Mike O’Brien 8th Dan can be described as no less than the ‘Father’ of Welsh Karate. He was its first Shotokan black belt and was a central figure in the promotion and development of karate in Wales. This, our very first TSW Video interview gives an in-depth insight into his beginnings as a karateka, his struggles and successes in developing karate in Wales and his forty years of karate experience. Here he talks about his early years of training with the likes of Sensei Andy Sherry, Sensei Hirokazu Kanazawa and Sensei Keinosuke Enoeda. He talks about becoming the first ever Welshman to be graded to Shodan by Sensei Sadashige Kato, and his experiences bringing many world class teachers to Wales,including the named above, but also the likes of Senseis Taiji Kase, Hiroshi Shirai and Dave Hazard. He speaks of the growth of karate in Wales and its competitive successes and his break from the K.U.G.B (Karate Union of Great Britain) and the subsequent forming of the K.U.W (Karate Union of Wales) which he continues to lead.
When Shaun and I first started karate we were a part of the K.U.W, and Sensei O’Brien was our Chief Instructor. He was, to us at the time, easily one of the most frightening men you’ll ever meet. Why? The video will highlight. Not because of nastiness or aggressiveness, but because of the charisma he exudes.
I would like to thank Andy O’Brien for helping organise the interview, and Sensei O’Brien for being so generous with his time and experiences, and for being so candidly honest in his answers. We have transcribed the interview for those who prefer to read the interviews, and we would like to say thank you to Andy O’Brien, Bo Channon and Stuart Jenkins for their contribution to the interview questions. We would also like to thank Rhondda Cynon Taf Library Service for their kind contribution of photography-Emma Robins & Shaun Banfield 08
(Emma Robins)Can we please start by asking how you started karate?
(Mike O’Brien)The first time I saw karate was back in the early 60s, and it was on a television programme. Back in those days, television programmes weren’t run like they are now. If there was a gap, they would put an interlude into it or something of interest.
Anyways this day they put this chap on who was a karate expert. There was a programme called ‘Hawaiian Eye’ in those days and a chap called Cookie Burns was in it. But this taxi driver was a Japanese taxi driver, and was also in this programme.
Anyway, they showed this guy in his dojo in LA, and that’s the first time I ever saw karate, and it just blew me away. It was fantastic. It was only on for about three or four minutes, but as soon as it finished I thought ‘I’ve got to do that’.
So there was obviously no clubs in Cardiff in those days so I had to go out and buy a book. So I searched the bookshops and the only book I could find was called ‘The Way of Karate’ and was by a chap called E.J. Harrison who was a judo expert (Laughing).
So, I bought that book and tried to learn from it; but obviously you can’t learn from a book. You can see the start and the finish, but you don’t know what’s happening in the middle.
But I tried and probably got everything backwards which I soon found out when I started training with Andy Sherry. I was doing the movement wrong and had lots of telling offs over it.
But that was the first time I’d ever seen karate, and then obviously one day I opened up the paper and there was an advert saying there was a karate club starting in Cardiff at the Roath Church Hall in Roath, inviting people to go along. So along I went with about fifty other people and that’s the first time I met Andy and a chap called Alan Smith.
We didn’t train that night actually because the hall was already booked for an old-aged-pensioners do, so they travelled all the way down from Liverpool to start this club and couldn’t do it. So back they went and said they’d be ‘back next week’.
If you’d seen Andy and Alan in those days…Andy was never a big guy. I don’t know what type of guy we expected to see as a karate person; a big hunk of a guy, but Andy was very small. He was unshaven at the time - and Alan Smith - I think they’d been sleeping in the car.
But they turned up again the next week and obviously a smaller number of people turned up. There was probably about 25-30 of us and we started training. They obviously had their gi’s on now and just blew me away. Incredible. And that’s how the club got started actually.
Andy and Alan came down regular for eight or ten weeks and they said they’re sending Sensei Kanazawa down to do the gradings.
So along came Sensei Kanazawa and again, just blew us away with his kime and everything else. He was incredible. So we had the first grading and I achieved a red belt, 8th kyu. Everyone else had 9th, and Andy Sherry said ‘Right, we’ll see you every month now, you run the club’, so I became club instructor at 8th kyu and that’s the way it went.
