Tommy Morris is the man credited for the creation of the current WKF rules. He is a man of much experience, and despite not being a Shotokan practitioner, we felt his valuable insight into the world of the referee would be very useful.
Sarah Amos: Could you please tell us a little about how you got started in karate?
Tommy Morris: My interest first began in 1953 when I was fourteen. Karate was unheard of then, but I got a book from the local library on jujitsu, that fired my imagination. I then started training in a little club doing jujitsu and judo. In 1957 I joined the Royal Marines Volunteer Reserve, where I qualified as a commando, parachutist and assault engineer, (mines, booby-traps, demolitions etc.) and of course I continued my interest in unarmed combat. During my service, I took part in quite a few demonstrations, such as the Rosyth Navy Days, which were open to the public. I also started an unarmed combat club at the drill hall at Eglinton Toll in Glasgow round about 1959 or 1960.
I first started to hear about karate in late 1959, things like "Have you heard about these Japanese guys breaking bricks with their bare hands? Their hands get so toughened and deformed that they can't thread needles!" That was the kind of rubbish that people talked about but I wanted to find out more.
SA: Do you think your experiences in Judo and Jujitsu gave you an advantage when it came to starting karate?
TM: Yes, I believe it did, insomuch as it helped my balance and understanding of hara. It was also a great help in jiyu-kumite as almost anything went in those days. It was especially helpful when I went to Japan in 1967. Surprising as it might seem not many Japanese karateka were familiar with throwing techniques at that time.
SA: According to your biography, you began learning karate from books. What kind of books did you read, and do you think this early use of wider reading went on to have an effect on your physical training?
TM: I found a book by Sensei Nishiyama, "Karate, The Art of Empty Hand Fighting". My wife bought it for me as a Christmas present and that became the foundation of my learning. I taught myself karate from that book and others which came along a short time later. One of these was "Karate by Pictures" by H. D. Plee in Paris. That one changed my whole life though I didn't know it then.
SA: You are credited as having a major input in the development of the current Karate WKF competition rules. I would imagine this to be a difficult and challenging job. What is the hardest part of this process?
TM: Well I can claim responsibility for that. In 1977 when I was appointed to the WUKO (as it was then) Referee Council I was made Chairman of the Rules Revision Committee, not that it accomplished very much. David Mitchell did most of the re-write of the WUKO Competition Rules in 1984 in consultation with me and very little changed over the ensuing 15 years. There were a lot of ideas thrown around from various people in the European Karate Federation about rules changes in the early nineties but nothing happened. I was lying in a hotel room in Kuwait or somewhere in 1996 watching sport on TV. There were lots of interesting and exciting stuff being shown but no karate. I started asking myself why and realised that karate sport was simply not an appealing spectator sport; a great participant sport yes, but not for the general public. It was different in the early days when karate was new but it is simply too difficult to interest people in watching a sport which is composed mainly of two competitors trying to get in first with gyaku tsuki. If karate was ever to be accepted as an Olympic Sport many things had to change.
Although I tried, President Jacques Delcourt was not interested in any changes; it was only when I met Antonio Espinos and he became President that things started to move. I drew up the first proposals in 1997 and here is an extract from the paper.
“This document is presented as a basis for discussion, on the future development of EKU and FMK karate competition. Its aim is to increase the appeal of the sport to the media, and the public, as well as to the competitors and officials.
We need to develop karate as a sport. Competition needs to be spectacular, challenging, exciting, and understandable. We need to change the rules to emphasise the positive aspects of the sport and reduce the confusing array of penalties. We need to encourage the competitors to use techniques that are more spectacular, and reward them for doing so. We need to introduce structured training of referees, not only for the new candidates, but also for the more experienced in how to deal with specific situations occurring in competition.
Karate has become immensely popular the world over as a sport, and is no longer regarded solely as a method of fighting allied to Zen Buddhism. We are however, suffering the restrictions imposed on us by tradition, and by our seeming inability to separate "martial art" from "sport".
Until we do that, we limit our possibilities of making any meaningful progress as an interesting spectator and Olympic Sport.”
Unfortunately I did not get all the changes that I wanted and the final package was more complicated and less effective than I had hoped but I believe the rules are much better than before. We are seeing a much greater variety of technique being used and the tactics have changed a lot as a consequence. Before the rules change a competitor leading by two or three points and with only seconds to go was assured of a win, but no longer. The ability to score three points with one technique has led to many exciting finishes.
I was very happy that my proposal to include Bunkai in the Team Kata finals was accepted as it has re-vitalised team kata competition, so much so that WKF will introduce Bunkai for the third place teams also.
SA: Unfortunately, the current WKF competition rules get a lot of negative press, getting blamed for a certain lack of ‘Budo’ attitude in today’s competitors. How would you respond to those that hold this belief?
TA: If there is negative press then I think it would be fairer to say “in the Shotokan press” because that is not the reaction in most WKF National Federations. However I understand what people are saying and I tend to agree, but it is arguable that modern karate sport and the principles of Budo are compatible in any case.
SA: Which of the recent rule changes over the past few years do you feel has had the greatest positive effect on competitions?
