The fighting skill of Bruce Lee is iconic in its own right, but it was actually inspired by Muhammad Ali. Bruce Lee was a martial arts legend known for his kung fu skills, but even he felt that there were a few things he could learn from the world-famous heavyweight boxing champion.
Muhammad Ali, who has long been called “The Greatest of All Time,” was at the center of national attention during his days as a professional fighter. At the young age of 22, Ali became the heavyweight boxing champion of the world after defeating Sonny Liston in 1964. In his long career, Ali defended his title from an impressive number of 21 experienced challengers, many of which being some of the best fighters in the sport at the time. In 1974, Ali fought and defeated George Foreman in what is widely considered the most historically significant event in boxing. Despite his reputation, Ali went into the fight as an underdog against Foreman, the then-undefeated champion. Ali retired in the early 1980s and died in 2016, but remains the biggest boxing icon ever.
He had a lasting influence on boxers everywhere, but the impact he had extended far outside his field. Bruce Lee himself was actually inspired by him. Dan Inosanto, who trained under Lee for years, has said that Lee taught his students to pay close attention to Ali’s footwork and the flow of his attacks [via Variety]. Lee actually incorporated Ali’s footwork into his own fighting style. Lee was referring to Ali’s “dancing legs” and the Ali shuffle, which he became known for in the ring. While fighting, Ali constantly moved his feet around, making it difficult to determine what he was going to do next. He also used this technique to fake out his opponents. Bruce Lee can be seen employing a similar approach to his own footwork in his martial arts movies.
When both were at the peak of their careers, there was a lot of talk about who would win if Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali ever got into a fight. Lee, who was aware of this, paid close attention to this. After watching a lot of Ali’s fights, Bruce Lee actually admitted that he would lose to Ali if they ever came to blows [via Complex]. Lee set up a wide mirror so that he could follow along with Ali’s movements as they occurred on screen. Lee studied his fights intensely with the intention of “getting to know how he thinks and moves”.
It makes perfect sense for Bruce Lee to think that he could learn something from Ali, even though their fighting styles were inherently different. If Bruce Lee truly believed that Ali could defeat him, that would be reason enough for Lee to take inspiration from him. As a martial artist, Lee had to understand that the best way to improve was to look to those who were superior in one way or another. Furthermore, Lee’s martial arts philosophy was built on the idea that a fighter shouldn’t be stuck on a particular style. When it came to kung fu, Lee taught against sticking to traditional stances and forms and wholeheartedly believed that martial artists should be willing to adapt and learn from other sources.