Could Bruce Lee Beat Muhammad Ali, AKA Cassius Clay? We Asked Their Biographers

“Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” reignites an old debate

Last Updated: July 25, 2019 @ 6:15 PM

(Spoiler alert: Don’t read this if you don’t want to know anything about “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” or who would win in a fight between Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali, formerly known as Cassius Clay.)

In one of our favorite scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” Bruce Lee, played by Mike Moh, fields questions on the set of “The Green Hornet” about whether he could beat Cassius Clay, better known as Muhammad Ali. Brad Pitt’s stuntman character, Cliff Booth, argues that there’s no way Lee could take on the greatest boxer of all time.

First things first: Everyone on the set should be calling Cassius Clay by the name Muhammad Ali. Ali changed what he called his “slave name” to his new Muslim name in 1964. “The Green Hornet” ran from 1966-67, so the assorted stunt guys should know better than to still call Ali by the name Cassius. Their failure to respect the great fighter shows just how tough these guys are, I guess.

But Lee does respect Clay/Ali. When asked if he could beat Ali in a fight, he says decisively that they wouldn’t fight. Only when pressed by Booth on whether he could defeat Ali does Lee finally announce, “I’d make him a cripple.”

One could safely argue that he’s trying to provoke Booth, not insult Clay/Ali. Booth retorts that Lee would end up “a stain on the seat of Cassius Clay’s trunks,” and Booth and Lee fight.

Could Booth really go two rounds with Lee? In the movie he can, but let’s remember this whole scene takes place in a flashback seen through Cliff’s eyes. The question you’ve come here to get answered, though, is whether Lee could beat Ali.

Fortunately, we spoke to both of their biographers a few months ago, when AMC’s “Better Call Saul” also pondered the matter of Lee v. Ali.

“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,” said Matthew Polly, author of “Bruce Lee: A Life.”

“The story might be apocryphal, as it indicates a self-deprecating sense of humor, which was not Bruce’s forte,” Polly continued. “That’s why I didn’t include it in my book. But you can throw it with that caveat.”

Polly is a man of honor. So he suggested we also contact Ali’s biographer, Jonathan Eig, author of “Muhammad Ali: A Life.” 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.

Lee talks in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” about how he has to follow the rules in matches, and admires the way boxers just fight.

But a street fight might be the best way for Lee to fight Ali. Lee’s style of fighting, jeet kun do, was honed in part over countless youthful street fights. It emphasized adapting to find an opponent’s weakness — whatever it was.

“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,” Polly told us.

Ali was a peaceful man outside the ring. He couldn’t box for several years in the late 1960s and early ’70s 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.

But still. Even at Lee’s peak weight, and Ali’s lowest, Ali had 65 pounds on the master

“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.”

That might seem to end the debate. Until you consider the problem of 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.

Abdul-Jabbar and Lee fought on-screen in “Game of Death,” with the sports icon using his superior reach to great advantage until Lee’s character discovered and exploited his only apparent weakness. See below (and note that Lee is wearing the same outfit Uma Thurman wears in “Kill Bill, Vol. 1):

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.”

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. He never fought them, because he had nothing to prove. (In reality, he also wouldn’t have anything to prove against a guy like Cliff Booth.)

Ali didn’t look for trouble, either. As far as Eig knows, Ali never even mentioned fighting Lee.

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

There is a reason for the fight in “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” And it’s a good one.

As Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz tells Leonardo Di Caprio’s Rick Dalton early in the film, it’s an old Hollywood trick to cast a well-known hero as a heavy, so that audiences can see a rising star take him down. The new star gains instant respect for defeating the old star.

Tarantino does the same trick with Cliff Booth and Bruce Lee. By showing Booth and Lee each win a round in their fight, Tarantino elevates Booth in our minds, and makes him look more impressive.

At least, if we believe Booth’s recollection of the time he met Bruce Lee.

Also, if you’ve enjoyed all this Bruce Lee talk, you should definitely check out our interview with Polly for the “Shoot This Now” podcast, where he talked about the role Roman Polanski thought Lee played in the Manson murders. You can listen here or below.