Jeet Kune Do: Getting Down to the Essence

What Does the Referee Position Have to Do with Jeet Kune Do?

I have talked earlier of wanting to see how GM Dan Inosanto boils down all that he has learned. Some have said that there is too much knowledge, it can’t be done. Indeed, if you look at all of the martial arts information available today, plus the ever-increasing goal of martial artists to be well-rounded in all phases of combat, then it all seems staggering.

That’s why so many styles are a laundry list as long as a Manhattan telephone directory of all of their styles and techniques. But too many styles are useless. There is a point at which too much technique becomes counterproductive.

Sure, it’s great for the owner of the school, because he’s got 15 years of material, and the checks keep rolling in. Student retention is high because there’s always something new, and there are plenty of “advanced,” “secret,” “black belt,” techniques that are being dangled just beyond the student’s nose, which he can get to with just 7 more years of monthly dues, mat fees, membership fees, belt fees, test fees, etc.

My teacher GM Estalilla of Kabaroan, puts it this way. “Suppose the student is going off to battle tomorrow. What would you teach?”

Let us look at the art of freestyle, high school/collegiate wrestling. There are literally hundreds of techniques. How could you sort it all out? How could you teach the essence in just a day or two? (I’m not talking mastery, but an introduction to the essentials, coupled with techniques a student could learn today and use in the parking lot on his way out if attacked.)

First of all, get rid of the referee’s position. In wrestling when the wrestlers go off the mat, they return and one wrestler is on all fours, with the other in a dominant position. We can calculate that the referee’s position is unlikely to happen in real life. Eliminating the referee’s position eliminates dozens of techniques, such as a sitout, switch, standup, etc., and the takedowns of the opponent on all fours.

Someone could argue, “Wait, but what if I get pushed down to all fours and the opponent is above me…” Let’s stick to what is likely. Let’s look for the high percentage moves and train those.

Get rid of pinning moves. On the street, our goal is not pinning. Furthermore, I don’t want to be on the ground. This eliminates the cradle, the tilt, the grapevine, Iowa ride, etc. If need be, I can use a choke or a lock in this position. 

No. I don't want to be on the ground. My goal is not to pin anybody. On the street I don't get points.

Next, look at the remaining wrestling moves. Which ones can be used if I hold a weapon, like a knife? Which ones lead into, or follow up from, a strike? Which would work against an armed opponent?

Which are the most effective? What are the techniques that champion wrestlers master, and use to help them dominate opponents?

With this sort of thinking, I think I can boil wrestling down to about 7 techniques. Am I going to beat a champion wrestler? No. (At least not at wrestling, that’s what the backup blade is for.)

Will everyone agree with me as to the 7 essential techniques? No. But at least we are now thinking about what is vital, what is the essence.

Nobody knows where Bruce Lee was going with Jeet Kune Do and grappling, but I have to think this was where he was headed: How can I strip it down, and strip the extras away, so that I get down to the most powerful, effective, direct, and essential techniques?


10 Responses to “Jeet Kune Do: Getting Down to the Essence”

  1. My teacher emailed me the Curriculum he is being taught by one of Dan’s instructors and it includes the Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles curriculum which can also be found online. Each one is longer than the last, and this stuff comes from Bruce Lee, he was adding more at each location and we see the last list as being the longest. If you trained in Seattle but not LA then you may not have everything. Bruce was adding (at least on paper) not taking away. He was developing and changing JKD as he went along.

    Dan knows the difference between Sport and military training and said so in an interview. Regarding FMA he has spoken on what was used by his teachers in the military when they are fighting the Japanese.

    If you are a martial artist with any tactical sense then you know that some techniques are for deadly self-defense and some techniques are for low-threat situations, and if we are going to spar for money then we can neither kill/maim the other guy or treat him like an 80 year old mental patient. Not everything in the martial arts is kill, kill, kill. We are not all in the military and we are accountable to civilian law.

    You want the best minimalist martial art? Carry a handgun and just kill everyone that you perceive as a threat regardless of age or context.

  2. James,

    I’d be interested in seeing those lists. The striking JKD was minimal, but once you add grappling and weapons, the list is bound to expand.

