Flashback: My 1st Dan Blackbelt grading in 1999

In a recent post I gave a report of when I passed my 5th Dan grading under Shihan Handyside. Now I’m going to go back in time to when I took my 1st Dan under Shihan Bullough.

The date was December 19 1999. I graded at the BAOMA New Image Health and Fitness Gym on Sovereign Road, Darlington Street, Wigan. I had attained my brown belt in 1997 and worked very hard up to black, very seldom missing a class and even training most weekends at my sensei’s home.

Unfortunately I got hit by a car a few weeks before grading and I was still having difficulty walking and could not kick off my left leg. To this day I still have very little feeling in my calves and shins.

I took much of the impact in my legs before flying over the bonnet, windshield and roof and landing face-first in some brambles. My breakfall probably helped my landing but it was still unpleasant.

Steve counters my Oi Tzuki with a Yoko Kekomi

Steve counters my Oi Tzuki with a Yoko Kekomi

My instructor at the time, Steve Bullough, a 5th Dan under the WKA (I understand he is now 8th) had just bought a new gym which was still a dusty shell. But he said that was where I’d be grading. There were five existing black belts in his school that I knew of (Jon Dawber, Eric Winstanley, Chris Countanche, Daniel Allen, Duncan MacFarlane) but he told me I’d be taking a tougher grading. “You’re not just grading in Karate,” he said: “You’re grading in Bushido” meaning I would be tested in various aspects of Bujutsu, such as Jujutsu and swordwork.

Mawashi Geri to Jodan

Mawashi Geri to Jodan

Nobody else was grading. I turned up at the new Dojo at 9 in the morning and my sensei told me to get changed.

I had bought a new white gi for the grading and pulled on my well-worn brown belt that I had worn for the last few years.

Sensei put on his own gi and his hakama, which usually meant he meant business.

I bowed in and he gave me a warm-up. The usual stuff, stretching, running, press-ups, sit-ups and his range of limb punishing activities like bunnyhops around the Dojo.

He had old Judo mats from the 1970s that were like concrete and a canvas stretched across them. The canvas was the roughest material known to man, and every technique received seemed to result in having the skin grazed from your elbows.

On the day of the grading the canvas wasn’t stretched very tight and I could tell it was going to interfere with my footwork.

As the grading begun proper I lined up (in so far as one person can) and Sensei gave the commands for kihon.

Most Karate instructors begin with “step back gedan barai” but he always had us stepping forward. Stepping back, he said, went against the ethos of Bushido.

A nerve-wracking moment as we face off bokken against Jo

A nerve-wracking moment as we face off bokken against Jo

After going through the usual Oi Tzuki, Mae Geri, Uchi Ude Uke etc he throw in some other less orthodox techniques from styles like Wado Ryu like “Kette Jun Tzuki no Tsukomi” and his repertoire of jumping spinning back kicks. My legs were holding out ok, but I was desperate for my “second wind” to arrive because I was already running out of steam.

Next was the padwork I’d been dreading – roundhouse kicks, reverse punches and knees. I still can’t kick like before with my left leg but I got through it.

I noticed the gym’s solitary member of staff lurking in the doorway. He had a polaroid camera and had begun to take pictures of the grading which are on this article.

We sparred. I had always found my teacher difficult to spar with. Although I was about 9 inches taller with a longer reach he always seemed too far away to hit yet he could hit me. My usual favoured technique of the Haito (ridgehand) wasn’t working so I resorted to high roundhouse kicks, using my long legs (my one good leg) to my advantage. We sparred for what felt like an eternity. I was out of breathe and he hadn’t even broke a sweat.

Next up were throws. I had never actually thrown my instructor before and to my delight he was probably the lightest person I’d ever thrown, as he threw punches I responded with throws, Uke Goshi, O Goshi, Seionage, Kosoto Gari, Koshi Nage and so on through every throw in my repertoire. I didn’t know whether he’d let me throw him with everything I had but to his credit he took a Tomoe Nage throw that must have sent him flying 15 feet.

Pressure points were next. I had to apply vital points wherever he named – the top lip, the chin, the tricep, the neck and so on.

Next came grappling. Sensei and I sat back to back with no referee. My favourite strategy was always to go for a headlock the second we spun round but he was too fast. He whizzed about like a little terrier and was very strong for his size. I held him in a Kesa Gatame and tried in vain to use his own favourite technique against him – pinning him down and suffocating him with my hand. But before I knew it we were back up to our knees. He fell to his back as I tried to get on a Juji Gatame. After another eternity of no result he nodded and said “well done lad, that’ll do.”

As he lunges in I side step and cut

As he lunges in I side step and cut

“Get ready for kata,” he said and I straightened my gi.

“Taikyoku Shodan!” he announced and I performed our kihon kata.

He then asked for the seldom seen Taikyoku Nidan, Sandan, Yondan, Godan and Rokudan, a throwback to the old Yoseikan days.

I threw everything I had at these kata and was exhausted – and hadn’t even started on the Heian katas.

Heian Shodan, Nidan, Sandan, Yondan and Godan were next. Eleven katas in and still a way to go.

Tekki Shodan…Tekki Nidan and Bassai Dai.

By now my legs were wobbling like crazy. Bassai Dai was my best kata but must have looked like crap. When I did a kiai I felt like I was going to throw up.

“Advanced kata?” he said.

“Empi!” I announced and performed the kata, hoping my knackered legs would hold up to the jump.

He instructed me to grab a Bo and perform kata with the six foot staff. I did a kata we called Ichi Chikara Bo.

Next was katana. Our club’s “Iaido” was not sophisticated in retrospect, but I’d trained with swords all my life and could generally make my techniques look good. My katana whistled through the air as sweat flew off me.

Finally he told me to grab my Bokken and pick up my guard. He picked up a Jo staff and stared across at me.

Without warning or telling me what to do, he darted towards me, bringing the red oak staff above his head and hurtling towards my head. Intinctively I sidestepped and sliced my sword across his ribs. I don’t know whether he was expecting me to block the strike, but I certainly dealt with it.

“Have a minute,” he said. “Grading’s over. I need to add up your scores.”

I lay on the mat, gasping for air, my gi drenched. It was about 5pm, after over seven hours of grading with no break.

Iaido before it was trendy

Iaido before it was trendy

Had I passed? At that point I was just happy to be alive!

After some minutes of deliberation, he lay my license book on my chest and said: “You scraped it. Well done.”

Sword Kata

Sword Kata

We made our way into the foyer where I admired the polaroids that had been taken but something was missing. I said: “Ermmm, do I get a belt?”

He looked down, took off the belt he was wearing over his hakama and said: “Here, this is my spare one. Present off Sensei.”

Sensei congratulating me on passing

Sensei congratulating me on passing

We had two more pictures taken in the foyer to mark the occasion and I went home looking at my new belt every second of the journey.

There wasn’t a class of course because of Christmas, but the next class of the New Year, I put my belt on and joined the other black belts in the line.

I looked at my belt, looked across at my Sensei’s belt and suddenly felt unworthy of the grade. OK, he was a 5th Dan and I a 1st Dan, but just wearing the same colour as him felt wrong. All of a sudden I yearned for my old brown belt that seemed to say “high grade but no pressure.”

Worse still when he put me front of a class to teach I thought “I know nothing!” it was then it occured to me that what people had been saying all along “Black belt really only means the start of the journey.”

Glad it's all over

Glad it’s all over


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