Bruce Lee was a symbol of a lot of things: athleticism, showmanship, commitment to an art form, exoticization of Chinese culture by Hollywood, and the capacity of a gentle personality to unexpectedly commit acts of violence. And all of these cultural roles are summed up very well in the one-inch punch.
Victor Tran talks about the cultural significance of the one-inch punch, and short power in general, in this seven-minute documentary:
The one-inch punch looks physically impossible. It clearly isn't, but the physics behind it are weird and counterintuitive. And as Stanford University neuroscientist Jessica Rose explained last week in Popular Mechanics, short power relies as much on your brain and your hips as it does your fists:
'When watching the one-inch punch, you can see that his leading and trailing legs straighten with a rapid, explosive knee extension,' Rose says. The sudden jerk of his legs increases the twisting speed of Lee’s hips—which, in turn, lurches the shoulder of his thrusting arm forward ... 'Muscle fibers do not dictate coordination ... and coordination and timing are essential factors behind movements like this one-inch punch.'
The one-inch punch looks mysterious to us because we have a superficial understanding of what punches are: we think of them as fist, elbow, and shoulder motions, and traditional Western heavyweight boxers rely enough on upper-body strength that it's usually easy for us to maintain this illusion while we're watching them. But if you've watched women's boxing or lower-weight-class men's boxing, you already know the importance of stance and the degree to which it can compensate for muscle weight—unless you're huge it's not physically possible to deliver a good punch from most positions, and the ability to coordinate the entire body in order to deliver an effective punch is one that takes years of practice and considerable neuroplasticity. The one-inch punch shows just how much that practice, and neuroplasticity, can accomplish.