Question and Answer with Joe Hyams Former student of Bruce Lee and author of Zen in the Martial Arts
1/ I would be very interested to know what Joe's opinions are of Bruce as a philosopher?
Joe Hyams : Bruce integrated his philosophy from the great masters, just as he did with his martial art.
2/ I know that Bruce was influenced heavily by Krishnamurti and Alan Watts. Did Joe have any influence on Bruce's way of thinking?
Joe Hyams : No. Bruce was already well immersed in the works of the established authors and philosophers. He was voricious reader and had more knowledge in those areas than I did, so I had nothing to offer, and he never asked for it.
3/ I would assume that Joe met Alan Watts at some point in his life?
Joe Hyams : To my regret, I never did although I was a great admirer of his writing.
4/ I wonder, did Bruce ever meet and talk with Watts? If so any interesting anecdotes and did Watts have an opinion of Bruce and his art?
Joe Hyams : Truthfully I have no awareness of Bruce ever meeting Alan Watts.
5/ On a seperate note did Joe ever meet with Steve McQueen?
Joe Hyams : Yes, I met Steve McQueen and I interviewed him several times, but we never discussed Bruce.
6/ What was he like in person?
Joe Hyams : He was great fun to be with, especially when riding a motorcycle he was very relaxed, especially with buddies he felt comfortable. I several times had dinner with Steve and his first wife, whose name escapes me (she is Hispanic) - they were wonderful evenings. I can't recall what we talked about, probably about Steve because he was an actor, and most actors love to talk about themselves. But what I recall most are the motorcycle rides we shared.
7/ Did he have a volatile a personality as often written?
Joe Hyams : I have no idea. He was fun to be with and lighthearted and certainly even tempered. I never saw another side of him.
8/ Lastly as odd as it sounds how tall was McQueen? I have read that he was quite short, standing at only 5' 6"? How true is this? He certainly seemed much larger but then, so did Bogart?
Joe Hyams : Onscreen everyone looks larger. I'm sure Steve's exact height is in the IMBD. He wasn't short like Alan Ladd who was less than five feet tall. I would have thought that Steve was more like 5'10". Bogart was about 5'8". Back then we didn't stand against a wall and make marks to depict our height (Joe laughed).
9/ Do you know if Bruce filmed any of the classes he taught?
Joe Hyams : No, I don't. He never filmed any of ours.
10/ Karate fighting legend and former Bruce Lee student Joe Lewis says that Bruce cannot be regarded as a great fighter because he didn't prove it and fight the other Karate champions of the 1960s such as Chuck Norris and Mike Stone. How good was Bruce Lee as a fighter and did you ever witness Bruce sparring against other top fighters?
Joe Hyams : I have no idea because to me the test is how you react when you're hit or hurt, and I never saw Bruce hit or hurt, unlike Chuck Norris who was both hit and injured in tournaments and still perservered. I never saw Bruce hit and never saw him lose his cool. I suspect he would have been great in a tournament because he was so fast and elusive, and when he did hit, it was with enormous power. Lastly, Bruce had unique quality of being able to completely overwhelm and confound an opponent when informally sparring. He was a master of disception, that little rascal. He could stand 15 feet away and suddenly get me on the chin with his foot. He was very quick. He could close the gap in an instant.
11/ What were some of the most important points that he taught in regards to his art of fighting?
Joe Hyams : He didn't believe in retreating. He kept coming in. Simplicity and directness, no wasted motion or fancy movements.
12/ Your good friend Stirling Silliphant apparently became good at JKD. I read that he was a good fencer in his younger years. Did Bruce ever talk about the art of fencing and was it important to his JKD and were you present when Stirling had a sparring match with a Wing Chun practitioner that Stirling easily defeated (he mentioned this sparring match in an old series of articles that he wrote on his experiences with Bruce Lee)?
Joe Hyams : I'm not aware of this sparring match. Both Stirling and I had substantial experience in fencing when we were with Bruce. We showed him some of footwork. He asked us to bring foils to class on day, and he studied the footwork and, I believe, incorporated some of it into his JKD.
13/ You wrote a book with Chuck Norris entitled 'Secret of Inner Strength' which i read many years back. I remember enjoying the book very much. Chuck co-starred with Bruce in his film,' The Way of the Dragon'. Do you know if Chuck had any plans to co-star with Bruce in a future film project before Bruce's untimely death?
Joe Hyams : Sorry, but I don't know.
14/ What i would like to know from Joe is what were his training sessions with Bruce like?
Joe Hyams : Our lessons started about ten in the morning and lasted to noon without let up. Bruce would show a technique, and then ask Stirling and I (we trained together) to copy it. Bruce would then critique it until we achieved something that he approved of. And then we'd break for lunch, usually in Chinatown, and then go our separate ways.
15/ Was Bruce a very demanding trainer/teacher?
