07 April 2009

Book Review The Straight Lead: The Core of Bruce Lee's Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do

Tilting at Windmills in the land where confirmation bias is king

(Before moving ahead, the uninitiated may be wondering what a straight lead even is. It is punch delivered with your forward or lead hand, similar to the power jab, but with the fist vertically held at impact. Here is an example taken from Bruce Lee's Fighting Method Volume 4: Advanced Techniques.

Boxers would probably just refer to it as the power jab, and not pay much attention to whether the fist was thumb's side up, or palms down. However Lee liked the arrangement very much, and it became the core of his attack and defense.)

This is an ambitious book. Much more ambitious than its single focus subject matter might lead you to believe. It is after all a book focused on a single punch, and a few of its variants. What can it be trying to say other than throw the straight lead like this, in the following situations? For Tom a discussion of the straight lead appears to be a vehicle to argue a great many other things, not least of which is the nature of what is, and is not Jeet Kune Do.

Starting with the good points we find the following. Where she is instructing the reader on the hows and whens of the straight lead, Tom's book is excellent. Her discussion of Lee's "small phasic bent-knee" stance? Peerless. Though she could have used vastly more sequence photos, and more cues to demonstrate how her body was moving through space. The prose is very helpful, very detailed but the new student is going to have trouble translating the written description into action without more visual cues. Also adding a strong engrossing flavor to the book, is that Tom has a wonderfully strong voice as a writer. She is engaging, witty, and the book never suffers from dullness. Certainly this is a trap into which a 205 page book on a single punch could have easily fallen. However her lively voice, even where you disagree, will carry you through the material rather quickly. And where she isn't namelessly impugning everybody else's approach to JKD except for Ted Wong's, it is a wonderfully challenging voice.

Beyond the punch instruction though, the book full of problems. Besides instruction her aim is to convince the reader no less than the following, straight punching is a lost art and has been since Dempsey, the straight lead is better than all other leading punches, and that this is scientifically proven to be so, as well as that the whole of Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do is scientific in its approach to fighting, that anyone not doing/focusing on what Bruce Lee taught late in his life (that is to say the material that Ted Wong teaches) is either mis-representing, misinterpreting Jeet Kune Do, or using the name to justify, falsely promote themselves, and Jeet Kune Do cannot be anything like what the Jeet Kune Do concepts people think it is. June Fan Jeet Kune Do according to Teri Tom and Ted Wong is constructed of a core of fencing, boxing and a little Wing Chun.

It is hard to know where to begin with such a long list. So I will start somewhere else. The main problem I see with Tom's book is that her analysis is terribly, terribly faulty, and chalk full of confirmation bias, and one sided presentation. She dresses her analyses with a great deal scientific explanation about what is occurring during the lead. She loves to cite Newton's laws of motion, and discuss gravity and say see, JKD follows the laws of science. By which I think she means physics. But so do all martial arts techniques. Watch any show from Fight Science, to The Human Weapon and you can see why a martial arts technique works according to the laws of physics. Unless magic powers are being claimed any technique will have an explanation falling out from F=ma, or F=G(m1m2/r^2. This doesn't establish anything like scientific proof that one technique is better than any other in all instances in all ranges so much as it establishes that human bodies are as subject to the laws of physics as other bodies. Any sense of a scientific approach to these questions is ruined by her method of backing up her assertions, and ideas. The book is copiously end-noted but the end notes are useless in establishing meaning. Her arguments in a nutshell take the following form. Bruce Lee, or his primary sources, Driscoll, Nadi, and Dempsey thought straight thrusts were more economical, powerful, and efficient than curved swings or strokes. We know this because the lead is biomechanically efficient, and exerts more force into the target more quickly endnote. But when we look at the endnote, it doesn't point us to research that demonstrates this the case, but rather Lee, Driscoll, Dempsey or Nadi saying the same thing. She is using her sources to support her sources. Whatever that may be it isn't scientific research. All of her sources may have been smart men and fighters but none of them were scientists. And none of them conducted any research on the subject of leads that might be considered scientific, empirical certainly, but limited in the broadness of the generalizations that can be made.