    We’re agreed that “the world’s deadliest art” isn’t always a good thing. As a teacher, I can’t break up a fight in my class by stabbing students or breaking their knees.

    I just view the goal of keeping it simple as a constant struggle.

  3. Darrin,

    Good article and I think you lock onto some valid points. Leave it to GM Estalilla to keep it real. If you are going overseas tomorrow and only have a couple of hours with me, what can I teach you to help keep you alive? To break it into less dramatic terms, what if a person only has 2 hours a week to practice martial arts, what is your “compressed toolbox” (as Lee Morrison calls it)? For me it comes down to a few things, and I think Rodney King has stated a similar hierarchy in the past, but basically it is: Forget grappling. No way, now how, no time do I want to go to the ground in a street fight. If your training time is limited it looks like this: 1. Train your hands (a good stance, cover, and straight punches with good footwork-basically boxing) and maybe one or two low-line kicks that are non-telegraphic and high %. 2. Do some in close work (e.g. clinching, elbows, knees, head-butts, etc) . Learn to fight on the inside without having to go to the ground. 3. Learn to defend a shoot/ takedown. Keep it on your feet.4. Learn to get back to your feet as quickly as possible, using any means necessary. The longer you stay on the ground the more likely you are to die. Once you have all this down pretty solidly (~ 1000 rounds of sparring) then you can add in a few little extras like chokes, locks, throws, whatever…

  4. The problem with the clinch is that it can easily lead to a take down and now you are both on the ground but you have not taken any time to train there. I believe close in for for when you can move into a position to take down the person but yet remain standing yourself. So work on close range striking than things like taking out the knee or redirecting the head rather than get into a two hand hugging match.

    For people with limited time your ground game should be about how to fall properly and how to get up. Leave the submission to the ring.

    I was at a Shootwrestling seminar taught by Ron Bear and had to try to turn over a guy onto his back, the guy was much stronger and skilled than I was but while I couldn’t turn him over the following was going through my mind while trying, “Hmmm, nope, not allowed to poke him in the eye, hmmm, nope, not allowed to punch his throat, hmmm, nope, not allowed to break his elbow with a heel…”

  5. Yes and no. Untrained fighters, at clinch range, will either try and take it down or get taken down. A good pugilist can fight on the inside and keep it there. If you look at Muay Thai there is a lot of this that goes on, and I know the argument that ground fighting isn’t allowed in that “sport” but throws are and it is really hard to throw a good Thai boxer. also look at Rodney King’s Crazy Monkey-at CM3 level it is inside fighting and he uses what he refers to as a “straight jacket clinch” to great effect. Yes, you do run the risk of going to the ground, but if you stay offensive you can do a lot of damage before that ever becomes a possibility. I have employed these skills against very skilled Jujitsu practitioners and stayed upright while landing very clean shots in close. of course, depending on what you’re good at your individual results may vary. If you aren’t really good inside, but to stay at rim-shot range and throw straight punches…

  6. Tommy,

    I’d pretty much agree with your unarmed hierarchy, with an emphasis on rear elbow and knee to drop someone.


    I know. The wrestling bit often is as much what you “can’t” do as what you can.

  7. In the martial arts world, Bruce Lee’s elegant and precise art of Jeet Kune Do has largely degenerated into misinterpretation and endless, empty drills. Today, there are as many camps teaching their interpretations of Jeet Kune Do as there are definitions of Jeet Kue Do itself.

  8. Very good points in the article and completely agree. If you ask Guro Inosanto what are the most important techniques for reality combat, he doesn’t hesitate to show you. Thats what Paul Vunak did when he was training with him. I like how Vunak separates things into 2 different categories, Self preservation and self perfection. Hopefully separating what you would actually use in most conflicts from training drills that give you attributes will help students from misunderstandings.

  9. Well your article it´s very very good, but have a failure that many people do too. Martial Arts and sports are not the same thing. Sport it´s for win (a contest with rules), Martial Arts are to kill. High school/collegiate wrestling it´s a sport not an art or martial art. Any way, I agree with your master.

    • Marcos,

      I’m looking at wrestling as an example of how one can boil down a large number of techniques down to the essentials.

      Wrestling does have combat application, if you know what to look for.

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