Interview with Sifu Jerry Poteet

October 9, 20150 Comments

Interview with Sifu Jerry Poteet about his time training with the legendary Bruce Lee. The late Sifu Jerry Poteet met Bruce Lee in 1964 as a black belt under Kenpo teacher, Ed Parker. He was one of several students who began training with Bruce Lee’s Los Angeles Chinatown school in 1967. He continued to teach the Jeet Kune Do as passed on to him by Sijo Bruce until his death on January 15, 2012.

The following interview was conducted in 1988.

Question: What was the training program like in Chinatown?

Jerry Poteet: Footwork. We devoted much time to movement, especially lateral mobility. Of course, structure was very important, and Bruce insisted on hitting with vertical fist from the right lead. For the first three months we cultivated only the front hand. Once, when we were working on front-hand drills, Bruce caught me using my rear hand and he said, “That was very good, Jerry. But not now; in time.” His reason for stopping me was that he didn’t want me to feel the power of the rear hand, and therefore neglect developing the front hand.

Bruce felt the front hand, being closest to the target, was going to be doing 80 percent of the hitting, so it had to be developed to perfection. Instead of adding techniques or movements, he wanted us to refine the ones that were efficient.

Although I had excelled in Kenpo, Bruce made me feel very slow. Once, when he was teaching me pak sao (slapping or clearing the opponent’s arm), he ridiculed my telegraphic motions by turning his back on me and walking away before I finished my movement. It was quite a lesson in humility. I did, however, get to feel Bruce’s pak sao, and even though I resisted, Bruce’s energy exploded through my arm and knocked me off balance.

Also, I’d never come across anyone who takled about awwareness, but Bruce had developed a set of drills to enhance this attribute. In fact, when I asked him much later, “what will you do when you grow old and lose the endurance?”, he said, “I expect that my awareness will increase as did my instructur’s, Yip Man.” With that, I was able to cut another man’s speed in half. We were all friends in the group, and we shared with each other. We knew the value of what we were receiving, since we had previous training to balance against. I think Bruce enjoyed seeing our appreciation and each of us received supplementary training programs from him. his idea was to train the body to perform at its maximum, since the mind would always push it past the “Breaking point.” He had the ability to bring out the intesity inme, so that I was giving it my total effort at all times.

Jerry Poteet JKDQ: What characteristics or qualities did Bruce look for in his students?

JP: Bruce had two requirements: physical ability and moral character. Even if you had the ability, without the character you would not be accepted. According to Bruce, the ultimate fighting machine was someone who possessed maximum physical ablity and who was insane, who had “no thought of self.” He felt that in our training we might have to “walk through the door of insanity,” and without good character, we wouldn’t be able to come back through.

Q: What was your first impression of Bruce Lee?

JP: Now that I look back, when Bruce was teaching he would stop the class and re-emphasize what he wanted, and you’d repeat it again and again until he was satisfied. In a way, he was like a choreographer who is dissatisfied with anything less than precision. Most of the time he’d say, “The key is to relax, don’t push so hard.”

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Q: What is your fondest memory of Bruce Lee?

JP: Since Bruce was multifaceted, he showed different sides to different people. I saw the practical jokes side of the man. I’d been delving deeper and deeper into the Taoist philosophy and questioning Bruce constantly. Well, on Saturday morning after a workout, he really strung me along. As we were leaving the school, he walked up, put his arm around me and said very seriously, “Jerry, do you know what one of the hardest things to do is?” And I’m thinking he’s going to lay a heavy truth on me, but after a dramatic pause, he said, “One of th ehardest things to do is to get that extra step on some guy on the street you’ve just exchanged blows with, to chase him and kick him in the butt.”

On another occasion, I was looking at the titles on the bookshelves in his library. Both hands were behind my back so I wouldn’t be tempted to touch them. (Bruce hated his books to be disturbed. In fact, there was a sign on the bookshelf that read, “Do not touch.”) Suddenly, from the doorway Bruce called out my name and I turned to see a three-sectional staff flying through the air toward me. I reacted with a yell as it caught me full in the face, and then I realized it was made of foam rubber. Bruce roared at my reaction, and I said “Okay, you’ve had your fun now let me have mine.” Bruce knew I was dying to glance at the comments he made in the margins of his books so he said, “All right, but make sure you put every book back in its place.” The joke was still on me, however, because as soon as I opened a book I realized all his comments were written in Chinese.

Q: What concepts or principles did Bruce Lee stress?

JP: Simplicity, economy of motion and effciency. On Wednesday evenings after a workout at Bruce’s house, we’d cover philosophy, especially the Taoist principles of yin and yang, and the “fitting in” principle. We learned the application of these principles by performing energy, or sensitivity drills which were incorporated into the HIA (hand immobilization attack) phase of training, and ultimately, to all phases of combat and life.

Q: What are your hopes for the future of JKD?

JP: That the art be a stairway to understanding. Let’s use it to understand ourselves and each other.

This interview originally appeared in the July 1988 issue of IKF and was conducted by Fran Joseph. You can learn more about the late Sifu Jerry Poteet at JPJKD.com

About the video: An interview with Sifu Jerry Poteet by Elie Seckbach.

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