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For millions, he was bigger than Muhammad Ali, bigger than the Beatles. For Davis Miller, though, Bruce Lee was more than just an icon. In this excerpt from his new biography, Miller explains Lee's impact on his life and asks two crucial questions: what killed the king of martial arts and was he really the greatest fighter ever?
ON MONDAY 27 September, 1973, I was a drowsy-eyed, 21-year-old freshman at Lees-McRae Junior College in Banner Elk, North Carolina. It was a miserable time in my life. I had few friends, inside or outside class. I lived vicariously through Superman comic books and the outsized deeds of Muhammad Ali.

I was 5ft 7in and weighed 90lb. For a decade, I had endured almost daily bullying and humiliation. Guys in my high school had nicknamed me "Foetus". I was punched in the stomach, pushed into girls' restrooms, had my skinny bones stuffed into lockers, or was plain ignored. Although most of my contemporaries were preparing to graduate from university and proceed into the real world, I was maturing slowly (if, and there was real doubt about this, I was growing up at all).

Ten years earlier, my mother had died; and within days of her death I had quit blaming the doctors and placed the fault where it really belonged - on me. I had shut myself away from everyone around me, and when Daddy tried to talk to me, I answered not with words, but in grunts. I'd also just about stopped eating.

That September marked the first time I'd been away from my father's house for longer than a weekend. I was homesick. To relieve my misery, I spent time in Banner Elk's only movie theatre, drawn to the mystery and the power that lighted screens and hidden speakers have when placed at the front of large dark rooms.

Movies at the Center Theater cost 25 cents each. A different feature opened every three days, and since the beginning of the semester, I'd seen almost every movie that had played there.

The picture showing that night was Enter the Dragon. The house lights dimmed, flickered, went out. The Warner Brothers logo flashed.

And there he stood. There was a silence around him. The air crackled as the camera moved towards him and he grew in the centre of the screen, luminous.

This man. My man. The Dragon.

One minute into the movie, Bruce Lee threw his first punch. With it, a power came rolling up from his belly, affecting itself in blistering waves not only upon his on-screen opponent, but on the movie audience.

A wind blew through me. My hands shook; I quivered electrically from head to toe. And then Bruce Lee launched the first real kick I had ever seen. My jaw fell open like the business-end of a dumptruck. This man could fly. Not like Superman - better: his hands and his feet flew whistling through sky. This wasn't simply a movie, a shadowbox fantasy; there was a seed of reality in every Lee movement. Yet to watch him felt just like a dream.

Bruce Lee was a master of effortless effort, faster than Muhammad Ali, an artist whose brush-strokes sliced the air, and opponents' bodies, as naturally and unerringly as ancient Buddhist monks had spent only seconds stroking watercolours into bamboo patterns on rice paper, patterns that signify Five Virtues of the Superior Man - simplicity, harmony, wisdom, contentment, a life beyond ambition.

What I knew in every molecule in my body was this: Bruce Lee was who I'd always wanted to be, and what I'd always believed I could become (or, more precisely, felt I already was, in some unseen way). All this, even though, until seeing Lee, I wasn't certain such a person could exist.

THOSE WHO don't practise martial art regard Lee's movies almost as respectfully as they do Three Stooges shorts - Larry bonks Moe on his noggin, Moe sticks his fingers in Larry's eyes, Larry stomps on Curly's foot. But others take Bruce Lee very seriously. Three decades after his death, he is revered by martial arts practitioners throughout the world, and his likeness is sold in boutiques in Beverly Hills and in souks in Marrakesh, hangs on apartment walls in Kiev and in Paris, in mudhuts in central Africa and in the Australian outback, as well as on the insides of gym lockers in Peoria and Liverpool. His image is still the one that's most common on the cover of martial arts publications world-round. His ambiguous reputation as the 20th-century god of martial art is known in almost every city, town and village on the planet.

Lee's name may be recognised in more places than that of anyone else of our time. The American tae kwon do pioneer Jhoon Rhee recalls visiting Moscow in 1992: "Everywhere there were Bruce Lee posters and Muhammad Ali posters. I asked a lot of people, 'Who is most famous, Muhammad Ali or Bruce Lee?' I was so surprised to hear, unanimously, 'Bruce Lee.'"

