Master Lee with Sifu James Lee
Sifu Howard Williams
OAKLAND by Fran Joseph
In 1965, Howard Williams’ mother and stepfather took a ride on the #51 bus, in Oakland, Calif. That was to change Howard’s life. During the trip, Howard’s mother glanced out the bus window and saw a sign in a store front window that simply read, “Gung-Fu.” Since their young son was interested in studying martial arts, they walked into the store front and met the instructor Bruce Lee. This began the martial arts career of gung-fu instructor Howard Williams.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: It seems you were very lucky that your parents took that bus ride.
HOWARD WILLIAMS: Well, I’d been looking to take up karate, and my parents came home excited about meeting Bruce Lee, whom I remember they said was wearing shorts.
(It was summer). They told me they found something much quicker than karate, and I said, “Oh yeah!” Shortly afterwards, Bruce left for Los Angeles, although he frequently returned to Oakland to oversee the classes. My stepfather, Richard Carnay was admitted, and through him I began my training in 1966 under James Lee, at the age of 16.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: What was that first class like?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: The class started with a kicking routine, and I was totally crossed up! Naturally, I was very clumsy, and I felt I’d never learn, but eventually, after about one and a half years I realized that my movements had become automatic, that I didn’t have to think about it any longer. I was re-programming my brain to respond instantly. Since we were in a structurally fast system, we had to be mentally quick as well.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: Being so young, were you at all intimidated by the class?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: Yes, at first I felt I couldn’t catch up, because there was no beginning class. But James threw me in the water right away, with people like Bob Baker and Gary Gugganan right away, and gave me a great deal of personal attention.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: What did the classes consist of?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: Footwork, punching and kicking, chi sao and energy drills. Bruce and James wanted us to eliminate blocking, and James had us perform punching drills where our partner would hit and “expel his energy”, then before he could recover, on the return of his arm, we would close the gap, and be all over him. We also did what James called the Mongoose”. We’d let the initial punch slip by, and then sidestep while simultaneously punching to the opponent’s exposed ribs, or kick him with a stop-kick on the shin or knee. We used the low and middle sidekick, hook, front and backkick, mostly front leg. We also did triple punching, always making sure to break the rhythm so we shouldn’t be in a set pattern, and we also trained the backfist, palm strike and finger jab. We also sparred constantly, and I remember that there was only one shinguard that we passed around between us. We kicked and punched at each other, with control, of course. James used to say, “Instead of using blanks with direct hits, use real bullets with near misses.” We were urged by Bruce and James to make our movements shorter and faster. We weren’t supposed to take even the time it took to exhale before we were on our opponent.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: What was James Lee like an Instructor ?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: Outstanding. He took the time to show us exactly what we needed to know, and how it should be done. He was very patient, a supreme teacher who made sure each student absorbed the training material.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: How did his teaching method differ from Bruce’s?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: Since, by the time I began, Bruce was coming up from Los Angeles, his emphasis was more on what he was doing at the moment. He wanted to keep us abreast of his progress.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: What concepts did James Lee use to teach the Oakland classes?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: For example, when we were practicing chi sao, or sticky hands, James would have us imagine that we were driving a car, with both hands on the wheel but only using our wrists, overlapping the arms in a small arc. He also emphasized what he called “theory to application”. After the energy training, he would have us try to apply what we had just practiced by moving one foot away, he would have us feint, move in, and deal with whatever energy the opponent offered. James called the stop-hit or kick “awareness drills”. We should have to watch our opponent’s movement, and as soon as he even flinched a muscle, we were supposed to kick, punch, or finger jab. The other expression he used was in reference to footwork, which he called “chasing your balance”. He said that as soon as your foot leaves the ground, your balance is impaired, so that, while mobility was crucial, we had to find kicks and strikes that would allow us balance and recovery.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: How did the art change during your five years of training?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: At first, it was called Jun Fan Gung Fu, and then the last couple years, it was called Jeet Kune Do by Bruce when he came up.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: What were the major differences in your training?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: The major difference was that Bruce really revamped his fighting stance, and he introduced to us what he called the pendulum step, and James called the burning step. Chi sao practice went from a square stance to a right lead.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: How did James Lee and Bruce Lee interact?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: They behaved like long-lost bosom buddies. In a way, James was like an older brother to Bruce, and he approached him in a very confident way. James liked to laugh, and they were always talking together and laughing like two kids. When Bruce came up, he and James were inseparable. I remember wishing I understood Cantonese!
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: What is your fondest memory of Bruce and James?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: I remember clearly the time Bruce demonstrated the effectiveness of the pendulum step with the sidekick. He instructed me to move and avoid his kick by sidestepping or any way I could. Well, when I saw him coming, I thought I was moving, but I didn’t budge! I was so awestruck by his powerful initiation that I stood my ground and he stopped his kick right at my chest just tapping at the moment of contact. Although my classmates gasped, Bruce didn’t hurt me at all. I’ll always remember James after one incident at his garage. My stepfather and I were pulling up in his driveway when we spotted a guy rapidly flying backwards out of James’ garage. We hurried in and asked James “what happened?” James laughed and told us that the guy had shown up from another gung-fu club, and had come to challenge him. When they squared off, James sent him reeling with a burst of punches. He said he was really glad we’d shown up early for class, or Bruce never would have believed his story! The other vivid memory I have of James was the half-smile and snicker he couldn’t repress whenever a newcomer from another school with a bad attitude would show up, that he would have one of us “dissuade” him from further training.
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: Did your regimen include equipment training?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: Since James was a welder, he made specialized equipment for our classes, like the shin-kick apparatus and dummy. We also used the air shield, heavy bag, and a leather strap, suspended from ceiling to floor, on which to perfect your fingernails short!
MARTIAL ARTS LEGENDS: Where are you presently teaching?
HOWARD WILLIAMS: I’m teaching gung-fu in Oakland, Calif., the way I feel Jimmy would have wanted it continued. I was very fortunate to train under James and Bruce; the classes were usually 1 to 10 students, and like James, I teach for the love of the art and I will maintain quality control with James as my inspiration.
As Bruce said, use the art as a vehicle, as a key to your own capabilities. For example, if you’re left-handed, don’t try and make yourself a right-hander, or if your structure is best-suited to punching, develop your punch to near-invincibility. I hope that, like James, I can inspire my young students to bring out their potential, as I feel it helped me.