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 and for very kinly allowing us to use their photographs. -Emma Robins & Shaun Banfield 08
CONTINUATION FROM PART 1 …
(ER)Can you please tell us about the KUW competitive achievements?
(MO’B)Going back to the early days of the KUW, as I said we had some very strong fighters. We had the likes of Von Johnson from Cardiff who was probably one of the best fighters Wales have had. Gabe Operanta. Obviously the Rob Copeland’s came afterwards and were also brilliant fighters in their own way. But back in the early days, Richie Noblet and his group were members of he KUW. We were one group, so you can imagine the group we had, because Richie has always had the top fighters in Wales.
The KUW team in those days were second to nothing. We even beat the Red Triangle which was Andy’s club. I remember going up with the team to North Wales to fight and we even beat the Red Triangle with Von Johnson at the National Championships, beating Terry O’Neill in the final. We had such good people in those days. I think that was the golden era of karate. With the Welsh Rugby team it was their golden era, the 70s, it was also karate’s golden era because Wales had fantastic fighters. The Wellingtons, Swede and people like that. Have you heard of Swede?
(Shaun Banfield)I know the name.
Roberto Mastrangeli? He’s dead now, but another fantastic fighter. There were so many of them. Andy Morgan…
I remember a time with the Welsh squad again, when we had an American team coming over to fight us. It had all been set up and this American team were coming over. So I said to Richie ‘We ought to take the weekend’ so when we arrive in Swansea, we were in Swansea Leisure Centre, they’ll all be a smashing group together. So he said ‘Ok’ and we all went away to St. Athens.
So we went to St. Athens for the three days and train during the day and we’d have fun in the night. One thing we did, we made everyone enter a body building contest. Every member of the squad had to go on stage and do a pose for a minute. We worked it so that the skinniest guy was going to win it, it went on the applause. He was from West Wales, one of Keith Mumberson’s students, I don’t remember his name now, but it was worked so he would win it. Me and Richie would come on as guest posers (Laughing) we had great fun. Then the next night we had a disco dancing competition. Everyone had to get up and do disco dancing for at least a minute on their own (Laughing).
I tell you…the atmosphere! When we arrived at the Swansea Leisure Centre on the day of the competition, they were just twelve foot high, it was incredible and they stuffed the Americans. They really did. It was a great time.
Another time, we had the first Grand Slam in Wales and we had Scotland down, and England to fight at the Afan Lido (Sports Centre). Back in those days we had no technique what so ever. It was all ‘Bang, Wallop, Bang’. There were no mitts, no leg pads, it was all on Ippon. That was it.There were 10 Man Teams, and the Afan Lido was packed to the rafters. It was an incredible atmosphere.
I had even got one man out of Prison to fight. I can’t mention his name, but he was enormous. Real nice guy, I know he was in prison but…(Laughing), but I arranged with the Governor to get him out…what a bloodbath.
It was terrible. One ward in Neath Hospital was full of English and Scottish fighters, and the next day the Managers of England and Scotland said to me ‘If you can’t get your act together, we’re never coming to Wales again – It’s just crazy.’ It was just that rough in those days.
I mean…the fighters of today and even later, were so much more controlled, but in those days the sparring was hard and strong, bloody. Anyone who got to the final in those days could hardly stand up. Seriously, they had a job to see or they couldn’t stand up properly by the time they got to the final. That was our first experience of the Grand Slam. We fought in others obviously but we obviously got a lot better. I was bringing coaches down, people like Tyrone Whyte, British squad members come down and started teaching down here. Especially with the Wado-Ryu guys, because Shotokan was quite different to all the other styles when they came to competition. We were very strong, very rigid… where after a while, especially training with wado, we became a lot more subtle and relaxed. In fact the Welsh team always trained to Bob Marley (Laughing). If ever you came to a Welsh squad session, Bob Marley would be blasting out. We became totally different.
I know the KUW was a shotokan organisation, but we fought like wado in the end and that’s what made us so good. We had a mixture of both instead of just being (pulling a rigid posture) rigid.
We had great relationships in those days with SEKU – Mike Dewey and Dave Hazard, we were always invited to their tournaments and they used to come to Wales and visit us. We had a brilliant rapport with Tim Heart from Cork in Ireland, where probably for nine years on the trot we visited Cork with the team or they came to us every year. We used to have fantastic times. We’d have two busloads of people going to Cork and we used to have great times. They learned from us and we learned from them. Tim Heart was such a wonderful guy…lovely man.
(ER)Would you speak a little about your good friend Dave Hazard?
(MO’B)As I say, going back to the instructors we had down in those days, the KUGB stopped their instructors from coming to us and the only one that would come down in the end was Dave Hazard and that was the best move we ever made. Best instructor I’ve ever trained with, regardless of anyone. Dave has probably been coming to us for over 20 years…no 25 years. He came down in those days twice a year and we’ve been good mates ever since. His technique, his ability was incredible and I got lots of stories about me and Dave but you’ll probably read about them in his book because I know he’s written about them.
(ER)And how about joining Sensei Kase’s group?
