Bruce Lee’s friend and ‘foe’: TRACMA founder Trovador Ramos, Sr., the only Filipino who fought the martial arts legend, talks about the fight
EDITOR’S Note: Guest blogger for this piece is Radyo Inquirer/Inquirer 990 TV News Director Arlyn dela Cruz who was able to interview Trovador Ramos in 2013.
In a private fighting arena in March of 1972, two masters of Martial Arts fought and sealed a friendship between the Philippines and Hongkong based on mutual respect and admiration.
That fight was between Kung Fu superstar and legendary master Bruce Lee and Filipino martial arts master Trovador Ramos Sr, founder of the TRACMA or the Trovador Ramos Asian Consolidated Martial Arts. Thirty-nine years later after that momentous fight, Ramos shares how the fight came to be and how that one single event created a strong bond between Filipinos and Hongkong based Martial Artists.
Martial arts at the age of six
Ramos’ journey in the world of Asian Martial Arts began at the early age of six in San Antonio, Zambales where he was first taught boxing, arnis and jujitsu. Fights were major attractions in those areas at that time he said and he was encouraged to join because he earned money fighting. “Fifty-pesos ang kita noon pag nanalo at ang laki-laki na ng 5-pesos noon. Dayo-dayo, ganun ang style noon, may bata, may matanda basta free willing na laban.”
I would earn fifty-pesos fighting and 50-pesos at that time was a lot of money. We would go from one place to another just to fight, there were fights for kids and adults alike, free willing fights.
He began developing his own style after he was taught professionally by a Japanese and a Chinese Martial Arts experts after World War II. “Dun na ako nag-concentrate and iyon talaga ang gusto kong gawin.”
It was at the former Subic Naval Base in Olongapo where he worked as a Martial Arts instructor for Security Personnel of the then Subic Command. “I stayed in Subic Bay for 17 years teaching Martial Arts and playing for a band.” Ramos was both Martial Artist instructor and musician at the former US military facility, playing the saxophone for the Officer Club.
TRACMA’s roots in Singapore
Then fate and Martial Arts brought him to Singapore. It was in that country where he made a name for himself developing what is now known as TRACMA. It was in the year 1970 and he was challenged in a public fight by what was known as the Big Four in Singapore at that time and he emerged victorious. The result of the fight reached the security officers of the then Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and he was asked to demonstrate his skills in various security threat situations. He passed it all and was hired as a special Martial Arts instructor for the security personnel of Singapore’s recognized leader and visionary.
The feats of the Martial Arts expert from the Philippines reached Hongkong and Bruce Lee.
“Bruce Lee’s movie the “Big Boss” was about to be shown throughout Asia at that time and he was looking for Singapore based martial artist he could spar with and he was told about me. “Nakatanggap ako ng imbitasyon sa kanyang movie outfit at mag-exhibition fight sana kami ni Bruce Lee para sa promotion ng pelikula niya”. (“I received an invitation from his movie outfit and he and I were scheduled to do a sparring or a fight exhibition as part of the promotions”), Ramos recalled adding that unfortunately, Bruce Lee never made it to Singapore because of another urgent commitment in Hongkong.
Nonetheless he was asked and compelled to do an exhibition of his Asian Coordinated Martial Arts as part of the movie’s promotional run in Singapore.
Ramos thought his chance to meet Bruce Lee in person would not come again, not until he moved to Hongkong to work as a musician.
“A common friend whom I fought and defeated paved the way for our first meeting at a club called the Filipino Club along Willy Road here in Hongkong,” Ramos recalled. That common friend was Benny Liao, another Martial Arts master then dubbed as the “Fastest Son of Hongkong.””Si Liao ang nagkuwento kay Lee tungkol sa isang Martial Artist mula sa Pilipinas na ang sabi pa niya, may kakaiba at natatanging technique sa pakikipaglaban.”( It was Liao who told Lee about a Martial Artist from the Philippines with “unusual and unique fighting technique”). Liao was the one who recommended what was supposed to be Ramos’ first sparring lessons with Lee in Singapore.
Lee came and watched his performance with his musical band and afterwards shook his hands and gave him an unexpected apology. “Nanghingi siya ng paumanhin kung bakit hindi siya dumating noong sparring sana naming sa Singapore para sa pelikula niyang The Big Boss.Pero sinabi ko sa kanya na hindi kailangan ng anumang paumanhin dahil nauunawaan ko kung sino siya at gaano ka-busy ang kanyang schedule.”
He apologized for not being able to come to our scheduled exhibition fight for the showing of his movie the Big Boss in Singapore and I told him, there was no need for any apology as I understood his status and how hectic his schedule was.