Whereas other screen fighters, from Errol Flynn to Sylvester Stallone, have simply been actors, Lee was the real thing. "Bruce Lee may be the world's best-conditioned athlete," Fighting Stars magazine announced in 1973, "and its most dynamic living martial artist." Others went further. "There are Malaysian tribes," Esquire reported around the same time, "who worship him as a god."

I had no illusions about Enter the Dragon being a great film, or even a good one. It was more of the same Bondish junk I'd seen 1,000 times and outgrown years before. Enter itself hadn't so affected me; it was Bruce Lee, who'd leapt, shining, from the screen. In that incandescent moment, an extraordinary new reality had been revealed. And that reality purred, for me, in a way that nothing else had.

THREE DAYS after my first encounter with Enter the Dragon in 1973, the film left town. But I needed more time with Lee. So at the end of that week, instead of driving to my father's house, which I'd done every weekend since I'd started college, I tooled over to Johnson City, Tennessee, where the movie had been showing for a month and a half. At the door, a beautiful, dark-featured girl gave me a smile and a copy of Fighting Stars that featured Lee on the cover. It was one of only a couple of times in my whole life that a good-looking girl had smiled at me.

What did it matter that she handed copies to people in front of me and behind? Those people were spectators, who floated from one sideshow to the next, seldom understanding - or curious to understand - whatever performance they were seeing. They just wanted a performer, any performer, to deliver them from boredom. I believed that I was different. This was the reason that the beautiful girl had shared her smile with me.

I didn't know until I got back to my dorm room, opened the magazine and read the hastily written obituary on page one, that Bruce Lee was dead at the age of 32.

I almost had to sit down on the floor. I couldn't see how or why someone so obviously alive could ever really die, at least at the age Lee had. Thirty-two - the same age that Ali would be on his next birthday. A year younger than Jesus had been when he'd been crucified. Most important to me, though, it was the same age my mother had been when she'd died.

Christ, I wouldn't even have thought that Lee was 32. He looked mid-twenties, tops. A man so youthful - how could he be dead? Especially when he was what I'd hoped to find for so many years - and only just had.

BEFORE LEE, the vast majority of martial practitioners all over the world were basically incapable of defending themselves; athletes as we think of them in the West simply didn't exist in the Asian fighting disciplines.

I knew this myself, from bitter experience. For my 16th birthday, my father gave me to have karate lessons. But the formal, static techniques they taught proved useless. If anything, being known as a practitioner of karate increased my vulnerability to the bullies in my life.

But Lee reconnected martial arts to fighting. Where most martial practitioners in the world slavishly followed one style of combat or another, Lee analysed and experimented with dozens of Eastern combat systems, including numerous styles of gung fu and karate, as well as tae kwon do, judo and jujitsu, Western boxing, wrestling and fencing, and the French foot-fighting sport, savate. His stated goal was to distil the essence - that which was most efficient and practical - from each system.

Chief among Lee's influences was Muhammad Ali. Lee, whose primary fighting stance was right-side forward, where Ali faced left, bought films of every Ali bout that he could find. Watching Ali's image through mirrors so that he could more easily understand what the boxer was doing, Lee attempted to emulate his movements. Segments of Lee's movie fight with Chuck Norris in Way of the Dragon, in which he makes Norris look like so much grey cube-steak on a jet-air grill, are lifted from moments in the second and third rounds of Ali's real bout with Cleveland Williams and from the third round knockout in the Brian London fight. Or, more precisely, from television camera angles of the Ali-Williams and Ali-London contests. "Bruce idolised Ali, his brilliance, his footwork, his speed, his fluidity, his elusiveness," says Joe Lewis, an ex-world heavyweight kickboxing champion and a former student of Lee's. "He felt that Ali was the best there was."

Wing chun - the style of gung fu that Lee began to study at 13 - had few kicking techniques. Any kicks used in combat would have been thrown to the ankles, knees, groin and coccyx. Throughout the Sixties, Lee developed not only his street-fighting skills, but a spectacular, high-kicking, movie martial art. "Bruce sucked up everything he could apply to his art," says James Coburn, one of many Hollywood celebrities whom Lee taught in the late Sixties. "If it worked, it worked. If it didn't, out it went. All philosophers, all training, all teaching, everything. If it works, you do it. And you only find out if it works by doing it. The rest of it's all jive."