(MO’B)I joined Sensei Kase’s Academy, and he came to Wales quite a few times to teach us. I’ve been to Belgium and Spain to train with him and his karate was different again. We’d always train in fudo-dachi, we did more open hand techniques with Kase than anyone else, he told wonderful stories about himself which would fill a book. Of course by joining Kase’s Academy we got to train with Sensei Shirai who was another sensation. If you had seen Sensei Shirai’s demonstrations in Crystal Palace years ago…they were just awesome. When you think, you had the likes of Kanazawa, Enoeda, Shirai and other top Shotokan Instructors at the KUGB Championships years ago doing these demos. It was just incredible. It made you want to train more and more, it was special and I was lucky enough to be there for it all.
(ER)What are your feelings on today’s competition?
(MO’B)Back in the old days it was hard, it was bruising, it was rugged, it wasn’t pretty to watch; but nowadays I’d say the skill level of the karateka is far superior, whether they’d win against the old time karateka I don’t know. I don’t think so because there was a lot more spirit but the skill level now is far higher.
But personally I hate competition.
I’m a traditional karate man. Like to fight in the club obviously with the students and everything else, but I find competition brings out the worst in people. I’ve seen black belts crying because they lost and that’s at every level. I was at a European Championships once and I saw a guy and he demolished everyone in this competition but he lost in the final. And this is one of the top competitors in Europe and he balled the stadium down because he lost. It just went through me. And even now at our own competitions junior black belts lose and they go and cry in the corner. It just don’t make sense to me anymore. I find it brings out the worst in the instructors, if they’re refereeing they cheat so their own students can win. There’s bad language, not so much in the Shotokan competitions – I wouldn’t allow it in our own competitions obviously – and if we fought down with SEKU, it was always dead rigid. But you go to an open tournament and sometimes the manners there are just terrible…to the referees, to each other.
The last open tournament I refereed at Cliff Hepburn’s competition up in London and Bobby Poynton who was chief referee that day said to me ‘Would you referee?’ and so I said ‘Yeah’. So I did a few fights, shotokan against wado, wado against different styles but after about two hours I said to Bobby ‘I can’t handle this – I can’t handle the bad manners, the abuse’, because you feel like you want to go over and knock them out, with all the things they’re saying to you which wouldn’t be allowed in a shotokan tournament. It just wouldn’t be allowed. I said ‘That’s it, leave it there’ and that’s the last time I ever refereed in an all styles tournament. Obviously I refereed shotokan, but that was the last time. Now I just can’t bear to go to a competition. I haven’t been to a competition in ten years, I hate it.
I don’t mind my students going, if they want to go and take part, which they’ve always done and they’ve been some of the top fighters. We’ve had some of the top fighters in Wales, it’s been wonderful for them but I just can’t hack it anymore.
(ER)How much should competition influence a true karateka and what he teaches?
(MO’B)Well the balance has always been Basics, Kata (And he was about to say kumite) If you take any karate instructor and he’s running a class then he’s obviously going to teach the basics. He’s obviously going to do the Katas and usually kumite comes at the end and we’re all struggling to get it in, the last 10, 15 minutes of a class. You’re struggling if you’re a traditionalist. If you’re one of these people who just want to teach kumite karate then you’ll have the whole lesson on it. Personally I think a kumite class ought to be separate, on a separate night…on a Sunday morning or Saturday morning and you need a whole class for kumite. Not so much in an ordinary class, you just haven’t got time to teach everything.
Because let’s face it, years ago a class was 2 hours. Now it’s dropped to an hour and a half and most classes will last one hour by the time they’ve collected the money. Some of them even stop for a break. Not in my class they didn’t. They’ve got to stop for their pop and crisps because it’s a kids class…but not in my class.
You’ve taught them nothing really. You’ll have a job to just teach them the basics in that time, let alone kumite. So my position with kumite for competition should be separate. Separate day, separate night, weekend…that’s what I think.
(ER)You have a reputation as the ‘Tough Man’ of Welsh Karate. Why is this do you think?
(MO’B)Well I wouldn’t know about ‘Tough Man’, but my training has always been tough. My classes have always been hard, aggressive, but that’s the only tough side of me. I keep to myself, I lead a quiet life so I don’t mix in that stream. I’ve been in that stream in the past obviously, but I’ve always watched where I do go and what I do. I choose my own choosing. If you want to go to a tough place and be tough you can. If you don’t… you don’t.
Me and Rachel live in a quiet part of the country in Pembrokeshire and that’s the way we like it. I’ve spent the last 8 years living in Spain up in the mountains on our own. I’d say the only tough side of my, on my part is my training. The class has always been hard which is the way we were brought up. My training was tough when I was young when I first started karate and that’s the way I’ve always taught. I don’t know any different way to be honest so that’s the only tough thing about me.
(ER)Have you experienced much conflict or situations where karate is needed?
(MO’B)Not really. I’ve stopped the odd fight in the past in places I’ve drank in but I’ve never been one to look for trouble or pick fights…I’m not interested.
