In this up close and personal interview with EMA Instructor Luke Byrne he talks about surviving his first karate lesson, his views on MMA and the UFC and argues his case for karate as a way of life.
Q. When and why did you first become interested in the martial arts?
A. I started training when I was about three years old. My dad had just received his black belt through the JKA and I used to train with him in the backyard. I didn’t attend my first formal training session until I was seven when I joined RHEE’s Tae Kwon Do. I didn’t last long there though as I lost interest quickly because the training was very much aimed at adults.
Q. So how did you eventually get into karate?
A. At 13 I decided I wanted to join the local karate club attended by two of my friends who were already brown belts. I told my dad and he decided to start preparing me for my first class. We trained every night for about a month, where I quickly picked up the basic techniques. It all felt very foreign and unnatural. From my very first day I began to question the purpose of what I was learning. I became obsessed with learning more about karate. I started to learn kata from books and I read as much on the martial arts as I could.
Q. Do you have a favourite martial arts book?
A. ‘Tao of Jeet Kune Do’ by Bruce Lee. It drove me to learn about all different styles of martial arts. By the time I attended my first grading as a white belt, I had been training for three months. I already knew 12 katas including Gankaku and Hangetsu which most students don’t learn until they are black belts.
Q. What was your first karate lesson like?
A. I had been training with my dad in preparation for this night for some time so I managed to fit right into the normal class. Everything was going well until our instructor decided to highlight a common fault with everyone’s technique by demonstrating the improper technique himself. Afterwards, he asked the students to guess what was wrong with it…bad idea! When nobody responded I quickly put my hand up seizing the opportunity to impress my new sensei. Hesitantly, he pointed at me and said, ‘OK, have a go.’ ‘You lifted your heel!’ I announced across the class. ‘No, that’s not what I’m trying to demonstrate,’ replied my instructor. I had a burning desire to get this right so I tried again, ‘Your stance was too high.’ Again he replied with, ‘No, that’s not what I’m after.’ And so I continued on, offering a cutting critique of our leader’s karate. Needless to say I didn’t make any friends that night but I still maintain my feedback was correct! Moral of the story: no one is perfect and you should never stop learning.
Q. What do you remember about your first grading experience?
A. Something that stands out is what instructor Takahashi Shihan, JKA’s Chief Instructor at the time, said to me at the end of my grading, ‘Two years America, four years Japan.’ I didn’t know what he meant at the time but later discovered he was talking about attending the world championships. That night I triple graded. I had only been training for three months and already I was on the team to attend the world championships. I remember on the trip home my friend, who had just received his black belt, was crying because he had never triple graded before. To be honest though, the belts never really meant that much to me. I just wanted to be the best I could be.
Q. You’ve been very successful in the competition arena. When did you first participate in a karate tournament?
A. I was a purple belt and just 14 when, for some reason, I decided it would be a good idea to travel to New Zealand to compete in the AustralAsian Championships with no previous competition experience. I remember feeling awesome in the training seminar and used the time to size up the competition. I was extremely confident I was better than all of the other coloured belts there. The day of the competition arrived and I was ready. I had been entered into the Men’s Coloured Belt event. (I started competing in the men’s division very early on and actually won a bronze medal in Japan in the Men’s Black Belt event as a brown belt at just 16.)
Q. How did you go?
A. When my name was called I walked out onto the mat and something very strange happened. All of a sudden my mind went blank and my legs turned to jelly. I could feel my heart trying to jump out of my chest. I used all my strength just to hold it together. When the judge said, ‘Hajime’ I could hear a voice inside saying, ‘He said start. Why aren’t you moving?’ After it was all over, I felt like I had just woken up from a coma. I couldn’t remember a thing. Fortunately, I had done enough to win. This was how I felt for many years every time I competed. It wasn’t until much later in my career that I learnt to put things into perspective and realise that your worth is not judged on a single performance but on who you are every day. So my advice is to train hard and take the time to learn how to compete. You can only ever do your best so judge yourself on your effort and not your result.
Q. A kareta-ka’s first competition free fight can be a daunting experience. How did you handle yours?
A. I remember traveling with a small group of students to Whyalla to attend a small competition when I was a brown belt. I’d made the cut because we didn’t have enough black belts alone to make a complete kumite team. I was only 15 and had been training for two years. When I entered the mat I recognised my opponent was a second dan black belt who had been an outstanding junior competitor and had been training for many years. Now a senior, he stood there looking very confident that he was going to annihilate me. Once the ref called hajime I began to dance around in a boxing stance, shadow boxing as I went. I thought if he saw how fast my hands and feet were he might get scared and call off the fight! I could see the confusion in his eyes as he stood in a traditional stance and watched me Ali-shuffle around him. Looking back on this, I laugh at how ridiculous I looked. Nevertheless, as I was dancing around I accidentally came into distance and right away saw an opportunity. I lightly swept his front foot which put him off balance and then followed it up with a straight left to the jaw (I’m a south paw). I then proceeded to dance back out and continue with my fancy footwork. I think everyone including myself was in shock, as it took a couple of seconds before the flags went up. That was the end of the fight. I won with an Ippon. Afterwards, my competitor came up and asked if I was a kickboxer? I played along and said ‘Yes, I train in boxing and kickboxing.’ ‘I could tell,’ he replied. I think he just wanted to justify being beaten by someone who obviously had no idea what he was doing. The truth was I watched too many movies!
