Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Kung fu - My Story

I can still remember the moment back in what must have been 1990 or 1991. I was playing at my grandparents’ house in New Malden. I was up in their bedroom and my mum walked in asking “Would you like to learn Kung Fu?” I vividly remember replying “What’s Kung fu?” to which mum answered “It’s like Karate” Like many six year old's I was a boisterous, enthusiastic and brimming with energy. I recall hearing my mum say it would help “channel some energy” and “wear him out”. In hindsight I’m not sure it worked! 

I was hugely excited and the following weekend I went along to my first ever lesson. The style of Kung Fu was Lau Gar and it clicked with me from the offset and I instantly fell in love with my 09:00 – 11:00 Sunday morning classes. They were held in an rundown, poorly insulated secondary school gymnasium which doubled up as a basket ball court. The floor was extremely hard and especially cold under bare feet in Winter. The hall had an unmissable aging gym smell. It wast a mixture of sweat, dirt and hard work combined with old mats and lots of wooden equipment. Another feature was the high ceiling. This caused my legs to turn to jelly whenever I walked in or gazed upward due to my phobia of looking up at tall buildings. Despite this, even at such a young age I felt comfortable in this environment. I had a huge respect for my first teacher Asim Agri, (I called him Mr Agri) and would hang on his every word. To this day I think it’s so important for young children to have role models outside family and school life.

I quickly asked my friend to join up with me to which he instantly obliged. I would turn up each week and get stuck in giving the sessions my all, I was having a great time. I enjoyed the exercise and sparring side of things but found the technical aspects difficult to remember and master although that has changed now. Sparring would always involve dragging these huge long, blue school gym mats over to make a matted area in which to fight. I distinctly remember setting those up. As much as I enjoyed sparring I would get extremely nervous each time I was up on the mat.

Through my participation in Kung fu I became fascinated in… no besotted with Bruce Lee. The problem for me was as a child I was never allowed to watch his films due to the violence and nudity! All I knew was I wanted to fight like him! I would imagine how many men he could defeat at a petrol station fracas and wonder if one day I could!  

Four weeks into my study my parents brought me my very first Kung fu kit and sparring pads. I was so proud and cherished my kit more than anything. The uniform was similar to a traditional Karate gi only in black which made me feel special relative to my friends who wore white at their Karate or Judo clubs. I’ve always taken great pride in my identity and belonging.

After probably 3- 6 months (forgive my lack of specificity, it was a long time ago) I graded with my friend and the rest of the class beginners for my white belt. My memory of the occasion was one of being both excited and scared. Our senior instructor Mr Neville Wray visited our club to conduct the grading’s in a separate room. This was the first time I had met him in person although leading up to the grading’s I heard other students in the class talking about him in reverent tones. Upon meeting Neville I was instantly in awe of him and what he had and still was achieving on an international level. What I remember of him from our first encounter was that he was very formal, although not scary or intimidating (even to a six year old). Oh and big…he was very big!  - Having met him several times since over the years I would add humble and friendly to that. He is another man I have enormous respect for and to this day he is doing a great job as one of the head coaches to the British WAKO Kickboxing squad. Happily I passed my examination for white grade, as did my friend and on hearing the news the following week and receiving a certificate and white sash, I recall jumping into my mums arms with pure exhilaration and joy. I was now a white sash!
When I was 7 or 8 I entered the national championships in Southampton. I genuinely believed I could win. That Autumn Sunday was a reality check. Having sat in a minivan for 90 minutes or so I got myself massively worked up and nervous and by the time we walked into this huge old sports hall I could barely function. Somehow I managed to control my nervous (despite visibly shaking) enough to put in a fair account for myself but still lost my first round match. I was simultaneously devastated, embarrassed and ashamed. I can’t remember my instructor Asim being at that tournament although I’m sure he would have been. It was a very long and lonely trip back to Surrey. I still remember my mum frying multi-coloured pasta swirls in butter and dropping grated cheese on top. With some ketchup that cheered me up no end. To this day I believe losing is a necessary process in achieving success.
As the years past people naturally came and went. My friend dropped out when we were 8 and my teacher Asim retired due to health reasons. Sadly I never found out what became of him but I like to think he is still around and comfortable. Sent to replace Asim was a man who is now one of my best friends and a kindred spirit. Russel must have only been 17, 18, 19 at the time and he still wasn’t a black sash. It’s funny, I can’t remember much of these early sessions but I still loved the lessons and after a year or two the club moved location and became a bit more geared towards adults.  There were children but not many. I would guess I was now around 10 years old.

