Your uber-stylish pop culture archeologist (yes, me) was extremely close to buying a yellow pair of Mexico 66’s. The temptation to buy arose from my having it incorrectly in my head that these sneakers, made by the Onitsuka Tiger company of Japan since the mid-1960s, were the shoes that Bruce Lee had on his nimble feet in the film Game of Death.
The sneakers that Lee actually did wear added a stylish grounding element to an iconic ensemble comprised of a yellow and black striped jumpsuit and color coordinated nunchaku.
If you’re the type of kung fu movie geek for whom such imagery resonates, imagine what you’d do if you saw yellow and black sneakers on the feet of some nameless soul out browsing the racks at the comic book shop with his kids, or roaming the aisles at Trader Joe’s with his wifey, or doing Tai Chi exercises in the park.
If you’re anything like yours truly, you’d prolly walk right up and give the guy a fist bump or a high five for followin’ in the footsteps of the most badass man to ever put on a pair of yellow and black sneakers. Am I right?
Well, as fate would have it, I‘ve come to realize (after re-watching clips from Game of Death and studying production stills) that the yellow and black sneakers seen on Lee’s feet in the film were actually a different and, as yet, unknown brand. There is a very strong similarity between that sneaker and the Mexico 66, but the Onitsuka Tiger sneaker is a slightly better looking shoe.
Sincerest form of flattery
It should be mentioned that in various parts of Asia…um, back in the day, the production of knock-off sneakers was a fairly common thing. Ironically, it’s how Onitsuka found its footing, so to speak, with its early three striped Adidas knock-off called the “Tiger,” because…stripes. And to this day, the Mexico 66 still features an x-shaped design on the heel of the shoe, identical to a pattern on the heels of an early Adidas running shoe.
Looking as distinctive as they do, a pair of Mexico 66’s in yellow and black would still easily trigger the Game of Death association just the same. I mean, when was the last time you saw sleek, yellowish-gold sneakers on somebody’s feet?
Okay, other than those worn by Uma Thurman during Quentin Tarantino’s Bruce Lee homage in Kill Bill 2.
With a two-piece tracksuit based on Lee’s famous onesie, Thurman wore Onitsuka’s yellow and black “Tai Chi’ sneakers. It’s been claimed that these were the shoes worn by Lee in the film, but the claim doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Surprisingly, Lee alternated between three different but very similar-looking shoes while filming Game of Death. And on close inspection, it seems only two of the three actually appear in the film, neither of them being the Tigers.
Regardless of whether or not he wore them on screen as part of his iconic yellow and black ensemble in Game of Death, it doesn’t at all take away from the unassailable fact that Bruce was a proud wearer of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers. In fact, it might be reasonably argued that shoes from this brand were those that Lee trusted most to both work in and…kick around in. (Yup, pun intended)
Going out in style
Behind the scenes photos from the set of Game of Death show Lee wearing the shoes while planning out fight choreography with his friend, former student, and co-star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Here Lee wears either the Mexico 66 or — quite possibly — the Tiger Corsair in the white/blue color scheme. (The red stripe in the design isn’t included in the formal description by Onitsuka Tiger.)
Other behind the scenes photos from the 1973 film Enter the Dragon (the Hollywood film that Lee chose to interrupt filming Game of Death to star in) shows Lee wearing a white/black pair of Onitsuka’s “Limber Up” sneaker. And he wasn’t alone. His Enter the Dragon co-star Jim Kelly wore the Mexico 66 in white/blue, hinting at the popularity of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers back in the day.
In contrast to Lee’s Enter the Dragon character Lee, who wore the traditional black Tai Chi type slippers in the film, Kelly––portraying Williams––wore white and blue Onitsuka Tiger sneakers into his “unorthodox”…“ but effective” match against Parsons (played by actor Peter Archer).
These were also the kicks Williams had on when he tilted his head back and told the diabolical Mr. Han (right before Han killed him) that if defeat ever came his way, he wouldn’t even notice, ‘cause he’d be “too busy looking good.” And so, as much as it sucked to see Williams go, at least he went out in style.
The production stills of Lee and Kelly on the set of Enter the Dragon wearing their Onitsuka Tiger sneakers also caused this writer to jokingly ponder once if one of these ass kicking icons had shared a fashion tip with the other, or if both men were both already on the same “shoe game” level.
Were Lee and Kelly sole mates, sole brothers? The world may never know, I supposed. But that supposition was soon proven wrong. Bruce Lee was indeed the OG of Onitsuka Tiger sneakers.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.