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The Unique Connection Between Bruce Lee and Cus D’Amato

By: Dr. Scott A. Weiss      www.confusingtheenemy.com

When I think of Bruce Lee and Cus D’Amato, the first thing that comes to mind is how incredible their contributions are to the art and science of pugilism and mixed martial arts. Some might say that Cus D’Amato was one of the first boxing trainers to apply a system or method to the art of boxing that went way beyond the basics—dubbed  the “Peek-a-Boo” style. Furthermore, Cus was the only boxing trainer of his era who considered the mental aspect of boxing, teaching his fighters to control their fear and other emotions during combat.

Likewise, Bruce Lee’s contributions to the world of martial arts earned him the title “The Father of Mixed Martial Arts”. Learning and teaching an amalgam of techniques cherry-picked from martial arts styles from around the world, Lee developed his own hybrid martial art named Jeet Kune Do. Lee was one of the first martial artists to incorporate Far-East philosophies into our American martial arts history.

Unaware of the connections his style shared with the pugilistic philosophies of East Asia, D’Amato was teaching his fighters at the Gramercy Gym in New York City concepts and techniques strikingly similar to Lee’s as early as the 1930s. American writer Norman Mailer once said that Cus practiced Zen and didn’t even know it. Both the Peek-a-Boo and Jeet Kune Do styles of fighting utilize a science that is tremendously similar on certain levels, as Lee was greatly influenced by western boxing. He owned numerous books and manuscripts on Western boxing and boasted one of the world’s largest boxing fight film collections (though nothing that compared to the collection of Cus D’Amato’s friend and business partner, Jimmy Jacobs).

Some of the traits that link these two cultural icons are their ferocious concentration, their dedication to both physical and psychological training, their in depth understanding of emotion and the need to develop confidence and foresight to know when to unleash the power of the dragon’s tail …or “ bad intentions,” as Cus would say.

It’s truly a shame that these two individuals never had the chance to have a one-on-one conversation, but believe it or not, they were connected by just one degree of separation. It is a fact that the American kickboxer Joe Lewis (not to be confused with “The Brown Bomber,” Joe Louis) was known to have trained with Bruce Lee from early 1967 to late 1968. Joe had helped change Bruce’s mind regarding kicking and trapping, and the concepts they shared were deep (though beyond the scope of this article).

A few years later in 1971, D’Amato went to meet Joe Lewis in New York City with the backing of The Ring Magazine to invite Lewis to train at his gym in the Catskills and pursue boxing full time. After the meeting, D’Amato was upset with Lewis’ lack of enthusiasm; he later admitted that his heart was not in fighting anymore.1

One must understand that D’Amato desperately wanted the opportunity to train one more heavyweight champion of the world, a prospect with the potential to beat Muhammad Ali. Thus was the impetus for the call to Joe Lewis, whom Cus believed had the potential to do so, along with several members of The Ring editorial staff. Up to that point, D’Amato had trained Floyd Patterson and Jos Torres, among several other fighters, and creating champions was part of his lifelong formula. Mike Tyson didn’t come on the scene until a decade later, and the irony of that situation is that Cus never got to see his final masterpiece (Tyson) become the youngest heavyweight champion of the world.

Besides almost training himself, Cus secretly approached a host of athletes, including Muhammad Ali, in an attempt to find a suitable candidate who could bring the heavyweight title back under Cus’ control. Sonny Liston, Wilt Chamberlain, handball champion Jimmy Jacobs, and Ed “Too Tall” Jones were some of the fighters Cus approached, but his recruiting efforts never came to fruition.

Cus was confident that, with the right prospect, he could take back the title which he so desperately craved. He believed he had identified two weaknesses in Ali’s armor: first, Ali was open to the “back-door counter.” Ali did not move after he punched—he would pause and rest after he threw a combination. Most of the time, he would end up overextended, leaving himself open for the counter.

Secondly, Cus believed Ali used the lead right hand too much. Cus surmised that he could draw Ali’s straight or lead right hand in with feints, head movements, and precisely angled slips. When the right finally came out, Cus would counter with a 45-degree shovel hook to the liver, a mix of his #3 and #5 if you subscribe to the “Peek-A-Boo”

Now, don’t get me wrong: Cus and Ali had a close friendship. In fact, they had a much deeper relationship than is widely understood by anyone other than Ali’s closest insiders. They were ultimately true confidants. Ali was always open to what the scholar of the science of bruising had to say, and Cus was attracted to Ali’s amazing ring charisma. “Boxing is entertainment,” Cus said repeatedly, and Ali is the most entertaining fighter who ever lived—but, after Patterson, Cus wanted another heavyweight champ of his own.

Though he himself was undoubtedly a master, Lee always remained a student of the martial arts, learning and absorbing in any way he could. He used to watch old 8mm films of Ali’s boxing matches, analyzing and studying his timing, his footwork, and his control over his opponent’s spirit. Muhammad Ali was one of Bruce Lee’s favorite boxers. One fight that he particularly loved to watch over and over was Ali’s bout with Cleveland Williams. In fact, the choreography from Bruce’s final fight scene with Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon (1972) was taken directly from the Ali/Williams fight.[1]In Fact, it was Joe Lewis that was to originally play Chuck Norris’ part but due to a disagreement on set, Joe was never cast.  Lee was also a fan of “The Manassa Mauler” Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney. During certain classes at his martial arts school, the Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, Lee would begin class by reviewing tapes of Jack Dempsey fights, making key points of the fight the main focus of that day’s class—further proof that Lee was a scholar of both Eastern and Western fighting methods!

Bruce Lee studied and was open to any martial art of the world just as Cus D’Amato was open to applying science to the art of boxing. Through boxing, Bruce came to understand punching in a whole different way. He studied almost every Muhammad Ali fight frame-by-frame, and appreciated Dempsey’s ferociousness in the ring. In essence, Bruce and Cus shared similar thinking with regard to an active defense (head and body movement), having the same punching power with each hand, the ability to switch stances effectively and the perception that a fight can be won before the first blow is even made. D’Amato and Lee both adopted a respect for the philosophy of fighting and the art of war that made them true students of the martial arts until the day they died albeit neither one has ever competed in a professional bout.  As a martial artists with a black belt in both Tang Soo Do and Jiu-Jitsu, I cannot help but wonder how both of these men would hold up to some of the fighters today!  What I do know is that these men affected the lives of so many in so many ways and were both truly some of the best minds in world of pugilistica.


[1]           This was confirmed by a personal conversation I had with Dan Inosanto.