a Bruce Lee movie.
2. His funeral made its way into his final film
At the time of his 1973 passing, Lee was halfway through shooting what would be his final film, The Game of Death. But rather than scrap the movie entirely after Lee’s death, producers decided instead to forge ahead and complete the shoot with stand-ins. They even threw good taste to the wind by including footage of Lee’s funeral in the eventual 1978 release.
1. He took down a fierce rival in a matter of minutes
When Lee first began teaching martial arts in California, the Asian-American community was incensed that he was divulging Eastern methods to Western fighters. Consequently, fighter Wong Jack Man approached him with an ultimatum: beat him in a fight or stop teaching kung fu. And while accounts of what happened next differ, Lee himself claimed that he emerged victorious from a bout that lasted just three minutes.