Various types of wrestling are among the earliest forms of official competitive combat sports, introduced by the Greeks in the 7th century BC. The events – along with boxing – came to be among the most popular at the Olympic Games, though rules were rather less stringent than today with pretty much anything allowed except for eye gouging, groin grabbing and biting. Competitors would often battle for hours, until one surrendered, passed out, or even died.
Every continent has, at some point in history, spawned its own form of martial art, though the practice is most widely associated with the Far East. Chinese martial arts, commonly referred to as kung fu, is known to have been practised since at least the 5th century BC, though, according to some legends, is as old as 4,000 years.
The basic meaning of kung fu actually has more to do with the state of mind, and can relate to any undertaking that requires immense study and discipline, a befitting description of a practice that requires mental and physical prowess in equal measures.
“By pushing yourself beyond your limits and testing your resolve, you learn to know yourself, to achieve insight into your own weaknesses and strengths,” says Trevor Tockar, an internationally acclaimed master instructor of karate, based in Sydney. “Only when you recognise your own weaknesses can you improve and develop. Kyokushin karate means ‘the ultimate truth”. This does not mean we think we’re the best. It means that we train in a way to discover the truth about ourselves. This is the true reward of karate training.”
Verve caught up with Trevor and some other martial arts practitioners to find out more…
Simon Ogden, Chief Instructor at Jitsu New Zealand | Disciplines: Judo and Ju Jitsu
Ju jitsu is a millennia-old form of close combat, believed to have possibly originated in China, but accepted to have been perfected in Japan. The aim was to develop the ability to defeat armed and armoured opponents such as samurai, using grappling techniques, and, sometimes, a small weapon.
Judo is a relatively modern addition to the eastern combat sport cannon, developed using some of the techniques of ju jitsu, and to help preserve such ancient traditions. Founded in the late 1800s by Professor Jigoro Kano, the sport, which relies mainly on throws and holds, is famed for its codes of mutual respect and ethics.
What attracted you to these particular disciplines?
I’ve been dabbling in combat sports since I was around four-years-old, starting with judo, then boxing, different karate styles and kickboxing. I discovered shorinji kan ju jitsu while at university in the UK, and was drawn to the social stuff off the mat along with the teaching style of the instructor. I was hooked. The same can be said about olivecrona ju jitsu when I moved to New Zealand.
Is it as much a spiritual endeavour as a physical one?
It depends on what you mean by spiritual. If you mean it in the context of an inner, individual path to discovering one’s self and abilities, to incorporate personal growth, then yes. The study of judo and ju jitsu is as much mental training as physical, especially when you’ve explored the crucible of the art, the basic tenets are seiryoku zen’yo (maximum efficiency, minimum effort) and jita kyoei (mutual welfare and benefit).
Are you ever afraid when you compete?
Nervous yes, afraid no. Fear is a completely different animal. All competitions are a form of game, a learning tool to improve yourself: in a nutshell you either win or you learn. Nerves are a completely normal and they usually disappear once the referee signals to start.
Do you ever feel guilt about striking another person?
Real life stops at the edge of the tatami [mat], and the training environment starts as you step onto it. In any art, the aim in training is to never block punches with your face. You can only fight like you train and without pressure testing and randori [a free-style practice], you limit the practicality of what you learn. So in answer not really, it’s all about the training.
Have you ever had to defend yourself on the street?
I used to be a doorman in the UK and in New Zealand, so I’ve used my art occasionally to defend myself and others.
How have the sports helped you grow as a person?
It has taught me that they are a really good way to make an instant circle of friends, no matter the nationality or language barrier, as you spend quite a bit of time with someone else in your personal space. As far as helping me grow as a person? I would suggest it has slowly made me a better, more tolerant version of myself, especially now that I coach kids.
What are the biggest myths about the sports?
Far too many to list, but if I had to choose one it is that a black belt only really signifies the beginning of learning – it’s not an indication of expertise or superhuman abilities, only of perseverance and determination. Anyone can achieve a black belt. They just have to not quit.
Craig Ninow, Professional Fighter, South Africa | Discipline: Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
Mixed martial arts — commonly referred to as MMA — has exploded in popularity in recent years. The practice, often regarded as a modern phenomenon, was born from Brazilian fighting discipline, vale tudo. In the early 1990s, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) organisation founded a competition to pit the various martial arts against each other to see which came out on top. This led to fighters adopting techniques from a variety of combat methods and so mixed martial arts was born.
What attracted you to MMA?