Being the youngest in a class primarily made up of adults was always going to bring the best out in me. I used to be extremely competitive with other students trying to do more exercises, or execute techniques faster than they could. I continued to move up the grades and got bigger and stronger and more confident in what I was doing. The class had a core of students Russell our instructor, Steve who was his second and would take the class when Russell wasn’t there, Karl (with a K), Harvey, Chris and myself with many other memorable individuals coming for a year or two before inevitably disappearing. All these guys I became close friends with. Steve and Russell in particular (and later Harvey).

Steve was a character. Stocky with a shaven head, a big fiery ginger goatee (to protect his chin apparently) with tattoos on his arms, legs and back of his neck. To look at you definitely would not mess with Steve but to know him he was one of the easiest most laid back and friendly guys you could ever meet. He looked after me and when sparring, showed me a lot of respect, giving me the time and confidence to try different techniques without fear of being flattened yet he would always keep me honest. Its fair to say, Steve took me under his wing. I would also relish fighting Russell but his speed meant you had to be extremely careful and maintain a healthy respect when coming forward. One mistake and bam! I remember two occasions he gave me lock jaw with a hook out of nowhere! Nothing heavy or dangerous, just enough to make me think. You knew when you got to Russell you had deserved it. Over the years we all had some great ding dongs, but always controlled with a level of mutual respect.

When I was 13 Russell encouraged me to compete in the national championships. I told him I wasn’t interested as I knew I’d get too nervous and worked up about it. Even thinking about it used to send butterflies straight to my stomach. Russell still advised I enter reasoning that if I didn’t enjoy it I wouldn’t have to do it again. He also said I should give it a go so whatever happened I would always know that I competed. With hindsight I do believe to a degree that he wanted me tested and thought I might do well. That it was something that I should experience after all the years training I had done. I also think he knew that as a martial artist and as a person I would regret not challenging myself, out of my comfort zone and experience tournament fighting as he had.  I didn’t want to disappoint him so I decided to compete. I’m glad I did.
It was sheer luck that one round of the CIMAC Super league national championships tournament was being held just a 15 minute cycle from my house. In fact it was staged at the very same location as the original club had started out. I saw it as a personal homecoming of sorts. I arrived, met up with Steve who was helping out with the set up and he booked me in for the peewee light continuous draw. Unfortunately Russell couldn’t make the tournament and my parents, as far as I can remember weren’t able to attend. It was just Steve and I. Up to this point we had always done point fighting and light continuous at our club, but with the smaller, more precise dipped foam pads on our hands and feet. For the light continuous category however I needed proper full size boxing gloves. By chance Steve knew a woman who had a pair of 16 oz gloves. I had never worn boxing gloves before and they were large, cumbersome and heavy. Alongside the extra weight they felt foreign to me they seemed to engulf half my arm! As a short thirteen year old boy (as an adult I’m only 5’7) being placed into the under 18 peewee category I was at a pretty substantial disadvantage. Something happened to me in that hall, on that day. My back was to the proverbial wall. Standing in the center of the matted fighting area, intimidated and surrounded by a couple of dozen fighters and supporters representing my opponents much larger clubs, all shouting inaudibly fast, exasperated exclamations in expectation of perceived points due to be awarded, aimed at influencing the referee, putting me off and encouraging my opponent. Slapping the floor with their hands as they shouted and generally getting behind anything and everything my opponents did, I was in a hostile environment and I dug deep. I fought with every morsel of strength and will power I could muster against much older, taller kids who were every bit my technical equal or better. Near adults who were experienced national level fighters. Fighters who weren’t afraid of high ceilings!                                                              I have a clear recollection of being absolutely exhausted but only halfway through fights. I was barely able to breathe, gasping for air, totally depleted of energy and at one point desperately gesticulating the universal sign for a timeout that would never come. What I hadn’t realised was this being continuous fighting there were no stoppages. You stopped after 3 minutes when the bout was over. (I actually remember the referee laughing as he said I couldn’t have one) Despite the heavy gloves, and perceived disadvantages I came away with a third place trophy. I was so proud and remember the other coaches and their fighters coming up and shaking Steve’s and then my hands. They congratulated Steve on my performance and specifically how much heart I displayed. He was if anything prouder than I was and said I had fought like a lion. At that point I believe Steve stopped seeing me as the 9 / 10 year old boy he had met almost half a decade previously and started seeing me as an adult and a good martial artist by any measure.
Later that same year I entered the South East Championships in Maidenhead. With no disrespect to my competitors, (there were some excellent fighters) naturally the standard was not as high as at the nationals. For starters it was a more localised tournament and this time I was in fact one the older more senior grades in the category. I won that tournament to which I had and still have an enormous satisfaction. Nothing however will beat my 3rd place at the National Championships early that year.

