‘Better Call Saul’ Asked If Bruce Lee Could Beat Muhammad Ali. We Asked Their Biographers

Joined: 11:43 AM - Jul 16, 2003

11:20 PM - Aug 08, 2018 #1

The Season 4 premiere of “Better Call Saul” had all the tension, heartbreak and intrigue we’ve come to love from Jimmy McGill and his wily friends. But what haunts us most about the episode is the breakroom debate between two Madrigal employees: Who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali?

Since we first saw a preview of the (excellent) episode a few weeks ago, we’ve asked ourselves difficult questions: Street fight? No weapons? What was Muhammad Ali’s weight advantage? And then we remembered something important: We know Bruce Lee’s biographer. His name is Matthew Polly, and he’s cool, and we spoke to him in June for our “Shoot This Now” podcast, which you can listen to on Apple or right here.

OK. If you’ve listened to the podcast, you now know some weird stuff like how Roman Polanski briefly suspected Lee in the Manson murders — and that Lee broke down racial barriers not just for Asians, but African-Americans as well. You probably want to buy Matthew Polly’s magnificent book, “Bruce Lee: A Life.”

But what you want most of all is Polly’s take on whether Bruce Lee, who died in 1973, could beat Muhammad Ali, who died in 2016. We get it.

First, the Madrigal Debate

Three-fourths of the way into the “Better Call Saul” Season 4 premiere, the debate breaks out. One Madrigal employee, played by Bechir Sylvain, astutely tells a co-worker: “I don’t care how fast you are. Muhammad Ali hits you, you’re going down. That’s a fact.”

“If he hits you,” replies his co-worker, played by Brendan Jennings. “Bruce Lee, he knows the anatomy. He’s got the moves. He’s gonna find an opening!”
“Without power though, the opening doesn’t mean squat. How much does he weigh? … Ali was the heavyweight champ. He’s got at least a hundred pounds on Lee.”

All of these are great points. We’ll address them below.

Ali Was Much Bigger

“I think it was John Saxon who asked Bruce if he could beat Ali, and Bruce laughed, “Have you seen the size of his fists? They are bigger than my head.” The story might be apocryphal as it indicates a self-deprecating sense of humor which was not Bruce’s forte. That’s why I didn’t include it in my book. But you can throw it with that caveat,” Polly told us.

But Polly is a man of honor. So he suggested we also contact Ali’s biographer, Jonathan Eig, author of “Muhammad Ali: A Life,” which you can check out here.

Eig’s response was swift.

“Street fight? No rules? Ali kills him. Ali’s twice the size of Lee,” he said.

Lee, who was 5’7”, never weighed more than 145 pounds, as Polly’s book notes. Ali, who was 6’3”, fought at between 210 and 240 pounds, Eig said.

That might seem to end the debate. Until you consider the problem of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

The author, actor, activist and basketball legend is 7’2” — nearly a foot taller than Ali. Over his basketball career, he weighed in at between 225 and 265.
He fought Lee on-screen in “Game of Death,” using his superior reach (see below) to tremendous advantage until Lee’s character discovered and exploited the only apparent weakness of Abdul-Jabar’s character. (Just watch it.)

Could Lee have beaten the real Abdul-Jabar? Lee thought it might be possible. And he was in a good position to know, because he was Abdul-Jabbar’s martial arts teacher.

“Bruce did spar with Kareem Abdul Jabbar and his comment was, ‘His arms and legs are so long I couldn’t get inside to strike him. In a real fight, I would have to take out his knees first,'” Polly explained. “Based on that, I think that would be his strategy against Ali, who while not as huge as Kareem, was still almost twice as big as Bruce. Bruce would use low kicks to try to cripple Ali before Ali could land one of those skull-sized fists on Bruce’s face. Whether or not Bruce could accomplish that is anybody’s guess. I’ve lost a lot of money betting on fights with a great deal more information about the match-up than Lee v. Ali.”

Also, remember the first question we asked — the question first asked by one of the Madrigal employees and then by Eig.

Would this be a street fight?

Bruce Lee Was a Street Fighter

The no-rules format might work to Lee’s advantage. The fight style Lee practiced, jeet kune do, was built around the idea of constantly adapting. It evolved from Lee’ youth spent as an inveterate street fighter.