About a year out of school I watch the movie Never Back Down with some mates, and thought, “Wow, Imagine being able to fight like that!” A year later a friend invited me to train with him at an MMA gym. I’m a small guy, so learning self-defence while getting a good body was a great temptation, and once I started I was hooked. I didn’t intend to fight, but as time went by I saw my potential and decided to give it a crack. I believe that in a real life situation, MMA is the best form of self defence.
Do you see it as a spiritual endeavour as well as a physical one?
For me, MMA is more mental than anything. At a high level, everyone is training their hardest to be in the best shape they can for fight night. The difference on the night comes down to who wants it more. A champion’s mindset is to never give up.
Are you ever afraid before a competition?
I wouldn’t say I am afraid on fight night. When you’re with your team you feel you can achieve anything. They have absolute belief in you and so you fight for all of them. You must control the adrenaline. It’s that feeling I love most about competing. And the winning, of course.
Do you ever feel guilt when striking someone?
After competing for so many years you know it’s just a sport. At the end of the day, your opponent is there to hit you, so you better beat him to the punch!
Have you ever had to use your skills on the street?
Luckily, no. I try my best to avoid sticky situations. But, with training you learn to become very aware of your surroundings, and can pick up when something is about to go down.
How has MMA strengthened your character?
The sport has definitely taught me to be disciplined. That your body can work a 100 times more than what your mind tells you. I feel I’m a much better person, and am now living a very healthy lifestyle.
What are the biggest misconceptions about the sport?
A lot of people think MMA is where a bunch of guys with tattoos and no brains get locked in a cage and just try knock each others heads off! That couldn’t be further from the truth. Firstly, I have no tattoos! We feed our bodies with the most nutritious and freshest foods. We don’t go clubbing to cause fights. Unfortunately, the sport does attract some people who do give us a bad reputation. Those are the guys that might cause trouble, with that MMA fighter ‘look’. But the rest of us are hard working and disciplined athletes.
Charlotte Harrison, Australia | Discipline: Brazilian Ju Jitsu
At the turn of the 20th century, Esai Maeda, a former Japanese ju jitsu champion was living in Brazil where he befriended the Gracie family, teaching them his art. In 1925, four Gracie brothers opened Brazil’s first ju jitsu school, and from where their new take evolved. Brazilian ju jitsu is noted for its methods of teaching smaller people to deal with larger assailants through the likes of chokes, holds and joint manipulation.
What attracted you to Brazilian ju jitsu?
I originally discovered the sport when I was starting to lose weight. I was tired of the normal gym routine and was looking for something that offered more incentive. I wanted to see results so joined a local gym, Renegade MMA. After just one Brazilian ju jitsu (BJJ) class I was hooked. I liked the fact that it was a discipline that really allowed smaller opponents to overpower bigger, stronger ones. The rush of adrenaline and endorphins are an excellent feeling, too. In BJJ, we live spar every session, so you really get to see and feel your improvement with a resistive opponent.
Do you see it as much a spiritual endeavour as a physical one?
Definitely. When you spend 4-5 days a week getting absolutely smashed, you tend to become a bit introspective. There are times where I’ll be so focussed on what is happening right in front of me that the rest of the world just kind of falls away, and this sense of peace just sort of comes over me, it’s incredibly surreal.
Are you ever afraid when you compete?
Afraid? No. Nervous? Oh, yeah! It’s not nerves about the competition per se, but I’m nervous to represent my club and my team. The saying that goes around is that ‘you either win or you learn, there is no losing in BJJ’, but still, I always want to represent my team with dignity. Preparations are always hard, we train all year to always be ‘comp ready’. For me, I tend to increase my training regime and add in some complementary training. During my BJJ classes I make sure to simulate competition rounds as much as possible to really get my mind-set right for competing. It’s as much about your mental toughness. My coach really pushes for me to find my inner strength, so you know when you’re out there and you feel like you’ve got nothing left you find that small fire inside and you just keep fighting for that little bit longer.
Do you ever feel bad about striking someone else?
Yes and no. There is a certain onus on both training partners involved in a sparring session to indicate they’ve either had enough or are saying ‘you’ve bested me’. You also shouldn’t go out of your way to injure. So when you step on the mats in order to engage, you have to be ready to strike and receive them in return. There is always the occasion though where you mistime something or your technique isn’t quite right and it hurts them – that feels bad.
Have you ever had to defend yourself on the street?
I’m happy to say no, and I would hope I know enough to not let it get to that point either. I’d much rather de-escalate a situation if possible.
How has the sport enhanced your character?