Lee called his street-fighting method "jeet kune do", which translates most accurately as "stop fist way", though it is usually translated, less meaningfully, as "way of the intercepting fist." Lee's movie martial art is often incorrectly referred to as jeet kune do, or JKD. "There are three opportunities to strike an opponent," he said. "Before he attacks, during his attack, or after he attacks." In the jeet kune do of the mid-Sixties, Lee attempted to focus on pre-attack options, the naive notion being that the fighter who moves most economically and efficiently, in a properly anticipatory fashion, will beat his opponent to the punch.

Eventually, Lee regretted giving his art a name. "I am all styles, yet I am no style," he said. By labelling it, he had limited that which he thought of as limitless, formless, beyond definition. "He says JKD has no technique," notes Dan Inosanto, another longtime Lee pupil. "My wife says everybody in the Sixties talked that way."

Lee never particularly enjoyed teaching. He wanted to showcase his skills before a larger audience than he could attract to a martial arts class; he felt that he needed, and deserved, to be internationally famous. To Lee, the best way to accomplish this would be to educate the entire world to Eastern culture and his ideas of what martial art should be. Young Bruce Lee knew only one way to seize this shimmering future. Bruce Lee, child of the movies, whose ideals of a gung fu master came from the films he'd loved as a child, made the decision to pursue his singular art in this singular way: he'd become the world's best-known martial artist by becoming the first genuinely international movie star.

In 1969, inspired by a mail-order course from a self-motivational speaker called Napoleon Hill, Lee wrote a letter to himself. "I, Bruce Lee, will be the highest-paid ... superstar in the United States. In return, I will give the most exciting performances and render the best of quality in the capacity of an actor. Starting in 1970, I will achieve world fame and from then onward till the end of 1980, I will have in my possession $10,000,000. I will live the way I please and achieve inner harmony and happiness."

IN SEPTEMBER 1973, I made a similar decision. Not five days after having seen Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, I found an article that had been written by the man himself, entitled "Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate."

"I am concerned with the blossoming of a martial artist," Lee wrote. "Leave all preconceptions behind. Leave your protective shell of isolation, and relate directly to what is being said."

Foetus, he was calling, come out, come out, wherever you are.

"Fighting, as is, is simple and total," Lee continued. "It is not limited to your perspective or conditioning as a Chinese or Korean martial artist. True observation begins when one sheds set patterns, and true freedom of expression occurs when one is beyond systems ... Man, the living, creating individual, is always more important than any style."

In that moment, for the first time ever, I wasn't nothing. It no longer bothered me not to be just like other kids. For the first time I felt like something, and that something had been named. There was nothing wrong with being different. Being different could mean being an individual. I was an individual! Or could become one, when I began living.

"At best, styles are parts dissected from a whole. Divisive by nature, styles keep men apart rather than unite them."

Lee was referring specifically to systems of martial art. But I took the term (and Lee's article) allegorically, to apply to any conditioning, any training, any capsulisation, any categorisation, any habit. "Style" could mean religiosity, ethnicity, prejudice. It might mean "lifestyle," or any other way of thinking or being. It could mean idealising a person, notion or situation. It could mean regarding one region of the world, or the people who live there, as being better than others. It might mean making a big deal out of Christmas or a stupid football team, or having to use "good" goddamn table manners. It might even mean feeling that to make it through the day you need a clean, mean ride, snazzy trousers and hard-starched shirts.

Then it began to seem like a tiny dumb joke: everything that I'd perpetrated on myself for half my life. Wallowing in the romance of sorrow, in the joy of melancholy. Blaming my lot on my mother's death, on God, on people, on the world. I'd closed myself off to almost everyone and everything around me, and to myself, although I stayed so deeply inside of me.

I'll not do it any longer, I declared at that moment. I choose not to frame myself, not to encapsulate myself, not to "live" in a shell any longer. Nor will I adopt a "lifestyle", choose somebody else's way to replace my shell. I'll not join anybody's colony, not select a side, choose neither to believe nor to disbelieve, not step along, not be a passenger. I choose, instead, to live a life. Foetus will punch and kick his way out of his shell.