Q. You’ve always been really into your fitness training. How has it helped your karate?
A. At 15, I saw a documentary on Jackie Chan talking about how he trained for six hours a day, six days a week. I really wanted to be the best martial artist ever so I decided that I was going to do the same. I trained in boxing, weights, running, swimming and karate. I used to lift quite heavy weights for my size. I weighed 72kg and benched 120kg for four sets of six and squatted 140kg for four sets of six. I also held the record for the fastest rope climb to the roof using only my arms at the local gymnastics club. I used to run 6km in under 20 minutes and do 30 wide grip chin-ups to the back of the neck. I once completed a bench press test where I had to bench 100kg for as many reps as possible and then drop down to my body weight and bench as many as I could. I managed 17 reps on 100kg and then another 28 reps with my body weight (72kg). Quite often in one session I would complete 20 laps of the local Olympic-sized pool and then run 5km to the amphitheatre where I would do 20 minutes of stair work and then run another 5 km home. Later that day I would go to the gym and complete either an upper or lower body routine. Every night I would do 600 sit-ups and an hour of technique training. I continued this for about 10 years. Did it help my karate? Yes, as it helped me develop a lot of power and speed and I could train flat out without tiring. However, in retrospect I would have benefited more from increasing my karate training rather than my fitness training.
Q. What are your thoughts on MMA and the UFC in particular?
A. My thoughts on this subject are very mixed. On the positive side, I think that the UFC has popularised the martial arts and unified many styles. There was once a time when you couldn’t talk to anyone involved in the martial arts without them arguing why their respective style was better than another eg. why karate was better than tae kwon do or kung fu better than karate etc. And then, when the UFC first started, Brazilian jiu-jitsu was suddenly declared the ‘unbeatable style’. But as the UFC developed the striking arts again began to dominate so that now it is no longer about which style you train in but more about the athlete and the camp that they train with. In this way I think that the UFC has been a catalyst in the evolution of the martial arts.
Q. So what do you see as some of the negative aspects?
A. Unfortunately, some of the characters the UFC promotes through shows like ‘The Ultimate Fighter’ are less than ideal role models. I believe that in order to move forward, the UFC must not forget the philosophical and positive character-building qualities upon which the martial arts are founded. We don’t want to be responsible for developing dangerous thugs, but rather, confident, strong, respectful and skillful martial artists. I enjoy watching the UFC but it only portrays one aspect of the martial arts and not everyone is suited to this type of fighting. However, it does offer some great opportunities to those who are.
Q. In addition to karate, you’ve also trained in boxing, kick boxing and jiu-jitsu. Can you tell us about your personal experience in training across the martial arts and how it’s contributed to your development?
A. I’ve trained in karate for around 18 years. In that time, I’ve also trained for several years in boxing, tae kwon do and Brazilian jiu-jitsu plus a short stint in kick boxing. I found all of these styles complement each other significantly. Apart from Brazilian ju-jitsu, they are actually all quite similar. It is the training methods they utilise that make set them apart. I’ve picked up many training techniques from each art that I now use in my own training: the kicking drills from tae kwon do; the pad work and body movement from boxing; the footwork from kick boxing; and the sweeps, throws and holds from jiu-jitsu. These have all helped me develop a more fully rounded approach to the martial arts.
Q. What do you think about the Shotokan fighter Lyoto Machida in the UFC?
A. Lyoto Machida is obviously an exceptional fighter with a great attitude to training and development. He is one fighter in the UFC that brings the spirit of the martial arts to the arena instead of an inflated ego. He has also demonstrated to karate-ka around the globe how important it is to train to fight. When he first started fighting he found that he did not possess the power in his punches to knock opponents out. He then changed his training routine to include a lot more weight lifting and bag work and now possesses great knockout power.
Q. If you’d been presented with an opportunity to fight in the MMA as a youngster would you have pursued it and how do you think you would have performed?
A. As a young man, I would have loved to compete in the MMA. Unfortunately, the opportunities came along at the wrong time of my life. As I grew older and developed my skills and grew my family, my priorities changed. You have to have a certain mind set to compete in this type of competition and you need to be fully committed to your preparation or you may get seriously injured. With a young family, I was never going to be in that mind set. I don’t know how I would have stacked up. To be honest, I would have been happy just to have had the opportunity to experience this type of event. I don’t think I would have ever made a career out of it though...
Q. What advice would you give to young martial arts students that have a dream of one day fighting in the UFC?
A. If it is your dream, then follow it. Train hard, learn the skills, but stay smart. Keep your school marks up, plan for your future and clearly define what you want to get back from the martial arts. There is no reason why you can’t be a UFC fighter and a lawyer or a doctor. Develop yourself as a person first and as a fighter second. Take the lessons that you learn from EMA and apply them to everyday living. Before you dedicate your whole life to a dream, make sure you know exactly what that dream is and that it’s what you want, otherwise you will never get there.
