The Incident That Inspired The Bruce Lee Scene In Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

Warning: Spoilers ahead for "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood."

If you're a fan of 1960s pop culture, Quentin Tarantino's 2019 film "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is a must-watch. For starters, it features two of our generation's best actors (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) in the lead roles. It also has a soundtrack packed with decade-appropriate big hits and deep cuts, with none of those present-day covers designed to make old music sound hip and modern to younger listeners. Then you've got the crux of the film — an alternate-history reimagining of what would have happened if someone was able to stop Charles Manson and his Family from murdering actress Sharon Tate and several others on August 9, 1969.

Aside from all those heroics, one of the more memorable scenes from "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" features Pitt's character, stuntman Cliff Booth, recalling an altercation he had with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of "The Green Hornet" that got him fired. In this scene, Booth takes exception to Lee's claim that he can "cripple" Muhammad Ali if they ever got the chance to duke it out. Lee then challenges the stuntman to a best-of-three fight that ultimately ends in a draw when a stunt coordinator (Zoe Bell) angrily puts a stop to the "friendly contest." 

While this was Tarantino's fictional take on a typical day in the life of Bruce Lee, there was actually a real-life incident with a stuntman that inspired the aforementioned scene.

Lee was humbled by a stuntman who was a real-life martial arts expert

As explained by The Things, Bruce Lee was taking his status as a legitimate fighter a little too seriously when he was playing Kato on "The Green Hornet" in 1966. With the show's stuntmen complaining that Lee's punches and kicks were too realistic (read: painful) for comfort, stunt coordinator Bennie Dobbins had a plan to teach the future "Enter the Dragon" star a lesson — he was going to hire a stuntman who also happened to know a thing or two about martial arts.

Fans of scripted and non-scripted combat sports alike may be familiar with the name Gene LeBell — "Judo Gene" helped train Ronda Rousey before she became the biggest name in women's mixed martial arts (at least until Holly Holm knocked her out at UFC 193), and his LeBell Lock was adopted by former (as of this writing) WWE Superstar Daniel Bryan as his finishing move. Back in 1966, however, LeBell was also working as a stuntman, and when he walked onto the set of "The Green Hornet," Dobbins asked him to apply a headlock on Lee. 

Instead of simply doing as he was instructed, LeBell grabbed Lee and placed him on his shoulders, running around the set as the Kato actor supposedly asked the judo expert to "put me down or I'll kill you!" After initially refusing to do so, LeBell put Lee down and reassured him that he was "just kidding." 

Lee and LeBell became friends and later trained together

Far from being insulted or intimidated by Gene LeBell's attempt to put him in his place, Bruce Lee took it as a learning experience. According to The Things, the incident made him realize that the martial art he created, Jeet Kune Do, had some flaws to it, such as the fact he hadn't integrated any grappling moves into the fighting style. With that in mind, Lee started training with LeBell as both men developed a friendship that would last until Lee's death in 1973.

"I went and worked out with [Lee] at his school," LeBell was quoted as saying. "I taught him judo and wrestling and stuff like that and some finishing holds which he later worked into some movies, and he showed me most of the kicks and striking which even today I use in the movies. A wonderful, wonderful man and a great martial artist."

Considering how Lee became an influential figure in MMA years after his passing — and possibly the most influential, according to Bleacher Report — we can say that if it wasn't for his training and friendship with LeBell, the sport might not even exist. And the UFC, meanwhile, might still be a barely-regulated promotion with fighters specializing in only one style, as opposed to the mixed martial arts (emphasis on mixed) juggernaut it is today.

Lee's friends and family were unhappy with how Tarantino portrayed him

Given the apparent differences between the Bruce Lee vs. Cliff Booth fight scene in "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" and how Lee had a much more positive real-life relationship with Gene LeBell, it's not surprising that Lee's friends and family were very critical of how Quentin Tarantino wrote his character. "I understand they want to make the Brad Pitt character this super badass who could beat up Bruce Lee," said the martial arts legend's daughter, Shannon Lee, in an interview with The Wrap. "But they didn't need to treat him in the way that white Hollywood did when he was alive."

Similarly, Basketball Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a piece for The Hollywood Reporter that blasted Tarantino for his "sloppy and somewhat racist" depiction of Lee. "Bruce Lee was my friend and teacher," he explained. "That doesn't give him a free pass for how he's portrayed in movies." Meanwhile, another one of Lee's proteges, Dan Inosanto, told Variety that his late mentor "would have never said anything derogatory" about Muhammad Ali, considering how he was a huge fan of the boxing icon.

For his part, Tarantino insisted that Lee was "kind of an arrogant guy," maintaining that he based his characterization of the actor on what he purportedly said in real life. "If people are saying, 'Well he never said he could beat up Muhammad Ali,' well yeah, he did," the director continued, via Deadline. "Not only did he say that, but his wife, Linda Lee, said that in her first biography I ever read."