The following year, now 14 I entered the national championships again, this time in Windsor.  As always I was ridiculously nervous and found it hard to focus. I arrived with my mum, signed in and waited for my category to be allocated fighting areas. When after two hours of tortuous hanging around the area was announced on the PA system I made my way to the appropriate area. The other competitors where enormous and half of them looked like men. Men who could kick you in the head before you saw their foot move. It would appear that everyone had grown over the winter except me! The speed of these athletes was unbelievable. My name was called up and I stepped onto the mat and was immensely relieved to see my first opponent appeared to be only one grade (sash) above than me, a similar age and only a couple of inches taller. He was also a better point’s fighter and went on to progress to the second and maybe even the third round, I’m not sure.
For me I had given it a fair crack as Russell had asked and I have no regrets whatsoever. To continue it simply wasn’t worth the tension, and overriding anxiety I would experience weeks before and leading up to tournaments. Besides, these guys I was competing against were fighting fortnightly around the country, training three times a week with clubs who were geared up towards tournament fighting. Genetically many were superior to me. Bigger, faster, stronger and more flexible and the top guys were in the British squad. I was and am still a good fighter but to use a football analogy I was a mid-table championship fighter not premier league! Luckily for me there are many aspect to Kung fu that I love and I gain a lot more than just being able to fight. 

Later that year I had my one and only significant Kung fu injury. I was sparring with Karl who was an awkward man to fight. He was about 6ft and all arms and legs. One week I would have a clear upper hand, the next week he would. On this occasion he threw a powerful but controlled roundhouse kick (the top of the foot / ankle swings across the opponent to hit the side of their body / head). In this instance I shuffled forward at precisely the wrong moment and wham! He caught me straight across the nose. I remember a wave of denseness filling my head and everything fell silent, except for an internal ringing. That’s when I heard Karl say “your nose is bleeding”  As my nose preceded to run with blood I remember wishing it hadn’t happened and thinking what an inconvenience it was to everyone and wondering how bad it would be. Poor Karl was mortified and couldn’t stop apologising. He even offered to take me “up the casualty”. At the hospital that evening they said I could have plastic surgery if I wished but I decided to leave it. Luckily the incident didn’t spoil my good looks! I didn’t even get much of a black eye(s) which I remember being disappointed about at school the next day! There is a tiny lump towards the top on the bridge of my nose but otherwise unscathed. Ironically 10 years later I unwittingly repaid the favour to Karl with a spinning kick of my own. As with me it was the only time he had ever really been hurt at the club. Even then, I blame both incidents on unlucky timing. After all the years training, even with the control we exhibited I think we got off quite lightly.
As the years past I became closer friends with Russell in particular but also with Steve and Harvey too. We started a tradition where the whole club would go out every Christmas for a meal and get together. That’s where I experienced my first taste of curry and drunkenness. I loved those evenings out with adults and club mates. I won’t go into detail!                                                                                                              
When I turned 16 Russell asked if I wanted to help him and Steve with his children’s lesson that preceded our adult class. Naturally I jumped at the chance. As the weeks and months went by they would give me more and more responsibility and after two years teaching with them, they supported me fully in opening my first very own club children’s class one month to the day after my 18th birthday. Unbelievably looking back I had that club for over 10 years and grew it to a point where I had 15 regular students. It was the maximum I could manage on my own but I loved teaching that class and continued to teach at both Russell’s children’s class and on the rare occasion the adult one when both he and Steve couldn’t make it. 
Into my mid-twenties I begun appreciating the more traditional aspects of Kung fu. Aspects such as the sets (a set of continuous movements done with tension and fluidity) and Tai Chi energy techniques, breathing and even meditation. Many people have no time for semi contact martial arts and the traditional aspects and I do see if they are only interested in the fighting side of things they will feel a percentage of Kung fu is not for them. For me though, there are so many internal benefits I gain from being a martial artist. Yes I do still love hitting the pads or putting on the gloves for a sparring session but I find an inner peace with the fluidity, grace and focus needed for tai chi and even apply that to weaponry work, sticking hands and if I’m with someone I trust, sparring.
Having moved to Norfolk I have kept teaching but now I’m looking to expand upon that and reach out to more people. I remain close friends with Russell and we will always share a mutual love for Kung fu and everything it umbrellas as well as Bruce Lee, Kung fu films, music and TV, cinema.
I feel that I am a complete martial artist albeit one with a long way to go and much to learn. It’s a never ending journey and once it’s in you, REALLY in you there’s no escaping it.  I enjoy all the facets Kung fu has to offer in equal measure and through my spirit and desire it embodies me to some degree. I will never be an elite world class fighter but I know through my teaching I have helped many, many people. That’s good enough for me.


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