Her analysis is further hindered because she is never very clear with whom she is arguing. Is it the "bear-cats" (wild, undisciplined swingers) that so vexed Driscoll and Dempsey? Is it the classical martial artist the Karate, or Tae Kwon Do practitioner, who chamber their punches on their hips before firing (incidentally this is the only comparison for which she offers anything like a scientific examination, and strangely it is the only thing that fails to make the list on her short bibliography). Is it the people who throw their lead palms down like a boxer? Likely it is all of them but she doesn't have any hard data to back up her assertion that the brand of JKD she practices is better than other methods. It is in this area that her argument strikes some of its most inarticulate notes.

Her explanation of Driscoll, Dempsey, Nadi and Lee are told in such away to favor her analysis. There is no talk of other explanations, no review of other hypotheses. Driscoll and Dempsey complained that straight punching was a lost art form, and their analysis did much to inspire Lee. But it is possible that they were wrong in major ways. From Dempsey's day to today, boxing has been changing, namely in the areas of defensive postures and footwork. Is it possible that changes in footwork led to the changing of the straight lead? Heavy lateral movement makes shooting straights as a fencer problematic. In the modern era, one of the best straight punchers was George Foreman (the old one) and he constantly had to use his hooks to get people to stand in front of him to take his two best shots of his second career, his jab and his cross. No mention is made of this trend in boxing footwork. Boxing is devolved is all we get from Tom on the subject.

Jabs, and straight leads are excellent in situations of matched leads (that is both fighters have the same side forward). It is important to note Lee advocated that all of his students fight strong side forward. This would mean that most people under Lee fought same side (right) forward if the statistics of such things are anything by which to go. Is it possible that lead hand straight punches like the jab, power jab, and the thumbs up straight lead work better in a matched lead situation like a boxing coach at any gym will tell you. Unmatched leads typically puts your opponent's hand directly in the way of straight punches to his/her head. No mention is made of this old boxing maxim, nor any real indication that the author has ever heard of the problem. But it is something all advocates of the strong side forward approach should consider. It probably means that you will be fighting southpaw, against orthodox (left lead) and this reduces the success of straight lead punches.

Tom also goes to great lengths to demonstrate the superiority of the Jeet Kune Do stance over alternatives found in boxing and Wing Chun. While demonstrating how structurally safe you are while throwing the straight lead. Let me address the last point first. When you throw a proper left or right straight lead, you turn your body sideways, in an effort to get your hips and lead shoulder into the punch. This leads to the conclusion that you suddenly present a smaller target area to your opponent. And you do, but only from straight punches. Hooks of either the hands or feet will come in perpendicular to the plane of your body, which is all there for the taking if you miss, or otherwise fail in some way. The lead even when thrown correctly isn't unbeatable as she over and over again implies.

So in what way is the stance she advocates superior? Compared to other stances it is, she argues, the most efficient way to deliver the straight lead, as an initial technique, as a counter, as a stop hit (countering the opponents preparation or initial action). Are there any weaknesses? Apparently not, or at least none that she can imagine or entertain. Any fighting stance is a compromise. Thai boxers have a stance that favors the speedy and powerful use of both legs along mostly curving lines. This limits other options. Boxing has several stances that maximize some qualities while minimizing others. Wing Chun is stance heavily predicated on blocking and simultaneous use of both hands, and its stance reflects that. Not every trade off is negative or positive. The Jeet Kune Do stance is no different. It may be superior at delivering its lead hand thrust, and involving the lead leg, but its structure reduces dramatically the effectiveness of its rear tools. Is there a scientific reason for this. Here is Lee (by way of Ted Wong) on the subject,
"…being able to hit an opponent with good combination is satisfying, but if you can hit the target with one shot, then that's a sign of greatness.(Tom 2005)" Not a terribly scientific rationale to say the least.

While I think her argument for the superiority of the punch, and the stance crumble under the weight of all she fails to address her book's usefulness as an instructional resource is not in doubt, and as a read, it is plucky, challenging, and engaging. This was easily the most engaging book on martial arts I've read in quite some time. I for one cannot wait for her next two books.

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