TM: Karate competition developed in a very narrow way with gyaku tsuki being used almost exclusively by some competitors, who wants to watch that? The general public drifted away and stayed away. The solution to the problem occurred to me as I watched that sports programme. Karate has a wealth of techniques but what was the point in using them with the old scoring system? The concept of ippon was the problem. Since the highest score for any technique was ippon, it did not make any sense to try anything more spectacular than gyaku tsuki or mae geri. Everyone knows that to score with jodan mawashi geri is technically much more difficult than gyaku tsuki, so why should the rewards be the same? A labourer does not get the same pay as a neuro surgeon. Three points for the more difficult techniques and one point for the simpler techniques seems reasonable to me. Yes, I have heard the argument in defence of the ippon that “you cannot kill anyone more than once”. Excuse me; we are talking about a game. If anyone out there really believes that karate sport or karate in the dojo is the same as real combat they are sadly mistaken. I have hunted armed men who were also hunting me, if you think that is the same as karate competition, go try it.
SA: Which rule change has provided the most difficulties, from a referee’s point of view?
TM: Having three judges instead of one, two, or four. Fortunately it wasn’t my idea, although I had to write the rules for it.
SA: As a referee, do you have a particular style’s Kata that you prefer to watch?
TM: No, all are interesting.
SA: Which is your favourite Kata to perform?
TM: Probably Seienchin.
SA: Your son is a successful International competitor. I would imagine that your coaching experience has helped a lot. What part do you play as a coach in your son’s training, if any?
TM: As well as his international successes Steven retired as undefeated British Kata Champion winning all from the first in 1985 until 2000 when his wife died. He was very good at working on his own and usually I did not need to spend much time with him. However I am not sure that I helped him a lot internationally as my own “Budo” attitude was responsible for Steven attempting to do a more powerful and realistic kata, whereas others such as the Spanish for example, were doing something more showy and theatrical. There was also a lot of cheating going on which the scorecard system made easy and that is why after Steven retired that I was able to change it for the elimination system with flags.
SA: As a successful referee, who, as a competitor, most stands out in your mind and why?
TM: I qualified as an international referee in 1970. I have seen thousands of competitors and hundreds of very good ones it would be unfair to single any one of them out. Where would you start? Andy Sherry, Terry O’Neill, Steve Cattle, Peter Spanton, Ticky Donovan, Hamish Adam, Davie Coulter, Robin MacFarlane, Pat MacKay, Vic Charles, Jeff Thomson; the list goes on and on and would fill this whole interview, and that’s just the British competitors.
SA: You were a competitor from ’65 to ’70. Lots of things have changed now. How do you think modern competition is different now? How do you think competitors such as yourself, Frank Brennan, Billy Higgins and the like would fare under the new competition rules?
TM: Karate itself is not the same as it was then. The rules, the tactics, and the attitudes are completely different. I think that competitors today are more skilful, but competitors then were generally speaking much tougher. The kids of the forties and fifties grew up in an austere Britain during and after World War II. Everything was rationed and food was scarce. People were more active in their daily lives, they walked everywhere, kids played games in the streets, there were no computers and computer games and people’s attitudes were different. Kids learned how to look after themselves in the streets, so when karate came along people took to it. What we did in the dojos and in the first competitions then, would never be tolerated today. The first actual competition I fought in was the first British Championships in September of 1965 at Crystal Palace. The events being contested were the Club Team Championship, the Senior Individual and the Junior Individual (up to 4th Kyu). There were no ladies events or weight categories or kata. We kicked and punched our way through a haze of total ignorance about the rules or how the competition was judged. We didn't know how hard you had to hit, only that you should hit the other guy before he had the chance to hit you. In the first team match I kicked, punched and threw my opponent about the area for the whole match time (he only made one technique in the whole match) and finally I was grudgingly given the decision. After doing well in the individuals, in the first few rounds, I got disqualified after my opponent's Sensei, who was also refereeing, "accidentally" stuck his fingers in my eye and cut it. I figured with two of them to fight, I better make sure I got one of them at least. Well I told you it was a martial art. There was a lot of contact then and it was accepted. To score ippon was rare, and to do it with a chudan gyaku tsuki, you had to drop your opponent or at least double him over. Nobody wore any protection and there were a lot of injuries. It just would not be acceptable today. A different time, a different world.
SA: How much emphasis do you place on teaching application in your classes?
TM: I developed it as a tool to teach kata, particularly when teaching Shitoryu kata to Shotokan stylists. By teaching the Bunkai as a sort of pre-arranged kumite, people are better able to understand what the movements mean and it helps to keep their interest in learning kata.
SA: What advice would you give to anyone wishing to become a referee?
TM: The first thing to understand is that it is not easy to be a referee, just as it is not easy to become a successful competitor. A great deal of hard work and time go into both, so start young. Start in the dojo, then attend your federation courses and take every opportunity you can to get experience.
The kumite referee has an incredibly difficult task, which I don't think is fully appreciated by those who have never tried it, fighters being a prime example. First of all the referee must know the theory of the rules inside out. He must watch the every move of two very fast competitors, who may both attack at the same time, in two directions and at two different levels. He must see if the fighters are within the match area, even a part of a foot outside can change the decision; he must assess the technical merit of the techniques, (whether they are on the target area, whether they have good form, sufficient strength, correct distance and so on). He must also watch for the judges’ signals and be ready to make his decision instantly on what he has seen. Not for him the benefit of the video tape, played and replayed in slow motion in the comfort of home. No, the referee has to make his decision as the scoring technique is executed and before the next technique is made. Bear in mind that he has to work all day long, often as much as sixteen hours, frequently without adequate refreshment or provision for rest periods, usually without recompense, and under conditions of considerable stress. He is asked to make hundreds of split-second judgements and he is expected never to make a mistake! However the rewards are great, satisfaction in doing a good job and doing it well during a team final in the European or World Championships is something never to be forgotten.
We would just like to say thank you very much for being so willing to give us an interview. We understand that you are very busy, and we are very grateful for your support. Thank you again.