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Remembering Jerry Poteet

I was watching a documentary on Bruce Lee [link] -- and it made me think of one of my old martial arts instructors, Jerry Poteet. I had stopped training with Jerry a couple of years ago and, after Googling his name, was stunned to learn he passed away earlier this year [link]. I thought I'd take a moment just to remember Jerry and write a bit about him.

I've been drawn to martial arts for a number of years -- it served as a respite of some sort when I was working long and stressful hours at Google. I advanced pretty quickly, obtaining a green belt in TaeKwonDo (TKD) before deciding that art wasn't quite right for me. The main reason was because while I enjoyed the sport, I felt it roughly left me unprepared for the type of work I wanted to do. If you ever watch TKD (it's an Olympic sport) -- you'll notice that bigger, stronger individuals easily have a decisive advantage. It's a brutal sport -- obviously not without significant technique or skill -- but I'm 5'10" and 130 lbs. I'm not a big guy. I wanted something that I could use in difficult situations -- against bigger people, stronger people, multiple opponents, people with weapons, and so forth. I ended up researching a lot of different martial arts -- all the major ones including Kung Fu and Judo, and Ju-Jitsu. All of them have their strengths and weaknesses and I may even take one up at some point. However, when I found Jeet Kune Do (JKD) -- I felt like I found a martial art that really spoke to my soul.

JKD is the martial art created by Bruce Lee. He fused multiple arts together -- some boxing, some wing chun (which is probably best known / thought of as close combat hands work), and just new thoughts and ideas that he had from years of training. 

I don't remember exactly how I found out about JKD -- maybe I was just doing a lot of research or even saw a Bruce Lee movie or two and decided to investigate -- but after seeing it, and seeing Bruce work with it, I thought, "That's what I want to learn." So I set about looking for an instructor -- and preferably a private instructor. There are not a lot of places that teach JKD. Especially unlike karate (and to a lesser extent, TKD and Kung-Fu) -- it hasn't been commercialized so it's not widespread and still relatively unknown. The most famous is probably the school run by Dan Inosanto -- which is a pretty big school. I found Jerry Poteet -- who, along with Dan, was one of Bruce's original students.

Jerry, when I met him, was in his early 70s and seemed somewhat frail. He had a kind soul, but moved slowly. He (along with his wife Fran) kept a small number of private students and otherwise taught seminars from time to time. Jerry was a very much in demand speaker and lecturer. Jerry was Jason Scott Lee's teacher and did the fight choreography for the film "Dragon".

I would go, I think once a week, to their apartment in Shermans Oaks where Jerry would train me for an hour or so -- just in his living room. He was relatively informal and patient. Jerry was a fierce and wicked fighter. Despite his frail appearance, his speed and power were stunning. When he would grab my wrist, I could feel the force throughout my body. I could not break his grip. When he would demonstrate a strike at me -- he would be on me in an instant. So much of JKD is feel -- especially in the wing chun work where you're physically connected to the other person and the movements are soft and steady and then the attack is violent and sudden. Your reactions are honed to react, not panic, and stay in the moment. I have a calmness thinking about this work with Jerry -- but I remember calling my brother after one of our sessions and just describing the fierceness of his body and spirit.

I feel like I just scratched the surface of my training with Jerry. JKD is a really deadly art. It's not a points system like TKD where you kick someone in the chest and get a point. I always remember Jerry telling me that if I was in a bad situation, to just get out of the situation -- walk away or run -- don't fight. You never know if the person is armed or something is coming at you from a direction you didn't anticipate. It's just not worth it. But forced to fight -- and this is a lot of what Bruce wanted in this art. He wanted it to be real and realistic. A lot of Bruce's training was from street fights in Hong Kong -- there's nothing like "no backfists" or "no kicks to the groin" -- it's pure survival. This is a difficult art to train -- because you obviously pull back at the last second lest you hurt your training partner (in my case, Jerry). Even as I got good, or at least better -- I never had any doubt. I was totally convinced that Jerry could likely kill me with his bare hands in under 5 seconds -- probably less. He had this amazing combination of speed and power -- but something so underrated was just how calm his mind was. You watch those martial arts movies where Bruce (or someone else) is surrounded by 6 people and they just dispatch their opponents one by one. There's a calmness within the mayhem -- that was Jerry. He seemed to have reached a certain skill level where that was possible.

I'll never forget one of the compliments Jerry paid me. I should note that Jerry, while a very encouraging and warm teacher, was not quick on the compliments. But he told me once, "You have Bruce's speed." If you've ever seen film on Bruce, you know that's frankly a hard compliment to even take in. To this day, I don't think I really believe it. Perhaps what he meant is that if I trained really really hard, I could attain some modicum of Bruce's speed. Nevertheless, it was kind and gracious of him to say it.

I remember at one point when I was working with Jerry -- Jerry by the way was not cheap. I think I paid $150/session (or roughly $150/hour). But I told myself that if I learned self-defense from him, that the total price (in monetary terms) would be completely worth it -- and it was, and much more. I remember thinking, especially because of his seeming fraility, that Jerry wouldn't be around forever, and I should take advantage of the fact that someone so skilled, and with so much history and legacy (and I loved hearing stories about Bruce) -- that someone like that was willing to work with me. I'm sorry to see you go Jerry. Our time together was too short. If there is a Heaven, I hope you're there with Bruce -- training and working together again. Much love.