I START my Lee-inspired workouts in the second week of January 1974, just before my 22nd birthday. On Daddy's bathroom scales, I weigh in at 92lb. Push as I might, I'm unable to perform a single push-up. I try them stooped on all fours, what we had called "women's" push-ups in high school gym class.

When I've worn myself out on a few of these, I run twice around my father's half-acre backyard, my legs stiff, tripping in mole holes and almost falling. I finish my day with 10 overhead presses with the baby-blue, plastic, 22lb weight set Daddy had bought for me the year after my mother had died, in an effort to motivate me. The next morning I'm so sore I can hardly lift my arms over my head.

All through the winter and spring I stay with my workouts, and soon I'm able to run five times round the yard - then 10, 15, 20. Magazine pictures of Lee are taped to the wall beside the Ali poster opposite my bed, where I can see them each night before I go to bed, and each morning when I wake.

I dig deep every day, and after a few months I sprint the last five laps and bound down the bank of the creek, through the water and up the other side, and I churn through the woods and briars, then follow the creek all the way down to Shaffner Park and back, creating my own four-mile path.

By then I'm squeezing out push-ups in multiples: three sets of 10, 20, then 35, now 50; eventually, I get up to grinding out more than 500 a day. In January I started with five sit-ups per workout; one year later I'm at 1,000, six days a week. Add a couple of hundred crunches and leg raises on top of that. Like Lee, I teach myself to do push-ups on my fingertips, and on the thumb and forefinger of each hand, and even, eventually, on only one arm.

Eating four overflowing multi-plate meals every 16 hours, then adding a gallon of whole milk and a couple of blenders of ice cream, bananas and Bob Hoffman's quick weight-gain powder (a variation on Lee's own weight- gain method), I force the bathroom scales to 105, then to 112, 119, 121.

I remember walking past the mirror in a pair of gym shorts, and spotting a muscular torso from the corner of my eye - defined pecs, trapezius, lats, deltoids, everything. For a second, I wonder who this person is in the mirror. Then I smile, although I'm still not sure that this is my image.

Years later, I would briefly become a serious competitive kick-boxer; but that is another story. What was important was what came before. When I, and millions of other tiny twits, first saw Lee on big enveloping movie screens, we no longer felt so little, so powerless. Lee managed to help a few of us swim out of our bowls of sad soup and find something resembling real, dry-land lives.

ALL THESE years later, a fog of rumour, myth and mystery continues to surround the circumstances of Lee's death. These are some of the most popular theories: he died from overtraining or from too much sex; he was murdered by angry kung fu masters/by the Chinese "Mafia"/by an evil herbalist/by a secret society of martial arts assassins/by the director of his first two movies/by the head of the movie studio for which he worked/by rival Hong Kong movie magnates/ by his lover(s)/ by his wife. Perhaps the most fabulous of the rumours was that Lee had not died but had gone into seclusion, and would return at some date - perhaps at the turn of the millennium? (2000 is a year of the dragon. And would have been Lee's 60th birthday.)

To me, Bruce Lee's real life is more intriguing than these quasi-religious myths. Lee was a flawed, complex, yet singular talent whose reputation, in death, has been even more abused than Elvis's - Presley basics have been correctly reported hundreds of times. Yet, despite Lee's worldwide fame and his effect on global culture, no one has written about him truthfully or well. The mist of money-making myth around him is so thick that the truth of his story has been almost entirely obscured.

Lee was born in San Francisco in 1940, another Chinese year of the dragon, and grew up in his parents' home on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong. His family had been in showbusiness for many generations, and his father, a comic actor, arranged his son's first part in a movie; he was six years old at the time.

By the time he was 18, Lee was a major Hong Kong teen idol who had starred in 20 films (none about martial arts), the most popular of which was The Orphan, in which he played a troubled adolescent in the James Dean mould.

Lee was a frisky and mischievous teenager - his family's Cantonese nickname for him translates as "Never Sits Still" - and at 13 he began to study wing chun gung fu (the Cantonese pronunciation of kung fu, which Lee himself used). Movie lore has it that he was a starship-quick and religiously obsessive student. In reality, he was more interested in acting, girls and dancing - he became the cha-cha champion of Hong Kong - and didn't take serious interest in wing chun until years later.

