There is an old quote from, I think, martial arts legend Bruce Lee which goes something like this:
“Before I learned the art, a punch was just a punch, and a kick, just a kick.
After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick, no longer a kick.
Now that I understand the art, a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick.”
There are a lot of Bruce Lee “profundities” that even the chop-socky master himself regarded as silly – you can watch a video of him chuckling slightly about that great line about being like water and formless right after he utters it.
But there is no doubt or question in any real martial artist’s mind that Bruce Lee himself genuinely knew how to fight. He was really good at it and he was constantly trying to evolve his own fighting style, as any true martial artist will do, in order to incorporate and absorb new information, ideas, and techniques.
That is why his original base style of wing chun, which focuses on simultaneous offence and defence but is otherwise still in many ways a “traditional” style of Chinese kung fu, eventually evolved into Bruce Lee’s signature art of jeet kune do.
Most people remember Bruce Lee as merely a chop-socky film actor, and he was very good at that stuff. But people who have seriously studied martial arts know that Bruce Lee was far more than an actor – he really was an incredibly skilled martial artist and fighter. He really knew how to fight. He really was tough and strong.
More importantly, though, like most truly great martial artists, Bruce Lee wanted to keep improving his skills and testing himself. That is why he began to study boxing and eventually got together with the legendary “Judo” Gene LeBell to incorporate grappling and judo and wrestling into his style of fighting.
In other words, he learned the rules of his art and style – and then he learned how to break them.
I’ve been truly privileged to know a few amazing martial artists in my life. I’ve sparred many times with a southpaw double black belt in tae kwon do who runs his own media and advertising agency in NYC who would routinely kick me in the ribs with those lethal spinning back kicks that TKD practitioners are so good at throwing. I’ve sparred with guys who have black belts in both goju ryu karate and Israeli Krav Maga. I’ve learned at the feet of a Grandmaster of Krav Maga whose reputation in the worldwide community of martial artists is extremely high, and who has studied BJJ, judo, aikido, muay thai, and karate for years.
Every single one of these people understood that the rules in martial arts get you only so far.
Eventually, you have to learn how to break the rules and create your own signature style of doing things.
That, by the way, is a vital lesson for life. You have to learn the rules first – and then you have to learn how to break them.
Here’s another great example of a martial artist whose fighting style is completely weird. I’ve written a few times before about a certain Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz, from whose life I have drawn a good deal of personal inspiration during my own times of struggle. If you know anything about fighting, and you watch Dominick fight, he has an extremely awkward way of fighting that is highly entertaining to watch, and really difficult to understand:
Again, anyone who knows how the dynamics of muay thai or boxing or kickboxing work, can immediately see that all of those movements and feints and direction changes and so on, are really difficult to do. Dominick simply breaks all of the rules associated with positioning and footwork and timing.
Why? Because he’s already mastered those rules himself:
And it is precisely because he has mastered those rules that Dominick Cruz is very much a contender in the GOAT conversation, at least as far as his own division is concerned:
The goal in life should be to master the rules of any given task or discipline – and then learn how to break them as efficiently as possible. Those rules are put in place for a very good reason. They offer structure and clarity to those who seek to understand how to become masters of a particular craft. That is very much to the good.
But eventually every true master outgrows the rules of his craft. And that is when true mastery is shown – when the master creates something new from what he was originally taught.