Known for extreme speed and physical fitness, late Hong Kong-American martial artist Bruce Lee has become a legendary martial arts figure despite having almost no recorded competitive fights. A contemporary of Lee's, Chuck Norris has built an acting and speaking career out of his dominance in martial arts tournaments.
Both men were born in 1940 and were on similar career trajectories until Lee’s death in 1973. Their iconic fight scene in The Way of the Dragon has further linked the two in pop culture as kung fu masters of the East and West.
In contemporary culture, Bruce Lee is seen as a legendary figure with super-human abilities. Norris is still respected in martial arts circles for his skill, but in contemporary popular culture, greatly exaggerated stories of Norris’ abilities have veered into satire and become internet meme material. Ironically, Norris has a much more substantial record of success as a fighter, but it was Lee who became the cultural icon of a kung fu master.
Chuck Norris is an American martial artist and actor. After serving in the United States Air Force, he began to focus on martial arts. Eventually, his success in tournaments led to a career in movies and television, and he is now more well known for his long-running television series, Walker, Texas Ranger. In a bizarre twist, Chuck Norris has been a popular subject in internet memes that focus on his utter invincibility.
Bruce Lee was Hong Kong-American martial artist, actor, and filmmaker. He rose to stardom through a series of iconic movies; his early death at the height of his fame and prowess only served to heighten his legend over time. He was 32 years old when he died of cerebral edema (swelling of the brain), believed to be cause by a reaction from different pain medications he was taking, although theories of foul play persist. Unlike Norris, Lee did not participate in many competitive fights or tournaments, but became more well known during demonstrations where he would do things like two-finger push-ups or his famous one inch punch.
Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris first met in 1964 at a martial arts demonstration in Long Beach, California. They were both highly successful martial artists, and their parallel career tracks emerged when Lee asked Norris to appear in a movie he was making. Norris’ appearance in the final fight scene of Way of the Dragon, in which he fights Lee in the Roman Coliseum, brought him to fame. The scene is now considered not only one of Lee’s most legendary fight scenes, but one of the most memorable martial art scenes in the history of film. Lee and Norris remained friends and occasionally sparred with one another, but despite popular belief, they never actually fought one another competitively. When asked in an interview who would have won in a fight, Norris declined to give an answer.
Way of the Dragon fight sequence:
Bruce Lee eventually developed a distinct fighting philosophy and style, which he called Jeet Kun Do. He found that traditional fighting styles and techniques were too rigid and dogmatic for the real world of street fighting, and aimed for a ‘style of no style.’ He became world renowned for his physical fitness and commitment to training, which included running, weightlifting, fencing, boxing and stretching. He also consistently emphasized the importance of mental and spiritual training alongside the physical training.
Bruce Lee at the Long Beach demonstration:
Like Lee, Chuck Norris developed his own fighting style. He calls it Chun Kuk Do, a combination of many fighting styles, but with a primary foundation of Tang Soo Do. Norris focuses as much on personal and spiritual growth as he does on the physical aspects of fighting. In Chun Kuk Do, there are 10 rules to live by, including positive thinking, kindness to others, and loyalty to God and country.
Chuck Norris tournament fight:
Lee was the son of a famous opera star, and appeared in several films as a child. As an adult he initially rejected the idea of pursuing a film career, choosing to focus on his martial arts, but in 1965 television and movie producers and writers began offering him roles. He appeared in the TV series The Green Hornet, which led to other television roles and eventually movies. By 1972’s The Way of the Dragon, he was given full creative control to write, choreograph, and direct the fight scenes. Lee died right before the release date for the movie, which went on to become one 1973’s biggest flicks; it remains a classic martial arts film. It also spurred a brief martial arts fad in the United States, with songs and TV shows about kung fu gaining popularity.
Norris made his acting debut in 1969, in the Dean Martin film The Wrecking Crew. 1972's The Way of the Dragon, where Norris met Lee for the first time, was a milestone in Norris' career and is considered responsible for his stardom. Norris became Cannon's most prominent star in the four years following his first successful starring role in Breaker! Breaker! in 1977. Towards the end of 80s, Norris' career took a dip until he started shooting for his well-known series, Walker, Texas Ranger, in 1993, which lasted eight years on CBS and continued to air on other channels, including the Hallmark Channel.
Because of his speed, accuracy and technique, Bruce Lee has come to be thought of as a legend with superpowers in contemporary culture. This faked commercial clip showing Lee playing ping pong with nunchucks is widely accepted as an authentic clip:
Time Magazine named Lee as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. There is now a 7-foot tall Bruce Lee statue in LA’s Chinatown.
In 1968 Chuck Norris won the Professional Middleweight Karate champion title, which he held on to for six consecutive years. In 1969 he also won the most fights of anyone that year, and was named ‘Fighter of the Year’ by Black Belt Magazine. In 1990 he was the first westerner to receive an 8th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.