Bruce Lee’s Taekwondo Friend Jhoon Rhee dies at 86

Bruce Lee’s
Taekwondo Friend
Jhoon Rhee dies at 86

Jhoon Rhee kicks Bruce Lee

Jhoon Rhee kicks Bruce Lee

Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee(January 7, 1932 – April 30, 2018),  , the man known as the "father of American Taekwondo,” died on Monday 30th April after a long illness at a hospice care home in Arlington, Virginia, a suburb of the nation's capital.

Commonly known as Jhoon Rhee, he was a South Korean master of taekwondo mainly known for introducing this martial art to the United States of America since arriving in the 1950s.  He was ranked ninth dan.

Jhoon Rhee book

Jhoon Rhee book

​The Early Days

Rhee was born in Korea, during the period of Japanese occupation. He began training in the martial arts at the age of 13, without his father's knowledge. Rhee received martial art training under Nam Tae Hi and graduated from the Chung Do Kwan.

Rhee taught Taekwondo to all Americans but   began to adapt and modify his approach to martial arts, rather than simply teach traditional Tae Kwon Do. This was in part due to the influence of Bruce Lee, who was a friend and colleague of Rhee’s from 1964 until Lee’s death in 1973. Lee convinced Rhee that blindly following tradition leads to stagnation in martial arts.  Rhee respected the traditional approach, but he did not believe there is any single best style, not his own or anyone else’s. Rhee said that, for him, the most important thing is to bring the benefits of martial arts and fitness to as many people as possible, and he believed were many paths.

Jhoon Rhee kicks Bruce Lee

Jhoon Rhee kicks Bruce Lee

​Meeting Bruce Lee

Rhee’s relationship with Bruce Lee began in August of 1964, when they met at the late Grandmaster Ed Parker’s International Karate Championships in Long Beach, California. Rhee was 32 years old; Lee, 23. Both men performed demonstrations, and each was impressed with the other’s skill. They started a friendship, regularly visiting each other and exchanging letters for nearly a decade. Lee also attended the Jhoon Rhee Nationals every year from 1966 to 1970.

Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee

Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee

Linda Lee Cadwell, Bruce Lee’s widow, said, “Bruce had great respect for Jhoon Rhee’s martial arts and the way he ran his schools. He always considered Jhoon quite a groundbreaker in putting on these highly regarded tournaments. They shared a goal of wanting to expose the American public to real martial arts—more than just the kicking and punching—the discipline and the underlying philosophy.”

When Taekwondo Strikes film

When Taekwondo Strikes film

​Movies, Bruce Lee & Taekwondo

Given the role that movies played in forming the teenaged Rhee’s dream to eventually live in America and teach Tae Kwon Do, it seems only fitting that Rhee would himself star in a movie one day. In 1972, Bruce Lee approached Raymond Chow head of Golden Harvest Films about making a Tae Kwon Do movie starring Rhee. The opportunity was exciting, but Rhee could scarcely believe it would come to pass, he had never thought of himself as an actor.

Nevertheless, a year later, in the summer of 1973, Rhee flew to Hong Kong to film When Taekwondo Strikes. In the movie, Rhee plays Grandmaster Lee, the underground leader of a group of patriots in Japanese-occupied Korea. Not only had the star of the film, Rhee also written the synopsis on which the plot was based. Production did not take long; Rhee was back in America by July 19 when Bruce Lee called to say that the movie had been edited and was ready for release. ​

Grab a copy of When Taekwondo Strikes​ on Amazon.


Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee

Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee

​Death Of Bruce Lee

The next day, Rhee received shocking news: Bruce Lee had passed away. Rhee was probably the last person in the U.S. to talk to the legendary “Little Dragon.”

Jhoon Rhee, James Coburn & Steve McQueen at Bruce Lee's Seattle funeral

Jhoon Rhee, Chuck Norris, James Coburn & Steve McQueen at Bruce Lee's Seattle funeral

The death of Bruce Lee was devastating for Rhee and he attended his funeral in Seattle.  He mourned not only the loss of his friend, but also the loss to the world of martial arts. Rhee knew that Lee would have continued to make invaluable contributions to the philosophy and influence of their shared passion. Therefore, it was with special satisfaction that Rhee was later able to pass along part of Bruce Lee’s legacy to one of the greatest athletes of all time, Muhammad Ali.

Jhoon Rhee Bruce Lee & friends

Jhoon Rhee Bruce Lee & friends

​Secret Punching Technique & Muhammad Ali

Years later, he wrote a book called. Bruce Lee and I, which is an intimate, non-fiction, biographical account of the 10-year friendship between these two martial arts legends. The book includes 19 private letters from Bruce Lee to Jhoon Rhee, and Bruce Lee photos from the private Jhoon Rhee Collection, and behind-the-scenes stories about the making of The Green Hornet, The Big Boss, Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury, and other Bruce Lee television shows and films. In it, Rhee explains how he taught his friend’s secret punching technique to Muhammad Ali, who then credited Mr. Jhoon Rhee’s Accupunch with his knock out of British champ Richard Dunn.  Jhoon Rhee and Bruce had a teacher-teacher relationship, one built on mutual respect.  Linda Lee Cadwell, wife of the late Bruce Lee, wrote the foreword.

Jhoon Rhee, Van Williams & Bruce Lee

Jhoon Rhee, Van Williams & Bruce Lee

​Pioneer of Safety Equipment

Rhee’s concerns about physical contact in Tae Kwon Do competitions led him to invent safety equipment specifically designed for martial arts. One incident in particular motivated Rhee; at a 1969-championship tournament, he saw one of his students take a hard kick in the face, breaking his cheekbone. Rhee became determined to do something to reduce the frequency and severity of martial-arts-related injuries. The result was Jhoon Rhee Safe-T equipment, protective gear that covers the “weapons”—the hands and feet—and the head, allowing full-contact training and competition without the risk of serious injury. No one in martial arts had worn safety gear before Rhee invented it; he believes its presence has changed the nature of martial arts for the better, removing the stigma of brutality and attracting more women and children as students.

Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee at a tournament

Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee at a tournament

​Fame & Renown

Rhee is well known in the Washington, D.C. area for a television commercial that has a jingle by Nils Lofgren and features Rhee's daughter uttering the catch phrase, "Nobody bothers me," followed by his son saying "Nobody bothers me, either." In 2000, Rhee was the only Korean-American named amongst the 203 most recognized immigrants to the country by the National Immigrant Forum and the Immigration and Naturalization Services.

Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee at Ed Parker's tournament

Jhoon Rhee & Bruce Lee at Ed Parker's tournament

​Taekwondo Pioneer

Rhee was inducted into the Taekwondo Hall of Fame in 2007, and he is listed as both the 'Pioneer of American Taekwondo' and the 'Pioneer of Taekwondo-Do in Russia' there. Rhee is listed as a pioneer in the USA (1950s, 1960s, and 1970s) in Chang Keun Choi's list of taekwondo pioneers.

He created 'Martial Ballet’, which is a martial art form that is conducted to music. Martial Ballet has been performed by different people in different ways and was incorporated in Rhee's school curriculum.

Like Bruce Lee, Jhoon’s son, Chun Rhee said,

“Martial arts was a way of life for him,”