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Thread: American Shaolin by Matt Polly

  1. #166
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    Finished 'American Shaolin' last night (also started 'Tapped Out'). Really enjoyable read, from a point of view I can really relate to. I knew I was going to love it as soon as I saw the 'Snow Crash' quote that opens the book. Great stuff.

  2. #167
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    Business Insider interview

    What happens when you drop out of Princeton to move to the Shaolin Temple and master Kung Fu?
    Eric Barker, Barking Up The Wrong Tree | Jan. 22, 2013, 7:58 AM | 45 |

    “Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest mother****er in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”
    — Neal Stephenson

    My friend Matt Polly is the author of American Shaolin and Tapped Out.

    And, yes, at 21 he left Princeton to move to China, find the Shaolin Temple and study Kung Fu.

    It’s an incredible story (which he detailed in his first book American Shaolin) and so I decided to interview Matt about risk-taking, the 10000 hour rule of expertise and getting your ass kicked by monks.

    The full interview was over 30 minutes long so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.

    If you want the full interview (which includes Matt’s second big adventure), I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday. Join here.

    ———————————————

    Eric:

    When you look back on the whole dropping out of Princeton, going to China and studying at the Shaolin Temple, do you think, “I took a calculated risk”, or “it was something I was passionate about” or “I was nuts when I was a kid!” How do you think about that now?

    Matt:

    I look at it kind of like it was a different person, like I was nuts. You know how you kind of look at your childhood self and it’s you but it’s not quite you? It does feel a little nuts to me. It’s something nuts that I’m proud of doing and I think that was the important thing.

    When I see a lot of my friends who went to the same type of schools, most of them never took a risk. The way they got there was by just taking that next step up the ladder. At a certain point, it felt to me like they didn’t know what the next step was and so they never followed their passion to do anything and there’s a certain emptiness, I think, about that.

    On the other side though, taking a risk often puts you outside the system. The whole kind of American capitalist system rewards people who follow the rules. You join a corporation, they give you healthcare. You try to do freelance and do it on your own, well, you’ve got to pay for everything. I do sometimes joke that if I were ever asked to speak to college graduates I would tell them not to follow their passion.

    At the end of the day, I think if you take the risk, even if you fail, you’ve taken your shot at it and there’s not that feeling of that you didn’t have your shot, you didn’t take a chance. I think in the end, that’s worth it but I’ll tell you, there are days when I do wonder.

    Eric:

    First and foremost, let me take a step back. Can you recount for me what happened there? I’m familiar with it but for the sake of the interview, can you give a quick round up of the Shaolin experience?

    Matt:

    The Shaolin story. I was one of those skinny, scrawny, nerdy kids who got picked on in grade school and middle school. I developed, like a lot of nerdy kids, this kind of fantasy about what it would be like if I were super tough and a super hero and fell in love with kung fu and Bruce Lee and David Carradine. When I got into college, I started studying martial arts and Chinese and Chinese religion but was really fascinated by the fighting styles.

    At a certain point, I read the book “Iron and Silk” by Mark Salzman and it tells the story of this Yale graduate who goes to China and learns kung fu. That was the first sort of idea I had that this was possible. I went to my Chinese language teacher who came from mainland China and asked him if this was cool and what I should do if I wanted to study kung fu in China.

    He said, in Chinese, “[speaking Chinese]”, which means, “Are you afraid to eat bitter?” I said, “No,” lying to him, and so he said, “If you want to study really real kung fu, then you have to go to the Shaolin Temple.”

    This was back in like 1992, before there was much Internet search or anything and there was no records anywhere that I could find of what the Shaolin Temple was but the idea of going to the place where the T.V. show “Kung Fu” was about, where all the Wu Tang Clan talked about, “Enter the Dragon”, Bruce Lee, was a Shaolin Temple monk.

    This was like my whole childhood fantasy, the idea that I could live it out. So that’s what inspired me to take the risk and basically drop out and defy my parents and get on a plane and fly to Beijing when I had no idea where the Shaolin Temple was.

