Sensei John Mullin has trained in karate since the 60’s with many of the best in the world, and throughout his many years of training and teaching he has gained a reputation as one of the leading figures in American Karate. He has lived and trained in Japan, enjoyed a long competitive career, and was even named ‘Instructor of the year’ by the Karate Voice (a national karate publication). John Mullin is now a leading figure in the World Traditional Karate Organization, and for these reasons, The Shotokan Way was thrilled to interview this fascinating karateka, and get to hear his views and ideas.
(Shaun Banfield) Could you please start by telling us a little about how you started in karate?
(John Mullin) My first introduction to karate was in early films and television. Karate was new in the U.S. and every so often there was a TV spot where there was a little karate and it piqued my interest. I wanted to know more. I think that martial arts always held for me a mystery and I wanted to learn the secrets; superman and all that. Karate was so new and awesome I had to learn it. It had power, speed and people could break boards, bricks: who wouldn’t be impressed. I guess I was rather impressionable. .
(SB) Can you tell us a little about your early days of training, and whom you trained with?
(JM) I began my training when I was in High School at the age of 15 in 1960. Sounds like a long time ago but to me it seems like yesterday. My teacher was sensei Maynard Miner 7th dan JKA. At that time he was a young 20ish shodan. He was the fastest person I had ever seen. I was very lucky because he is a man of integrity, high intelligence and a dedicated teacher. There were some people teaching then as now with little integrity or knowledge, and just seeking a quick buck. The training was hard, basic and intense. Once every month we would pile into a couple of cars and take a ride to Philadelphia to train with Okazaki sensei, always a treat. We were all so young and just hungry for knowledge, much like today but I’m not as young.
(SB) Who would you say most had an impact on your karate and why?
(JM) It is difficult to say there are so many. I guess the main ones are Maynard Miner my first instructor, he laid the foundation of my karate and was always a great inspiration. He always trained and pushed himself as hard as he pushed us. Then there is Mori sensei; he was my teacher for over 35 years. A taskmaster who demanded the best you had and pushed you until you thought you couldn’t do any more and then he’d push some more. They were wonderful years and he always inspired one to work hard. Two other people stand out who were inspirational they are Bob Shapoff and Joe Gayol. We trained together for many years and both were tremendous fighters and overall dynamic karate men. Lastly my friend and partner in the WTKO Richard Amos, we have been friends for almost 20 years and he is just tremendous to work with. He is relentless in his training, a gifted karate man, and a tremendous teacher. There are others who have inspired me, motivated me, just about everyone who puts on a dogi and sincerely trains inspires me - it’s what we do.
(SB) As a competitor for the JKA/ITKF Team, what did you learn in your competition years that have had an impact on the karate you do today?
(JM) Over the 25 years of competing in JKA competition I learned that its not winning that is important, you couldn’t have told me that years ago and you can’t win them all anyway, but of course I wouldn’t have believed it, it is really the experience. Medals gather dust and are forgotten, but you don’t forget the intensity, the training, the friendships and the joy of competition. Probably that’s why when I get the chance I still enter the veterans division.
(SB) What would you say were the major difference between the way you fought in the JKA competitions and the All Styles competition?
(JM) For me there was no difference. I trained the JKA way and that was the way I approached competition. Someone once said when I fought that I seemed launched like a missile. Nothing fancy, just attack. When I got older I would counterattack, and found it to be very effective. I stopped kumite competition at 45 years of age. I didn’t fight in very many all styles competition except for Japan and a few early years in NY. Today there are many more variations on the rules. I still prefer shobu-ippon, and the WTKO uses the shobu-ippon point system. Every match is sudden death and there is always an element of tension and anticipation. Not that the other system is bad, there are some talented athletes competing, it’s just not that “old budo feeling”. I think the shobu-ippon still has the budo tradition, I feel the other groups are geared to more of an athletic event more of a sportsman than a martial artist discipline. I believe the shobu-ippon tradition has more of the karate ethic, courtesy, discipline and respect. There tends to be less of the yahoo antics we often see today at open events.
(SB) Considering the fundamental differences in many of the karate styles, do you feel the styles are slowly being standardized, resulting in the styles losing their stylistic individuality, and what do you feel this will do to Shotokan?