I’ve been in situations where I’ve had to look out for myself. I’ve done a few bodyguard courses, the last one which was in Africa, but other than that, no, I’ve never looked for conflict other than in the dojo. Not interested.
If it comes, it comes; because years of training gives you that confidence anyways and it might give you that air about so people think ‘I don’t want to bother with him’ so I’ve been lucky. I’ve got an ugly face and people don’t want to mess with it (Laughing).
(ER)Can you tell us about Mike Upham and his influence on your karate?
(MO’B)I learned a lot from Mike Upham, he was a good jujitsu person. He came to Wales quite a lot. One thing we did learn about Mike was that we didn’t just train in the dojo. We trained in the woods, we trained on the sides of hills, we fought on the sides of hills. Probably learned more about locks and throws from him that we would have if we’d struck just to the traditional shotokan. Pressure points…I learned a lot from Mike Upham.
I liked the man, he wasn’t that liked among some of his seniors but that’s the way it is…but no, I learned a lot from Mike.
(ER)You never went to Japan, any regrets about this?
(MO’B)No. All the best karate instructors in Japan came here in the early 60s, so we had the best. There was no one better than the people that came over here, so there was no need for Japan. I know Dave went to Japan and I’m sure he learned a lot, but some of the best karateka in this country, they may have been there on visit, but they trained here. England have, Britain have…let’s not say England, (Britain) have produced some of the best karateka in the world. The British team have been World Champions many times and I don’t think you need to go to Japan to learn good karate to be honest with you.
(ER)How does karate compare today to the ‘Golden Years’?
(MO’B)I don’t think you can even compare karate today to what it was in the early 70s and 80s. There’s no comparison, it’s changed completely. Back in those days it was almost all adults training. Nowadays as you know it’s nearly all kids. When an adult joins a club these days, the instructor does a flickflack (official welsh term for a state of enthusiasm) – (Laughing), because he’s got an adult. Most of the classes are kids these days so it’s a totally different atmosphere. You have to treat the children different to what you would adults. No there’s no comparison, not at all. It’s a bit mambypamby now I think. (Editor’s note – Mambypamby – official term for dumbed down karate) (Laughing).
(ER)Do you miss regular dojo teaching?
(MO’B)I really miss it, totally. I lived in Spain for 8 years or away. We used to travel back and for to do courses and gradings. The only teaching I did in Spain were private lessons. Ok, many years ago when I lived in Gran Canaria, I had a class there which was quite good, but yes I really miss teaching nightly. I live in Pembrokeshire now and I know I could open clubs down there but I really don’t want that commitment anymore. I like being Chief Instructor to the KUW, I like coming here (S. Wales) and doing the classes a couple of times a year and gradings and that suits me now.
(ER)What is your favourite kata and why?
(MO’B)I don’t know, it just seems nice, it flows nice. It just suits me, I love it.
(ER)The KUW has experiences splits. How did you feel about this then and how do you feel about now?
(MO’B)When the splits come, and they’ve been coming on and off for a long, long time…I can go back 35 years ago when we had the first splits, you’re obviously very upset at the time. Because the people that split from you have been with you a long time, you’ve gone through a lot together and there’s nothing more close than training with people and fighting, having drinks at the bar afterwards and having a laugh and a giggle and then someone comes along and says ‘Sorry Mike we’re leaving’. It’s like a kick in the guts to be honest.
But on thought, I did it to the KUGB and what goes around comes around.Most of the guys that have left me formed their own associations and they’ve had splits in their association. It just seems to be a thing with karate…it’s a karate thing.All the Indians want to be Chiefs at the end of the day and when they’re at that level where they can open their association they want to do it. Because I was one of the first, if not the first professional karate instructor in Wales and I earned my living at it, which I was lucky enough to do, quite a few people said to me ‘I want to do what you do, and the only way I can do it is to leave you’. So it’s not nice at the time and you do feel aggrieved about it but I hold no grudges against any of them. Life is too short for all of that.
If I meet them, I’ll talk to them if they want to talk, have a drink – it’d be no problem to me. Some of them have contacted me, especially over the last two years when I’ve been ill a bit and it’s not a big thing for me…good luck to them.
(SB)Thinking of all the karateka you’ve produced, how does that make you feel?
(ER)You really are! How do you feel knowing so much of Welsh Karate is because of you?
(MO’B)Great, great...we were the first and everyone else stems from you. It’s like being the tree with all the branches coming off. It’s a nice feeling.
(SB)You’re the Godfather (Laughing)
(MO’B)Yeah…it’s great. We’ve produced some fantastic karateka, simple as that. Proud…it’s great.
(ER)Well I just want to say thank you very much, this has been a fantastic interview.
(ER)We’ve really enjoyed speaking with you and I know you’ve got a lot more to say, you’ve got so many stories.
(MO’B)Emma we could stay here for the next week if I had to (Laughing). We could camp out in here. (Laughing)
(ER)No, I’ve really, really enjoyed it and I know everyone else is going to too, so thank you very much.
(Emma Robins, Shaun Banfield, Rachel Keedwell and Andy O’Brien)(Applause)