Ali, however, was a peaceful man outside the ring. He lost several years when he could have boxed in the late 1960s and early ’70s — years when Lee was becoming famous — because he was ensnared in a legal fight with the U.S. government over his refusal to be drafted to kill the Northern Vietnamese.

“He was not confrontational as a kid. He didn’t get into scraps on the street,” Eig noted.

That peaceful nature might not have served Ali well against Lee. The master of jeet kune do would have exploited every possible advantage.
“I’m certain Bruce, who was obsessed with Ali, spent a lot of time thinking about how he could beat the champ in a fight,” he said.

But Again, Ali Was Much Bigger 

We keep coming back to the same incredible advantage Ali held over Lee. Lee was famous for chain-punches, a series of quick, devastating strikes, delivered in close quarters. But to again quote Madrigal Employee #1: “Without power though, the opening doesn’t mean squat. How much does he weigh? … Ali was the heavyweight champ. He’s got at least a hundred pounds on Lee.”

Well: At Lee’s peak weight, and Ali’s lowest, Ali only had 65 pounds on Ali. But still.

“He’s so big and so strong,” said Eig. “In boxing, at least, if you’re a lighter weight class you can’t beat a heavyweight. Ali took punches from the biggest, strongest men on the planet –Sonny Liston and George Foreman and Earnie Shavers. I don’t see how those punches from Bruce Lee are gonna stop him.”

But Wait: Why Would They Fight?

It’s often said that a fight’s real winner is the one who walks away from it.

Lee, as Polly’s book recounts, passed up several challenges from cab drivers, drunks in bars, and people on the street who wanted to test their skills against his — but he had no reason to fight them. Ali didn’t look for trouble, either.

As far as Eig knows, Ali never even mentioned fighting Ali.

“It’s hard to imagine them having reason to fight,” said Eig.

Also, Memo to Madrigal

No disrespect to Mike, but he’s no Bruce Lee or Muhammad Ali, and while you were distracted over a debate that Lee and Ali could have easily settled, if they’d chosen to do so, during their remarkable lifetimes, good old Mr. Ehrmantraut exploited your weaknesses with the efficiency of Bruce Lee punching windows in “Game of Death.”

Get it together, guys.

https://www.thewrap.com/bruce-lee-vs-mu ... athan-eig/

Joined: 9:38 PM - Dec 19, 2017

12:02 AM - Aug 09, 2018 #2

One of the inherent problems with this fantasy match-up is that we know the personalities of both of them. They are famous and both know of the other and they are 'friends' of a sort. Ali was very personable out of the ring. Lee counseled other to avoid challenge fights.

So you have to take it a step back, and make a 'construct'. You have to give them motivation. You can't set them against each other as friends who have met.

So a person with Ali's skills given proper motivation against someone with Bruce Lee's skills. You wouldn't really need to give the Bruce Lee construct motivation since he was known to be able to go to full 100% arousal and intent in a second.

Now, someone comes up and whispers in the Ali construct's ear that this Bruce Lee construct was hold his children and was going to have them killed unless the Ali construct killed him first.

I think Ali, being wily and knowing how he fooled George Foreman, would find a way to get close, get the Bruce Lee construct off guard and then do him in. He was somewhat more devious and more able to use subterfuge to win his fights.

I suppose one might say what if we reverse this paradigm. I don't think the Bruce Lee personality type would be able to be 'sneaky' and would be enraged immediately and thus would be at somewhat of a disadvantage.

So it all boils down to what is the scenario. There are 3-4 out of 10 scenarios where a Bruce Lee type could beat a boxer who outweighed him, with Ali-level skills, in a confrontation, and 6-7 out of 10 where an Ali type could win.

Joined: 6:43 AM - Dec 31, 2017

5:16 AM - Aug 09, 2018 #3

Ali learned how to throw the straight lead punch through Jhoon Rhee, and Jhoon Rhee learned that punching technique from Bruce Lee.....

Joined: 9:38 PM - Dec 19, 2017

2:24 PM - Aug 09, 2018 #4

A couple other things came to mind. I don't think BL actually had disabled anyone by doing leg kicks. As with anything experience is the best teacher. With that in mind, if Inoki couldn't bring Ali down, (even though he was mostly a pro-wrestler exhibitionist) it gives that idea some have put out there some reason for doubt.

