Bruce Lee versus Shaolin monk: Who is winner of showdown?

A Chinese visitor holding a child poses for a picture next to a wax figure of Hong Kong and US actor, film director, martial artist and instructor Bruce Lee at the Madame Tussauds wax museum in Beijing, China.
A Chinese visitor holding a child poses for a picture next to a wax figure of Hong Kong and US actor, film director, martial artist and instructor Bruce Lee at the Madame Tussauds wax museum in Beijing, China.PHOTO: EPA

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - On a crisp December evening in 1960s California, two men near the peak of their powers locked horns in a battle that would go down in the annals of gongfu mythology.

On one side was a scrawny 24-year-old monk, newly arrived from China, who exuded modesty despite being one of the fabled Shaolin Temple's most skilled grand masters.

On the other: a brash, street-smart fighter of Chinese heritage but American birth - also 24 - who was about to announce himself as the most iconic proponent of unarmed combat in history.

Birth Of The Dragon, which hits theatres on Friday, showcases that face-off between Wong Jack Man and Bruce Lee, attempting to shine a light on a secretive and mysterious encounter that changed gongfu.

The handful of witnesses have never agreed on exactly what went down at Lee's gym in Oakland that night - not the length of the confrontation, nor exactly how many people saw it, nor even who won.

What is undisputed is that the encounter transformed Lee's approach to gongfu, setting him on the path to becoming "The Dragon", a global superstar who introduced the until-then obscure martial art to the world.

Wong - who always insists the victory was his - later expressed regret over agreeing to fight Lee, putting his acquiescence down to youthful arrogance.

He went on to teach the Northern Shaolin style in San Francisco before retiring in 2005.

Thought to be 77, he now lives in relative obscurity, the only man alive who knows for sure who won the fight that changed gongfu.