30 years ago today I stepped into a dojo for the first time to begin my martial arts journey. It was my birthday and I’d just turned 11. What a journey its been! A spiritual and physical path of happiness, pain and enlightenment. Despite all the injuries, through the peaks and troughs, my enthusiasm is as strong now as it was all those years ago. I’ve never lost my beginners heart.
It would been fun to say I started martial arts because I came from a broken home, but it’s not true. I had a decent upbringing. I started the arts because I wanted to, I carried on because I loved it, and I got good because I trained obsessively and never stopped.
I was small and slight as a kid but I never got bullied because I always gave as good as I got. My first fight was hopeless. I was around 11 years old and got into a fight over a football match down the park. This kid kept smacking me in the face but I didn’t retaliate. I wasn’t scared or in pain…I just didn’t know what to do. After that I vouched that I would never back down against anyone, regardless how beat up I was or how much bigger they are. It’s something I still carry with me to this day.
In 1985 we were still rolling off the Bruce Lee craze. Some of my school mates were doing karate so I begged my mum to find somewhere. There wasn’t much choice in those days but fortunately there was a kids class at the community centre my mum was working at. Looking back I don’t think we could really afford it but she took me along as a birthday treat. “syringy can po” was a name impossible to repeat but the class was full of enthusiastic kids wearing white pyjamas screaming their heads off. I knew there and then I was going to be part of it. Under the auspices of the extremely talented Sensei Jee, Abbey Shorinji Kempo club became my home for the next 7 years. Sensei Jee was a hard task master and classes were tough. It was old school training so the reps were plenty and the standard high. 6 months after starting I met the wonderful Joe Collis (aka Joseph Koniak), who became my training partner and soul mate for the next 20 years. We started competing straight away – smashing each other to bits with flimsy white mitts and throwing each other on hard floors in embu. I moved up to the adults class when I was 14 and got my first black belt when I was 16. A great camaraderie, it was the best martial arts base anyone could hope for.
In 1991 I moved to Southampton to go to university. Within a few months I decided to open my first dojo. I didn’t have anyone to help me so rather than do a demonstration I did a talk on Shorinji Kempo and managed to convince a small group of people to give it a try. I was still a young looking, scrawny kid so even to this day I’m surprised I won them over, given the other 10 martial arts on offer at the uni. Little did I know it was to become one of the most successful Shorinji Kempo clubs in the country. At the end of the first year I had 3 students (one of which is David Dunn, still a Shorinji instructor), at the end of second I had 15, and by the third 30. With the hugely charismatic Ian Ferguson and Adrian Starr as my lieutenants, we had an incredible club. Being a student myself I wasn’t allowed to charge for teaching so students paid me in beer. It was so much like a cult that we had drinking t-shirts done with “first in, last out” printed on them. The highlight of my time was winning the European championships in ’92; then travelling to Japan in ’93 to compete in World championships and coming 4th after Japan, a place Joe and I would continue to win for the next 16 years. I won a pile of football medals too so was given the Sportsman of the Year award by Roger Black. I was sad to leave at the end of my tenure but the club continued in strength.
I trained for a year in London before moving to Tanzania for work. I became guest instructor and coached a couple of clubs out there. It was like the Bruce Lee craze all over again. Big, run down halls filled with a hundred students, many of who couldn’t afford a uniform. The mosquitos and 90% humidity didn’t deter them. Many travelled hours to get there and trained 5 days a week. The questions and enthusiasm was endless. I was in pieces just teaching.
I returned to London for a year and then, after partying all my earnings away, limped my way to Japan to follow my dream and learn from the root. I was extremely lucky – I got posted to a backwater town which happened to be one of the oldest Shorinji clubs in the country. Run by the elderly but energetic Goda Sensei, 9th Dan, there were more higher grades in the club than the whole of the UK. I went as a 3rd Dan but because I was relatively junior I trained the whole syllabus to 7th Dan. However, I wasn’t allowed to grade because I fell under foreigner rules so saw many of my peers overtake me even though I had double their experience. Training was stupidly tough…38 degree heat in summer and a few degrees in winter with no heating or air conditioning. I trained every month at headquarters, made many friends and immersed myself in the quite ridiculous yet fantastic culture. At my peak I won 9th place in the Japanese national championships but after a few years fell foul to my colitis so had to prematurely return to the UK.