    I landed there literally with a Fodor’s map, a book, of China and walked around Tiananmen’s Square asking people, “Do you know where the Shaolin Temple was?” [laughter]

    I did finally find somebody. Several people thought it had been destroyed or they didn’t know and finally I found this old lady who came from the province where the Shaolin Temple was located. She said, “I know how to get there. Get on a train,” and that’s how I ended up finding the Shaolin Temple, just walking in cold.

    It truly was like some sort of old school adventure which, now, with the Internet, people are there blogging about their life at the Shaolin Temple. You can get a Google Maps of it so it’s completely different now. At the time, the Shaolin Temple had one telephone line in the whole village so it was completely cut off from everyone.

    Eric:

    Yes but there’s a big difference between somebody saying, “I’m flying to the United States today,” versus being Christopher Columbus. You did it first and you did it when it was really hard.

    Matt:

    There is an aspect of that. At the same time, I had a return ticket so if everything failed, you could still come back. Christopher Columbus, if he didn’t find anything, was going to die. [laughter]

    Eric:

    It’s funny, it’s such an unbelievable story, man. Give me the quick basics. You were there for how long? What did you learn? What did you take away from it?

    Matt:

    I spent two years living there. I studied kung fu like seven hours a day. The whole Chinese thing is about eating bitter. That’s their whole training method. They’re not into scientific training, peak performance, up and down. It’s just grind. They had like 30,000 young Chinese kids studying kung fu and the very best got to be Shaolin monks.

    When I watched, for example, the Opening Ceremonies to the Beijing Olympics, that was like what China was, to me, the Shaolin Temple was, thousands of people doing the same thing over and over every day in perfect precision.

    One of my takeaways was just I discovered how very American I am because the Chinese are extremely nationalistic, so being the foreigner all the time was eye-opening. I was a minority of one there so I learned a lot about what it was like to be an outsider.

    Two, kind of strengthened my sense of pride in where I came from but also my concern, just politically speaking, since we’ve talked about this before. I came back very concerned that we needed to up our game because the Chinese were coming to, you know, they had the eye of the tiger.

    Then, three, personally, it was a sense of I felt like the lion in the Wizard of Oz looking for his courage. Then afterwards, when things would come up, I was like, “Well, it won’t be as bad as Shaolin, whatever happens.” You do a job interview, whatever happens, it’s not like I’m going to get beat up by a bunch of monks. [laughter]

    It gave me kind of baseline of confidence that I could do something completely crazy, go off the map and come back in one piece. That, to me, is the great advantage of risk taking is that even if it fails, you know that you had the courage to do it and that you have the courage to do it again.
    continued next post
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    continued from previous

    Eric:

    What made you come back? Did you originally set any sort of, “I’m going to do this for two years?” Did you ever say to yourself, “I might never come back,” or was there a certain achievement or was it blurry and something happened where you said, “OK. I’m ready to go back now.”

    Matt:

    Yes, originally what I told my parents just so they wouldn’t arrest me and not let me go was that I was only going to go for a year. Then towards the end of the year, I realized I still didn’t feel like I understood China or the Shaolin Temple or the culture yet so I extended it two years, which, at that point, my parents were furious and they ended up cutting me off.

    It was in the middle of the second year where I felt like I kind of got, that I understood the culture, I understood Shaolin. I had also kind of achieved my goal. My goal in learning kung fu, I thought it was originally to be the baddest fighter on Earth and then I learned that’s not possible. There are always tougher guys than you are.

    I came to the point where I realized I was tough enough and that I didn’t need to be a world champion of kickboxing. I just needed to be good enough to feel secure if some bully tried to push me around like in grade school. At that point, when I felt like I had achieved that goal, it no longer seemed as necessary to stay there and suffer and eat bitter. And I wanted to come home.

    I think a lot of expatriates, you go to China with a lot of goals but it’s a very tough place to be a foreigner and it wears you down over time. I got tired of being the outsider forever and I wanted to come back and actually live in my own country. That’s kind of what changed. By the end of the second year, I was ready to come home.

    Eric:

    Overall, how do you think that kind of shaped your attitude on risk taking in general?

