Of course, the more astute martial artists among this blog’s readers will already be certain of the correct answer. But let’s go through the reasoning nonetheless.
In order to answer this question accurately, just as with any question, we will first have to frame the issue accurately:
Point 1: When answering any question about “who would win in a real fight between x & y”, one can only answer with a probable outcome. It’s a fact that on any given day, any fighter could in theory be defeated by any opponent, regardless of deficits in skill-level. However, we can say with some confidence that fighter “x”, with a much higher skill level, would defeat fighter “y”, the vast majority of the time. We could express this by opining that fighter “x” might win say… nine times out of ten.
As an example, we could never say that fighter “x” would win ten times out of ten and maintain any intellectual credibility, even if fighter “x” was Georges St-Pierre and fighter “y” was your eighty-year-old mum. We could say that GSP would prevail 99.9995% of the time, though. After all, even GSP could- in theory- be knocked out by a heavy handbag strike to the jawline, one time in every ten-thousand.
Point 2: We must compare like for like. There is no use comparing a young Bruce Lee to an old Chuck Norris, for instance. In the case of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, this is easy, as they both hit their “primes” roughly at the same time, in the late nineteen-sixties to early seventies. By this time Norris was at his most successful stage as a Karate competitor, and Lee had amassed most of his Martial Arts experience, just before his untimely death in 1973.
Let’s get down to business and compare the two combatants’ actual records and skill levels.
– From nineteen-sixty-eight to nineteen-seventy-four, Norris was by his own declaration a “world middleweight karate champion”. This is taking Norris entirely at his word, mind you. Others have had difficulty in verifying his story on this point. But what all informed commentators agree on is the fact that Norris was competing in point karate, rather than in full-contact Karate. In other words, Norris was a champion in a style of Karate in which you could be penalised for hitting someone with full force. To my way of thinking, this is no different to being declared a champion of doing Kata; while it may be a rewarding pursuit for other reasons, say… fitness and health reasons, it tells you nothing about whether the champion in question can actually fight.
Judging by footage of Norris’ Karate fights, they appear to be ludicrously unrealistic by most standards.
A person who competes in point karate might be able to fight, or he/she might not… you- and they- will never know until they actually fight for real. I hate to skim close to perpetrating a fallacious appeal to authority, but it’s worth examining why fighters like Joe Lewis agree with me on this point:
“They called point tournaments fighting but how can you fight without contact? I’ve worked on my midsection all my life so I could take a punch or kick. Then I go to a tournament and my opponent might be 150 pounds but if he hits me in the midsection he gets a point for a killing blow. That’s nonsense.”
– Joe Lewis (link)
– To contrast this, Bruce Lee’s only commonly accepted contact with competitive fighting was in his adolescence; he was an amateur boxer. Some assert that he won a local-level Hong Kong boxing championship title at that time… but this is impossible to truly verify to a nicety, as local records for the period are scarce to non-existent. For me, it is sufficient to know that Lee probably competed in a full-contact arena, with some success, more than once. After all, a single full-contact boxing match tells you more about a person’s ability to actually fight than any number of non-contact competitions could, whether they allow kicking or not.
– Bruce Lee started training in submission grappling by 1967, with the legendary “Judo” Gene LeBell, a generally acknowledged master of Judo ne-waza and Catch Wrestling. LeBell had been taught the rapidly dying art of Catch by legendary fighters such as Lou Thesz and Karl Gotch, and had studied Judo with luminaries such as Ishikawa in Japan. LeBell was a Judo champion several times over when he first met Lee on the set of Lee’s TV Series the Green Hornet. It’s hard to imagine a more skilled and illustrious teacher than LeBell. Bruce Lee therefore had developed a knowledge of submission grappling which was quite rare in the esoteric martial arts scene at the turn of the nineteen-seventies. He included many of the moves that LeBell taught him as finishers to his on-screen fight scenes, in Enter the Dragon, Way of the Dragon (vs. Chuck Norris) and the unfinished Game of Death. Lee’s compatriot- and to many, spiritual successor- Dan Inosanto states that Lee was also particularly good at integrating his striking and grappling game, in a way that was rare at the time:
“One of the things that made him [Lee] unique was his ability to move from kicking range to punching range to trapping range to grappling range. At that time, most martial artists really shined in one particular range. If you kicked, you didn’t punch or grapple much. If you punched, you didn’t kick or grapple much. And if you grappled, you didn’t have the same skill level in striking. Sifu Bruce was way ahead of his time in how he was training himself and his students to be adept at bridging the gap between ranges.”- Dan Inosanto (link)
– To contrast, while Chuck Norris did study Judo when he was in the army, though far less intensively than he studied Tae Kwan Do, he apparently only gave serious thought to studying submission grappling in 1982, when he first encountered the Gracie family in Brazil.
– In terms of physical attributes and conditioning, reports indicate that Bruce Lee was 5’7″ and weighed as little as 135lb, whereas Norris was 5’10” and weighed 160lb during his competitive career. Norris would have enjoyed both a weight and reach advantage over his smaller adversary. However, Lee was famous for innovating new training methods and conditioning himself physically to a level associated only with top athletes. From two-finger pushups to a ridiculous degree of static strength, Lee seems to have exemplified a philosophy of training which was well ahead of its time. No similar stories concerning Norris have surfaced.
