UFC champ shows Bruce Lee’s martial arts methods point the way

Even in 2023, Bruce Lee's teachings remain useful and relevant to the best martial artists in the world or at least in the UFC.

By: Nate Wilcox | 2 months ago
UFC champ shows Bruce Lee’s martial arts methods point the way
IMAGO | Kyodo News

Bruce Lee’s been gone for 50 years but he’s still the gold standard

Very few martial artists transcend combat sports. Very few movie stars transcend Hollywood. There’s no doubt that Bruce Lee transcended both as his continuing influence on the world’s top martial artists, like UFC strawweight champ Zhang Weili.

The Chinese UFC star recently spoke to CNN and the legendary “Dragon” was top of mind.

“Be water, my friend,” she said, quoting the martial arts legend.

“I used to be so afraid of losing my belt. But once you feel fear, you won’t be able to deploy your skills properly. You can’t pull the trigger. I don’t feel that burden anymore.”

She credits that peace of mind and ability to get into a place of peak performance to a technique that Bruce Lee advocated strongly: meditation.

“When I first started meditation, my back started cramping five minutes in.”

“We live a busy life and rarely have time to sit down, close our eyes and talk to ourselves. We are constantly running around and busy with trivial things.

“How often do we have real conversations with ourselves? I never would. It’s about looking inside and finding a balance between moving and being static; excitement and calm.”

She sounds just like she’s been reading Bruce Lee’s classic book The Tao of Jeet Kun Do.

“Just forget everything, everything about yourself, and react and use the techniques from your instincts. Like when you get burned by fire, you would instantly bounce back.

“You need to make a series of tactics that are not tactical. That is, you don’t have tactics, just like water, but you will fit into whatever shapes of container you are put into.”

I do have to wonder if it was CNN putting the emphasis on the Bruce Lee connection so they could feature the still massively popular icon in the headline or if it’s something Zhang wanted to put forward to associate herself with the legend.

Headline from CNN.com 'China’s first UFC champion channels her inner Bruce Lee'

Maybe she’s even really that into Bruce Lee’s whole philosophy. Not for me to say.

New Max series based on Bruce Lee scripts shows his continuing relevance

The UFC champ isn’t the only person in 2023 who’s still fascinated with Bruce Lee. There’s a series on Max (formerly known as HBO) called The Warrior, that’s based on a Bruce Lee tv-show concept from the late 1960s.

The New Yorker has a review of the show’s third season.

“For decades, Lee’s TV show, originally called “The Warrior,” was essentially an urban legend. Lee wrote the initial scripts in the late sixties, and the series was teased on “The Pierre Berton Show” in 1971, but it didn’t materialize before Lee’s death in 1973. In 2007, the director Justin Lin, best known at the time for his Asian American coming-of-age film “Better Luck Tomorrow,” made a mockumentary called “Finishing the Game,” about another unfinished Lee project: “Game of Death,” the movie that Lee was working on when he died.

“A few years later, Lin, who had become steeped in Bruce Lee lore, contacted Lee’s daughter, Shannon, and asked if she still had her father’s pitch materials for “The Warrior.” She gave Lin a binder, which included Lee’s original eight-page show proposal, along with a half-dozen drafts of sample episodes and scenes. Together, Lin and Shannon Lee, along with Jonathan Tropper, the creator of “Banshee,” expanded these materials into “Warrior,” which premièred on Max in 2019, and recently concluded its third season.”

There’s more to UFC champ Zhang Weili than imitating Bruce Lee

HANDAN, CHINA - JANUARY 17: Chinese professional mixed martial artist and UFC champ Zhang Weili visits her alma mater, Xiangtang Primary School, on January 17, 2023 in Handan, Hebei Province of China. PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxHUNxONLY Copyright: xVCGx VCG111418304373 PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxCHN

The interview was a big feature piece and gave the UFC’s Zhang Weili room to talk about more than just Bruce Lee’s 50-year-old philosophy. They also got some interesting insights about what it’s like to be a female UFC champ.

“Girls like to feel pretty, and I’m no exception.

“See? I’m wearing makeup and had my hair done for this interview. Yesterday, I wore a skirt for the first time in 20 years. It felt refreshing.”

“Next I’m thinking about learning makeup,” Zhang laughed. “When I was little I called the girls to my place and I put lipsticks and eyebrows on them. But now I can’t even do my own makeup!”

“Women shouldn’t be defined in the first place,” Zhang said. “Everyone is unique. We’re living in a very open society with many opportunities to do whatever you want.”

Rose Namajunas and ‘better dead than red’

I have to wonder if that last comment wasn’t a subtle dig at critics like rival Rose Namajunas who dropped the old “better dead than red” cliche in the lead up to her UFC 261 bout with Zhang. As CNN pointed out, that is “a phrase used by the US during the Cold War, with ‘red’ a broad reference to communists. The narrative was further charged by the hostile Jacksonville, Florida, crowd on the day.”

As Bloody Elbow’s Karim Zidan explained at the time, Namajunas was weaving politics and her own heritage into the pre-fight narrative:

“Namajunas—a Lithuanian-American citizen whose parents immigrated from Lithuania after living under the communist regime of the Soviet Union—emphasized the generational trauma that her family has endured while living in a communist state. During the Second World War, Lithuania was first occupied by the Soviet Union, then by Nazi Germany. In 1944, the Soviets reestablished their control of Lithuania, which it maintained until 1990—a year before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union—when Lithuania became the first Baltic state to declare independence.

“During the 45-year occupation, Lithuania underwent several uprisings and endured countless war crimes and atrocities from the Soviet regime. Namajunas’ great-grandfather was an Independent Lithuania military officer killed by the Soviets near his house in the temporary capital of Kaunas.”

Perhaps Namajunas did secure some psychic advantage since she went on to beat Zhang via headkick KO. Perhaps “Thug” Rose did get into Zhang’s head since Namajunas won the rematch at UFC 268 by split decision.

But Zhang has been able to put that behind her with a three-fight win streak (and three straight Performance of the Night honors) that included taking the title from Carla Esparza (who had beaten Namajunas in the meantime).

Join the new Bloody Elbow

Our Substack is where we feature the work of writers like Zach Arnold, John Nash and Karim Zidan. We’re fighting for the sport, the fighters and the fans. Please help us by subscribing today.

Share this story

About the author
Nate Wilcox
Nate Wilcox

Nate Wilcox is the founding editor of BloodyElbow.com. As such he has hired every editor and writer to work for the site. Wilcox’s writing for BE is known for its emphasis on MMA history, the evolution of fighting techniques and strong opinions. Wilcox developed the SBN MMA consensus rankings which were featured in USA Today from 2009 to 2011. Before founding BE, Wilcox was a political operative working for such figures as Senators John Kerry and Mark Warner and an early political blogger. He is the co-author of Netroots Rising, a history of the political blogosphere from 2003 to 2007. Wilcox also hosts the Let It Roll podcast on music history for the Pantheon Podcast Network.

More from the author

Bloody Elbow Podcast
Related Stories