To be fair to all the lads that trained, no one said ‘we don’t want to train under a red belt’. Everyone turned up every week. Because we didn’t know much, we could only do what Andy had taught us. We did our basics rigidly, our kata which in those days was Heian Shodan and that’s all we knew and all we could practice, which was probably a good thing because we weren’t into freestyle, we didn’t know any fancy techniques; so it was just dojo (training) ever week, twice a week and rigid basics.
That’s the way it all started really.
(ER)Was it a lot of responsibility taking on your first club? How old would you have been at that point?
(MO’B)I was twenty-seven. I started Karate quite late, but it didn’t bother me because in my army career I was a drill instructor and weapon training instructor so I was used to handling men. So to have a class in front of me didn’t bother me at all. I had that authority, so it didn’t bother me. But I enjoyed it, I loved it actually.
(ER)Can you please tell us about your early experiences in karate?
(MO’B)Andy Sherry and I because firm friends so every time he came to stay in Cardiff he always stayed with me and my family. After a while, Alan Smith, who was one of the originals, seemed to drop out of karate for some reason and then he (Sherry) always brought a young brown belt with him called Bobby Poynton who we know has gone onto greater things.
I always had to partner up with Bobby when he came to the club, which was very hard for me because he was so good and so fast, but it did me good to train with someone like that.
A story: one night -I was doing shift work in those days -and we’d all gone to bed and I had to be up by six in the morning, or be up at five to be in work by six, and in the middle of the night I could hear ‘THUMP, BANG WALLOP’ and I said to my wife ‘What the hell’s going on in there?’. I go out, and in the next bedroom Andy and Bob were doing kumite at three o’clock in the morning.So I said ‘Listen guys, I got to go to work, go back to bed’.
But I had wonderful times with these people.
Anyway, after two years. No… longer than that actually, it was going on three years before I did my black belt. Andy said ‘It’s time you take your black belt’, but I wasn’t too keen, as I hated gradings. I didn’t like them at all because we used to have to grade under Sensei Enoeda, or Kanazawa as Andy didn’t have grading rights in those days. So it was always one of the Japanese who came down to do it. We had people like Sumi, Kato took my black belt obviously. But anyway, he (Sherry) said Sensei Enoeda is coming down to do your dan grade.
So the night before my grading, I was feeling a bit terrified and I had a telephone call from London saying ‘Sensei Enoeda’s not coming, he’s sending down Sensei Kato’. Now I’d never met Sensei Kato, I didn’t know what he looked like, so down the station I go, thinking ‘How the hell am I going to know who’s who?’ I thought ‘Right the first Japanese that walks out…’, not that we were ever going to get loads, but if there’d been a party of Japanese we would have been in trouble. Anyway, the first guy walks out. Well he looked like something out of a kung fu movie. He had black swept hair, he had a fag hanging out of his mouth, he had a white mac on with the belt tied like a karate belt, white shoes…a right swagger on him. I though ‘Blimey, that’s got to be him’.
So I went over to him and said ‘Are you Sensei Kato?’ and he said ‘Ci’. So then we go to the dojo. We used to have a dojo in the Cardiff docks in those days and it wasn’t a very posh dojo. It had rough floorboards, most of the time the widows were broke because the kids on the docks used to smash them.
Anyway, I said ‘Right Sensei, so many hours today and so many hours tomorrow’.And he said ‘No, I go back to London today, we train all day today’. I said ‘But I’ve got to do my black belt’ and he said ‘Ay, you do your black belt at the end of the course’.
Anyway, we trained for probably seven hours and lucky enough Kato was a chain smoker and he couldn’t do an hour without a fag, so every hour at least we got a fag break.
So we did the grading then at the end and I was really tired, but I passed and I was chuffed, and he told me I was the first person out of twenty-nine people he’d passed. So I was chuffed with that.
But I took him back to the station and off he went again, and I’m not going to tell you that he had half a dozen whiskeys before he got on the train, but he did (Laughing).
(ER)Is it true you were the first black belt in Wales?