He came to America in his teens, after his father decided that the boys he was hanging out with at home were bad influences. After a brief spell in San Francisco, he left for Seattle, where he struggled to improve his English and got a high-school degree at Edison Technical Institute. He later attended the University of Washington as a philosophy major.

He excelled in some classes, and managed to survive most others, partly by trading gung fu lessons with better-rounded students, who agreed to write papers for him. "Tough guys and wimps flocked to Bruce," says Jesse Glover, Lee's first-ever pupil.

Lee found a wife at university (a timid, inexperienced co-ed named Linda Emery), and then quit school, moved to Oakland, California, and, along the way, decided that he was going to become the best martial artist in the history of the world.

Over the next few years Lee became the first Western-style athlete in the Asian martial disciplines. He ran, pushed weights, jumped rope, performed staggering numbers of callisthenics, punched bags, developed dozens of pieces of training equipment that he used daily (many of which, after his death, were adopted by the burgeoning community of martial arts practitioners).

"No one ever trained as fanatically as Bruce," says Chuck Norris, who became one of Lee's pupils. "He seemed to train 24 hours a day." But this sojourn in the internal wilderness also became the basis of a revolution in the martial arts. For Bruce "Never Sits Still" Lee had adopted that distinctly American faith: that we can invent ourselves on a daily basis. And that we can work to become whatever and whomsoever we choose.

Between 1967 and 1971, Lee taught many notables in the film community, including James Coburn, Blake Edwards, the screenwriters Stirling Siliphant and Joe Hyams, Steve McQueen, Lee Marvin, Elke Sommer, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski and the Warner Brothers president, Ted Ashley. He also began to act again, initially in the television series The Green Hornet and then in film (though not in Hollywood). In 1971, Raymond Chow, head of Hong Kong's fledgling Golden Harvest studio, offered Lee a two-picture deal for $7,500 per movie. According to the Brooklyn-based documentary producer George Tan, who has spent more than a decade researching Lee's life, when the first of these, The Big Boss (retitled Fists of Fury for US distribution in 1972), was released in Hong Kong in 1971, "Bruce became as big a celebrity in Hong Kong as the Beatles had been in England."

By mid-1972, Lee had completed the third picture of his adult life, the self-written, -directed and -produced Way of the Dragon, and had begun to develop the reputation, at least in Asia, that he'd been seeking - of being the greatest fighter on the planet.

In early 1972, Lee returned with his family to Hong Kong, and soon he was being prominently featured in almost every issue of Hong Kong's many daily newspapers. "Wherever we were driving, they'd scream, they'd wave and squeal," says Bob Wall, a karate champion who co-starred in two of Lee's movies. "It reminded me of clips I'd seen of Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley getting mobbed. It was unbelievable, it was overwhelming." To prevent riots, department stores closed to allow Lee to shop by himself. When he wanted to go for a drive to relax, he was escorted by motorcycle police. It was a by-product of his martial training to be purposely paranoid. For years, he'd worked at being aware of movements of people who might attack him, to size up everyone in a crowd. But his martial fanaticism did not prepare him for the noose of super-celebrity in a very small, enormously crowded city.

According to James Coburn, the unexpected pressures of fame in Hong Kong left Lee insecure, tense, easily agitated. "He became very paranoid," Coburn says sadly. "He had this impenetrable aura, this shield around him for 10, maybe 12ft. Anybody who came within that area was real suspect, and they had to watch out."

Since his Hollywood days, Lee had been an occasional "recreational" drug- user. Now, in the hope of calming himself, he regularly ate hashish brownies and leaves of marijuana. But his paranoia, sleeplessness and memory loss increased, as did his headaches. He feuded with Coburn and Siliphant, and sniped at McQueen, at co-workers, at fans and at the "ignorant" Hong Kong Chinese. "He was repeating himself," says Wall, sympathetically. "He told me a story on the phone, then I went to his place and he told me the story twice more, every time like he'd never said it before. It was clear something was wrong."