(JM) Actually when it comes to sparring there seems little difference regarding style. The big difference is in kata. What I’ve seen that I find disturbing in kata competition is the way some competitors compete. They feel that they have to pose during the kata and add flourishes that have no meaning in the kata, they have long pauses and exaggerated movements that have no meaning but are there only to exaggerate and add dramatics and gain points with the referees. I find this disturbing and ridiculous. It would be laughable in most respects but the fact that it can garners a high score, points out the fact the there are many referees that are less than qualified to judge and that it indicates they are not up to the standard themselves if they think this is good.
(SB) Having spent time in Japan, do you feel there is a major gulf in the way Westerners practice karate, and the way the Japanese practice karate, and if so what do you think are these differences?
(JM) There is definitely a difference in the way the Japanese practice karate that the westerners. While it has been a long time since I have been in Japan I doubt that the Japanese have changed that much. The Japanese for the most part don’t ask questions and do what they are instructed to do. The training is grounded in intense basics to the point of boredom. But for Japanese this is okay, they understand repetition, and the necessity for it. They develop a depth and breadth of karate hard to develop in the west. The westerner has questions and needs a variety of techniques; by the very nature of our social development we crave diversity. Westerners are still bigger and stronger as a rule, but the gap is narrowing, and while in the past westerners has relied more on power than technique. I think today that has changed and the there exists in the west a new technical level that can compare with Japan. One only has to look at the many world championships held around the world to see that the Japanese have been defeated often in world championships outside of Japan. Western Practice of karate while not uniform had come a long way. I my travels I have seen some groups with high levels of technical ability.
(SB) You are a close friend and colleague of Sensei Amos, who we recently interviewed, what is it about his karate that impresses you so much?
(JM) It is difficult to decide where to begin. I guess it is his intensity. I have known Sensei Amos about twenty years and he is a man of conviction and intensity. Combining that with his native intelligence and you have a karate genius, and I don’t say that lightly. He has an introspection that I have seen in only a few people over the past 46 years of karate training. I think Maynard Minor has it but not many others. Sensei Amos is always open about his technique and always examining what he does. I doubt many senseis train harder or as often. He also has the unique ability to pull the best out of his students. His training sessions are always a clinic on some aspect of karate and you always come away wanting more and with something to work on.
(SB) As a veteran in the world of karate, in what ways have you adapted your karate to deal with the abilities of your body over the years, or do you still practice karate the way you did when you were twenty?
(JM) I would love to practice the same way I did when I was twenty. I was young, skinny; I had more hair and was full of beans. Now I am, sorry to say, I’m older and wiser but I do train about 5 days a week except in the summer when school is out (I’m a school teacher) when I train almost every day. In all honesty I feel my karate is much better, stronger and surprisingly faster. I just don’t have the same reaction time in sparring that I had when I was younger, so I’m slower to react to an opening. I therefore must rely on cunning and deception, still not a replacement for explosive reaction time. I think I train smarter and my training is more varied now. I do a lot of impact training, but I still drill in the basics, kihon remains the foundation of my karate, that and the Heian katas. As often as I can I try and get to the gym to do weight training, I think it is vitally important as we age, that and a lot of stretching.
(SB) All karateka young and old are all trying to make their karate stronger and better, what part of your karate do you place most emphasis on and why?
(JM) I stress the basics, how can you not it is the building blocks of karate. It develops the essential muscles and makes the connections that the brain needs between the muscles and the nervous system. I work hard on the hanmi and shomen aspects of kihon. I do a lot of makawara work and heavy bag work and it has paid off. The only problem I have is that I cannot train enough. I need to retire from my day job, which I will in about a year and a half, and then I can dedicate myself to training seven days a week. I think once I do that I can finally develop the karate I want.
(SB) As a highly respected instructor, you spend a great deal of your time teaching. What body dynamics do you think are the most important to master in making Shotokan work for you?
(JM) Everything is important. Stance is the most important. I remember as a young man struggling with my stance and trying to find it. I still occasionally feel that it can be better especially in kihon and kata. Also important is the understanding how the body moves, it needs to be relaxed and the posture has to be natural not forced, easy to say and difficult to find. Lastly I see that a lot of people are disconnected from their body, this is a major flaw for a lot of people. You need a sense of the body, and that begins with the feet and their connection on the floor. You just don’t stand on the floor; the feet are the connection to the floor. Position is important, plus when to connect and disconnect.