Ali said he should never have done that exhibition match with Antonio Inoki because it messed up his knees, but he was not defeated by it.

Another dimension to consider is what amont of scouting either side had done. Let's say they were both 'unknowns' and neither had seen the other fight (again using the 'construct theory' of two identical clones of BL and Ali) it could strongly affect the outcome. The BL-clone may have been over-daring. The Ali-clone may have been over confident.

So I won't say that BL would be completely unable to solve the large, master boxer scenario nor Ali, completely able to stay away from that eye-flick.

If we give this fantasy scenario some 'tweaks', say BL had studied take-downs extensively against a larger opponent, say the sweeping heel-hook style of T.J. Dillashaw, and had some good top control and a couple submissions, and some groundfighting flow, I think he could up his stats to 50-50. The Ali-clone on the ground would have been at a severe disadvantage with the BL-clone in top control. For an example look at the Youtube with Pedro Sauer. However, counter to this note that the ground-savvy Sauer did get flipped over by the wrestler a couple times. Being very large makes getting a sweep very easy even in an untrained person.

The reason I bring this up is we know that in the early UFC wrestlers didn't do as well as expected against BJJ guys since the wrestlers didn't train submissions, just take-downs, top control and hold-downs.

As has been shown many times, just the 'knowing of' or seeing a move does not equal it being functionalized.


Joined: 11:43 AM - Jul 16, 2003

4:56 PM - Aug 09, 2018 #5

I doubt Lee would be lying down in a street fight like Inoki did. Ali liked to clown with his opponents for the spectators.

Here's Davis Miller's experience.

Which brings me to the first time I met Ali face to face. It was July 1975. At the suggestion of my friend Bobby, who was Ali trainer Angelo Dundee's nephew, I'd driven 700 miles to Deer Lake, Pa., where Ali was preparing for a world title defense against British champion Joe Bugner.

Tugging on blood-red Everlast trunks I'd bought for the occasion, I heard him through the dressing room walls, exhorting spectators who'd each paid $1 to watch him train. "I'll prove to the world that I am not only the greatest boxer of all times," he said, "I am the greatest martial artist."

His was the most elemental voice I'd heard; it sounded huge, melodic, eternal. Listening to him made me so nervous I shook a little and felt I needed to urinate. The old guy strapping a pair of red leather gloves on my arms looked at me and laughed. "He won't hurt a little white boy like you," he said.

I was 22 years old, fierce and hard-bodied as a hornet, and no longer thought of myself as "little" or a "white boy." The old guy was stooped, his face long, his eyes yellow with age. "Naw, he won't hurt you," he said again. "Not too bad anyways."

Ali was standing in the center of the ring when I stepped through the ropes. Insect-looking splotches of dried blood dotted the porous canvas under my feet. As I stared up at him, he came into focus and everything else blurred. His skin was unmarked and without wrinkles, and he glowed in a way that could not be seen in photographs or on television.

He introduced me to the crowd as a "great karate master," an accolade I didn't merit. Then he opened his mouth steam shovel-wide, pointed his gloved left fist at me and, in a voice directed to no one in particular, but to the world in general, he shouted, "You must be a fool to get in the ring with me. When I'm through, you gonna think you been whupped by Bruce Lee.

"Are you scared? Are you scared? — Just think who you're with. How's it feel, knowing you're in the ring with the greatest of all times?"

The bell rang and he danced to my right around the 20-foot square of taut canvas. Suddenly, I was no longer nervous. My thighs were strong and full of spring, there was looseness in my movement.

He bounced from side to side in front of me; I felt every step he took shoot into my feet and up my legs. I bent to the right, tossed a jab toward his belt line, straightened, snapped a long, tentative front-kick to his head. I figured it was the first kick he'd ever had thrown at him, but he pulled away as easily as if he'd been dodging feet his entire life.

He stopped dancing and stood flat-footed in front of me, studying my movements. I tried to lever in a jab from way outside. His eyes were bright, his face beaming and round and open. He waited until my punch was half an inch from his nose and pulled his head straight back. I punched nothing but air and dreams.