On 10 May, 1973, while dubbing his voice for Enter the Dragon at Golden Harvest studio, Lee collapsed and was rushed to hospital. He suffered a series of full-body seizures and cerebral edema. He only regained full consciousness the next day.

Worried, he flew to UCLA Medical Center for further tests. His mother and his younger brother, Robert, now lived in Los Angeles, and Lee stopped by their apartment. "He said he was wondering how much he could push his body," says Robert. "He's constantly pushing himself to higher levels. He's always out to find more knowledge. He said, 'Oh man, the doctor told me I got a body like an 18-year-old.' And he was thin but he was in good spirits."

Lee also spoke with Coburn. "'They told me I was in perfect shape, everything is cool. Just take it easy. Just take it easy for a while,'" Coburn quotes him as saying.

Returning to Hong Kong, Lee ceased physical training, except for daily runs through his neighbourhood, and concentrated his energies on his movie career.

Six weeks later, on 20 July, 1973, three weeks before the release of Enter the Dragon, he died.

WITHIN HOURS, Linda Lee had issued a statement that her husband had inexplicably collapsed while walking with her in the garden outside their home. On 25 July, 25,000 people attended Lee's funeral - the largest in Hong Kong's history. His body was flown to America for a second funeral, where the pallbearers included McQueen and Coburn. Among others, Coburn and Ashley delivered eulogies. Then Lee was buried in Seattle's Lakeview Cemetery, near to Linda's mother's home.

Enter the Dragon was released on the second Friday in August. On the basis of that one picture, Bruce Lee became a worldwide celebrity. Japanese teenagers cut their hair like his. The Taiwanese eulogised him as "Man with the Golden Singing Legs". Thousands of martial arts schools sprouted up across Britain, Europe and America. Hundreds upon hundreds of fan magazines were published, packed with fictionalised accounts of Lee's heroic deeds. Bruce Lee comic books and cartoons were produced and released in Asia. Tens of millions of people came to see Lee's movie fights as virtual religious artefacts.

Internationally, Enter the Dragon was Warner Brothers' highest grossing movie of 1973. A theatre in Iran played the film daily until January 1979. Elvis bought a 35mm copy of it and watched it dozens of times. During the Seventies, Enter the Dragon was released again and again in the US; each time, it landed among the top-five grossing pictures of the week. For nearly 10 years, in major cities around the world, inner-city gang members turned out for Enter the Dragon, as ritualistically as Catholics attending mass. A quarter of a century after Lee's death, Enter the Dragon had grossed over $400m and had been listed for more than 20 years as one of the 40 most profitable movies in the history of cinema.

ON THE day of Lee's Hong Kong funeral, the South China Mail, Hong Kong's largest English-language newspaper, disclosed that he had not died while walking with his wife, but in the apartment of the movie actress Betty Ting Pei, with whom he'd been having an affair.

At a quickly-arranged inquest, Ting Pei testified that when Lee came to her apartment, he complained of a headache. She gave him a tablet of a prescription medication called Equagesic, the ingredients of which are 200mg of a common anti-anxiety agent (meprobamate) and 325mg of aspirin. After swallowing the tablet, Lee left Ting Pei and went to lie on her bed. When she tried to wake him, he couldn't be roused. A University of London professor of forensic medicine, RD Teare, who supervised the inquest jury, determined the immediate cause of death to be cerebral edema: Lee's brain had become dramatically swollen and had pressed against the inside of his skull. The pain from such a death is usually excruciating.

Another detail released was that Lee had eaten cannabis not only on the day of his death, but shortly before his May collapse. Professor Teare said that, although there was no evidence that Lee had been murdered, his death appeared not to be from natural causes. He concluded that Lee's demise was not accidental but was, instead, a "death by misadventure". Teare and the inquest jury concluded that edema had been caused by hypersensitivity to one or more of the ingredients in a single tablet of Equagesic.

"You'd almost have to use a ouija board to come by that conclusion," says Dr Donald Langford, Lee's former doctor in Hong Kong, today. "This man was muscled like a squirrel, spirited as a horse. I've never seen anybody as physically fit as Bruce. Equagesic is prescribed by the million every day in Asia. No analgesic killed Bruce.

