I first met Bruce Lee in 1964. At the time, I was one of Ed Parker’s top kenpo black belts, and I had accompanied him to San Francisco to arrange the first International Karate Championship. While we were there, we decided to visit James Lee in nearby Oakland, California. His brother, Bruce, was staying with him.
James had a wooden dummy, and while we all stood around socializing, Bruce walked over and suddenly started hitting it. He exploded like a machine gun, and the power of his blows shook the house to its foundation. After everyone else backed away, I approached the dummy. Even when I put all my weight into moving it, it didn’t budge. I wondered, Who is this little guy who can generate so much power? I couldn’t wait to train with him.
Less than two years later, I became Lee’s second student at his school in Los Angeles. He remained my teacher until he went to Hong Kong to make movies at the end of the 1960s. The fighting techniques and strategies I learned during that time were invaluable.
Throw the First Punch
One day, after five of us had finished a session with Lee, he blurted out, "Jeet kune do is an offensive art rather than a defensive one." I was startled and confused by his declaration. "Do you mean," I asked, "that we should throw the first punch?"
Lee shook his head. He explained that the JKD practitioner must strike while the opponent is preparing to attack or when he indicates his intention to attack.
Noticing the perplexed look on my face, Lee motioned for me to come forward so he could demonstrate the principle. He had me chamber my fist to deliver a rear punch, and as I drew back, he hit me. He then instructed me not to telegraph my techniques. "Just assume the posture you would be in prior to throwing the punch," he said. I decided to try again. I shifted my weight from one foot to the other and clenched my fists. Once again, he hit me. "This time, I intercepted your attitude," he said.
Lee explained that you should always strive to intercept your opponent’s attack before he launches it—or at the very latest, while he’s doing it. Intercepting is the jeet in jeet kune do, he said. Sadly, this principle and the training methods needed to master it are rare today. I sometimes see JKD practitioners wait for their opponent to attack before countering the technique. And at that point, it’s often too late.
To fully appreciate this concept, which I call ATA, or attack-the-attack, imagine allowing an assailant to shoot at you before starting to defend yourself. You may get lucky and avoid the bullet, then be able to incapacitate him. Then again, you may end up dead. Not only does this passive fighting strategy violate the cornerstone principle of jeet kune do, which is to always intercept the attack, it also puts you at least a full beat behind your opponent. Unless you’re blessed with superhuman speed and are facing an unskilled opponent, this is an unwise course of action because you’re forced to play catch-up. (Note, however, that it’s acceptable to use a passive move to attack by drawing as you jockey around your opponent to find a position to score.)
The goal of jeet kune do is to close the distance between yourself and your opponent and smother his attack with your own. It isn’t complicated, but it requires a high level of visual and tactile awareness to master.
Open Your Eyes
Visual awareness facilitates medium- and long-range fighting. It requires you to be aware of every gesture or motion your opponent makes, such as shifting his weight from one foot to the other, bending his knees or drawing his hand back. According to Lee, any of those movements can be precursors to an assault. If you can see what he intends to do, you can head him off at the pass. Furthermore, you won’t be distracted by an aggressor who feints or tries to nail you with a sucker punch.
Unfortunately, many martial artists fail to train to improve their visual awareness. Even practitioners with extremely fast kicks and punches often get bested by a slower opponent because they lack visual speed, and they’re too slow to react to him, let alone intercept his strikes.
To help us develop visual awareness, Lee would stand in front of the class and make a variety of gestures. Every time he moved, we had to say, "Ooh." At first, his movements were obvious—such as a punch or kick—but over time, they became more subtle—like a shift in balance or a twitch of a finger. We learned to become aware of even the slightest motion our opponent made, and that served as our cue to intercept the incoming technique. Since everybody telegraphs his attack, Lee told us, the ability to spot these motions can keep a martial artist at least a halfbeat ahead of his opponent.
See With Your Hands
Another important component of the ATA principle is tactile awareness, or touch. Utilized at close-contact range, it refers to the pressure that develops as the other person attacks you and to your ability to use it to find an opening in his defenses. The uncanny ability of Lee and other skilled JKD practitioners to employ this method to detect and stop an assault in its tracks can make them seem psychic. Lee advocated chi sao (sticky hands) drills to make tactile awareness more reflexive. Such training is done primarily by crossing hands with your opponent so you learn what happens if you exert too much or too little pressure.
"In the softness, you want to give without yielding," Lee would say. "Hardness is like steel that is hidden in silk." If you’re too strong, the other person will dissolve his movement and attack. If you’re too soft, he’ll run right over you. Many other fighting styles, including Greco-Roman wrestling, employ similar sensitivity drills. While this training method has great implications for neutralizing grappling attacks, you should never let skill in it convince you to play the grappler’s game and voluntarily go to the ground. As he tries to close the distance and grab your legs to take you down or get you in a lock, you should stop his onslaught with a straight blast.
Sensitivity drills are also a staple of old-time boxing, and they form the core of JKD’s modified boxing techniques. You should practice blocking and parrying jabs and combinations to get used to them. As you become more advanced, however, you should try to intercept your partner’s jab and cut through his block with your own—in true jeet kune do fashion.
Enjoy the Advantages
As you can see, the ATA principle can be used against any type of offense. For example, if an assailant attempts a punch or kick, you can intercept his technique with your own attack. If he tries to take you down, you can hit him or kick him before he succeeds. Don’t waste precious time blocking, parrying and slipping when you can beat him to the punch.
When Bruce Lee named his art the "way of the intercepting fist," he meant it. And who are we to argue with the master?