Tale of Tim Tackett
Part 1 of our exclusive Q&A with Tim Tackett ran in the October/November 2018 issue of Black Belt. In your experience, what is holding back the growth of jeet kune do in the greater martial arts community? Judging from the popularity of Bruce Lee, JKD should be the most popular art in the world. Bob Bremer and I once did a seminar for about 50 people. I asked Bob privately how many JKD guys were in the room. He said, “Three.” I said, “Maybe four.” And that’s about what it was. We taught the straight lead punch.
The next year, we went to the same place for a seminar and asked, “How many people were here last year?” Most of them raised their hands. We started by covering the straight lead again. The following year, the same thing happened. Somebody said, “Sifu, we already know that.”
I said, “No, you don’t. You recognize it. You have no knockout power with it yet.” That shortcoming affects people in a lot of martial arts. Instead of learning things well enough to be able to use them, they have a lot of techniques that could put them in danger. But people generally don’t train like that.
It’s even more of an issue in JKD. I have all Bruce Lee’s notes from the Bruce Lee Foundation — big, thick volumes with his workouts up to a month before he passed away. He was doing like four things. All he wanted to be able to do well was just those four things. That’s a different attitude than “I want to learn as much as I can.”
I remember Bob Bremer saying, “A guy came in and said he wanted to learn how to do a hook kick, and Bruce said, ‘OK, do it. That’s good. Now do it for 20 minutes without stopping.’” That’s a whole different attitude toward training.
Do you think that some people are technique collectors? Yes. Certificate collectors, too. My favorite question is, “How long will it be before I can get a certificate to teach JKD?” I answer with, “Do you play basketball?” “Yeah.” “How long would you have to play basketball to be a basketball coach?” Why do you think we’ve gone in that direction in the martial arts? People find prestige in being able to say they’re an instructor. Probably once a week, I’m contacted by some sifu in some part of the world who wants me to come over and teach him — or just send him a certificate and he’ll send me $3,000. I always tell them, “The best way to get certified is to learn the JKD we teach. Come to our training camps and learn it.” For people who may be new to jeet kune do, do you recommend starting with JKD, or first learning a traditional art and then transitioning to JKD? If you have a young child, take them to taekwondo for the discipline. Judo’s good, too, but there aren’t as many judo schools around. From what I understand, people asked Bruce that question, and his answer was to start them in judo and, when they turn 13, to start them in boxing. When they get older, move them to JKD. He didn’t mention any other arts. What are the benefits of Lee’s approach? The kid gets the movement, the grappling, the falling, the roughhousing and the boxing power. They also learn to roll with punches, which is good for when someone is trying to hit them. Are there any fighting arts that make sense for students to cross-train in to improve their JKD? Like boxing? Western fencing for reaction training and speed. Basically, a third of JKD is fencing. The straight lead punch is a thrust in fencing. The hammer principle is also similar to a fencing thrust. I think Brazilian jiu-jitsu would be good, as would catch wrestling. As for stand-up arts, kali is good, as is boxing. And Thai boxing. We do Thai kicks when we train here. You’re officially retired from teaching. When did that happen, and what do you continue to do here in your garage? When I retired from school teaching in 2000, I continued teaching JKD. I would go to Europe for seminars, and I would teach here at our Wednesday Night Group meetings. It got kind of popular, but then I started thinking that I needed a break. In April or May of last year, I did my last U.S. camp. I did my last European seminar in Sicily last November.
But you still have class here on Wednesday nights, right? Jeremy Lynch does most of the teaching. Every now and then, I stick my nose in to see how they’re doing. (laughs) How many people are normally here? Six or seven. I bet you’re pretty selective about whom you let in. Oh, yeah. We can afford to be because we don’t charge anything. But we do take donations so we can buy equipment. If you’d never found JKD, where do you think you would be now? And what martial arts–related pursuit would you have been doing for the past few decades? It’s hard to think about that because JKD was so outside of anything I’d ever seen. It was kind of Eastern martial arts but very Western — a third boxing, a third fencing, a third wing chun. There’s a kick from praying mantis, and there’s a technique from choy lay fut, but JKD was never a mixture of 27 different arts like some people claim.
That “27 martial arts” thing that’s often said about JKD came from the notes that Bruce left with Dan. There was a list of martial arts: white eyebrow, hsing-i and others. I looked at it and asked, “What is this?” Dan said, “These are the arts Bruce looked at to see how they entered and what he could do against them if they entered. So he investigated them.” Anyway, somebody got ahold of that list, and it became “what Bruce Lee learned.”
It’s a lot of nonsense. I taught hsing-i for years, and I never saw any hsing-i in JKD. In tai chi and hsing-i, there are these heavy-palm hits. You can get power in one of two ways: the snap of a punch or the weight of a punch. The weight of a punch means you can’t recover as fast, so you have to make sure you hit the target. A snappy punch has a faster recovery. In his notes, Bruce talked about this when he said techniques were either crispy or uncrispy. A hook kick is a snappy kick. A Thai kick is a heavy kick, which means it takes longer to recover from. It’s a fullcommitment thing.
At one point in his notes, Bruce talked about commitment theory. If I’m doing a crispy punch, I’m committing less time to it than when I do an uncrispy punch. And that has, in terms of self-defense, a real meaning. And it’s easy to analyze. That theory changed a lot of what I do because I realized how much time I was committing to different techniques and, therefore, what I was leaving open. What are your thoughts on the dwindling number of firstgeneration jeet kune do practitioners who are able to pass along the lessons they got directly from Lee? There are very few original students left. Since I was studying for about a year and a half when Bruce was still alive, in a way, I’m an original student. We were doing his curriculum when he was alive. It’s the same with Chris Kent; he was doing it for about three months before Bruce died. I consider myself and Chris oneand-a-half generation. But of the first generation, there’s practically nobody left except Dan Inosanto. And I think Steve Golden is still active. He occasionally shows up on a forum. But we just lost Allen Joe and George Lee, two of the best guys ever. Taky Kimura is still around, but he’s not doing well physically. That’s it for the Oakland guys.
There are the Seattle guys, but they’re not doing the same kind of JKD that we are. They’re all good guys, but the JKD of the Chinatown era, as I call it, is different from the JKD of the Seattle era because of the boxing and the footwork of fencing. In Seattle, it was more like modified wing chun. What was going on in Oakland was a lot closer to what we do. Do you think that by its very nature when it was created, JKD was destined to have a life span that was only as long as the lives of the first generation and generation 1.5? Not necessarily. I know some young people who are still teaching it. In some cases, they’re teaching out of their garages. It’s hard to teach JKD in a commercial school because you end up doing more kickboxing-type stuff. In reality, you need to focus so much on a few things to make it work right. Nowadays, if students don’t leave class with two or three new techniques every time, they don’t think it was a good class. Like I said, they recognize techniques but can’t really do them.
Getting good in JKD is not about constantly learning new techniques. It’s about getting rid of techniques. It’s the painter versus the sculptor. That’s hard to do in a commercial school. In the Chinatown school, lots of people dropped out. Even the guys you’ve heard of
“Getting good in JKD is not about constantly learning new techniques. It’s about getting rid of techniques. It’s the painter versus the sculptor.”