"In my opinion, the cause of Bruce Lee's death is obvious. Every time I saw him after 10 May, he was further into his own hype. I don't think that Bruce thought that there was anybody in the world who knew what was good for him except Bruce Lee. That's what killed him. The same series of events that took place in May caused Bruce Lee's death in July. Bruce was particularly sensitive to one or more of the alkaloids in cannabis. He died from hypersensitivity to chemicals in cannabis or a cannabis by- product. Bruce's was a self-inflicted, though innocent, fatal illness."

Dr Peter Wu, the respected neurosurgeon who saved Lee's life in May, agrees. "I think that Bruce was fully convinced he was invincible, that he was immortal. This is what brought him down.

"We gave Bruce a long talk before he was discharged from hospital, asking him not to eat hashish again. We told him that his very low percentage of body fat could make him vulnerable to drugs." (Dr Langford estimates that Lee's body "must have been less than one per cent body fat.") "We said that the effects would be heightened by continued contact," continues Dr Wu. "We also told him that his level of stress could dramatically magnify the effects. Since he'd already had a very bad time with the drug, we told him that the effects were likely to be worse next time.

"He said that it was harmless. He said that Steve McQueen had introduced him to it and Steve McQueen would not take it if there was anything bad about it. I asked him if Steve McQueen was a medical authority. He didn't get my joke.

"To tell the truth, when Bruce left hospital, I thought that he would be back. I had a very bad feeling about it."

Why haven't these opinions and this information been previously reported? Why wasn't hypersensitivity to cannabis part of the official verdict of the inquest jury? "You have to understand something about Hong Kong Chinese culture," says Dr Langford. "When Bruce's body was wheeled into the emergency room, all the Chinese vanished. It was difficult to find anyone to take care of him. The Chinese weren't about to be connected with, to be blamed for, the death of Hong Kong's most famous hero. It would have been regarded as a terrible loss of face.

"The same is true of the inquest: people weren't about to step up and say that Bruce Lee had died from eating cannabis or some related product. At the beginning of the inquest proceedings, Dr Wu and a couple of other doctors and I were pulled to the side and asked to play down the role of cannabis in Bruce's death.

"For years, I was suspicious that this might have been some sort of cover- up. Now I realise that it was something else - they simply wanted to present a socially acceptable explanation."

THE TWO questions I'm most often asked about Lee are how did he die, and how good was he as a martial artist?

Well, as far as I can tell, he was wonderful. Probably the best martial practitioner of his time. Does this make him the best fighter in the world, then or ever? Was he the real live 20th-century god of martial art?

This is some of what we know: Bruce Lee was blessed with good long arms (Dan Inosanto says, "Bruce had the reach of a six-footer"), incredible initiation speed and reaction time, and he hit seriously hard compared to others in the Asian "fighting" disciplines. "Bruce had phenomenal attributes," confirms Joe Lewis. "Amazing speed, power, strength, reflexes." "He was the quickest person I've ever seen," says Hayward Nishioka, 1968 Pan-American judo gold medallist. "In that area he was king. And he knew it. He had that same cockiness Americans have. Americans say, 'I'm arrogant, and I'll show you why. I can do it. I'm good.'"

"He had cunning, killer instinct and the will to dominate," says Kareem Abdul Jabbar, another world-class athlete. "And incredible athletic skills - balance, eye-hand coordination, timing. And all that driven by a very intense will."

Yet many intangibles are required to be an outstanding fighter. Among these is proper anatomy. When I was trying to make a career as four-limbed lightning, it took me years to learn that there were many necessary biological qualities I didn't possess. I have the wrong-shaped chin, excess tissue around the eyes, terrible vision and a long neck.

Lee had dramatic anatomical inadequacies, too, including a pointed chin, a narrow jaw and a skinny neck. He was small-boned, most notably at his wrists and ankles, and he had horrible vision - he couldn't see 10ft in front of him without corrective lenses. And, considering the circumstances of his death, as well as his physical stature, it seems reasonable to say that he may have been a markedly fragile human being.

