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The dragon's legacy lives on - Bruce Lee News

IN 1972, filming on Bruce Lee's movie Game of Death was called to a halt - with 90 minutes of footage shot - to allow the actor to star in Enter the Dragon.

Once filming on the latter film had been completed, Lee and Game of Death producer Raymond Chow revisited the film and hoped to convince George Lazenby (of On her Majesty's Secret Service fame) to star alongside the martial arts legend.

A dinner meeting in Hong Kong with Lazenby was scheduled for July 20, 1973 but before that, Lee and Chow visited Taiwanese actress Berrt Ting Pei's house, so they could go through the script.

A while later, Chow left for the meeting with Lazenby, with Lee saying he would meet him at the restaurant later.

A short while after Chow left, Lee began to complain of a headache and Pei gave him an analgesic. At 7.30pm, Lee said he needed to lie down. Later, Chow called Pei's house asking why Lee had not shown for the dinner meeting, and Pei told him about Lee's headache, saying he was sleeping.

Chow drove over to Pei's house and attempted to rouse Lee. When this failed, a doctor was called, who spent 10 minutes trying to revive Lee, but to no avail.

An ambulance took Lee to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, where he was pronounced dead on arrival. Lee's brain was found to have swollen by 13 per cent and doctors at the hospital gave his cause of death as cerebral oedema. He was 32 years old.

Later, Chow would reveal that Lee was allergic to the analgesic, Equagesic, but that did not stop the myriad conspiracy theories from popping among fan clubs across the globe.

Some claimed he was assassinated by the Triad (the Chinese mafia), others said it was a drug overdose (traces of marijuana were found in Lee's blood) and some even claimed Pei killed him after a lover's quarrel. These days the official verdict, death by misadventure, is held to be correct, but Lee's huge following will always consider themselves robbed of one of the greatest martial artists the world has ever seen.

Both Enter the Dragon and Game of Death were released posthumously, with the latter using stand-ins for parts of the film unfinished at the time of Lee's death.

Lee's enduring legacy - apart from entertaining millions with his movies - is that he made martial arts accessible to the general public. Lee himself spoke of the simplicity of martial arts.

"The easy way is also the right way, and martial arts is nothing at all special; the closer to the true way of martial arts, the less wastage of expression there is," he said.

No more was it the domain of Shaolin monks and warriors in the fight pits of the Far East.

"I grew up watching a lot of Bruce Lee," says Suhail Algosaibi, founder of Bahrain's Zen-Do Kickboxing Academy.

"He's the one that ignited my first interest in martial arts. It's strange how you can admire a man you've never even met!" As a child growing up in Bahrain, Mr Algosaibi studied Cobra karate for a few years, until he stopped training between the age of 15 and 21. But, he says, his interest never waned.

"As I became more knowledgeable about martial arts, I was a bit disillusioned with how impractical and unrealistic some of them are. I thought kickboxing was the most realistic and practical style, so I looked for a club in the Yellow Pages and I found this place in King's Cross (I was living in London at the time). My life has never been the same," he said.

The term kickboxing was created by the Japanese boxing promoter, Osamu Noguchi, for a variant of Muay Thai (also known as Thai Boxing or The Art of the Eight Limbs) and karate that he created in the 1950s. Kickboxing, a popular martial art in Asia, achieved global fame, and a certain amount of notoriety, through the Kickboxer series of films in the late-80s and early-90s.

The blood and gore of the martial art portrayed in the films is something Mr Algosaibi wants to distance Zen-Do from.

"From a technical perspective," he says, "Zen-Do is similar to other styles of kickboxing."

But he insists that Zen-Do doesn't allow elbows strikes and low kicks, which some schools do.

"What really sets Zen-Do apart from other schools is that we focus on developing the person as a whole - we don't just focus on punching and kicking. We have a non-violent philosophy and our safety standards are probably the highest anywhere," he says.

That's a philosophy that is also applied by the Japan Karate Association Bahrain. "Martial arts is not about how hard you can kick the sand bag, it is about the philosophy and the essence of martial arts," says Ehab Eshehawi, president and chief instructor at the association, which has close to 60 members.

Mr Eshehawi says that martial arts is about being humble and respecting others, refraining from violent behaviour, being faithful and sincere in everything you do, exerting oneself in perfecting character, and cultivating the spirit of perseverance. Mr Eshehawi's introduction to martial arts was one born of misfortune. He was assaulted by criminals, 22 years ago, in Houston, Texas, and his injuries were serious enough to warrant hospitalisation.

"I decided to join a martial arts school to learn to protect myself. I was unaware of the various types of martial arts, so I tried a few to find out what my mind and body could assimilate," says Mr Eshehawi.

