Walking into a Karate club changed my life

When Bruce Lee died in July 1973 there were many programs on TV showing clips and extracts from his films. A film night special was shown which I was allowed to watch. I recall watching these and being amazed at the way he moved his speed and charisma.  No one had shown this level of ability and skill to take out the bad guys before. I wanted to know what it was he was doing, what was this kind of fighting called? I was 11 years old and my best friend at the time agreed to go with me to a karate club he had heard of which was local to us. Luckily for me, the club was run by Kuniaki Sakagmi one of the top instructors in Europe.

When I first saw Sakigami I was mesmerized by him! To an untrained 11-year-old boy he looked and moved like Bruce Lee. Sakagami Sensei was born in the city of Toyohashi, Japan, in 1944. He started training in Wado Ryu Karate in May 1959, aged 14 years, under Suzuki Tatsuo sensei at the Toyoashi Dojo.

Sakagami’s teaching style in the early years was very strict, one was not allowed to fidget in line or show any lack of concentration. I loved every moment of training with him and remember bugging him to show me how to do spinning roundhouse kicks. When he eventually gave me a demonstration, I was amazed at the flexibility and speed at which he moved. Skaigami was extremely keen and passionate about fighting which the club reflected as fighting was a big part of our training no matter what age or gender. There were so many good fighters at the club which was called Penn Karate Club, the fighting section of the class would last at least one-third of the lesson.  We would all sit around the edge of the dojo (club) then Sakigami would call who he wanted to see the fight and sit back and watch with a slight smile on his face – the fighting was always hard free fighting.

Penn had some of the top fighters at the time coming to train with Sakagami.  Whenever it was time to fight I would always stand up to fight these guys, they would take it easy with me and would always spend time coaching me, I think they liked the fact that someone that young was so enthusiastic to fight.  I have a vivid recollection of one Friday night when Sakigmi kept asking for people to stand up and fight – I must have fought 5 times in a row, he asked a 6th time and I was about to get up when one of the seniors pulled me back and sat me down. What I had not realised was that the person who had stood up was about to be put in his place by one of the senior fighters. This was done regularly to students who needed an attitude readjustment or who’s resolve needed to be tested in a tough methodical and obvious way.  Sakigami called this “hammering in the nail” and some years later that would become my job

Me on the right and Sakagami at the front

After a while many of the senior fighters and students left the club, some went on to start their own successful karate federations, some went into bodybuilding and there was a period of transition with many students coming and going but the club remained true to its fighting traditions. I started to compete all over the UK at a young age, I found I was quite good and could hold my own with fighters a lot more advanced in grade and age than myself. My fighting abilities were honed in due to the amount of fighting we did at Penn and the fact that the fighting was free fighting (hard fighting). The only problem I found was that it took me a while to find my control hence in the early competitions I did get disqualified a lot for excessive contact, which seemed to get the nod of approval from Sakigami and the other instructors at the time.

After a while, Penn built a strong fight squad with a reputation for good hard fighters. I was made the captain of the squad, something I will always be proud of.  All of the squad adopted the philosophy of ‘never a backward step’ and were extremely respectful. Many of the squad were well known around Wolverhampton as gang members or at least were the main rivals to the most notorious gang in Wolverhampton, needless to say, they could handle themselves in the streets and were a great deal more experienced than me when it came to the real deal.

Training became part of who I was, the training was always hard and would and continues to set the tone for my approach to training in the future.  My training mostly consisted of a 3 mile run every morning, then weights and bag work. Every Tuesdays I would go to the club when I had a free lesson and would spar with whoever would turn up, this would typically work out to about 2 hours of sparing.  Fridays were formal lessons with Sakagami, which would normally end with free fighting. Sundays would be the full fighting session, starting with a 5 – 8-mile run, including sprints and exercises, we would get back to the club and fight for an hour then end with an hour lesson.

Crystal Palace 1983

Cyrstal Palace 1983

My first International competition was representing the UKKW in the 1984 World Championships Japan. The trip was led by Tatsuo Suzuki and Masafumi Shiomitsu. This was well before all of the Wado Japanese Instructors went their separate ways  – a very strong senior instructor line up!

The trip was in 1984, we stayed in a hotel in the province of Shinjuku Tokyo, we were treated extremely well throughout the whole trip, this was due to the fact the Suzuki was so widely respected.