The visit alone from Bruce Lee was an unforgettable experience for him but on the very same night, Lee did ask him for something else. He wanted Ramos to fight him. “Hiniling niya na labanan ko siya at para sa kahit sinong martial artist, ang maka-spar lamang siya lalo na ang mahamon na labanan si Bruce Lee ay isang malaking karangalan at pagkakakilanlan.”(“He asked me for a match, for a fight and for any martial artist to be asked by Bruce Lee to just spar with him much less actually fight was a challenge that brings honor and prestige),” Ramos said stressing however that he felt strongly that he had to decline.
I am sure and confident of my skills as a multi-martial artist but at the same time, I have so much respect for Bruce Lee that fighting him would mean disrespect on my part.
He was told that Bruce Lee would often look for challengers and he would hand-picked those who can challenge him. He was told he was lucky to be asked to challenge Bruce Lee but he refused the challenge nonetheless.
But Bruce Lee was persistent.
The following night, he came back again to pick him up from the club where he worked as a musician. “Kapag tinanggihan ko siya ng ikalawang pagkakataon, para ko na ring hindi iginalang ang kapwa Martial Artist at saka hindi naman basta-basta ang naghahamon, si Bruce Lee yun kaya pumayag na ako.” (“To say no a second time is also a form of disrespect to a fellow Martial Artist so I finally said yes. I was after all challenged by no ordinary fighter but the greatest Martial Arts fighter in the world”), Ramos added.
Duel at the Diamond Hill
And so in the wee hours of the morning, at a private fighting arena at Diamond Hill owned by the Golden Harvest Production, Lee and Ramos stood face to face with spotlights with hundreds of spectators awaiting the result of the fight between an assuming Martial Artist from the Philippines as against the greatest Martial Artist of the world.
The crowd was cheering. Their chants deafening but both fighters were focused and ready to test each other’s strength and skills. The next seconds proved to be a test of not just strength and skills but of grace, strategy and imagination.
Bruce Lee was fast but Ramos employed another tactic that surprised the greatest known fighter in the field of Martial Arts. Ramos had rhythm and a perceptive imagination. Ramos was a great fan of Lee that he studied his moves even before he was asked to challenge the master.
“Mabilis siya, pero ang ginawa ko, parang music, may off beat, may down beat, nilagyan ko ng rhythm and maraming imagination. Inunahan ko mga galaw niya and doon ko siya napabagsak.”(“He was fast but I employed my music using off beat and downbeat moves. I used rhythm and lots of imagination. I anticipated his moves and I was able to overcome him.”) What Lee said next Ramos will never forget to this day but out of respect for the memory of Bruce Lee, he requested that part not to be printed as those are words between two fighters, “private and sacred” he said.
Ramos may have subdued the greatest Martial Arts fighter but he is the first one to this day to refuse to call that event his victory and Lee’s defeat. “It was a fight of a lifetime and we both used the disciplines in Martial Arts that we trained for.”
What was won in that fight was the common respect and admiration from both sides, sealing a long and lasting bond between Hongkong and the Philippines in the field of Martial Arts.
Not long after that fight, Bruce Lee asked him to teach him the TRACMA discipline and how he was able to combine all Martial Arts move into one single rhythm of harmonious fighting moves. That also paved the way for Ramos’ career as an action star playing supporting roles in movies made by Hongkong filmmakers mostly produced by Golden Harvest Productions. He also got billing in the movies and was known as Le Mose.
The Rhythm Man and the Dragon
He would have had his biggest break as a Martial Arts master and action star via a movie entitled “The Rhythm Man and the Dragon” starring with Bruce Lee himself in 1973, a movie to be filmed in Italy and a storyline he remembers to this very day. “Dapat ang lalabas dun, magiging mag-tandem kami ni Bruce Lee laban sa mga bully sa Italy. Mauuna siya sa Italy tapos ako nandito sa Hongkong, tapos susunod ako sa kanya tapos doon na naming makakasagupa ang mga malalaking grupo dun. Back to back kami at si Bruce Lee mismo ang nag-offer ng role na iyon sa akin. He told everyone in the production that it was time to give me my biggest screen break.”
But that movie would never be filmed. Bruce Lee died in July of 1973 at the age of 33 years old.
“I lost a friend, the greatest fighter of the Martial Arts World, and the one who opened the doors for other Asian Martial Artists of our generation,” Ramos said.
Now retired and enjoying his pension with his wife, Ramos lives in Hongkong as a permanent resident, a testimony of how a Filipino Martial Artist was embraced as a son of Hongkong, a friend of Bruce Lee and the only Filipino who fought with him in an arena. Ramos declares, “I am a Filipino but Hongkong is my home.”
Editor’s Note: Trovador Ramos, Sr. never ceases to share his technique to TRACMA members, old and new, and to martial arts enthusiasts. Ka Badong and his wife Ka Femia are active members of the Iglesia Ni Cristo (Church of Christ). To view Ka Badong’s interview at incmedia.org as pioneering member of the INC Locale of Hong Kong, please click this link.