In 2000, after 6 months of go-slow I started to get on top of my health. However I was struggling to gain traction…One day I was trying to lift weights in the gym near my work but blew myself out in 20 minutes due to basket of meds I was on. I remember as I was thinking I need to try something else, I looked up and saw a very energetic Taekwondo class across the way. In those days “cross training” was still very fledging and faux pas in my traditional circles, especially as I was deemed a senior instructor. But I thought bugger this, got up and went into the gym. This was my second big step in martial arts and followed an array of different styles. Although I was good at kicking I really struggled with the fitness. Taekwondo is an extremely hard “sport” but I persevered under the excellent tutelage of Master Alan Liu who welcomed me despite knowing my martial art background. After a few years I switched to a class in Richmond under now departed Master Sangha and his league of champions, including Zak Espi, current heavyweight world champion. Sessions were so tough that I often woke up with crab feet, unable to move my legs. After many competitions and 5 years hard graft, I got graded to black belt under the strict military eye of Grandmaster Raymond Choi, a nerving experience to say the least.
Around the same time, I started Wing Chun under the brilliantly skilful Si-Fu Tam Yiu Ming, who I still practise with to this day. I also took up Yang style Tai Chi for a number of years and learnt how to blend internal and external styles, something that was missing from my game. I still find these styles highly complimentary to the other styles I’ve learnt. It was a busy time for me…I was training every day in 4 different styles. I enjoyed it immensely with my only fear of turning up at class with the wrong uniform!
I ran a few Shorinji clubs in London with mixed success and then got my 5th dan in Japan in 2008. Unfortunately I injured my knee in the grading (I was fighting with a broken thumb anyway), which started a slippery downward slope. Within 6 months, politics and egos had got the better of me. Coupled with injury and a general frustration with traditional rigidity meant I took the long and hard decision to leave my original martial art.
After recovering from a tricky knee operation, I was having a rather excellent Japanese meal with dear friend and ex-student Ian Ferguson when I mentioned I was thinking of creating my own thing. I distinctly remember how his face lit up like a kid in a candy store. Even now I perversely realise how the rather distasteful end of my Shorinji career actually provided me with an out to start something better. As one door closes, another opens…
After a year of intense study and training in my unfurnished dining room we had the basis for a new martial art style blending traditional concepts within modern realities. As part of my research I started training in Jeet Kune Do, Kali, Thai boxing, Boxing and BJJ at the Bob Breen academy and many other gyms. Guro Bob is the best and most talented instructor I have ever come across and is still the main inspiration for me today. In 2013, I was privileged to join the immensely talented group of Breen black belts, after the most gruelling grading I had ever done. It’s by far my most treasured certificate.
In the summer of 2009, Ian and I went to train on his Dad’s farm for the final test – 4 days intense training where we graded each other through to black belt. Ian bust his back a few years ago and when I asked him how it was – he said it was nothing compared to the pain experienced that weekend. With the syllabus and business plan complete, I went on the search for a venue. A few days later Ian and I were testing some training gear in the park. I was wearing a head guard while Ian was kicking me in the head (the things we do!). Some lads come over to watch and one said “Christ, what are you doing?”. “Bushin” I replied…the rest is history.
The last 6 years have been incredibly rewarding but punishing. Countless injuries now plague my broken body but I continue to train hard and learn more and more from the fabulous world of martial arts. Over 30 years I’ve heard every excuse in the book for not training. It’s like white noise to me now…despite work, family, countless injury, near bankruptcy, personal loss and sacrifice I’ve never stopped…and, as long as my body lets me, I never intend to.
I remain humble and grateful to the vast universe of martial art brilliance. Frontiers continue to be broken as we advance through an age of expanding MMA and into exciting new realms such as Bob Breen’s 4D Combat, Andy Norman’s Defence Lab and Phil Norman’s Ghost fighting. So much to learn and so little time. Ichigo ichie – one life, one chance – so fill it to the brim.
Thank you to all the teachers, friends, colleagues, students and family that have helped and supported me through the last 30 years. Here’s to another 30!