We arrived in Japan a week before the World Championships, the squad trained every day at a local park and also trained at a number of top Tokyo Universities, one of which was Nihon University. Two of these training sessions I particularly remember – the first was with the Japanese fight squad and many other senior Nihon university students as well as the England, Irish and Canadian teams who were in attendance. The class lasted for approximately 3 hours and was non-stop.  It started with hard basics then onto combination techniques and flight training. Many of the foreign students who were training struggled to cope with the humidity and intensity, in fact, some of the Canadian contingents had to stop. At one point, I thought I was going to pass out  – my ears had popped and my vision was blurred but luckily for me, I made it to the end.  What we didn’t realise was the Japanese students were allowed to excuse themselves during the lesson and take a break for water and use the bathroom. We did not notice this happening while we were training but only found this out after the training session had finished.  I think we gained a lot of respect from the Japanese that day for how hard we had trained and the fact that we did not take a break.  After the lesson, the Students brought tables and chairs into the dojo as well as food and drink. We had some great food and probably too much beer.  The Japanese students then decided to sing their club fighting song which was accompanied by actions and movements such as punching and kicking to coincide with the words of the song. It was extremely impressive.  Not to be outdone, the England team then decided sing our song although we did not have a squad song, so we gave the Japanese students a rendition of the hockey pokey, changing some of the words to – ‘put your Gyakuzuki (reverse punch) in and your Gyakuzuki out, and your mawashigeri (roundhouse kick) in and your mawashigeri out’, you get the drift. The Japanese students seem to appreciate what we were doing albeit we did get a few strange looks from the Irish and the Canadians.

The second lesson that stood out for me, was again at Nihon University. It was a lesson with Jiro Otsuka. The lesson focused on Basic technique with a great deal of time spent on body positioning.  We also looked in-depth at ‘kata’ and I remember Otsuka Sensei focusing on our awareness, especially that it is not just on what is in front of us, but all around, above and below.  The lesson was very good but this was not the only reason it stood out for me.  The other reason it stood out was the demeanour of Tatsuo Suzuki, who was the only one walking around in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirt and not paying any attention to the class.  The talk was that he should have been the one to take over from Hironori Otsuka and it was clear that he saw himself as more senior and to be honest all the Japanese senior instructors who were there gave him that respect. At the end of the session we were all talking and getting ready to go to the showers when I looked behind me and saw Suzuki start to do push-ups  – this stuck in my mind!  I carried on talking to many of the students for quite a while then decided to go and get changed when I looked around again Suzuki was still doing push-ups. I remember thinking and admiring the fact that even though he was not a young man, he was a force of nature!

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after the lesson with Jiro Otsuka

The world Championships itself were well represented and although this was my first international competition, I felt very confident in my ability and looked forward to my fights. All of my fights turned out to be against Japanese fighters and I managed to get through to the quarter-finals relatively smoothly. Most of the Japanese fighters would attack extremely aggressively with a blitz of punching techniques in a straight line and if you hesitated, you would be run over! I found that counterpunch worked well and my head kicks also scored well.  At quarter-final stage, I lost to one of the Japanese team, to this day I do not know how I lost. Don’t get me wrong, experience has shown me that in karate competitions there can be some very strange decisions and you just have to suck it up but at the time I was still a brown belt and one could not help but feel that me beating Japanese students senior Japanese students did not go down very well. The tournament itself was very well run with some amazing demonstrations.

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After the tournament, we spent a great time touring around Japan, led by Mr Shiomitsu. Due to the respect that Suzuki was held in we seem to have access to many things others did not. We visited the police headquarters in Tokyo for example and I remember going into the control room where there was a large map of Tokyo on the wall where lights were showing any incidents that were happening in the city. We were all shocked at how few lights were showing on the board – had that been in London police headquarters it would be flashing like a Christmas tree.

The police headquarters also had one floor dedicated to martial arts training and we were given a demonstration of many martial arts which was very impressive. Most of the demonstrations were of traditional arts but there was also a baton demonstration which was more grounded in reality.

Tokyo Police Headquarters

One of the fun moments of the trip was when we performed a karate demonstration to a Japanese school outside of Tokyo. It seemed and felt strange giving a karate demonstration to Japanese students but we were treated like film stars and being asked for our autographs. o  We got to see a great deal of Japan in such a short time and I have to say that Shiomitsu ran it like a military operation with us moving from one location to the next in a timely manner – never allowing us to be late. There are many stories I could tell from this trip but the final one I will mention is when we visited a Buddhist monastery. The monastery was on the outskirts of Kyoto. The welcoming Buddhist monk greeted us and offered to feed the squad and after food, we were asked to meditate in the temple.

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Police demonstration ash their headquarters

After Japan I represented the UKKW England team in many competitions throughout Europe and again in Japan in 1994. The team was very strong and we won many European medals. I have some amazing memories and experiences from this time and competed with some great teammates: Arthur Meek, John Weeks, Conroy Wattley, John Bernard, Ashley Williams, Paul Jones, Keith Walker to name a few.  I was 37 when Sakagami asked me if I would take on the AIWAKAI / Wado Kai national team coaching role full time, which I was happy to do. It was clear that I could not compete as well as be the coach, so it was time to hang up my competition Mitts.

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European Championships

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Japan World Cup 1994

Black belt Grading

In 1986 I took and passed my 1st Dan – this was 13 years after I had started training. The reason I took so long to take my Dan grade was, to be honest, I was not that bothered about it. I was teaching at my club with the other senior instructors and fighting internationally, the culture of Penn Karate Club was one of ability first, grade second.  Sakagami Sensei took me to one side and said it was time, so, it was time! The first time I took the Dan grade was in Tatsuo Suzuki’s Dojo in London and on the panel was Tatsuo Suzuki, Masafumi Shiomitsu and Sakagami. I felt that I performed well with no problems, in the free fighting I had fought 4 fighters and knocked them all down, which seemed to please Tatsuo.  At the end of the grading, I was told I had failed! This was not a shock to me as we were always told in the club that failing your first Dan was part of the test – to see how you would react, plus, I think this was Sakagmi’s way of putting my feet back on the ground! Four months later I re-took my Dan grade in Brighton and passed.