He turned square toward me, teased by sticking out a long, white-coated tongue, stepped back to the ropes, took a seat on the second strand where his head was only a little higher than mine, and beckoned me in with a brisk wave of gloves.

I slid inside his arms three half-steps; he was so close I felt his breath on my shoulder. I dug a round kick into his right kidney, felt his flesh conform to the shape of my shin, saw the opening I was hoping for, faked a jab and rocketed from my crouch, blasting a spinning back-fist jab and left-hook combination into the center of his jaw. The punches felt so good I smiled. 

People in the crowd sounded impressed.

He opened his eyes fried-egg-wide in feigned disbelief. For the next two seconds, I deserved his serious attention. For two long seconds we were inseparably bound, whirling in a galaxy of electricity, each seeing nothing but the other. For two week-long seconds I was flying. Then he came off the ropes and squashed me with one flyswatter jab.

I saw the punch coming: a piece of red cinnamon candy exactly the size of a gloved fist. I tried to slip it and couldn't -- it was that fast. The back of my head bounced off my shoulders. A chorus of white light went off behind my eyes. A metal taste clouded my mouth, then there was a second, heavier thump as he caught me with a left hook I didn't see. The spectators sounded way, way off. I tried to regain control of my body and couldn't; my legs went to soup beneath me.

He knew I was hurt and he stepped back. Then his eyes went kind, he slid an arm around my shoulders, we exchanged hugs, and it was over.

But I'd accomplished something I'd never, yet always, believed I'd have an opportunity to do.

I had boxed with Muhammad Ali.

As we left the ring together, my childhood hero and the world's greatest pugilist spoke in a way few men had ever talked to me — softly, gently, almost purring. "You're not as dumb as you look," he said. It was one of his canned lines, my personal favorite.

"You're fast," he continued. "And you sure can hit to be sssooo little."

He may as well have said he was adopting me.

I began to quake. My insides danced. But I stayed composed long enough to say the one thing I hoped would impress him most. With confidence I'd learned from watching him on TV and hearing him on the radio countless times, I said simply, "I know."

All these years later people around the world continue to admire Muhammad Ali — not only for the obvious reasons: the extraordinary beauty with which he boxed for 25 years, his glowing, self-proclaimed "prettiness," his huge charm and presence, his contagious and distinctive humor, his brave stand against the Vietnam War, but also because of the great, tender dignity with which he carried himself through his afflicted middle years.

"I'm more human now," Ali has often told me, spreading the fingers of his shaking left hand. "That's what makes people care. They believe I'm like them and that's good."

Each of us is changed by the work we do. When I've asked Ali if he regrets that his health has been compromised by boxing, he has said, "A man goes to war, fights for his country, comes back with one leg. He either thinks it was worth it or it wasn't. It depends on what he values. I look at all my world fame, the people I've helped, all the things I've done, spiritual and nonspiritual. I add it all up and I'd do it all over again."

Note: This article was originally published on Jan. 17, 2007.

Davis Miller is the author of the books "The Tao of Muhammad Ali" and "The Zen of Muhammad Ali."

http://www.latimes.com/sports/la-sp-ali ... story.html

Joined: 10:03 PM - Jun 21, 2018

10:08 PM - Aug 09, 2018 #6

In his two-part article in Penthouse, the late Herbert Goldman claimed that in the rooftop fight which led to Lee being shipped off to the United States, Bruce broke both of his opponents arms and his shin bone. If memory serves, Doug Palmer was the source of a similar story that involved Bruce taking out an opponent with a low line leg kick. This resulted in his opponents friends fleeing the scene. It's important to note that these encounters took place BEFORE Bruce incorporated the Stop Kick into his fighting method.

During a 1992 JKD seminar, student Bob Bremer stated that he asked Bruce about whether he could beat Ali in a fight. According to the Ass Kicker of Chinatown, Bruce responded, "In the ring, he would kill me, but with me being able to use the eye jab in the streets, I would kill him." Robert Duran was the exact same size as Bruce and he responded in a similar fashion when asked the same question by a reporter in 1978. Duran stated "In the streets, I kill him." IMO, Lee's ability to close the gap and punch with blinding speed at close range would be too much for Ali to handle in a street fight.

