My first meeting with Robert Baker was around 1987. He was due to come down to Burbank to the Black Belt studios of Rainbow Publications. I can’t exactly remember why he was down there but do remember he was due to see Geri Simon regarding a possible article or book.
I remember I had been in the offices for an hour or so watching a photo shoot with Doug Churchill and Eric Lee. I went outside at around lunchtime when Bob arrived not knowing exactly where to go. I showed him into the reception area and we sat and talked while Geri finished up what she was doing. I had heard years earlier that Bob was one of the senior students at the Oakland school and had been close to both Bruce and Jimmy.
We talked for about 5 minutes before Geri came down and took Bob to her office. A little later Mike Lee came down and asked me if I would like to go out with him and Bob for a snack and a drink. About half an hour later we were at a diner having some food with some wonderfully cool Coors.
We were only supposed to have been there an hour or so but instead we stayed until about 9.30. Mike had to leave earlier because he had dialysis for a failed kidney. Bob and I got on like a house on fire. I fired question after question and he happily replied.
He had a big enthusiasm and was very direct in what he had to say. Sometimes he had the diplomacy of a brick coming through your window while at other times you got the impression he was working out the possible impact of what he was going to say.
One thing was certain, he had a massive amount of respect for Bruce and Jimmy and they were his Sifu even though both had long since died.
I remember plucking up the courage to ask him what he felt was the keynote of Oakland JKD and he replied without looking up “Getting the job done”. Simplicity was the main thing on Bobby’s mind. “JKD isn’t about trapping” he started, its about “getting the job done and getting out”. Bob was a big guy and his hands were big and heavy. When he gestured with his hand it was a smooth and powerful movement that made you shy away even though he wasn’t intending to hit you nor was he in range. You just knew he could make that distance up – if he wanted!
Ho spoke enthusiastically of his time with Bruce and Jimmy. Bruce was fast and innovative. Jimmy was just hard and determined. Bob said several times that together, they were an amazing team. His memories of sparring in the garage in Oakland was painful to hear as it was a common thing for students to end up being launched into training apparatus or ending up sprawled on the floor outside. I remember him smiling as he would talk of the people outside hearing the noises coming from the garage where people were battering dummies for all they were worth while others were fighting in what seemed like an early UFC except in this UFC they didn’t have the luxury of a wire octagon instead they had a solid wall often with metal cylinders and weight benches against it.
The thing that they worked on most though was refining the basic skills. A dozen or so techniques repeated time after time after time. How to respond from different angles to different attacks.
I got to know Bobby quite well over the next couple of years and we shared some good times. To my knowledge he only ever trained a handful of people after Jimmy’s death as he felt he didn’t have the skill to pass on something so valuable. He was more worried that he would make mistakes and not represent the art the way his instructors would want him to. When I did train with him we would spend hours, and I mean HOURS, working one technique that was so simple it could superficially be taught in five minutes. But when Bobby taught you it, it was with so much depth and conviction it was like learning whole new kata. He would talk of the three levels of learning where the intermediate level was simultaneous block and strike. This blew me away. By this time, I had been involved in Wing Chun for 16 years and JKD for about 11. I had attended whatever seminars I could get to in England and had seen Dan Inosanto and Jerry Poteet do their stuff. Now here was a guy showing me a JKD I had never seen. One that was not at all pretty but frighteningly effective.
Occasionally I would ask Bob about something I had learned before or read in an article; he had a way of making you feel a little daft for asking the question with just a look. One thing was for sure, he did not have a lot of time for what was being promoted as being JKD at that time, “It’s too conscious, its too complicated” he would say. “Bruce would cry if he saw what people were calling JKD these days, in fact if Bruce and Jimmy were around, people wouldn’t be calling that stuff JKD”. He said that Bruce had come up from LA one time with Ted Wong and they had all been talking. Bruce had said that there were a couple of really good fighters in LA which he (Bob) identified as being Dan Lee and Bob Bremer while Oakland was full of them. He remembered vividly the smile on Jimmy’s face at that.
Bob had a sense of confidence that, depending on whether he liked you or not, would either scare you or reassure you. He came from a fairly hard upbringing in Stockton, California and had dabbled in a few different martial arts before meeting with James. He had worked karate, judo, boxing as well as kenpo before making the life changing decision to study under Bruce and James at Oakland. His reach and boxing skills made him a favourite at Oakland and allowed Bruce to test the developing art.
Bruce’s admiration and respect for Bruce and James was profound. He talked of his time in Hong Kong and the many talks he had with Bruce during those times. He loved the fact that Bruce told everyone he was his bodyguard as he knew full well that Bruce was the best fighter there was.
His views on JKD were though very single minded. He wasn’t the kind of guy who would be diplomatic without cause. One day we were sat talking and he was browsing through the latest edition of Inside Kung Fu. There was an article by a well known JKD personality who was illustrating the 5 forms of attack. “What a load of shit” Bob said. I asked what he was meaning. “This 5 ways of attack”, he continued, “Bruce never meant it to be trained. It wasn’t something he wanted to use in any way except as a research tool”. I asked him to continue and he explained that Bruce would look at a confrontation and say that the attack was this or that. However it went against all the principles of what was taught in Oakland to have to drill this into a student. “You don’t think about attacking, you just do it” he would say. “You don’t think ‘shall I do a PIA or maybe a ABD?’ You just hit the guy. If you have to think then you’re too slow”. I asked then what the purpose of these 5 ways war to which he replied they were simply ways of categorising an attack. It was for research, for understanding, for analysis.
Bob was a great teacher and enjoyed passing on his information however, he didn’t want to teach JKD. That I could never understand. With all the people out there selling JKD as a commodity, here was a guy who was head and shoulders above many but who didn’t want to make public his understanding. In reality this was down to a great respect of Bruce’s art. He was never quite sure he understood it. He felt the likes of Dan Inosanto, Ted Wong and Taky Kimura were the people to pass it on. However he wasn’t backwards at coming forwards on who felt couldn’t teach JKD and there were a few. He understood and supported fully the way Dan had developed HIS JKD and felt for Dan, that was his understanding. On the other side of the coin, Bob also agreed with what ted was doing. Bob had met Ted a few times when he came up to Oakland and liked him although he would say that most of the time he couldn’t understand what he said. Bob always felt that Ted seemed shy or nervous but that the guy watched every move Bruce made.
What was Bob’s JKD like? Well the nearest I have seen anyone come to it is Howard Williams. I was lucky enough to meet Dave Cox a few years ago and I suppose it would be okay to say if you merged Howard with Dave and added some Bob Bremer then you would be getting close. He was hard and forceful and he was meticulous in what you did. I spent some time yesterday with one of my senior students talking about footwork and something came out I hadn’t thought about for years that Bob taught me. It was a wonderful feeling because all of sudden there was something else to work on. Bob considered JKD to be like an iceberg. The physical aspect of it rose above the water and was clear to see. However there was a hidden side which sank much deeper and it was this that Bob spent his life pursuing. He never dedicated his life to JKD but it was instilled into every cell in his body. He was so proud of his close friendship with Bruce and Jimmy and certainly took secrets to his grave.
This article was reprinted with permission of the author, Roy Cullen.
Bruce Lee, Jeet Kune Do, james demile, jeet kune do, jkd, doug palmer, jim demile, bruce lee, skip ellsworth, bob bremer, howard williams, taky kimura, jesse glover, leo fong, james lee jun fan gung fu, richard bustillo, jerry poteet, joe cowles, dan inosanto