A legendary karateka coaches Jeremy Clarke in head buttsby Jeremy Clarke / April 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Last weekend Billy Higgins came to Torquay. Higgins is a world famous karate expert. He is a black-belt, sixth dan. He is also a full-time representative of the Karate Union of Great Britain; and it was in this capacity that he held a training session for all grades of local karate students at the Torbay leisure centre. I was there, standing in the front row, spotless in my white gi, which had been especially washed and pressed for the occasion. At the moment I am very addicted to this most martial of the arts.
Usually the KUGB sends down Andy Sherry, a seventh dan, whose ascetic, menacing presence reminds me of Satan himself. It is said that even the Japanese karate champions are afraid of him. When it is announced in our karate club that Sherry is coming to the area and will be holding a special training session, a palpable frisson passes through the ranks. We roll our eyes and say to each other, “Good heavens, not him again.” But we go, because by golly he makes us learn.
I had not trained with Higgins before. While we waited in the corridor for an aerobics class to vacate the sports hall before his first session, I took the opportunity to study the legendary karateka at first hand. He is dark, short and square shaped; so broad across the back in fact that if he wanted to make a public telephone call he would have to insinuate himself into the kiosk sideways. Even his thick, powerfully arched feet were intimidating. We filed into the sports hall, lined up in rows and bowed.
He said, “Yoi”-which means “get ready”-and proceeded to take us through the warm-up exercises.
In spite of his formidable appearance, Higgins turned out to be a patient, tolerant teacher. He intoned his instructions in a high-pitched Scouse accent; never failing to append them with a friendly “all right?” or “okay now?” Now and then he threatened to summarily punish slackers with 20 press-ups on the knuckles, but he did not carry it out.
He did not show off either. Only once-when demonstrating a straightforward punch to an imaginary opponent’s sternum-did he allow us a glimpse of his power and fighting spirit. His delivery was like a steam hammer; the punch looked powerful enough to have made a hole in somebody. As his right arm and fist came to a dead stop, the sleeves of his gi cracked like a whiplash and the following breeze cooled the sweat on the foreheads of those in the front row.
After going through some basic blocks, punches and kicks, he taught us a four punch, one kick combination that concluded with a flying head butt. We practised it in our lines for a while, then he told us to get a partner and practise on each other-“with control, okay?”
“With control” means picking a vulnerable spot on your partner’s anatomy, lashing out at it in the prescribed manner with foot or fist-then suddenly calling the whole thing off and applying the brakes just before impact. It is not easy-especially if you are a bit worked up. The wooden sprung floor of my club’s dojo is decorated with dried, blackened bloodstains resulting from poor control. Sometimes I put the tip of my nose on one or other of them when we do press-ups.
I partnered a young lad with thick glasses and facial acne like molten lava. We bowed politely to each other and he took up the correct defensive stance, with his legs apart, ready to fend off my medley of controlled offensive blows. Higgins, who was doing the rounds, paused beside us while I delivered the goods. He praised my punches and the kick to the groin; but thought the final head butt was lacking in ?lan. It had reminded him of a nervous chicken he said. To demonstrate how it should be done, he suddenly grabbed my partner by the lapels and executed a vicious head butt and made it look like the most natural thing in the world. Before letting go of my terrified partner he said, “Do it again, and this time I want you to butt him as if you meant it, okay?”
I have never done any butting myself-although I have to admit to fantasising about sticking the nut on all sorts of people, including my bank manager. But it is not as easy as it looks. The ability to deliver a head butt with technique, accuracy, and above all timing, is probably beyond all but the most dedicated. Once, while we were standing in a crowded bar, I saw my friend George take off his glasses and head butt someone in the mouth. He ended up with a broken tooth sticking out of his forehead and so much blood running down his face it looked like it was he who had come off worst. Indeed, the bloke he butted must have thought so, because he asked George whether he was all right.
In my eagerness to impress Higgins with my second attempt, I worked myself up into such a frenzy during the punches, I nearly overdid it with the kick to the groin. My bare foot accidentally knocked against my partner’s dangling privates and they swung gently to and fro like the clapper of a church bell summoning the faithful to evensong. To my partner’s credit, although his lower jaw fell open, he did not relax his low, wide, defensive stance.
Meanwhile, Higgins had evidently crossed his boredom threshold. “Keep working on that head butt, okay?” he told me before marching off to see how the girls were getting on.n