Also important in posture is the position of the tailbone, I push it forward I don’t tuck it unnaturally. Done correctly the muscles of the buttocks are used in stepping and stance. This adds tremendous power to your movements. Maybe this is a lot more than can be conveyed in this interview.
(SB) How important do you think it is to develop your own personality in your karate, rather than simply impersonating your instructor?
(JM) This comes in time. I always copied the people I admired. This is not a bad thing and is a very important part of ones development. Role models help one understand what one wants to accomplish. But eventually you develop your own karate personality over time through intense training and maturity. Ones karate personality is an important factor in ones development and is a mark of an advanced karate practitioner when ones karate personality is reflected in ones karate.
(SB) What technical details do you teach now that differ from what you were taught?
(JM) I think basics are different today in the way I teach. I feel that I have a greater appreciation of the role of basics in karate and how they are performed and the role that they play in ones karate development and in every part of their karate. It is crucial to understand how we move from one position to another. So many people do so many unnecessary movements when they step and it indicates that they truly don’t know how to step or what they are actually supposed to do, such as position of the feet, weight shift and what muscles to use and lastly where the weight is distributed on the feet. These are some of the things I teach. The idea is to develop explosive speed without warning with devastating effect, voila! When done right it feels fantastic.
(SB) Can you tell us what is hip vibration, and can you give us an example of it in use? Do you think it is an important dynamic that you should think about?
(JM) Yes, Yes, Yes. It is one of the six ways of making power in karate. It is a quick short twisting action of the hips generating power into the limbs. Much like when you snap a towel. Small movement from the arm sends a powerful force through the towel. An example is when standing in natural stance and punching repeatedly. You have to use quick hip vibration to generate power. You must be very relaxed and the vibration is used to generate the power in the punch. Another example is stepping triple punch, sanbon-zuki, the first punch is from the forward step and thrust but the following two punches are from hip vibration.
(SB) We recently spoke to Sensei Otis, and we spoke about how although emphasis on kata application is important, deep attention needs to be paid to the attitude needed to perform each kata. How important is Application to you in your karate, and to the karate you teach?
(JM) In the past I have paid little attention to application in kata. I very much followed the JKA attitude about kata, JUST DO IT, and focus on the technique and speed power, balance etc. I used to think bunkai was the refuge of the lazy. That said I have trained with sensei Charles Gidly and Sensei Steve Ubl and these lads (they will like me calling them lads since 50 is a distant memory) are phenomenal with bunkai and know how to make it work. I’ve trained with them both and was very impressed by what I learned. Both train hard and all the time and have been around for a cows age (how old do cows get?) and are serious karate men. I now spend a portion of kata class on an aspect of bunkai but my primary emphasis is still training kata. I think once you understand what a technique does, you know, so get to work executing the technique and training intensity.
(SB) And in what ways would you mentally apply yourself different in Unsu for example than you would in Sochin?
(JM) I haven’t done Unsu in anger in a long while. It is a kata the takes a degree of athletic ability that I no longer possess. I did it many years ago and had moderate success with it but it is not my kata. I think mentally one applies ones-self to all kata the same way. Kata is the mental preparation for battle, or in the deeper (melodramatic for some) sense to face death. One calms ones-self and controls the breathing, focuses your eyes on a specific point in front of you and clears the mind. You should feel no emotion and be at peace with yourself and everything around you. Focus on your breathing and move with ones breath and a sense of the joy of movement or as Shakespeare say in Henry the Fifth (and occasionally quoted in full by sensei Amos)
“As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.”
(Act III, Scene I, Lines 1-13)
That is kata.
(SB) What is Sensei Mullin’s favourite kata and why?
(JM) Sochin, is what I call my kata. Why, it fits me, feels right and I’ve done it for 30years. It is my karate feeling, the way I move. I understand the use of explosive power in the kata, the subtle transitions and dynamic movement. It is both powerful and exciting. I would not say it is a beautiful kata but it combines so much that when it is done right it is a pure expression of Shotokan karate for me.
(SB) Can I just say a huge thank you from us all for this fascinating interview, it has been a great insight for us all!