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Many of my friends in the martial arts community have asked me why I rarely write martial arts reviews these days. Those of you who follow my online writing activities will know that I do continue to write critiques, reflections and occasional reviews of written and audiovisual material, but it rarely contains anything directly related to martial arts. The truth is that I have moved on a lot as a writer in recent years and the problem with writing reviews or conducting interviews in the martial arts world is that you often find yourself having to play the role of the politician. Many of these people are my friends or, in most cases, friends of friends. They are struggling to establish or maintain their hard-earned profiles with little support from anyone. When asking someone to write a review they don't really want a review as such, but rather a promotional piece, a free advert. Besides other certain individual criticisms of the work, product or service, most I can universally paint with the "nothing new here" brush and therefore I find it hard to get motivated. This is what influenced me to take a step back for the time being. So why would I consider writing a review for someone who has recently published a book on perhaps the most written about martial artist in history?
The answer is that Bruce Lee Conversations is an important historical resource. This is because it contains a lot of primary source data, which is of immeasurable value to the historian. At face value, the book, written by Fiaz Rafiq, is an exhaustive compilation of interviews with people who knew Bruce Lee and significant people from various different backgrounds who were heavily influenced by the icon of the Little Dragon. This provides the reader with a wide range of different perspectives of the martial artist, actor, philosopher and fitness fanatic. However, the keen historian will note, particularly among the many interviewees who actually knew Bruce Lee, that although the opinion on the man is universally positive there are significant contradictions. Decades after his death many of his students have founded their careers on their association with Bruce Lee, but what is interesting is that this association can be found in one of the three phases of his teaching career. Jeet Kune Do students will know them off by heart as the Oakland era, the Los Angeles era and the Seattle era. The bias different students have the particular era they are linked to is fascinating, as is the bias some fellow martial artists have towards their own art and how they feel the art influenced Lee.
Martial arts readers will be interested to read about Bruce Lee's relationship with boxing and wing chun. Some of the interviewees speak dismissively about Lee's interest in boxing in preference to wing chun, and yet others say the complete opposite. It is an intriguing insight into both the direction Lee was going when a particular individual was working with him and also the way hindsight works.
The book is divided up into two sections, Life and Legacy. The Life part, grouping interviewees under the titles, Original Students, Friends, and Co-Stars and Colleagues, is interesting because of its primary source and eye witness accounts. This is not to say that eyewitness accounts are reliable and the continued propagation of Lee's unsubstantiated amateur boxing record and the even more dubious conspiracy theories are here and present, but it all adds colour to the way an icon is viewed. This same spin is even carried over to the way film colleagues like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar connect Lee to their religious beliefs!
The Legacy section has been picked up by many as original because of the interesting variety on offer. This variety is clearly connected with author, Fiaz Rafiq's own interests, which provide a nice personal touch. Rafiq has been in contacted with the top names in the worlds of boxing, bodybuilding, mixed martial arts and the action film industry. His previous and upcoming books reflect these interests. For the reader it provides some interesting new dimensions. The bodybuilding series of interviews are especially novel. Prior to this Rafiq put the unusual, inventive and experimental side of Bruce Lee's training to those who trained with the man.
The book is clearly a labour of love with adequately written introductory pieces, several photographs and a forward by Diana Lee Innosanto. All the interviews have never seen print before and were written especially for this book. Interviewees include Jesse Glover, Leo Fong, the late Larry Hartsell, Joe Lewis, Wallay Jay, John Saxon, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, Frank Shamrock, John Woo and Jean Claude Van Damme.
Although Fiaz Rafiq is an unashamed Bruce Lee fan and has clearly put the book together to show the icon in a positive light, he has shone this light in many different and interesting directions. What you get is a compilation of fascinating impressions.
"Bruce Conversations" by Fiaz Rafiq is published by HNL (Health 'n Life) Publishing and can be bought on Amazon for £8.78 plus postage and packing. New copies can also be found on their Market Place for under £6.