Copyright © Evan Ginzburg, 2003. All rights reserved.
Five Fingers of Death (1971) may have been the worst movie ever made, but I loved it.
The first martial arts film widely released in the United States, masters barely bent their knees, yet soared to the tops of trees and rooftops. Good guys took ridiculous amounts of punishment without any noticeable harm. Villains were beyond ruthless, way beyond mere evil It was all pretty simplistic, but every time the hero beat the shit out of someone, that was me up there taking out the kids who took my bus pass, my lunch money, my gym lock, and my pride.
One day, I fantasized, I’d be a black belt, too.
And then there was Bruce.
As a skinny kid, I was in awe of that body. You could see every ripped muscle and he wasn’t ashamed to show ‘em off, either. And those "Fists of Fury"! The camera could barely keep up with him. Note even a mob of villains could stop Bruce. We built him up into the toughest guy in the world. "Nobody can take Bruce Lee," the kids on the block would say, and we’d see his movies time and time again on Flatbush Avenue in front of screaming Saturday matinee crowds who all wanted to be like him. Invincible. Unbeatable.
Crazy David, the new Puerto Rican kid on the block, was the world’s biggest Lee fan. He lived in the ugly little green house right across the street from me. It desperately needed a paint job, always had tons of junk sitting out on the beaten up steps, and their tiny lawn was never, ever, cut. Resting conspicuously between two six-story apartments, it was begging to be torn down and the yentas weren’t ashamed to say so. "Why don’t they do something with that thing?" they’d ask with disgust.
David, who always seemed to get into trouble, was right in character when he built a pair of nunchaku like Bruce’s. More often than not in his elaborate imitation of the Dragon, they’d bounce off his own head, unintentionally stunning him. But those two thick, dangerous, sticks with the cheap chain that shakily connected them was the envy of the block. It was the toy we all wanted.
When he finally allowed me to try it, I desperately wanted to look cool like Bruce. Imitating him, I swung it awkwardly, letting the hard, round, stick rest momentarily under my armpit as I imagined every kid that had ever wronged me suffering from my barrage of blows.
So nothing ever hurt more than that hot July day in 1973 when Dad brought home the Daily News and buried on page twenty or so I discovered that Bruce Lee was dead.
I read the long, thin, column again and again, a numbness coming over me. I wanted to cry, but part of me just wouldn’t believe.
"If Bruce can die, I’m going to die one day, too," I thought to myself.
A strange thought for a 13-year-old.
My other heroes were the wrestlers. Flipping the UHF dial out of sheer boredom one rainy Sunday afternoon, I saw a beer-bellied, middle-aged, Indian taking a pounding from a guy twice his size. Suddenly, Chief Jay Strongbow went into a strange, herky-jerky war dance and my eyes lit up. His pain turned to anger and then to vengeance as he chopped, beat, and pinned the monster who had mere seconds earlier been destroying him.
Like a nicotine junkie, I was hooked.
Champion Bruno Sammartino didn’t wrestle much on TV, but occasionally got jumped by his next big challenger. "I pledge with all my heart and every ounce of strength in my body to defend my belt," he’d assure us.
And he did. Month after month, year after year, against monster villains straight out of comic books.
When the older kids told me that it wasn’t real, and that proud Indian Jay Strongbow was actually Italian, I told them how very wrong they were.
Nothing and no one could have been more real to me.
So one day my Dad finally took me to Madison Square Garden. Money was always tight, so he told me, "It’s the Knicks or wrestling tickets."
Now, I loved Frazier, Reed, Bradley, Barnett, Monroe, and all the boys, and seeing them with Dad was a thrill. But it was time, and I made the choice.
My heart beat out of my chest as one godlike hero battled men so evil I wanted to leap out of my seat to attack them. Four-hundred pound Gorilla Monsoon chopped his opponent down to size. Pedro Morales exhibited his "fiery Latin temper." Killer Kowalski was ruthless and relentless. Dean Ho and Tony Garea took on the bloodied bleached blond Valiant Brothers two out of three falls, and the massive building literally shook for 45 minutes.
And finally, Bruno.
Sammartino and Strongbow came out to thunderous applause. That soon turned to sheer hatred as their foes, Nikolai Volkoff and manager Classy Freddie Blassie, the arrogant Hollywood fashion plate, jumped them. Blassie knew every dirty trick in the book and Volkoff was an incredible powerhouse, but there was nothing stopping Bruno. The people’s champion. Nothing.
It was a night that changed my life. For three hours, I felt every punch and kick, but also shared in my heroes’ victories. For three hours, I didn’t have to think of the safest way home from school the next morning. For three magical hours, I didn’t have to imagine what my next humiliation would be.
I was now in a magical world where a former 98-pound weakling who almost died of starvation during World War II could grow up to be the champion of the whole wide world, and whip guys twice his size.
Man, did I ever love Bruno and professional wrestling.
I wonder why.
About the Author
Evan Ginzburg is publisher of Wrestling
Then & Now, which is just starting its fifteenth year in print.
This is an extract from his forthcoming book, Brooklyn Boy.