Q. Who are your personal favorite fighters in MMA or UFC?
A. Lyoto Machida, for his spirit and his character; Anderson Silva - who I knew was going to be a champion from his very first fight - for his amazing timing, composure and power; and John St Pierre for his amazing athleticism and personality.
Q. And some of your personal heroes?
A. I have admired many people throughout my life, some for their extraordinary abilities such as Johan Lagrange (South African and World Champion) and others for their amazing skills and personality such as Senseis Keith Geyer, Michael Ettingshausen, Ray Morcomb and my father. Over the years, I have learnt that real winners are not made by the medals around their neck but by the attitude with which they approach life. I still admire the people mentioned above but now I also look beyond the colour of a belt and realise I can learn new things from everybody. I admire people who are genuine, honest and caring. As I tell my students, you can win a match and still be a loser, but if you have a ‘winner’s attitude’ then you’ll always be a champion regardless of the result.
Q. How did you come up with the Evolution Martial Arts motto Live, Learn, Evolve and what does it mean to you?
A. Live, Learn, Evolve is a motto I’ve been passionate about for many years. The meaning behind it comes from Zen teachings. The philosophy is based around living life to the fullest and living in the moment. Although it is important we learn from the past, we must not live in it. Instead, the idea is to take the lessons and mistakes of the past and use them to help us develop goals for the future. By continuing to learn and create goals we are constantly evolving our programming in order to improve who we are and the way we interact with the environment around us. But the most important thing to remember is that we must live now! Too often we get so caught up in the day-to-day stresses of life that we begin to live in those moments e.g. regrets, future plans etc. The problem with this way of living is that it prevents us from seeing the beauty that every day brings. This philosophy can also relate to kumite: If you are too focused on what just happened or what might be about to happen you are sure to miss the opportunity that the moment brings as well as that gyakuzuki aimed at your chin.
Q. How do you maintain a positive lifestyle and attitude?
A. Being positive is a skill that must be practiced every day in order to achieve and maintain mastery of it. It is a lot like karate training: if you don’t train it, you lose it. Every morning when you wake up you need to make a conscious effort to make ‘good choices’ and remind yourself of that every time you’re faced with making a choice throughout the day. As a school teacher, I believe the best lesson I can teach my students is to be pro-active as opposed to being re-active. When we are born into this world two things decide our fate: our genetics and our environment. To a large extent, our genetics determine the way in which we interact with our environment and we don’t have control over the environment we are born into (remember, we don’t choose our family). Throughout our first few years of life, both these elements shape our personality, which is a lot like a computer program. We rely on this ‘programming’ to help us determine how to re-act in certain situations and what decisions to make. I so often hear people say, ‘Why do bad things always happen to me?’ And the answer is because they haven’t taken charge of their lives. Instead, they’ve relied on ‘fate’ or their ‘programming’ (personality) to determine the choices they make in life. Being pro-active means consciously pausing and making good choicesevery day. Only when we do this can we create our own destiny. Examine your life and ask yourself are you re-active or pro-active?
Q. The journey from white to black belt is long and challenging for most. Can you offer any advice to students who have been training for some time and may be
feeling a slump in their karate?
A. My advice is more for parents. Kids come into this world with nothing. They rely on us adults as parents and educators to teach them the lessons they need in order to survive and flourish in life. One of the best qualities a child can learn is to be dedicated and to develop goals and stick to them - when the going gets tough, don’t give up! As grown-ups we know the value of perseverance but for children it’s all about ‘I want it and I want it now!’ It’s important we teach children that they need to work hard in life in order to be successful and that the more effort that they put in, the more they will get in return. My own children train in a variety of activities. My eldest, who are 11 and eight, train a minimum of 16 hours per week, complete all their homework, attend tutoring twice weekly and learn a musical instrument. They rarely miss a day of school and never complain about doing it. Sure, they go through stages where they get tired, but we never let them take a day off just because they feel like it.
Q. What has karate taught you?
A. Before I started karate I had no plans to go to university and was a fairly average student. After a couple of years’ training, I learnt how to set goals and endeavor to achieve them. Since then, karate has been the driving force behind many of my life decisions. It has taught me to strive to be the best that I can be in everything I do and given me the confidence to be myself and not be influenced by peer pressure when making decisions that will affect my health and my life. I have passed these many lessons onto my own children and constantly reinforce to them that firstly, they must always remember to be a ‘good person’ and secondly, that they will never be failures as long as they always try their best. I always say to them, ‘Win a race and you will feel like a winner for an hour, develop a winner’s attitude and you will feel like a winner for a lifetime.’ I believe that children need to have a positive and stable influence in their lives where they can consistently interact within a positive environment to learn how to be the best they can be, both as a karate student and as a valuable member of society. I believe that Evolution Martial Arts offers this to children. If parents and students can stay committed to attending classes regularly and fully support their club by continuing to reinforce these character-based lessons at home, then I believe the EMA experience can be as life changing for them as it has been for me.