‘Mokusoo!’ All 200 of us already on our knees and sitting on our heels in the Japanese ‘seiza’ position remain dead silent at the command. No loud breathing, no movement whatsoever, just ‘mizu no kokoro’, a calm mind, like the surface of undisturbed water. ‘Kaimoku’, the next command, signals the end of inner contemplation, followed by ‘Shomini rey’, where we all touch our foreheads to the ground saluting the father of karate. ‘Sensei ni rey’, is the last command uttered by the senior karateka, which happens to be me, saluting the instructors. Then it’s time for ‘tsuki no kokoro’, a mind like the moon, that refers to the need to be constantly aware of the opponent’s movements, just as moonlight shines equally on everything within its range.
In 48 years of practising karate I don’t think I’ve had a more satisfying week. There were none of those freaks covered in tattoos, muscle-bound, hairless-pated hominids attuned to their inner ape that pass as tough guys on TV and the so-called ultimate fighting. Just some very strong and dedicated amateur and professional karatekas from all over the world — some as far away as Japan, Canada and California — all here in Switzerland to live the Steve Ubl experience, one I highly recommend for aspiring martial artists no matter how high their grade. (I am a seven dan black belt, and feel like a novice next to him.) The other is Richard Amos, my teacher, who is based in New York and was a member of the British karate team back in 1983, when during the world championships in Cairo our paths crossed. I was captain of the Greek team and lost the fifth and deciding match against Britain, to get into the quarters, making my decision to retire after that an easy one.
Studying and training under Richard these past 15 years has been one of the great pleasures of my life. Ten years ago, he told me about a phenomenon that he was about to investigate, Steve Ubl. Like many great practitioners of karate, Steve and Richard studied in Japan, as did I, but simply going and studying the art in Japan doesn’t always mean one learns. The Japanese are known to do but not teach. The culture is one of osmosis, not teaching. Do as I do, is the Japanese way. Not many get it. Steve and Richard have, but they had the inquisitive nature and intelligence to realise that correct form and posture, not simple brute strength, conferred the perfect technique. Poor mechanics are the bane of martial artists, and that’s where Steve excels. He has studied the psoas, the massive cross between the tendons and muscle attached to the lower back that threads through the pelvis and the hips. Thus when he delivers a front kick with speed and power, it is the strongest and most devastating I have experienced in my lifetime. In fact it’s scary to contemplate being on the receiving end.
Richard sees karate in the same way as Steve, but is perhaps a bit more metaphysical in manner. When focusing on these principles of good mechanics, in the sincerity of a technique, he has reached nirvana, something I have rarely felt but continue to try to grasp. The whole thing is using one’s centre, move with ‘tanden’, the core of your body, not the arms or legs or head. Watching Steve and Richard attack is very beautiful. Nothing moves until it’s suddenly over. Boom, finish. Hips, groin, followed instantly by the attacking fist or leg is what it’s all about.
After four days of training we give the last salute and applaud the two instructors. We’re drained but happy and content. My only thoughts are for how much longer I can do stuff like this. I drive Richard and his wife, a great yoga instructor, and Steve back up the mountains of Gstaad. They give off an opalescent glow as we arrive late in the afternoon, with rainbow-like colours appearing with the setting sun. I open up some good wine and proceed to get pleasantly tipsy. It’s been a great week. Later on I think back to the headlines of the week in sport. In track and field, once the noblest of sports, certain Jamaicans have been caught red-handed swimming in drugs (they’ve denied taking them knowingly). Last year, during the Olympics, I wrote here that Jamaica was one big drug factory, but libel laws prevented me from naming my suspects. I needed no research. All I had to do was look at the physique of some of these so-called stars. Eight years from now we’ll know if I’m right or wrong. Send the medals back now, boys and girls, and save us the trouble.
The Tour de France is over, but who would bet on every biker being clean? And Stuart Broad nicked it but refused to walk. That’s cricket, now.
I’d bet the farm there wasn’t a single foreign substance taken by the honourable men I just finished training with. What a rare and marvellous occasion it was. Modern professional sport sucks. Karate, as a martial art, not as a sport, is the answer. See you at the dojo.