    Matt:

    For me, it was a signature moment of my life. If I look back, it was the transformative moment. Some people it’s high school. Some people it’s college. For me it was going to Shaolin Temple. I was a different person when I came back. That, I think, is the most important point about risk taking is you get to find out who you really are when you push yourself outside a comfort zone and discover resources you didn’t know you had.

    For me, that’s why I always think, in the end, even though it is risky by definition, it’s worth the risk if it’s something you’re passionate about. There’s no point taking a risk for it’s own sake. If there’s something you really want to do, and it involves risk, that you should, especially when you’re young and you have no commitments to anyone. No one’s going to starve and you don’t have kids.

    I thought it was the perfect time and afterwards, I would meet people easy road and I always kind of felt sad about that. You’re not as interesting a person if you don’t challenge yourself like that.

    Eric:

    Do you think that a challenge like that, do you think it revealed who you were? Do you think it changed who you were or either?

    Matt:

    No, I see what you’re saying. It’s weird. I think it does both. One of my goals in going was I didn’t like who I was at the time. I wanted to be something different, I had an active sense of wanting to be more courageous than I felt I was at the time.

    It’s strange, since I was actively trying to self-improve. I think all challenges reveal something you don’t know about yourself, but if they’re tough enough, they change you in fundamental ways and I was when I left. And not all of it was for the better. I was a little edgier around the corners for awhile and a little more cynical than I was.

    One of the things about living in a desperately poor village in the middle of China is you get a real sense of how hard life can really be. Just kind of growing up upper-middle class white in America and going to an elite college, I had a pretty privileged background so I’d never lived in conditions that were that primitive. A lot of the guys I knew, some of them in caves, they didn’t have enough food to eat many days. They’d go hungry.

    It kind of flipped me out when I went back and finished my senior year at Princeton, all these people worrying about things that seemed so trivial. “Am I going to get a job at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs?” [laughter]

    “Oh, my 25-page paper is due and I’m a day late, instead of an ‘A’.”

    For awhile, I couldn’t readjust to it. What people were worried about at Princeton seemed trivial to me because it is, so it did actually have that kind of effect where I found it hard to re-relate to the things that Americans get really upset about. Because in the context, I had a whole new perspective and context and so it took me awhile to kind of readjust to that.

    Eric:

    Another thing I’ve kind of explored on the blog a lot is expertise, becoming an expert, studies in “deliberate practice.” That’s pretty central in a lot of ways to what you were dealing with and what you said about the practicing. Can you just talk a little bit about that, just kind of expertise, moving towards perfection, trying to get better, what did you learn about that?

    Matt:

    There definitely is but Gladwell was this 10,000-hour series, he’s very good at coining something that’s kind of common wisdom. But definitely what you found was the monks, they knew how much time you had to train kung fu to be good at it. There was just a general sense and the idea if you went through the program the way they talked about it and you did everything you were supposed to, it took 3 years to get good at it and it took 10 years to master kung fu. They didn’t consider you to have a mastery of it until you’d done about 10 years worth of work.

    Now some guys are a little fast than others. Some people are smarter and pick up things quicker and some people have a kind of inherent talent that others lack. But most of what it takes to be an expert at something is the grind and putting the work in. That’s the thing that was fascinating was that you could watch the beginning students and they all moved up at about the same rate, some a little faster than others, and it was the people who were lazy, didn’t put in the work, who couldn’t achieve expertise in the subject.

    That said, the difference between very good and great, there is some sort of intangible at the highest level. The work will get you to very good but the difference between that and greatness is something that is kind of beyond. That’s the mystery. At the very end, I felt like I’d gotten very good at martial arts but I realized I’d never be great at it. There were guys that just had a kind of athletic ability or sensibility about them that I would never achieve.

    Eric:

    Got you. Has any of that carried over to your writing or to other things you’ve done since?

