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Is Jeet Kune Do the Best Self-Defense for You?

Originally posted on 03/27/2019

A Jeet Kune Do martial artist does a jumping side kick silhouetted by the sunset on a beach.By Jessica Militello

In Williamsburg, Brooklyn, one of the four locations of New York Martial Arts Academy, passersby regularly stop and take out their camera phones to capture an image of the massive, intricately painted mural of Bruce Lee on the front of the school.

For Bruce Lee fans, their curiosity has often inspired them to take a step inside of the school and find out if the mural is just a coincidence, or if the martial art Lee founded, Jeet Kune Do, is actually being taught there. But for those familiar with the man and not the art, the next question may be, what exactly is Jeet Kune Do and what does the art have to offer?

This article is all about Jeet Kune Do (JKD) and the self-defense it offers for you. 

The Benefits of Jeet Kune Do

According to Lee, in an article published in Black Belt Magazine in 1971, titled, Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate, “'Jeet Kune Do' is merely a convenient name. I am not interested with the term itself; I am interested in its effect of liberation when JKD is used as a mirror for self-examination.”  

Jeet Kune Do places an emphasis on the individual’s personal expression. It is considered an art for self-defense in the street, designed to be adaptive to an opponent’s skill level and without consideration for a weight class, rules, or a referee to call the fight. Lee placed great emphasis on using the art for personal development and maintain individuality. According to Lee, “Life is a constant movement, rhythmic as well as random. Life is constant change and not stagnation.”  

Freedom from Limitations

Lee’s idea of liberation from set styles and concepts can be a breath of fresh air for those looking for an art where they are able to express themselves in their training. This was certainly the case for Victor Vidal, a student at NYMAA, who initially trained in Kyuokushin karate for six years. For Vidal, JKD offered him more options based on each individual situation in combat that he found to be more efficient and realistic. 

“In Kyuokushin karate, we were taught to throw punches head high to the air and never to a real person,” said Vidal. “During sparring if you actually punched the other person in the face, the match would stop to allow them to recover. When I started training in JKD, I learned that the ability to stop the attacker before they hit you made more sense.”

A Brief History of “The Way of the Intercepting Fist”

JKD was founded by Bruce Lee in 1967 after years of studying and developing ideas for a non-classical form of expression intended to deviate from more traditional martial arts that Lee had studied throughout his life. Lee ultimately felt that teaching stylized techniques were a detriment to a student’s understanding and were not realistic for use in real life combat. Lee described the movements as “simple, direct, and non-classical.” Although Lee was initially reluctant in giving his ideas a name to avoid stylization of his teachings, he eventually called his philosophy Jeet Kune Do, which literally translates as “way of the intercepting fist.” 

What’s the Difference Between Jeet Kune Do and Other Martial Arts?

In JKD, its teachings are not restricted by rules or limitations in the way that other arts can be. It offers methods of attack including kicking, punching, trapping, grappling, and weapon. It allows for eye-gouging, kicking to the groin, headbutting, the use of elbows and knees, and chokeholds.

According to Lee, “While JKD utilizes all ways and means to serve its end (after all, efficiency is anything that scores), it is bound by none and is therefore free.” Let's go through some other martial arts and look at the differences between them and Jeet Kune Do.

Jeet Kune Do vs Krav Maga

JKD has often been conflated with aggressive martial arts such as Krav Maga and mixed martial arts. Krav Maga, like MMA, can appear to resemble JKD for its emphasis on training for self-defense in an uncontrolled street scenario. However, JKD can be better for those looking to learn more about the benefits of footwork in attacking and evading during an altercation. Some tools taught in Krav Maga, such as blocking and the use of checking and kicking may not be helpful if someone smaller was using it against a much bigger opponent. 

Jeet Kune Do vs Mixed Martial Arts / MMA

While the use of similar tools is certainly present, MMA may not be the best choice for someone looking to defend themselves in situations when an opponent can be of larger size and stature. Certain tools that may be helpful in such instances are banned in MMA training such as finger jabs, headbutting, and kicking to the groin.

Jeet Kune Do vs Karate

Jeet Kune Do is more of a way of life while Karate is a fighting style. JKD is a style designed to keep you safe in all situations when rules are not involved. This "street fight" philosophy differs from the fighting art of Karate. The many forms of Karate have traditional poses and strikes requiring the practitioner to work within these constraints.

Jeet Kune Do vs Muay Thai 

Muay Thai is a hardened fighting technique from Thailand. This "art of eight limbs" makes use of punches, kicks, elbows, and knees - thus using 8 striking points. Muay Thai practitioners mold these striking sources into bludgeons with repeated kicking against hard surfaces (traditionally, Muay Thai fighters kick banana trees until the tree falls over). JKD differs in that it offers a more balanced approach without grinding and pounding on your 8 limbs.

Jeet Kune Do vs Boxing

Boxing is all about footwork and fist strikes. The shuffle and dance keep boxers light on their feet and ready to strike with various punches. Jeet Kune Do on the other hand makes use of many other strikes and attacks for defense and safety. Boxers will be expert strikers but limited in their range of options compared to JKD practitioners.

Kinetics and Physics for Maximum Efficiency

In JKD, the purpose of adopting all aspects of combat gives every individual the opportunity to express themselves and defend each situation differently. Carlos Irizarry, an instructor at NYMAA, furthered elaborated on how some traits of different martial arts compare to similar tools adopted in JKD and how they differ. 

 “In boxing, someone big and powerful and someone smaller are still throwing the same punches, similar head movement, and footwork,” said Irizarry. “But if they fight each other based on the boxing rules, the bigger guy has the advantage. In Muay Thai they focus on elbows, knees, a few vicious kicks, but the Muay Thai fighter stands in a position where he would be vulnerable against a grappler. Using the science and kinetics of JKD gets better results in a situation where you’re defending yourself. It’s based on what works for you as an individual and your ability to adapt to the situation.”

Adapting to Each Situation in Combat and in Life

Lee’s ideas on adapting to every situation is not exclusive to combat and his teachings were intended to apply to an individual’s daily life. According to Lee, “The core of understanding lies in the individual mind, and until that is touched, everything is uncertain and superficial. Truth cannot be perceived until we come to fully understand ourselves and our potentials.” JKD provides a path for personal development by going with the flow, or as according to Lee, “Moving, be like water. Still, be like a mirror. Respond like an echo.” The benefits of JKD offer confidence, physical fitness, self-defense, discipline, and peace of mind. 

For many students, like Timorris Lane, the decision to take JKD was life-changing. Lane took inspiration from Lee’s teachings by learning to adapt to each situation that life offers on and off the training floor.

“JKD teaches you how you change to fit various situations because not everyone will fight the same way,” said Lane. “I’ve taken this approach in my business dealings too, because people are very different, and so being able to adapt better has helped me to become a more adept creative. The road of life isn’t always a straight road. Being able to flow with its curves will allow you flourish no matter the circumstance.”  

Additional Jeet Kune Do Resources

There is so much to learn about Jeet Kune Do. Explore the Bruce Lee Foundation's Jeet Kune Do resource to continue your learning. Also, check out the following book - 

  • Lee, Bruce, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, 1975, Black Belt Books 

Learn Jeet Kune Do from 2nd and 3rd Generation Bruce Lee Students

There is much to know about Jeet Kune Do, so much more than we could hope to put into one blog post. Check out the link and book to learn more. If you are ready to check Jeet Kune Do out for yourself, the New York Martial Arts Academy has four locations around the city to make sure you can find a spot. We offer both children's and adults' classes offered by teachers who are second and third generation Bruce Lee students. Give our dojo a call today.