BJJ has definitely had an impact. I’m calmer, my ego has been tamed, and I feel much more at peace with myself. I’m also a lot more disciplined. I like to think I’d react differently in stressful situations now. In BJJ, you are in close proximity to other people and in the beginning it can be quite distressing and uncomfortable, so I like to think that it has prepared me well for scenarios that may make me uncomfortable. Not to mention it has helped me lose 25kg. I think I’m the fittest I’ve been in a long time. When I say it changed my life, I really mean it. There’s a great quote from BJJ black belt Samantha Faulhaber in Philadelphia which sums up it all up perfectly: “On average, jiu-jitsu teaches men that their strength doesn’t mean as much as they thought it did. It teaches most women they are stronger than they thought.”
What are the biggest misconceptions about the sport?
I think some people have the idea that BJJ or martial arts in general encourages violence. This couldn’t be further from the truth. BJJ, or any martial art, is based on discipline, respect and humility. With the popularity of UFC, people think that they can do it, which is great, but what they don’t realise is the years of training and sacrifice it takes to get to that level. Also, no-one is too old, or unfit to start training BJJ. BJJ adapts to you, you don’t have to adapt to fit BJJ. It’s a beautiful thing.
Trevor Tockar, Shihan (Master Instructor), Australia | Discipline: Kyokushin Karate
Karate comes from the Japanese for ‘empty hands’. The art was honed on the islands of Okinawan, but a popular legend has it that karate was brought to Japan from China, having been introduced there by a visiting Zen Buddhist monk from India. Kyokushin, developed in the 1960s, is the most difficult style of karate, incorporating full contact fighting.
What attracted you to karate?
As a schoolboy I was always interested in boxing and martial arts, but karate was still in its infancy in South Africa where I grew up. The dojo (training hall) I attended after leaving school had a remarkable chief instructor by the name of Len Barnes, a Scottish-Irish immigrant who became known as the ‘Father of Karate in South Africa’. Len Barnes practised the Kyokushin style of karate under the legendary master, Masutatsu Oyama. What attracted me most to kyokushin karate was its adherence to traditional ‘budo’ karate and its emphasis on hard training coupled with strong moral values (humility/respect/courtesy).
Do you see karate as much a spiritual endeavour as a physical one?
Through the physical demands of hard training and the relentless repetition of techniques and routines, the mind and the spirit combine with the body to achieve realisation and insight. The discipline, focus, control and commitment that is required in training in the kyokushin style of karate elevates the endeavour to way beyond the physical dimension.
Are you ever afraid before competition?
I have reached an age where I no longer compete, but I certainly recall being extremely nervous before taking part in them. In 1975, Masutatsu Oyama hosted the 1st World Open Karate Tournament in Tokyo allowing full contact kicks to the legs, body and head and full contact punches and strikes to the body. There were no weight divisions and no protective equipment was permitted. Knockouts were plentiful, and it was necessary to re-define the whole approach to competition. Importantly, it is necessary to prepare the body and to program the mind to endure punishment and to develop true fighting spirit.
How do you feel about striking someone else?
In kyokushin karate, we punch, kick and strike our opponents with as much force and power as we can muster, with the intention of knocking them down or out. The beauty is that this is done without malice, anger or ill-will. Competitors have the highest respect for each other and this is only increased when they find themselves in the toughest of fights. As Masutatsu Oyama said: “The heart of our karate is real fighting. There can be no proof without real fighting. Without proof there is no trust. Without trust there is no respect. This is a definition in the world of martial arts”.
Have you had to defend yourself on the street?
As a young man, there were some occasions (few and far between) when I was obliged to rely on my karate training in the street. However, a true martial artist will seek to avoid such situations. Training should teach one to be aware and to be alert, which, in turn, should assist one to avoid confrontation.
How has karate enhanced your character?
By pushing yourself beyond what you thought to be your limits, and by testing your resolve, you learn to know yourself, to achieve insight into your own weaknesses and strengths. Only when you recognise your own weaknesses can you improve and develop. Kyokushin karate means ‘the ultimate truth’. This does not mean that we think we are the best. It means that we train in a way to discover the truth about ourselves. This is the true reward of karate training.
What are the biggest misconceptions about karate?
There are many about the martial arts in general, and karate in particular. The fact is that through training, you will improve and will become better than you were. This does not mean that you will become better than the person next to you. There is no magic. There is only hard work. Masutatsu Oyama was an incredibly powerful man who was able to defeat all-comers in battle and who was able to smash bricks, stones and tiles with his bare hands. When asked what was his secret, he pondered for a while and then simply answered: “Sweat.”