    Matt:

    Yes. I really did feel like my sense of what my art in life, that was the thing, the change for me, is I realized that my goal wasn’t to be a master of kung fu, it was to master some art form. Writing, for me, became where I transferred all my passion. While I’m certainly no master at it, it is where I put in the 10,000 hours and the 10 years worth of work and feel a comfort level. Martial arts became more of a hobby and writing became not only my job but where I think my art is.
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  4. #169
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    Is this interview recent? That book came out at least 5 years ago. I'm surprised its still being promoted. As a side note i loved that book and have read it several times on the train rides back and forth from my home and kungfu school
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    American Shaolin in Beijing

    'A timeless adventure'
    Updated: 2013-03-19 05:38
    By Zhang Yue ( China Daily)

    I was a bit nervous about attending the Capital Literary Festival Beijing as I thought the panel discussion for the anthology Unsavory Elements would be a bit dry and hosted by old-China hands.

    I was surprised, then, to find most of them were relatively young and had begun their friendship with China as teenagers.

    For instance, American author Kaitlin Solimine walked into the venue with an old Chinese man.

    I later learned 72-year-old Chen Guanmiao was Solimine's Chinese godfather, whom she home-stayed with during her first visit to China in 1996.

    The bond between the American and the Chen family is intense and she has stayed with the family every year since 1996.

    Chen sat in the second row, smiling, though a bit nervous when Solimine read onstage about her China experience.

    Most of those attending the one-hour launch and panel discussion of Unsavory Elements were foreigners.

    Five writers read excerpts from their stories, in English, while everyone gathered had a good laugh at their experiences, such as buying a huge assignment of T-shirts that were too small.

    For Matthew Polly, author of American Shaolin, who learned kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in 1992, he has successfully maintained his kung fu skills as well as Mandarin.

    "When I first visited, all my knowledge of Shaolin Temple was based on US TV shows made by Hollywood writers who had never been to China."

    "They (the monks) pour you tea and say, 'Drink one'. And I say, 'No sir, you drink first.' And they will say, 'Wow! This foreigner understands politeness!'"

    It turned out that he was welcomed by the monks but had to pay the "foreigner tuition price" of $1,300 per month, which forced him to sell T-shirts to make money.

    "I visited the temple again in 2003," he says. "Tourism has changed it, obviously. And there are more kung fu schools teaching foreigners," he says, adding that people are much better off and clearly had no problem finding enough to eat, as was the case previously.

    Most stories in the anthology derive from 10 or even 20 years ago.

    "How does their experience a decade ago help today's expats understand the country?" I asked.

    "Foreign people coming to China is a timeless adventure," Tom Carter, editor of Unsavory Elements, answers. "There are certain things that foreigners in China will always be interested in. And as we wrote in the introduction to the book, in China, as more things change, the more they stay the same.

    "So learning kung fu at Shaolin, it's more touristy now. But if you want to learn, you still have to hike up Songshan Mountain and find a kung fu school, just like Matthew Polly's experience two decades ago. That is just one of the features that is still timeless in China."
    I saw from Matt's twitter that he just got back from China. I was wondering why he went back.
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  6. #171
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    David Henry Hwang's KUNG FU by Matt Polly

    Matt interviewed noted playwright David Henry Hwang about his latest work based on the life of Bruce Lee, KUNG FU, for us. Read David Henry Hwang's KUNG FU by Matt Polly.
    Gene Ching
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  7. #172
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    Ooooooh. Matt's in trouble.

    No kung fu hustle: We don't teach for money, says Shaolin Temple
    Xinhua and Staff Reporter
    2014-09-13
    17:05 (GMT+8)


    A demonstration of Shaolin kung fu in Zhengzhou, Henan province, Apr. 21, 2008. (File photo/Xinhua)

    An monk at China's famous Shaolin Temple on Friday said the temple has never taught kung fu for money, and an American who made such a claim must have confused the temple with another kung fu school nearby.

    Matthew Polly wrote in his memoir American Shaolin that the abbot of Shaolin Temple, Shi Yongxin, accepted him as his first foreign student after taking 1,111 yuan (US$181) as a gift. He claims to have paid an annual tuition fee of US$1,300 to learn kung fu at the Shaolin Temple Martial Arts Center.

