Bruce Lee originally didn’t use wrestling moves, but he changed his mind after an incident that took place on the set of The Green Hornet. Though Lee has a reputation as a practitioner of kung fu, the martial arts icon was never stuck on one style. Lee was known for his willingness to adapt and grow as a fighter by borrowing from other types of combat.
Before Lee came to Hollywood, he had a strong background in Wing Chun, a form of kung fu he learned while training under Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man in Hong Kong. Sometime after moving to Los Angeles, Lee decided to use his skills to open kung fu schools of his own. He became an instructor to an untold number of students in the area, some of whom were Hollywood celebrities. But while Lee was certainly an incredibly talented martial artist at this point in his career, he didn’t stop learning and continued building on his fighting style.
Lee added wrestling to his arsenal while filming ABC’s The Green Hornet show. Some of the stuntmen he worked with reportedly took issue with Lee being a bit rough, which led to professional wrestler and Hollywood stuntman Gene LeBell being asked to teach Lee a lesson [via South China Morning Post]. On The Green Hornet set, LeBell grabbed Lee in a headlock and managed to put the actor on his back. Lee, who was taken by surprise, wasn’t able to get free. Lee yelled, “Put me down or I’ll kill you!”, but the stuntman continued to carry him around the set. Though Lee was furious at the time, it served as a teaching moment for the martial artist. What LeBell was able to do to him made Lee realize he could benefit from incorporating grappling moves into his Jeet Kune Do fighting style. Plus, he wanted to know how to properly defend against them so that someone like LeBell couldn’t grab him like that again.
As a result, Lee formed a friendship with Gene LeBell, and the two began training together. Lee taught LeBell some of his kicks, and in turn, LeBell gave Lee lessons on judo and wrestling. From LeBell, Lee learned several finishing holds and grappling techniques. Years later, this element of Lee’s fighting style was translated onto the big screen. Lee had his characters use wrestling moves in his fight scenes with Sammo Hung and Bolo Yeung in Enter the Dragon, Chuck Norris in The Way of the Dragon, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Game of Death. According to LeBell, Lee told him he used one of the stuntman’s holds in Enter the Dragon.
As a result of Lee’s experience with wrestling and judo, grappling became a part of Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts style he founded. Because of Lee’s adaptability and “be water” philosophy, his fighting style encompassed all sorts of different ideas that came from outside the realm of Chinese martial arts. He also worked in Muhammad Ali’s footwork and Norris’ high Karate kicks. Bruce Lee’s open-minded approach to martial arts was arguably the backbone of what made him such a skilled fighter.