Bruce Lee almost fought Joe Lewis instead of Chuck Norris at the end of Way of the Dragon. Bruce Lee’s showdown with Chuck Norris is easily the actor’s most iconic martial arts fight scene. It was also Norris’ first credited movie appearance as well as the role that launched his career.
After starring in The Big Boss and Fist of Fury at Golden Harvest, Bruce Lee remained with the studio to make his third kung fu movie, Way of the Dragon. What set Way of the Dragon apart from the previous films was that he was given full creative control; he was the movie’s writer, star, and director. Way of the Dragon involved Lee’s character, Tang Lung, traveling to Rome to help his cousins deal with a gang trying to drive them away. After Tang Lung proves to be quite troublesome for the gang, they hire a karate champion to take him on. At the end of the movie, Tang Lung arrives at the Colosseum where he meets Chuck Norris’ Colt. After a brutal ten-minute fight between the kung fu master and the karate expert, Lee’s character manages to defeat Colt.
The fight between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris has a legendary reputation in the martial arts genre, but it could have had a completely different legacy, as Norris wasn’t actually Bruce Lee’s first choice for Colt. His original idea for the film was for his opponent to be played by Joe Lewis. Not to be confused with boxer Joe Louis, Joe Lewis was a famous martial artist during the 1960s and 1970s. Like Norris, Lewis was a practitioner of karate and a world champion in the sport. Lewis was a well-respected kickboxer and one of the most influential figures in the history of Western martial arts. In fact, many consider him to be the greatest martial artist ever. Interestingly, he’s been in four matches with Chuck Norris himself. He lost the first three but won their fourth and final fight, which was held in 1968.
Joe Lewis, who is believed to be the inspiration for Street Fighter character Ken Masters, trained with Bruce Lee in the late 1960s. Having been impressed by Lewis’ skills, Lee pick Lewis to play Colt in Way of the Dragon, as he felt it was important for the big fight to be against an actual fighter, as opposed to just another actor. A trained actor wasn’t necessarily a requirement for Colt, since the fight didn’t feature any dialogue from his character. Regardless, Lee’s original plan for Way of the Dragon’s ending fell through. Lewis accepted the part, but for reasons that remain unclear to this day, the actors were unable to agree on how the fight should be handled.
As a result, Lee had to look to someone else to play the movie’s villainous karate expert. That’s when Lee settled on Chuck Norris, another martial artist Lee had sparred with in the 1960s. No one will ever know what Bruce Lee vs. Joe Lewis would look like on the big screen, but as exciting as it surely would have been, it’s hard to imagine it topping the well-choreographed, visceral spectacle that Bruce Lee put together with Norris in the 1972 movie.