    The book stirred wide controversy after excerpts of the Chinese version were uploaded online earlier this month. Polly also suggested that some monks at the temple are gay.

    Shi Yanchong, a monk at the Shaolin Intangible Asset Management Center, said that to judge from his book, Polly could not tell the difference between the Shaolin Temple and nearby commercial martial arts schools, whose "Shaolin monks" are simply laymen who cheat people out of their money.

    "He (Polly) is a foreigner who loves Chinese kung fu but he was probably misled," Shi Yanchong said, adding that monks never work in martial art schools.

    "No martial arts halls or centers with the name 'Shaolin Temple' have any connection with the Songshan Shaolin Temple. Songshan Shaolin Temple has never recruited any students, and improper conduct by martial arts schools has nothing to do with the temple," the temple said in a statement.

    Located on Songshan Mountain in Dengfeng in central China's Henan province, the 1,500-year-old temple is regarded as the birthplace of Chinese kung fu.
    This is one of those things that anyone who has been there for a decent period of time understands. And anyone who hasn't really has no clue.
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  8. #173
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    Sold!

    A little bird told me that the rights for American Shaolin have been sold to Wanda/Tencent. Matt confirmed. More to come.
    Gene Ching
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  9. #174
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    Here's more

    Follow
    Matthew Polly
    ‏@MatthewEPolly
    The Chinese optioned my book, American Shaolin, and seem eager to actually make it into a movie. Fingers crossed.



    9:06 AM - 19 Sep 2016
    I can hardly wait to see this.
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    The chapter in Matt Polly's new book that everyone wants to read...

    Yesterday’s Crimes: The Brawl That Almost Broke Bruce Lee
    American Shaolin author Matthew Polly sorts through the fact and fiction surrounding Bruce Lee's Bay Area grudge match in his new book, Bruce Lee: A Life.
    Bob Calhoun Mon Jun 11th, 2018 10:01amYesterday's Crimes


    Bruce Lee punishing a young Jackie Chan in Enter the Dragon. (Courtesy Image)

    Bruce Lee was born into a performing family; His mother gave birth to him in the year of the dragon on Nov. 27, 1940 in San Francisco’s Chinatown, while his parents were on tour with a Chinese opera company. His Chinese name, Li Jun Fan (李振藩), included the Chinese character for San Francisco (Fan), and can be translated roughly to “Shake Up and Excite San Francisco.” When Lee finally returned to the city of his birth in his early 20s, the future martial arts superstar did just what his name had prophesized.

    Lee took the stage of the Sun Sing Theatre on Grant Avenue between Jackson and Pacific in August 1964. What started with Lee doing the cha-cha with Diana Chang Chung-Wen, “The Mandarin Marilyn Monroe,” soon became one of Chinatown’s most enduring controversies. It all began during a demonstration of the Wing Chun kung fu techniques Lee had honed on the streets of Hong Kong.

    “In China, 80 percent of what they teach is nonsense,” Lee proclaimed during his show. “Here in America, it is 90 percent.

    “These old tigers,” he continued, criticizing San Francisco’s traditional kung fu masters, “they have no teeth.”

    “That’s not kung fu!” a man in the back of the theater shouted, while the Chinatown audience flung lit cigarettes onto the stage to show their disapproval of this young upstart.

    Before Lee left the stage, he told the hostile crowd that if they wanted to research his Wing Chun, they could find him at his school in Oakland. To everyone at the Sun Sing that night, it sounded like the “Little Dragon” had just issued an open challenge to all of Chinatown.

    “(Lee) was 24,” Matthew Polly, author of the hard-to-put-down new biography Bruce Lee: A Life, explains. “He was trying to make a name for himself, and he was going out there, poking people in the eye trying to get them to change their minds.”

    Polly wrote about his experiences studying kung fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan, China for his first book, American Shaolin (Penguin, 2007). He then trained in mixed martial arts for his follow-up, Tapped Out (Gotham, 2011).

