Debunking Bruce Lee myths

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Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee

Myth, rumour and innuendo come hand-in-hand when an actor dies tragically young. But in the case of Bruce Lee, who died at the peak of his career aged just 32, this is unusually amplified, perhaps because he appeared so physically, indomitably fit.

From the manner of his death to the authenticity of his martial arts skills, we look at some of the more outlandish claims out there…

This is the big one, and depending which version you favour, it began circulating soon after Lee’s death in 1973. It was said that the Chinese mafia murdered Lee and covered it up because he was exposing too many martial arts secrets in his films. Rather more dramatically, but for much the same reason, some said it was Shaolin killer monks that did the deed.

In fact, he died from a cerebral oedema – a massive swelling of the brain – which was deemed to have been caused by an allergic reaction to Equagesic, a strong aspirin and muscle relaxant given to him by a colleague, Taiwanese actress Betty Ting Pei, after he complained of having a headache. He was in Hong Kong to have dinner with James Bond actor George Lazenby, with whom he was planning to make a movie, but never made it to the engagement. He died at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Hong Kong. He had been hospitalised for seizures and severe headaches just a couple of months previously.


Mafia who killed him3

Mafia who killed him

The Triads were said to be angry with Lee for refusing to work in movies that they had funded. To add further distaste, it’s rumoured that they held the grudge they harboured against Lee and passed it on to his son, Brandon, who is also the subject of conspiracy rumours after he too died young, aged 28. Brandon was accidentally shot dead on the set of the film ‘The Crow’ when a real bullet was loaded into a prop gun instead of a blank.

Further speculation about Lee’s death came many years after his death, courtesy of Black Belt magazine. It ran a story suggesting that Lee may have died as a delayed reaction to a ‘dim mak’, or ‘touch of death’ punch, that he had sustained some weeks prior to his collapse.

Such a technique has been referenced in many martial arts films, including ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Kill Bill Vol. 2’. Others have suggested it could have been a deadly ‘quivering palm technique’ that killed him, a similar proposition to the dim mak but involving a wave of Qi or ‘life energy’. In 1997, the United States National Institutes of Health said that such things ‘are difficult to reconcile with contemporary biomedical information’.

It is widely rumoured that despite Lee’s prowess on screen, he was a ‘paper dragon’, and his fighting skills had never been put to the test in tournaments – rather they were based on private sparring and theory. It’s thought such rumour may have been started by tournament fighters. Others maintained that Lee was a teacher rather than a fighter.


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