(MO’B)I’m not going to say I was the first black belt in Wales; I was probably the first Shotokan black belt in Wales. I don’t want to lay claim to that, I don’t want to upset people, but I don’t think there were many before me put it that way, but I would probably say I was the first Shotokan black belt in Wales.
(ER)Can you please tell us about your experiences with Master Kanazawa?
(MO’B)Once we’d had the first grading, Andy said to me ‘I think we need to put a demonstration on in Cardiff to see if we can get some more students coming in to the club.’ So he said ‘Can you fix up a hall?’ and we put on a demo. So I said ‘yeah, no problem’ so I booked the Corey Hall in Cardiff, I don’t think it’s there now, but it was quite a big venue in Cardiff in those days. So we booked the hall and Sensei Kanazawa came down. He said ‘Would you like to take part in the demo?’ I said ‘Yeah’. They said ‘Ok, you can attack Sensei Kanazawa’. I thought ‘Bloody Hell’.
So Andy and Bob grabbed his arms and I had to attack him with oi-tsuki. Well… he blocked me with a crescent kick and hit me with a yoko-geri which sent me flying across the stage and then he demolished Andy and Bob.
But then he put on demos of kata and kumite, which just blew the audience away and swelled our angst drastically. Brilliant. That’s one of the memories of Kanazawa, believe it or not he didn’t come down much after that, Sensei Enoeda started coming down and doing the classes and the gradings, and again it was a different experience totally. Because Kanazawa was quite a mild person, brilliant at his karate, but he didn’t have that air about him that Enoeda had. I mean, when Sensei Enoeda walked into the class, everyone shivered. It was incredible. Even the hardest men went ‘woo’ (Pulling a terrified face), because he had that air about him. And if he came down the line you made sure you kept your stance or your posture. He was incredible.But we learned so much from these people in those days.
(ER)And what about your time spent with Enoeda Sensei?
(MO’B)I remember the first time Sensei Enoeda came down, and he stayed at my house and I said to my wife ‘You’d better prepare some food’. She said ‘What kind of food?’. I said ‘I haven’t got a clue, I don’t know what they eat.’. So anyway, she put on a massive spread and covered the table in all types of food and Sensei Enoeda came down and devoured the lot. He had a huge appetite. We just couldn’t believe it.
The worst thing about that weekend was that my television broke down, so I had a Japanese Instructor there that couldn’t really speak fluent English in those days and we were just sat there staring at one another for most of the time. (Laughing)
So after that I said ‘Never again’. I did have other Japanese Instructors to stay, but the pressure was too much all weekend.
But another time he came down, I stuck him up in a hotel in Cardiff and I said ‘What do you fancy to eat Sensei?’ He said ‘Curry’.
I had a student in those days called Tony Arrey who owned a Bombay restaurant in the docks in Cardiff. So down we go to Tony’s restaurant and Tony said to him ‘Do you like it hot?’ and he said ‘Ci, very hot’. Anyway, I thought we were going to melt it was so hot. He was sweating, I was sweating, it was incredible.
Anyway…the time after, he came down and after training I said to him ‘Food Sensei?’ and he said ‘Same restaurant’ so I said ‘Ok, off we go’. Anyway, we’re travelling down towards the docks and suddenly he shouts ‘STOP’. So I stopped the car thinking ‘What’s happened?’ and he went (Pointing to the right) ‘Chinese’(Laughing). There was a chinese take-away.
So we go in the take away and I said to him ‘What do you want to eat Sensei?’ and I think he named every number on the wall. He just numbered them all off and the guy put them all in a big box which I carried out to the car. I thought ‘Right, we’re going to have a good nosh here when we get back to his hotel’.
We get back to the hotel, he slaps me on the shoulder and says ‘See you tomorrow’, took the box and walked into the hotel (Laughing).
I had a good laugh in the car on the way home. I was starving, but I had a good laugh (Laughing).
(ER)How did Welsh Karate develop from there?
(MO’B)Andy mentioned about spreading the gospel and opening some more clubs in South Wales, so I went and opened clubs up the Rhondda, Ystrad Sports Centre in particular. We had clubs in Cardiff, Bridgend, Aberdare to name just a few and we just spread the gospel. In those days I took the clubs simply because we didn’t have black belts in them, but obviously once people got up to black belt standard we let them take over the club and continue from there.
