The Burton-Bruce Connection

Burton Richardson gave up promising careers in baseball and medicine in order to pursue his childhood dream. Today, he walks his own path as a martial arts instructor of multiple disciplines, foremost of which is the one introduced by the legendary Bruce Lee

Unless you’re deep into the martial arts scene or enjoy sticking around for the end of films just to read obscure movie credits, chances are this is the first time you’re saying the name Burton Richardson in your head and studying his face. That’s good. You should be making mental notes of him, just in case you end up crossing paths in the future and you decide to do something insanely stupid, like challenge him to a fight.


Image 1 of 5

Burton Richardson

Here’s what other notes you should be making about the man sometimes known as “Lucky Dog”: “He can break my face.” “He can armbar choke today’s lunch right out of me.” “He can hit me so hard my unborn kids and their kids will be delivered dizzy.”

Richardson is an expert martial artist and instructor of multiple disciplines who’s trained many of UFC’s top fighters, including middleweight Chris Leben and film stars such as the late Brandon Lee, son of legendary martial artist, actor and philosopher Bruce Lee. He’s also the founder and president of JKD Unlimited, a functional, street-oriented training school rooted in Bruce Lee’s eclectic system and way of life philosophy known as jeet kune do, or JKD. The training school has approximately two dozen instructors around the globe, with base operations here on Oahu.

What’s more, Richardson is a thinking man’s martial artist, having already published three books, with a fourth publication, The Blueprint for Modern Self-Defense – Adopting the Martial Way of Life, due out early next month; written monthly articles for Inside Kung Fu magazine back in the ’90s; and currently pens a mixed martial arts tips column for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser‘s weekly tabloid StreetPulse.

And his skill level has commanded the respect of filmmakers, who’ve hired Richardson as a stuntman and fight choreographer for flicks such as Kickboxer 4 and 5, Heatseeker, Fire Down Below with Steven Seagal and The Man in the Iron Mask with Leonardo DiCaprio.

So yeah, he’s a badass – when he has to be. But most times, he’s just a down-to-earth good guy, one who’s quick to smile and slow to anger, unassuming by nature, highly committed to his family and extremely generous in the way he gives of his time in helping others learn, as he puts it, “the ultimate freedom: self-discipline,” and reach what he calls “their unlimited potential.”

Indeed, Richardson is the kind of man you feel safe taking home to meet Mom – except, in his case, that’s probably not a good idea since he’s already married and his wife, who’s fairly adept at hand-to-hand combat, would tap you out pronto if you tried to mess with her man.

But if you’re feeling brave enough to learn a rather holistic approach to self-defense and life in general, Richardson is your guy.

“I think martial arts is so important as a self-improvement vehicle because there’s always the other person – an opponent across from you who is actually fighting you and offering resistance,” he says. “Learning to overcome those situations, to get around obstacles, is a big key to living a fulfilling life.

“Ultimately, JKD is not about learning techniques,” continues Richardson, who conducts weekly classes at the Palolo Hongwanji. “It’s learning about yourself and learning to express yourself in an honest way.”

If that last statement sounds awfully Bruce Lee-esque, it’s only fitting since Lee’s life and teachings have been so influential to Richardson.

With this week marking the 72nd year since Lee’s birth, MidWeek has chosen to examine the journey of one man, whose name and face you should now know by heart, and who has masterfully used the teachings of a martial arts legend to elevate both his life and the lives of those around him.

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” – Bruce Lee

Before martial arts ruled his universe, Richardson’s world revolved around a ball of leather and double-stitching. His father, Burton Sr., taught him the game of baseball at an early age while growing up in Southern California and, like other areas of his life, he was expected to immerse himself in the sport and excel at it. That he did, practicing the game relentlessly. Soon, he was demonstrating a strong arm as a catcher and could be found routinely throwing out enemy runners on base paths from Compton to his hometown in Carson City.

After graduating from high school, Richardson played three seasons for the University of Southern California, teaming up with two players who would become legends at the Major League Baseball level: Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson.

But something more important was happening to Richardson at the time: The game was preparing him for an eventual transition into the world of martial arts, thanks to a strong work ethic and a willingness to absorb information like a sponge and adapt, as Lee would often say, “like a bamboo or willow is able to survive by bending with the wind.”

“My dad used to tell me things like, ‘Listen to all your coaches, try all the baseball techniques, but then only use the ones that work best for you,'” Richardson recalls. “When I finally got into martial arts and started learning about Bruce Lee’s philosophy, I was like, of course! It all made perfect sense to me. Bruce’s thoughts on learning from different systems, but absorbing only what is useful, was already a familiar concept because of what my father had taught me.”