At one time, karate was the martial art of choice for all budding Bruce Lees, but over the years, Mr Eshehawi believes that commercially karate has been overtaken by the likes of Tae Kwando.

"Compared to other martial arts, karate requires serious patience due to its repetitive acts. Today, people are more influenced by Hollywood martial arts and are looking to be Jackie Chan in a few weeks. Karate is not about that," he says.

Zen-Do Kickboxing Academy currently has 270 active students, making it "the largest school in the Middle East in terms of number of students," according to Mr Algosaibi. He adds that 70 per cent of the academy's students are under the age of 18.

Martial arts has always lured the young. Some are enrolled by their parents, others have an affinity with its discipline and spirituality.

"Young people can be easily trained. Young fresh minds are more open for change and discovery, also physically-talking, their young bones can be safely and easily structured because they are more flexible," says Basel Saleh Al-Mahmeed, board member, general secretary and public relations manager for the Bahrain Martial Arts Association (BMAA).

Mr Eshehawi believes youngsters usually take on martial arts to improve their physical well-being, learn to defend themselves, or build self-confidence and be able to deal with verbal and physical harassment.

He says, however, that after joining, youngsters realise that what is important is not only the physical part of the art, but rather the harmony and discipline that must be taught and created within the body. Mr Algosaibi questions every new applicant as to the reasons behind joining Zen-Do, and the answers are varied. Some join for fitness and others to learn to defend themselves.

"There are also those who just want an avenue to relieve stress," he says.

Talking about fitness and the youth, Mr Algosaibi believes that the youth are not getting any healthier. "In the old days, kids used to play outside much more. Today we have what I call the 'nintendo generation'. Kids eat more junk, are less active and spend hours playing video games, which is a recipe for disaster," he says, speaking on a subject he is passionate about.

Mr Algosaibi says it breaks his heart to see so many children out of shape and deconditioned, with poor co-ordination and basic motor skills.

"Just go to any school and look at the number of obese children, it's staggering," he says.

"We are definitely on the verge of a crisis. Bahrain is the fourth most obese nation in the Arab World and things are only getting worse."

According to him, this health crisis would put a massive strain on the island's "already overloaded health care system."

And his solution is as forthright as his analysis: "Every household should throw out their game consoles and start forcing their kids to get more active and eat healthier."

The numbers of women opting for martial arts in Bahrain has seen a steady rise. At the Karate Association, 40 per cent of the adult students are women, with Zen-Do featuring a similar percentage.

"Some women in the class had experience in kickboxing, but switched to karate, as they find it very technical, and precise in execution. They also enjoy the level of traditional discipline in the Dojo," says Mr Eshehawi.

Mr Algosaibi reckons it's the stress relief coupled with the opportunity for a great workout that lures women to his academy. "We have housewives, students and executives who train here. Some of my students wear the hijab and it doesn't hinder their training in any way," he says.

Mr Al-Mahmeed says that there are many Bahraini female champions represented by the BMAA, citing the examples of Tae Kwando competitors Reem Al Doyi, who won the Korean Open tournament and Walaa Al Hashimi who won gold medal at the Asian Championship.

The boxer Sugar Ray Leonard once said that he wanted to do in boxing what Bruce Lee did in karate. "Lee," the pugilist said, "was an artist and, like him, I try to get beyond the fundamentals of my sport. I want my fights to be seen as plays."

But is what we see in Hollywood anywhere close to what real martial arts are like.

"People usually are not aware of how martial arts movies are made," says Mr Eshehawi, whose favourite screen martial artist is Wesley Snipes.

"They are made in slow motion and then technologically sped up to portray fast speed moves. In addition, sound and motion effects are added to make it glamorous. What we see in most Hollywood movies does not reflect the real picture of martial arts."

This is a view echoed by Mr Algosaibi, who says that if Hollywood did make the films realistic, they wouldn't be as entertaining.

Movie fighting," he says, "is completely different from real fighting, and so it should be. If they showed real fights, the fight scenes would be much shorter and very boring. The whole point of a martial arts movie is to excite you with the elaborate fight scenes."

Be that as it may, one can say with a degree of certainty that Bruce Lee was the man that took martial arts out of Asia and to the West.

Lee once said: "If you always put [a] limit on everything you do, physical or anything else, it will spread into your work and into your life. There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them."

Lee conquered plateaus like elephants do molehills. He went from Kato in Green Hornet to the star of his very own Hollywood films with consummate ease and macho panache.

His legacy lives on in the likes of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but it also thrives in the mind and soul of every child who ever practised a kata and bowed to a sensei, in reverence to an art form that is as mystical as it is real.

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2006-2007 Arman Suleimenov