It has been mentioned on more than one occasion that my ageing mien has much in common nowadays with Bungle Bear. I always had a lot of time for Rainbow in the 1970s so the observation is not a sour one for me. Having the silhouette of a children’s TV animal is one thing, but going into a fight with those characteristics has its shortcomings.
The last three months have all been geared towards a karate competition held this Saturday at the Heathrow Gymnastics Club, a stone’s throw from the international airport. I had a slow-burn cold so the first karate session of the week was a struggle – and I am fed up with colds now: three in three months with Covid thrown in. There followed two nights of endless coughing so by the main dojo night later in the week I was almost seeing double. The timing couldn’t have been worse.
Nevertheless, I’d been practising my blocks and counters at home for jodan (face), chudan (chest) and kicks (mae-geri, mawashi-geri and yoko-geri – front kick, roundhouse kick and sidewards kick) because I need to know three for each to go up a belt in grading next month. We went through these in detail in the dojo and despite me writing down the instructions and watching videos on the Middlesex Shotokan Karate Facebook page, I’m still lacking precise details. I’ve started a new dedicated karate notebook so I’ll take it with me on Monday and scribble down the moves as we go through them.
I was mixed with electric excitement and robust concern about the competition. Most teens in the Winchmore Hill group had made their excuses and dropped out, leaving just two of us representing N21 – me and Nikhil.
Nikhil’s a brown belt and although he’s a teenager he’s a karate lifer and part of a karate family. He has finesse I can only dream about and what’s more, he does loud controlled breathing for greater effect. This was my competition debut and thankfully having three glasses of red wine the evening before the bout meant I went to sleep quickly and was out for the count until 6am; in short, I felt refreshed and pretty good.
I took the tube down to Heathrow, reading Shakin’ Stevens’ biography, which I’m finding lacks spark – but that’s another story. It was on the Piccadilly Line where the nerves descended. By the time I’d reached Hounslow West – the closest station to the venue – with my printed-up page of a map of the area, I’d worked out that I was going to give the crowd something worth watching: I was going in hard, like an apprentice dervish, from the first second. To entertain!
To my consternation, upon arrival I noticed in the hall that all the teenagers and adults were brown and black belts. Brown belt is four belts up from yellow. I was placed in a group of four men: two brown belts and one black, so I was seeing myself as a sort of Ghana at best in a World Cup tussle against Argentina, France and Germany. I was the proverbial banana skin.
But first came a kata competition, an event where each attendee was permitted two attempts at showing off a kata of their choosing. I opted for heian sandan. I loused up the first go by shouting my kiai in the wrong place, which I remedied during my second outing. While the judges conferred, the fight tournament commenced.
So remember, I was going to attack and startle my opponent from the off, making it abundantly clear that I had a weight advantage and, through a sort of osmosis process, making it known that I used to go out round Doncaster on Friday nights in the 1990s and was no stranger to a swinging fist. Brown belt Nikhil made short shrift of my menacing approach – it was like fighting a hurricane. But, looking for the positives, I was fit and realised that I could go the distance. But let me tell you – those two minutes feel like quarter of an hour.
The black belt was next and I went at him, kicking, patting his hands down to get in a punch and trying to leg him up, attempting every trick that Sensei Amrit and Harris had us practising in the dojo over the previous few weeks. Another defeat.
Then came my final fixture against the other brown belt, who was nearer to my age than anyone else in the competition… maybe 40? This was more even than I was expecting and I thought, in the great words of former Leeds and England manager Don Revie, “I could leave here with half a loaf.” My technique was compromised and at times I might have been verging on ‘bar-room brawl’. In fact, I was pulled aside at one point and told to keep within karate rules.
But seeing that my opponent was gasping for breath, I pulled myself together and gave chase. To my absolute amazement, I was announced the winner. I had my first victory – and it’s something I will never forget. But it must have been close. Ghana 3-2 France. This meant Ghana had finished third in the group – not bottom. But I’d hurt my right hand fairly badly on a sideways block so when we were instantly called back into the arena to take part in a 3rd/4th place play-off, still breathing heavily after our epic encounter, I knew I’d have to favour my attack using my weaker left side.
Regardless, my brown belt opponent regrouped, found extra reserves of energy and when I caught a kick of his aimed at my ribcage, try as I might I couldn’t get extend my hand to flick his face and gain three points; instead I tripped over and fell flat on the deck. “Is that a knock-out?” the brown belt asked. But no – there was still 30 seconds to go! I went on the prowl for points but it was too little too late. I was beaten. Won one, lost three.
Before I departed for the tube station, I was presented with a runner-up trophy for my kata performance. Even though I lost to a nine-year-old, I still have my first ever karate gong. I had a whale of a time. Nikhil took the win for the men’s tournament so I think between us, Winchmore Hill gave a good account of itself.
Back home the ex-nurse mother-in-law, who’s staying with us, checked out my throbbing hand and confirmed there was no break – maybe a torn tendon. Ten months ago I’d never imagine in my wildest dreams I’d be taking part in a karate competition. Maybe at my next one Zippy and George could come along for moral support.