Essentially, what we have here is a fight between the following two men:
Lee, a combatant who had trained in striking styles all his life, and had success in striking at a full-contact competitive level (albeit a small amateur level), who also studied submission grappling with one of the godfathers of the art, who had an affinity for blending his stand-up and grappling styles in a way that was ahead of his time, and had trained his body to a level commensurate with high-level athletic ability. Lee could have weighed anywhere between 135lb and 145lb (61.2kg to 65.8kg) during 1972.
Norris, a man who had- at the point at which Lee and he met- only focussed on Tae Kwon Do/Karate with a small sideline in Judo, but apparently had limited knowledge of submission grappling and had only ever competed in point karate tournaments. As far as one can tell, Norris weighed 160lb/72.5kg.
It’s hard to argue that either man was really a “competitive fighter”. Both were predominantly performers. But Bruce Lee came closer to this than Norris did. Lee was also the better rounded martial artist, and while Norris did catch up by learning submission grappling eventually, this was only in the eighties or nineties, well after his prime.
If MMA competition- especially in the early days of the UFC- taught us anything, it was that the better rounded fighter- preferably with a knowledge of full-contact striking and submission grappling- will defeat a relatively one-dimensional opponent, even when there is a disparity in weight.
On the basis of this information, I suggest that an actual fight between these two men might go very roughly the same way as the fictional fight scene they played out in the movie Way of the Dragon. I suggest that three quarters of the time, Lee would either survive or be dominant in the striking range, due to his superior speed, timing, physical conditioning and full-contact experience, and would eventually finish the fight via submission.
And the only reason I see Norris winning 2.5 times out of ten, is his greater size and reach.
Supporters of Norris have raised counter-arguments to suggestions that Lee was the better fighter in the past. Some of the most common are:
1. “But Norris was a world champ! Lee never won a championship!”
Well leaving aside Lee’s difficult to verify amateur boxing tournament, this has no relevance as Norris was only ever a champion of pretending to hit people.
2. “Norris was a full-contact Karate fighter, he would have crucified Lee with his kickboxing!”
Norris never competed in full-contact Karate, only in point Karate. Norris often refers to himself as having been a “professional fighter”. If what he was competing in wasn’t fighting (and it wasn’t), how can fighting have been a profession for him? He wasn’t a fighter at all, in fact. Merely a stylist, or a performer. Take your pick.
3. “Lee was tiny! Therefore, Chuck!”
Lee was much smaller. But whether Lee would have won depends on whether his skill and strength was in excess of Norris’ to the degree necessary to overcome that weight and reach disparity. My verdict on the available evidence is that Lee’s skill and strength would have been sufficient to that task, the majority of the time.
4. “There’s no real evidence Lee ever had any real fights!, therefore, Chuck!”
There’s no evidence that Chuck had any real fights either. Therefore the two should be assessed on their apparent skills and attributes, as I have assessed them above.
Why Have I Written This?
I admit that the topic at hand may seem somewhat childish, perhaps on the level of “which would win, a scorpion or a spider?”, and by its nature consists of a certain degree of conjecture. But in all honesty, this article was provoked only and entirely by this clip:
A clip in which Norris discusses times that he and Bruce Lee- supposedly a friend of his- worked out together, and is asked by the interviewer:
“[During these workouts you and Bruce Lee were] not fighting each other?”
And Norris responds with:
“No, you know, I was a professional fighter. Haha.”
As if to suggest that Norris was a fighter and Lee was not. Norris’ only concession to Lee’s combative skill comes straight afterwards, when he points out that- while Lee may not have been on Norris’ level as a “fighter”-;
“but he was good.”
Well, gee, thanks for the endorsement Chuck.
Chuck Norris is a pretty obnoxious person in general actually. As well as being something of a right-wing jingoist, stupid conspiracy theorist, hater of the gay folk, and hyper-religious nutjob, as we can see from many interviews he constantly bigs himself up to a level that even Steven Seagal would be proud of. Norris is no more a fighter than Seagal, even though he may be more of a martial artist.
“Here’s what I really think about the theory of evolution: It’s not real. It is not the way we got here. In fact, the life you see on this planet is really just a list of creatures God has allowed to live.”
– Chuck Norris (link)
The plain fact of the matter though, is that Bruce Lee is an inspiration to millions, and his impact can be felt in the way that martial arts are practiced in a more combative and practical way these days, to the way that action is filmed in movies, to the way that Asian men and women are no longer portrayed only as dishwashers and rickshaw drivers in film. He’s won the moral battle against people like Chuck Norris, who despite the appearance of philanthropy, are actually peddling exceptionalism, nationalism, exclusionism and martial fakery to the masses.
Bruce Lee was more moral than Chuck Norris, more intelligent than Chuck Norris, had a better real fighting record than Chuck Norris (the little there was of it), and frankly could have beat Chuck Norris in a fight. My money would have been on him.
End of story.