Joe Hyams : Bruce was determined that before the session ended that we would be able to demonstrate the technique and that we understood it to his satisfaction. Bruce was also determined to bring the best out of Stirling and me and would push us beyond our limits. There was no slacking off or small talk or gossip. A session with Bruce was all business. He was getting paid at the time, and we surely got our money's worth.
16/ Does Joe recall Bruce being a fanatic with regards to his training?
Joe Hyams : I assume you'd talking about Bruce's training. When I visited him in his home, he'd be lying on the floor with barbells in his hands and Brandon on his stomach - he'd be giving Brandon an up and down ride at the same time he was doing exercises with the weights. Whenever he would drive me someplace in his Porsche, he had a makiwara board on his lap and he would be pounding on it with his free hand, or he frequently had a rubber ball in his hand that he squeezed frequently. I never recall seeing him completely at rest.
17/ What does Joe think are the most important things that he learn from Bruce?
Joe Hyams : I learned that I was never (starts laughing) going to be a world class martial artist, that's for sure. From my level of ability and age, my best approach to sparring was to get in fast and hard because I wouldn't last long dancing around with someone.
18/ What are Joe's opinion of Bruce as a martial artist, as well as philosopher?
Joe Hyams : I already answered my thoughts on Bruce as a philosopher. As a martial artist, he was superb because his style that he called no style encompassed every style.
19/ How many years did Joe study martail arts with Bruce?
Joe Hyams : I trained with Bruce for about two years.
20/ How did Chuck Norris seem to remember Bruce? As a friend? A training partner? A teacher? A rival? I've gotten the feeling over the years that Chuck got tired of questions about & comparisons with Bruce, understandably I suppose; while you guys knew Bruce as a human being, Bruce's fans tend to think of him as something a bit more. Must get old being compared to a legend.
Joe Hyams : Whenever Bruce's name came up around Chuck, he spoke of Bruce very highly. Chuck never saw him as a rival, but as a good friend.
21/ Speaking of Bruce's image, what was it like among martial artists while he was alive?
Joe Hyams : That's a pretty tough question, because there were so many martial artists. When he made the films, he became a star. Prior to that he was just another teacher trying to make a living and a name for himself. Of course when he became a star, everyone in the martial arts wanted to be his friend.
22/ What most impressed you about Bruce, physically or otherwise?
Joe Hyams : Physically he had muscles on muscles. Pound for pound he was one one the strongest and most limber people I've never met. He was in incredible physical condition all the time. He was incredibly curious about everything and everything that in some way could make him a better martial artist, and that's the truth.
23/ What least impressed you, what areas of his life did he need to mature in?
Joe Hyams : I never looked for any flaws in his character. I accepted him as he was, and he was great.
24/ Did your training with Bruce prepare you well for training in wing chun under Jim Lau?
Joe Hyams : Prior to Bruce leaving for HK I asked him what I should do and he suggested that I study Wing Chun. It was then that I found Jim Lau. Wing Chun wasn't popular back then, but I did begin training at Jim Lau's school.
25/ Was the JKD training very similar to wing chun?
Joe Hyams : I don't believe at that time Bruce was calling his art JKD. His original style was Wing Chun, so of course there was a similarity between the two styles.
26/ Having done both, how good would you say Bruce was at wing chun? Beginner, intermediate, advanced student?
Joe Hyams : He quite obviously was an advanced student. I believe he refined his techniques through teaching, and out of that came JKD.
27/ What do you think of how the martial arts & the general public's perception of them, their competetive forms, have changed since you first practiced them in the 60s? Are they changing for the better or the worse?
Joe Hyams : I don't know anything about JKD today. When I trained with Bruce, I don't recall his calling it JKD. It was called Jun Fan Kung Fu.
28/ Along similar lines, what's your opinion of how martial arts in movies have changed since the time of Bruce's films up to the present? Personally, I think storylines & the attention given to such things as character motivation & development have improved in some cases ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "House of Flying Daggers", "Unleashed", "The Matrix"), but the depiction of martial arts action itself has swung too far towards fantasy, depending way too much on wires & special effects, real martial arts abilities are no longer required. What do you guys think?
Joe Hyams & Tom Bleecker : Joe and I talked about this at length, and we both believe you are correct. Joe, personally, ended our conversation that he thinks that the depiction of martial arts today is a joke because it isn't realistic and has no relevance to fighting on the street.
29/ Did you give any gifts to Bruce (e.g. books) or did you receive any gifts from Bruce?
Joe Hyams : Before he left for HK Bruce gave me a set of his old heavy wood nunchucks and told me not to kill myself practicing with them. The nunchucks are hanging on the wall of my study with a photo he took of me in my driveway breaking a board between two bricks.
The last time I saw him, I gave him a hug and wished him well.
I am pleased you thought our session was fine.
Thanks and best, JH
Big Thanks to Joe Hyams & Tom Bleecker for a great Q&A and the following for their questions - Tom, Simon, Bruce & Ed.
Nick Clarke (November 2005)
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