Club black belt induction

The Sunday after I passed my 1stDan, I went to Penn club and traditionally if you passed your Dan grade you would fight everyone in the club and I was no different, in fact, many made special effort to be there. There were at least 30 to 40 students and instructors to fight! Penn being Penn, you were expected to fight them more than once – at least twice! Needless to say at the end of it I found it difficult to stand up and was absolutely battered, blooded and bruised.  Once the class was over I was taken to the local pub where it was a tradition to drink whatever you were given. I drank far too much alcohol, this on top of being dehydrated after the session and not being a drinker did not do me any favours. I was left outside my Father’s house clasped on the floor, It took me at least a week to recover.

Leaving the nest

I progressed steadily through my Dan grades eventually reaching the level of 5th Dan in 2003. During this process, one of the main senior instructors at the club was becoming more and more agitated with me, my progress through the grades and as an international fighter. I never showed him any disrespect and although I had become a senior grade to him, always treated him as my senior. He had started to talk about me to senior instructors in Awakai saying I was disloyal to Sakagami, I kept my head down and said nothing, thinking that by my actions I would prove myself.  This all came to a head during one of the classes when the instructor stopped the class and asked everyone to sit down, and then asked me to stand and face him to fight.  I knew this was going to be a full-contact affair and I was conflicted as to how to handle it.  He started throwing punches that I parried and avoided, each one could have knocked me out. I was struggling to engage because of the respect I had for him, then he threw a kick to my groin which caught me on the inside of the thigh, at this point I knew I had to engage. The next thing he did was sweep my front leg, I span round with a uraken (back fist) and broke his nose.  There was blood everywhere down his gi, but he kept on coming and I kept knocking him down with sweeps but did not follow up when he was on the floor. Eventually one of the other senior instructors called a stop to it.  This was the catalyst for me to start my own club! I did this after speaking to Sakagmi and other senior instructors who gave me their blessing.   The lesson I took forward from this experience was that as a teacher, you don’t have to be better than your students – it’s your job to make them better than you!

Learning Another way

While continuing with my Karate training, I started to train with practitioners of other arts. It quickly became very clear that I had weaknesses and gaps in my knowledge. My long and medium (kicking, punching range) fighting was good, I found I could hold my own with any other style’s/arts in sparing.  When it came to short, close range (hooking, grappling range) as well as handling or dealing with weapons, I was falling very short. I started to look for something or someone who could help me develop these skills. I wanted a more practical rather than the classical approach.  I was recommended to speak to someone called Dave Atkinson who is a teacher of Jeet Kun Do (JKD) and Kali. I had always been interested in JKD as I had read many books and articles, especially the article Bruce Lee wrote in Black Belt Magazine in 1971.

Cover of Black Belt Magazine 1971

I called Dave and we agreed to meet at his club on a Sunday afternoon. Dave is and was a teacher of Jeet Kun Do concepts, Escrima, Wing Chun, and coached Muay Thai. Dave’s brother, John was European Maui Tai champion at the time and had a stable of strong fighters. I had read a lot about JKD and was very interested in learning its approach to training, teaching and fighting. The training with Dave was everything I had hoped it would be and much more. Dave’s style of teaching was all-inclusive, he would download so much information and every lesson would be tailored to my needs (strengths and weaknesses). I would always leave with a headache, when I got home I would write down what I had learned making notes to myself as to how I could incorporate this learning and where I needed to focus. I still use the same notebook today.

Dave Atkinson

Dave, his brother and their fighters would work the doors at a lot of Wolverhampton nightclubs so, the teaching was put to the test in many real situations. As with all the best teachers I have worked with, Dave is a very humble and positive spirit, there is always a calm presence around him.  I would not say I became an expert in any of the above arts but what I did was to take what I needed and what worked for me.  The training also allowed me to re-look at my classical karate training more objectively to fully understand what attributes and skills it had given me through my years of training and also what weaknesses/gaps it had.  Dave was my teacher for approximately 15 years but I lost touch with him when I had to work away from home. I continued to train with other JKD and Kali students to keep developing my knowledge and skills. I also tested my skills against other arts and styles in fights and challenges. Dave and I reconnected when he came to my 50th birthday party and now Dave is a regular guest at my home.

Conclusion

I know the article was a little long but I hope you found it interesting. The above are just a few of the amazing experiences and friendships Martial arts has given me.  I will forever be grateful for the people who have contributed to my story. The level of confidence, self-awareness and social skills have been invaluable to my life’s journey.

As a psychotherapist, I continue to want to help people to reach their full potential. As well as my individual clients I now deliver training that incorporates Psychology, Martial arts and Mindfulness to Leadership teams and corporations as an alternative way of looking at themselves and the people they work with.

In your journey, keep an open mind, work hard and enjoy the ride.

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