Joined: 9:38 PM - Dec 19, 2017

11:09 PM - Aug 09, 2018 #7

^^ Wait, what? Duran said that of Ali? He's delusional of the 'too deadly' school. Again it's a matter of motivation. An equally motivated Ali is more than a match for Duran or a 140lb BL.

If you've ever watched athletes on TV, then gone to a track meet it's startling just how much faster they are when you're down near the track.

Likewise for pro-athletes like Ali. They are much, much faster and more elusive in person, with just hand wraps on or bare-handed. If he was given the right motivation, had a chance to see BL throw a few punches in person and told to be careful of eye jabs, he would have come up with a plan. 

But again, so many qualifiers and opinions from people who have never even seen either one in person.

As Jesse Glover told me, not to change my opinion, but he said when you are facing BL it's an entirely different thing from watching him on-screen, knowing he's coming for you.

It's really a fantasy confrontation we would never have been able to arrange in real life no matter what the money or motivation. For that matter Ali could show up and pull out some high quality poly-carbonate safety glasses (like they wear in basketball) and say 'ok let's go...'.

Joined: 9:38 PM - Dec 19, 2017

1:06 PM - Aug 10, 2018 #8

More 'data', some of which is spurious.

From Lee Child's book 'Bad Luck and Trouble':
“The boxer Muhammad Ali’s reach was reckoned to be about forty inches and his hands were once timed at an average eighty miles an hour as they moved through it."

I don't buy it. According to google Ricky Hatton, one of the fastest punchers was recorded at 42mph once.

Another website said:
"The Muhammad Ali of 60’s was the fastest heavyweight ever. In the May 5, 1969 Sports Illustrated, Ali’s jab was measured with an omegascope. Ali’s jab, it was found, could smash a balsa board 16.5 inches away in 19/100 of a second. It actually covered the distance in 4/100 of a second, which is the blink of an eye. Jimmy Jacobs, who owned the world’s largest collection of fight films, said that on film tests with a synchronizer Ali’s jab was faster than that of Sugar Ray Robinson. Jacobs contended that Ali was not only the fastest heavyweight, but also the fastest fighter he ever saw on film." - http://coxscorner.tripod.com/ali.html 

The third sentence makes no sense. If he hit it going 16.5" in 0.19 seconds, then it wasn't going 0.04 seconds. Also Jimmy Jacobs was measuring a gloved punch which would have been slower, the batting usually soaked in sweat.

Joined: 10:03 PM - Jun 21, 2018

5:44 AM - Aug 12, 2018 #9

Jacobs and Bill Cayton pitched that nonsense (e.g., Ali had the fastest hands in boxing history) for years. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of boxing history could list several fighters with faster hands than Ali. Examples include Hector Camacho, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roy Jones, Floyd Mayweather, Thomas Hearns, Sugar Ray Robinson, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, and Terry Norris. In terms of pure hand speed, Ali isn't even the fastest heavyweight of all-time. That distinction goes to Michael Dokes, but unlike Ali, Dokes didn't have great foot speed or a world class chin.  

Joined: 11:43 AM - Jul 16, 2003

10:42 AM - Aug 12, 2018 #10

Before the exile Ali was in a different class to Heavyweights and undefeated. After exile his legs and footwork had declined so he had to take punches he didn't before exile. If you want to check out Ali's speed of the jab check out his first fight vs Sonny Liston 1964 - I think that was the punch they timed. Also some blistering hand speed finishing off Brian London 1966 although he was far inferior to opponents he fought later like Joe Frazier.

Bruce Lee describing how unprepared for real combat the Chinese martial artists were that he witnessed during a recent tournament in Hong Kong. 

"You see a free-brawl, at least, I mean, that's Joe Frazier! I mean a man who is capable of using his tools. And who is very determined in his savage, relentless, attack. Whereas those sons of bitches are cowards. I mean, turning their heads [away from their opponent while they are] swinging their punch, and, after the second rough, they're out of breath. I mean, they're really pathetic looking, I mean, very, very, amateurish. I mean even a boxer, when they concentrate on [just using their] two hands disregard how amateurish they are they do their thing!" 
(Bruce Lee talking to Dan Lee in a telephone conversation 1972)