    “After writing Tapped Out, I was looking for a project that didn’t involve me getting punched in the face,” Polly says, but he couldn’t stay away from martial arts. When Polly realized the only Bruce Lee biography still in print was from 25 years ago, he was “personally offended.”

    “The most important Asian American to ever live, and the most famous, couldn’t get his one biography when Steve McQueen has a half a dozen,” Polly says.

    Polly spent seven years researching Bruce Lee: A Life, which had him untangling fact from the urban legends surrounding Lee’s rise to stardom, his mysterious death, and the challenge match that emerged from that appearance at the Sun Sing Theatre.

    “Bruce lived a life that was a lot like his kung fu movies,” Polly says, pointing out that Lee accepted challenge matches well into his 30s. “And so whenever somebody wants to tell the story of Bruce, they want to tell it as if it was a kung fu movie, and of course they immediately go to the Wong Jack Man fight.”

    Wong Jack Man was not at the Sun Sing on the night of Lee’s performance, but Lee’s critique of the high kicks of Northern Shaolin kung fu got back to him. Like Lee, Wong was a skilled martial artist in his early 20s who had come to America from Hong Kong. Unlike Lee, Wong venerated martial arts traditions.

    “In the fight between Bruce and Wong Jack Man you have modernity versus tradition,” Polly says.

    After weeks of negotiations, Wong arrived at Bruce Lee’s Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute at 4175 Broadway in Oakland’s auto row on a weeknight in early November 1964. Wong’s pal, David Chin, who had egged on this fight, attempted to negotiate some ground rules, but Lee wasn’t having it.

    “You’ve already got your friend killed,” Lee spat in Cantonese.

    James Lee, one of Lee’s students, locked the dojo door from the inside and took a seat close to where he kept a loaded revolver in case any more of Wong’s friends showed up. Bruce Lee’s pregnant wife Linda was the only other person there on his side, while Wong and Chin had brought four others with them.

    When Wong reached out to shake hands, the tense Bruce Lee threw a powerful shot that crashed into Wong’s orbital bone.

    “He really wanted to kill me,” Wong later recalled.

    Lee followed up with a blistering series of Wing Chun chain punches. Wong backpedaled, blocking Lee’s shots. Lee kept coming. Wong struck Lee in the neck and drew blood with a studded wrist bracelet he concealed in his long sleeve.

    “When Bruce felt the blood on his neck and realized the deception, he went berserk,” Polly writes.

    Wong turned around and started to run. Wong stumbled on a raised platform in Lee’s studio leftover from when it was an upholstery shop. Lee got on top of Wong and pounded him. Chin and the others pulled Lee off of their fallen champion.

    The fight in Oakland only enhanced the reputations of both men. Lee became a Hong Kong-to-Hollywood tragedy who died right before the release of Enter the Dragon (1973), his greatest triumph. Wong earned the title of grandmaster teaching Tai Chi Chuan and Northern Shaolin at Fort Mason Center until 2005. Wong’s subsequent students have claimed their beloved sifu vanquished the arrogant movie star.

    The tiebreaker for Polly in determining just what happened that night in 1964 was that David Chin’s account jibed with Linda Lee’s.

    “I took that as a pretty good guarantee of the truth if Wong Jack Man’s friend thought a certain thing happened,” Polly says.

    “One advantage I have in writing this book over other biographers is that I was actually in a challenge match in China and fought another kung fu master,” Polly adds, recalling an incident he covered in American Shaolin.

    “So certain things rang true to me just based on my own experience,” he says. “I’ve watched challenge matches where one guy freaks out and panics and starts running.”

    Unsatisfied with how ugly the Wong Jack Man fight was, Lee committed to developing his own style, called Jeet Kune Do, and transformed martial arts in the process.

    “What’s amazing with MMA is this is what it’s become,” Polly reflects. “The way (Lee) was teaching is the way a significant portion of the martial arts community now practices.”

    THREADS
    Bruce Lee: A Life by Matt Polly
    Bruce Lee vs. Wong Jack Man fight
    American Shaolin by Matt Polly
    Gene Ching
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  11. #176
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    American Shaolin CONCEPT teaser

    Gene Ching
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