(ER)You then established the K.U.W (Karate Union of Wales), leaving the K.U.G.B?
(MO’B)We had opened clubs in South Wales, but in North Wales Shotokan Karate was also going very strong. A chap called Vernon Davies and Geoff Welding who you might know from Kamae… they were organising North Wales and Karate was very strong up there. So I started to visit North Wales and instruct.
Anyway, Senior Instructors got together and we said to each other ‘Why don’t we have our own region? Let’s have a Welsh Region instead of just being the KUGB, why not be the KUGB Wales?’
It didn’t go down too well with the main committee in England, but after months and months of discussion, travelling back and for, we managed to get it so we had our own region. I became region officer and coach for the KUGB Wales. And then we said ‘Right, we’d like our own Welsh team - KUGB’ and that was another stumbling block we had to overcome. But we got it in the end, so at the European Championships, not the European Championships, but the Shotokan European Championships we always turned up as the Welsh team. Our best result was in Essen in 1977, where we took 2nd place. We actually won it, but we were cheated of the last point, and Italy got the point, but they were booed out of the stadium by the German crowd because they knew we’d won. That was one of our best achievements.
Sensei Kawasoe was coaching us at that time, he used to come down and coach our Welsh team in those days, which was just great having such a person coaching us.
As time went by, travelling between country and country, people were having to raise their own money because we weren’t getting the funds from the KUGB, which we thought we should have. Anyway, we were doing a trip to Belgium and I rang the treasurer up from the KUGB and I said ‘How about some money towards going to Belgium?’ and he turned around and said ‘We’ll lend you £300’.
Now at that time we were putting thousands of pounds into the treasury so we got really disillusioned with all this. So we got together and had a regional meeting and we talked about breaking away.
So me and Gabe Operanta travelled up to Coventry I think it was, to the meeting, and told them we were going to break away which surprised them and terrified a bit because we were a big group in Wales. We were talking about something like a thousand people. So it frightened them a bit, and I was offered all kinds to stay, but we had made up our minds. So we came away, broke away and formed the Karate Union of Wales. That was in 1980.
So that was that era finished. Not everyone joined us obviously, some decided they wanted to stay with the KUGB, but the majority of people left and came with the KUW. Most of the clubs in North Wales and in South Wales, so we had a big… in those days we probably had the biggest organisation in Wales.
So away we went and formed the KUW. I became the Chief Instructor and the rest is history.
(ER)Can you please tell us about your era as Welsh Coach and your relationship with the Welsh Karate Federation?
(MO’B)My first contact with the other styles that were training in Wales at that time started off with us popping into their clubs and seeing what they did.We had Kyokushinkai, at that time there was only Kyokushinkai, Shotokan and Wado Ryu. Howard Collins was running Kyokushinkai in those days, I was running Shotokan and a fella named Dave Mitchell was running the Wado Ryu.
I remember going to Dave Mitchell’s club and saying ‘Do you mind if we watch some of your karate’ and he said ‘No problem’. So he said ‘I’ll get my green belt to come over and show you some kata’.
Anyhow, that green belt turned out to be Richie Noblet. Richie came out and did this kata and he did it really well, a very good Martial Artist even at that stage. I obviously then had to do a kata for him, I think I did Bassai Dai because I was a brown belt.
We decided to meet up a few times after that at different levels and (Editor’s note – some time later) we had a meeting together and we said ‘Why don’t we form a Welsh Committee?’ and have a Welsh team, like an all-styles team. So we got together and we called ourselves the Welsh Karate Board and the three main styles set it up. Richie then had become a black belt and was running the Wado as Dave Mitchell had more-or-less gone to London to live.
So we set up and were training together a lot, and in the training session we took it turns to coach. Howard would do a course, sometimes Richie would and sometimes I would and we would all train under one another and steal each other’s ideas which was great.
Then we decided to pick a team to go and fight in the European Championships in London in 1970; so that team consisted of myself, Richie Noblet, Howard Collins, a chap called Selwyn Gould and Unel Wellington. That was the team, the first ever Welsh team.
