Today we celebrate the birthday of Bruce Lee, the star of over 26 films and co-star of the ’60s superhero TV series The Green Hornet. Over the course of his career that was sadly cut short in 1973, he has been nominated for and won countless awards. So, as the acclaimed actor and martial artist would have turned 77 years old this year, we’re taking a look at five of his most defining moments.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Fight (Game of Death)
Bruce Lee’s last film isn’t even a full movie. Game of Death is a Frankenstein’s monster. Lee tragically died before he could finish shooting the film and producers brought in an American director to repurpose the existing footage into an entirely new plot and shoot new footage with stand-ins.
But one of the original sequences that survived relatively intact was a fight between Lee (5′ 7″) and NBA star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a towering 7′ 2″). The two men were friends, and Jabbar studied martial arts under Lee’s guidance for four years.
Even in their few short minutes together on screen, you can sense a familiarity between them. Their matchup is a strangely funny one, with Jabbar sending gangly-legged kicks high over Lee’s head. Their height difference is so great that the camera has a hard time putting them in the frame together. Nevertheless, it’s a highlight of the film we got, as it would’ve been in the original Game of Death that no one will ever see.
Bruce Lee vs Chuck Norris (Way of the Dragon)
Bruce Lee and his movies inarguably changed the game. Enter the Dragon forever changed how Western audiences would see action movies, but it was one of his earlier films that would also change the course of American action movies throughout the ’80s and ’90s.
In the 1972 martial arts film Way of the Dragon, Bruce runs afoul of mobsters (as you do in these movies), and in the final climactic battle, fights their newly-arrived top-level enforcer, played by the one and only Chuck Norris in his debut role.
Shot with a mix of POV angles as well as sped-up and slowed down action, it’s a battle that highlights the abilities of both practitioners. As the hero, Bruce is ultimately victorious, but both men were pushed to their limits.
While Bruce would pass away suddenly the following year, Way of the Dragon served as a springboard for Chuck Norris to become one of the predominant action stars in the years to follow. Even today, though, it’s their fight in the Colosseum that forever stands the test of time.
Kato (The Green Hornet)
The Green Hornet is where American audiences really fell in love with Bruce Lee. His role as the unassuming assistant to Britt Reid‘s crime-fighting alter ego would be his ticket to the big time.
Fans of the show — especially young children — found themselves drawn to the incredible fighting skills and affable humor of Kato. In fact, he would become so popular that his brand would begin to outshine the Green Hornet himself. Kato would appear as the central figure on marketing and merchandise for the show, helping to propel him to the forefront of the show’s popularity.
Lee would go on to become an international superstar. If not for Kato, we may never have known how talented and entertaining this man was.
Factory Fight (The Big Boss)
To set the scene, let’s rewind what just occurred in the 1971 Hong Kong martial arts film The Big Boss (also known as Fists of Fury). Lee’s character, Chan, has just stumbled upon the dead bodies of his cousins encased in ice inside of his employer’s warehouse. When the local crime boss’s nephew appears with his goon squad, Bruce Lee moves on to take out the group with cold, precise onslaughts with everything from flying flashlights to handsaws to even daggers.
The battle takes an outdoor turn, with Lee taking out each and every opponent. We even see him punch one employee through the warehouse wall. The film does have several other brutal fights, including one final one with Bruce Lee acting in a furious rage. However, his cold, precise moves in this scene put it on its own level, and yes, that final punch does help put it on that level.
Chen vs. Japanese School (Fist of Fury)
Hands down, Fist of Fury is Bruce Lee’s most significant piece of work. The 1972 film was partly based on real-world events and earned him much gratitude from his home country’s downtrodden population. And much of the gratitude is due to this one scene.
In this famous scene, the historical figure Huo Yuan Jia has just died, and his death is suspected to have been carried out by the Japanese military. Having just been insulted by his rival Japanese school’s top students, Bruce Lee’s character, Chen, descends upon the enemy’s home dojo. And with a vast showcase of his widespread abilities, he embarrasses every one of them in his most historical fight.