20 years ago, in May of 1999, Hirokazu Kanazawa, one of the highest ranking, most respected Karate masters tested me for my brown belt.
I remember the night like it was Yesterday. I was the only person taking the brown belt test, so it was just me up there, in front of the great master.
The first part of the grading was the Kihon(the basics). They were great.
Next up was the sparring. For the brown belt grading, you have to do something called Kihon-Ippon-Kumite(1 step sparring). Basically you have to do set counters to set attacks. That sounds straight-forward enough, but let me put things into context.
At our club the brown belt grading had more significance than the black belt grading. The club’s name was “Jissen-Kihaku”, in english “the spirit of real fighting”. The spirit of real fighting was brutal. The brown belt gradings traditionally meant hours of torture for the student. It was a means of weeding out the weak.
Had I gone through the traditional club grading, I’m sure it would have been a particularly brutal affair. Back then I was somewhat different character to the one I am now. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
The thing with my grading though was that it was an official grading with the highest ranking karate master in the world. Everything would be done by the book.
But! My sparring partner for the fighting part of my grading was none other than my instructor, Mark Donaghy. Mark has also gotten 20 years older in the meantime and I’m sure he too has matured and mellowed a bit. Back then however, he was a 30 year old animal. I may not have been getting the privilege of a traditional Jissen-Kihaku grading, but I was going to be put through a rather dangerous 15 minutes. Punches would not getting pulled. The slightest mistake, the slightest delay in my reactions and my bones would have been getting broken.
I probably should have been scaird, but I wasn’t. I was focused. When Mark attacked I was in the flow state. Man, was I in the flow. The punches and kicks came hard, they came fast and they came with intention. It seemed the attacks were coming in slow motion. It felt like I was moving like lightning with perfect precision and timing.
I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the best Kihon-Ippon-Kumite that has ever been performed at a brown belt grading. It’s a bit of a bold claim to make, but hey, I like bold. It was amazing, it was perfect. It wasn’t a well choreographed show either. Mark would have knocked my head off.
The final part was Kata. Tekki Shodan is the required kata for the brown belt grading. It was my favourite kata and I had been practicing it since I was a white belt. It’s a kata that is performed entirely in horse stance(not like the awful horse stance you see Wim Hof practitioners around the world doing. You can’t imagine how much I cringe seeing that). It was my Kata, I’d performed it thousands of times, I loved Tekki Shodan!
There is one part of the kata where you flick your leg up whilst in horse stance(Nami-gaeshi is the Japanese name(imagine trying to kick yourself in the balls with your heal(I know that isn’t a sensible thing to be doing))). With my right leg, no problem, a thing of beauty. Left however, was a different story.
My left hip was knackered. Really knackered.
I was a good kicker. A really good kicker. Not a particularly humble kicker, but good. My favourite kick was Ura-Mawashi-Geri(Reverse roundhouse kick). I would practice it relentlessly. I’d stack boxes and kick the top box off of the stack. You often see flicky ura-mawashi-geris with no power in them. I’d put weights in the boxes to make sure I was putting power in the kick.
I was kicking up to about 7 feet(2m15cm) high. I thought that was pretty impressive. At least until I tried it in a real fight against a giant. I ended up in hospital getting my head X-rayed. Oops.
The real problem though was that I’d completely trashed my hip!
Kanazawa pulled me up on my Hidari-nami-gaeshi(left leg heel kick to one’s own balls). It wasn’t perfect and he didn’t like it. He made me do it over and over again. It was never going to get any better, it was physically impossible.
I was at a bit of a loss about what to do. I was calm but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off any better. Then I had an idea. Kanazawa may be impressed if I show a bit of fighting spirit, I thought. I let out a Kiai(short shout, Kampfschrei(the German translation is much more dramatic)), pretending I was pissed off at being rubbish but still putting in all my effort. As soon as I did that Kanazawa ended the grading.
I felt so stupid. It would have been okay if I had really been frustrated, but it was a stupid ass fake Kiai. Kanazawa could probably tell I physically couldn’t do it any better and was just testing my patience. I’d failed that test.
I was awarded my brown belt after what could only be described as a stunning performance. The English guys who were up told me they thought Kanazawa was going to award me a 2nd Dan black belt. I myself,always had the feeling that if I hadn’t let out that stupid Kiai, I would have been awarded my black belt that night.
Who knows? It’s irrelevant anyway. The lessons learned are what count. Don’t be faking stupid bloody Kiai is a metaphor that has stayed with me since. Be authentic! Going around doing fake Kiai is just going to turn the people you should be attracting off. What’s worse is that you’ll end up attracting the kind of people you don’t need in your life.
In April 99, one Month before my brown belt grading I’d won 3 first places at the British Karate championships in London. In May I performed the best ever brown belt grading in front of a living legend. Just one Month later, in June 99 I had to retire from Karate. I was gutted, absolutely gutted! I was going to be world champion one day.
The diagnosis was bad. I’d need a new hip. At 20 I was far too young for a hip replacement and was told to suffer the pain for as long as possible.
For 10 years I did practically zero sports. Everything was painful. It often felt like my femur was a sword. Even walking was torture. I was at times miserable, often angry. I was bitter. It was everyone else’s fault but my own. I carried these feelings around with me for 10 years. I’d go to different doctors every couple of years & get new X-rays & MRI’s taken. The diagnosis was always the same.
Then one day I decide to drop all blame and take responsibility for myself. Nobody had forced me to do those things that I did. Perhaps encouraged, but not forced. As soon as I took ownership everything changed. The feeling of being in a dark place, the feeling of being helpless, left me.
I never believed what all these doctors had been telling me. I decided to take matters into my own hands. You always hear that people shouldn’t go pretending they are doctors, diagnosing themselves with the help of google. I mostly agree with that train of thought. I know more than one hypochondriac that every time they fart are searching google and diagnosing themselves with an allergy against shallots or some nonsense. In this case however I’d followed the rule a little too rigidly. I googled my symptoms and within 5 minutes I’d diagnosed myself. I looked up a specialist and he confirmed I was right, I was suffering from a CAM impingement. The great news was an operation could go along way in fixing the problem.
As soon as I woke up from the operation, I felt relief. It was a bit like when you’ve had a bad tooth pulled(An evil dentist tortured me one time(really tortured, like in a cheap slovakian horror movie) and left me in serious pain for 2 years. So I know what that feels like.)) Although there was loads of pain because of the surgery, it was a big operation, the relief was instant. The whole operation is on Youtube. If you’re into sports medicine, orthopedics or cheap slovakian horror movies, you should take a look. It’s really cool.
The recovery wasn’t quick. My femur head had been completely reshaped. A lot of bone was removed. It actually took me about 18 months to recover. Then I was raring to go!
My friend Bob Allen(1986 World Karate Champion & now retired Royal protection officer(body guard of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)) suggested I take up Yoga and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. So in January 2012 I did.
I fell in love immediately with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. It became my great passion. But alas history sometimes repeats itself. But that is a story for another day.
Take ownership & be authentic to yourself.
Until next time, keep breathing.
From the heart
Here’s the link to my hip operation. 5:44 is my favourite bit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DKp51kXY8ao&t=291s