Dissecting Lee's film battles also reveals that, although there's little doubt he understood the necessity of coordinated offensive and defensive movement, compared with boxers he was not a consummate mover. He was pretty good at in-and-out, forward-and-backward movements - but he pranced instead of gliding, which sacrifices power while magnifying the effects of blows with which your opponent catches you. And he had little idea how to accomplish more subtle side-to-side movements effectively. He often held his head high and stiff, though he understood the value of keeping it low and mobile. As has been shown when martial arts-trained fighters attempt to box professionally, their lack of lateral mobility and a general upper body stiffness often causes them to sit them down hard on the seat of their pyjamas.

And, as is true of most guys in the martial disciplines, Lee was not street-rough. He was middle-class tough, at most. Not that there's anything wrong with this. Indeed, in lots of ways, it's comforting to discover that Lee wasn't a hard-core tough guy. Like most of us, he was a person hoping and trying to cope, moment to moment, with the life that was presented to him.

He was also untested as a fighter - and he seemed to prefer it that way. Who knows if he would have had the will to transcend his competition in those most feverish of battles, where wilful fighters take your most stupendous shots and keep coming at you - or sometimes simply smile at you? Everyone can be beaten.

BRUCE LEE was the Frank Lloyd Wright of martial art. He was an original, who obsessively studied what had come before him, then reinvented the rules, in the hope of creating a universal, interconnected fighting form, or non-form. But was he a real fighter? "Angelo Dundee never fought," says Lewis, "but he understands the science of fighting. Robert De Niro looks great as Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull. When he's standing in front of a mirror, he throws some good-looking punches, but he's still an actor, not a boxer. I must've heard Bruce say 100 times, 'You can't swim without getting in the water, Joe.' But what Bruce did is he thought about sparring. Partly to make himself look good because he understood fighting, partly to look good in the movies. All the time standing on the shore, watching other guys swim.

"People who do something over and over do it because they like it. Why do they like it? Because it empowers them, makes them feel special. Since Bruce wasn't fighting anybody who was good, why was it empowering to analyse all that karate and wrestling and boxing? If you're not gonna get in the ring and look good, then you want to feel good. And what's gonna make you feel good is when you know something - and people believe you know something. You want to understand Bruce Lee, what makes the boy tick? It's pretty simple - it's vanity, baby."

Yet it is hard to overstate how, in only a few years, Lee revolutionised Asian fighting disciplines and made them visible around the globe. Before Lee's death, there were fewer than 500 martial arts schools in the world; today, owing a lot to his influence, there were more than 20 million martial arts students in America alone.

SITTING HERE now, all these years later, staring at a couple of autographed photos of Lee, I still see heat and light around him. I feel startled by his presence. And I recognise his fear. Walking across the room to study his ghost on a video screen, I see him working oh so hard to hide it, both from us and from himself, but it's there. Bone-freezing fear. The stuff every one of us feels in the pit of our bellies. It's difficult to overstate what it makes us do. Say no, say yes, get married and divorced, write books, jump around in prize rings (or not). Start wars, heal the sick, become saints, say we believe in cosmic charity. Design our gods to look a lot like us. Make movies in which we pretend to be invulnerable. Believe that fame itself - the 20th-century god - will make us immortal.

Almost 30 years after being tugged from his shell, Foetus remains grateful to Bruce Lee. Through Lee and Ali (and in reaction to my own fear), I came to train, not only to become an athlete, but a person. I became open to the possibilities and to the mysteries, to the rhythms of life. Frightening though they are.

"All my life I've known only idiots," the Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Siliphant told me. "I define an idiot as a person who makes himself less than he could be by blaming his actions on something, or someone, outside himself. The only non-idiot I've known, the only person I've seen who exercised his abilities, whether physical or intellectual, to the highest possible degree, is Bruce Lee."

People climb mountains not because the mountains are there, but to feel a sense of greater connection. Through Lee, I climbed a few mountains, then knew that I was connected. And I could believe, for a time, that I was less afraid. Today, at the age of 47, I don't feel that our mentors can do much more for us than that.

Adapted from 'The Tao of Bruce Lee', by Davis Miller (Vintage, pounds 6.99, or telephone 01206 255800 to order a copy for pounds 5.99, including p&p). For information about the Bruce and Brandon Lee Association please send an SAE to PO Box 25, Horsforth, Leeds, LS18 5TG