So we took part, we didn’t do all that good at that time, but we got together afterwards and decided we needed to be a bit more professional about the way we did things.
I was in my thirties then, and I was a bit wild for fighting. I was a right nutter on the area. I got disqualified most of the time. But they said ‘You become Manager Mikeand run us and organise the competitions, organise the meetings’, which we did, so the Welsh Karate Board was found.
It wasn’t sports Council run in those days, we used to find our own cash, we used to raise the money through sponsoring it and we always found a way of raising the money, but it wasn’t Sports Council funded.
Anyway, in the meantime, some of the smaller groups in Wales had formed together. Because the main groups like us were so powerful and we more-or-less ran the Welsh squad in those days- and the fighters in those days were incredible people.
This other group under Keith Mumberson set up the Welsh Karate Federation and believe it or not, they got Sports Council funding. The Sports Council said ‘We can only fund you if you’re all one body’. There was no way we really wanted to join them but it took months of negotiations over this and that and it was obvious that the Sports Council were going to put money towards competitions and funding the organisation so in the end we ended up joining.
It was never a happy marriage. The meetings were worse than the competition areas sometimes. It was argument after argument. In the end after a year or two we all broke away again. The KUGB, the KUW, the Bushi Kai and the Kyokushinkai, which was run by Julian Baker all broke away again. We formed the Welsh Karate Board again.
Again we were back to the same old thing with no funding. The other side had their own Welsh team, we had our Welsh team which was all pretty farcical. And to be honest, the people they were putting out as a Welsh team were a joke. They wouldn’t have even got into our squad.
But nevertheless they were taking part in competitions, even yellow belts fighting for Wales if they had enough money to pay their way. I don’t know whether I ought to be putting this in, but it’s the truth.
So meeting after meeting with the Sports Council because we were trying to get recognition, they were already recognised, but Keith Mumberson was such a clever politician. I’m not saying anything bad about Keith: he was a good politician and there was no way we could have matched them. We were all Karate Instructors, not politicians and we didn’t really care about the politics but we had to go back together again and back in the WKF again.
We got along better. To be fair to Keith Mumberson, he ran the WKF extremely well. Again meetings weren’t very pleasant. They could sometimes last up to ten hours, just arguing. There were so many feuds going on between different instructors and still are today, that to sit around a table and try and get an agreement was almost impossible.
Anyway, me and Richie coached that team for probably 15 years, taking them all over Europe to fight. You name it, we went there. In the end, Richie had a falling out with somebody so he jacked it in. I kept it going for a while and then we were fighting in Paris and I’d selected the team and two of the best fighters in Wales weren’t included… I didn’t pick them because they hadn’t been to squad training. So the committee said to me ‘They’ve got to be in the team’ and I said ‘If they go in the team, I’ll resign.’ so they said ‘They’ve got to go in the team, we’re paying for the best team to go’. I said ‘Well I’ve selected the best team of those that have squad trained’. In the end, members of their own club that were selected were dropped for them to go back into the team. In the end they (the two that hadn’t attended squad training) turned around and said ‘We’re not fighting if you’re going to drop them’, so it was a right mess up in the end. So I resigned and I can’t even remember if the trip took place in the end. It was such a mess.
That was the end of our (O’Brien and Noblet) era as coaches. We obviously coached our own squads and that’s how it went. I’ll be quite honest, I don’t go to meetings. I haven’t been to meetings for years, because I just can’t stand all the aggression that’s there. I’m hoping my son will start going to them because we need to be represented. I think the people running the WKF (Welsh Karate Federation, not the World Karate Federation) now, Roger Williams I believe it is, he’s probably doing a good job. I think meetings now are put down to two hours and that’s it. If it’s not discussed in two hours it’s finished. Whereas years ago we’d sit there for hours and hours. So it’s being well run now, we’re still members.
There are certain associations that never went back in. The KUGB never went back in. Julian’s Kyokushinkai group never went back in. But where as there used to be 3 main organisations years ago, there’s probably about 40 now, and a lot of them are ex- KUW members (Laughing).
PART TWO OF THIS VIDEO EXLUSIVE INTERVIEW WILL FOLLOW IN THE NEXT EDITION OF TSW.