There's an interesting article today in the New York Times where Manny Pacquiao claims he dervied his movements and some elements of his larger boxing style from martial arts legend and movie action star Bruce Lee. Wait, Bruce Lee? What could a kung fu fighter with choregraphed movement offer a prize fighter who has to improvise on the fly? Here's how:
Growing up in the Philippines, Pacquiao studied Lee, watching his movies on endless loops. He still often views his collector’s set. "Enter the Dragon" is his favorite. His conditioning coach, Alex Ariza, says he believes Pacquiao built his baseline movement off Lee’s template, the continual attacking, the feet drummed in and out.
"Bruce Lee jumped around and kicked his feet and shook his head and shoulders," Ariza said. "His feet moved in concert with his hands. He could be choppy, but he was rhythmic. Manny does the same thing. It comes from that."
As Ariza surveys the boxing landscape, he sees fighters emulating Pacquiao, or trying to. They bounce like him, dance like him, shift like him. But they are not as efficient, powerful, creative or balanced. Pacquiao boasts a style that is often imitated, never replicated.
Ariza has long wanted to test Pacquiao for scientific purposes, for lung capacity, red blood cells, endurance. He could publish his findings in a scientific journal. But Pacquiao wants none of that. Part of his genius remains a mystery and always will.
"Bruce Lee," Ariza said, "was like that."
I like the imagery of positioning Pacquiao next to Lee, if not the limits of the comparison.
There is something to the notion. The article in the Times is actually about how Pacquiao transformed his career first by becoming a two-handed fighter then a master of working angles and finally becoming a master boxing strategist after elevating his game. The Bruce Lee comparison isn't apt exactly for technical similarities as much as it is for what Lee often represents to others: a transcendental talent whose signature style was lighting quick, athletic, devastating striking prowess with immaculate technical precision and brilliance. Fairly or unfairly, Lee is culturally thought of as the master fighter with unparalleled and spell-binding ability.
Lee's reputation is due more to Hollywood choreography than real sporting achievement, but it's that idealized form and identity Pacquiao's chasing. Pacquiao's won enough sporting titles at this point to make anything but a win over Floyd Mayweather, Jr. borderline meaningless. It's that next level he wants: to be the gold standard in poise, economy of motion and ruthless efficiency.