Interview with Sensei Kevin O'Hagan

Sensei Kevin started training in martial arts as a fourteen year-old boy, training in Pak Mei White Tiger kung fu, Taekwondo, and then moved into Aikido, before finally finding Jujutsu, which has been his base art ever since. Kevin at present holds a 7th Dan Master’s grade in Combat Jujutsu, and is the highest graded instructor in the south west of England in this martial art.

Thanks for taking time out to chat to Tough Talk Kevin. What were your main motivations for starting martial arts?


As a youngster I used to enjoy watching the boxing and wrestling on the television, so it gave me an early interest in combative sports. I was also an avid reader of Marvel comics and I loved the idea of having super powers and beating all the bullies that crossed my path. I wasn’t mercilessly bullied when I was a kid, but I was small for my age and suffered enough situations to want to defend myself. I grew up in a tough area of my home city of Bristol. It was a multi -cultural neighbourhood. As a teenager in the 1970s there was no political correctness. It was pretty much dog-eat-dog, and the dog with the biggest teeth usual won! One day at school a friend of mine had a copy of the old classic Kung Fu Monthly magazine featuring a man I hadn’t heard of up to then. The man was the legendary Bruce Lee. Once I read about him and his skills I was sold. Martial arts seemed to be the answer to my problems and the lack of confidence I had with confrontation and violence. Here was a man who was not your stereotypical tough guy of the time such as John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Bruce Lee was not big in stature, but boy could he fight. It gave me hope. He became my idol and role model and that is why I went and enrolled in my first martial arts class at the age of fourteen.

What styles did you originally train in?


My first style was a southern Shaolin system called Pak Mei (white tiger). To be honest, back then as a fourteen-year-old boy, my knowledge of Kung Fu was sparse. I had no idea at the time there were dozens of assorted styles, all I knew was I wanted to practice Kung Fu like my hero Bruce Lee. The training was basic and very hard; 100s of repetitions of the same moves and mammoth conditioning sessions and 1000s of kicks and punches. I didn’t care at the time, I was just over the moon to be training in martial arts. Remember at this time in the early 1970s martial arts clubs were far and few between. When the club eventually shut some two years later, the only other art that I could find that had any remote similarities was Taekwondo which I trained in for another few years.

In those early days I was into the punching and kicking arts big time. A little later I was introduced to Aikido which eventually lead to my base art which was Jujutsu.


Which did you prefer; Kung Fu or Taekwondo?


Actually I preferred Kung Fu over Taekwondo as, being 5ft 7ins, I found the high kicks of the Taekwondo difficult to apply but found the close- range techniques in Pak Mei Kung Fu more suited to my build and stature. A friend of mine persuaded me to try Aikido. At first, I had a nightmare learning the locks and holds. They were alien to me but little by little it began to interest me how the holds could compliment my kicking and punching skills.


How did you then make the move to Combat Jujutsu?


Up to this point in my training I felt there was something missing. I primarily got into martial arts for self defence and, although they gave me so much more, I felt I was drifting away from the practical side of things and began to doubt some of the stuff I was practising. I read some stuff about Jujutsu and saw some of its techniques and I immediately found my missing link. I liked how Combative Jujutsu combined striking with the seamless transition to throws and takedowns, then into locks or chokes and immobilisations. I knew then and there this was what I wanted to train in. But the problem was there being no clubs in the Bristol area and the nearest was 50 miles away.


So I carried on with my Aikido training which I learnt mainly under direct Japanese instruction. This taught me as a young man incredible discipline and respect. I will never forget those experiences which certainly shaped my persona growing up, but in my heart of hearts I knew I wanted to train in Jujutsu. And so, I began to travel most weekends to train at any Jujutsu clubs I could find, and my travels took me all over the UK; from London to Southampton, from Liverpool to Rochdale.


I brought my new-found skills back to Bristol and trained them privately with three friends, one being my wonderful wife Tina. I did this for many years until I was graded to black belt and opened my first Jujutsu club in Bristol in 1984. In fact it was the first Jujutsu club ever to open in Bristol.  My mission was to put Bristol on the map by having possibly the best Jujutsu club in that neck of the woods, and to get  people to travel to train with me, instead of the other way around. I was a man on a mission back then. I lived and breathed training and teaching.

Was that your first role as an instructor?


No, actually now and again I taught in my Aikido class when my instructors were on holiday, but when I got my Black belt in Jujutsu at the age of 21, I immediately opened my first class. It is hard to think back then what I felt like, but I was young and gung-ho! I wasn’t really scared of instructing; I just wanted to show my skills and pass my knowledge on. That has stayed with me all my martial arts career. I had finally found something I felt I was good at and knew that ultimately I would love to do it for a living.


Tell me more about the development of Combat Jujutsu once you had opened your club in Bristol.


By inviting my instructors down to Bristol gradually helped my progression through the Dan grades. This also gave me passage to open more clubs and eventually teach professionally. Also, it got me to my present grade of 7th Dan Masters level; the highest graded Combat Jujutsu instructor in the South West of England which I am very proud of. It has been my dream since a young man. I trained like a demon and with a passion second to none. I loved what I was doing.


Currently people mainly know Jujutsu through BJJ, which is great, but this was not the Jujutsu I learned; what I learned was much more combative in nature and had no sporting side with 80% of it on your feet and 20% on the floor, which ties up nicely with its origins as an art of warfare where, being on the ground was not the smartest tactic. Most people today thing Jujutsu is that ground stuff and nothing more could not be further from the truth. Combat Jujutsu retains its battlefield roots, and it is still very much my mission to teach people about the origins of this Samurai art and how it has had many re-births over its 2500 year history to where it is now.  I try to preserve the past along with bringing it into the present, and my goal now is to pass this information onto my next generation of black belts, so that the true art of Jujutsu doesn’t die. Many of my instructors and peers has sadly passed on, so I feel I have taken on the mantle and. whilst I am still able to, to preach the gospel according to Combat Jujutsu and Kevin O’Hagan.


My club motto is From the Battlefields to the Streets.

Have you ever had to use your skills in self- defence?


Thankfully I have had more fights on the mats and in the cage or ring than I have ever had on the streets, and the one’s I did have were when I was a lot younger and in the name of self- defence; living in and around the neighbourhood I grew up in was pretty tough with the occasional mugging situation or gang violence/football. However, my techniques did hold me in good stead and I outline many of them, as well as my complete training system, in my recently released autobiography When We Were Warriors.


I have personally found most street attacks are up close and in your face and a million miles away from a sparring match and found the combative nature of the Jujutsu worked for me in these situations. Also, Jujutsu gives you choices on the level of force used, depending on the severity of the attack. Not every situation requires you to blast somebody off of the planet, where a simple wrist-lock or pressure point will do the trick. Jujutsu teaches smart tactics and appropriate responses over the gung-ho; lets-treat-every-attack-the-same-and-smash-somebody-to-pulp mentality. That is bad instruction in my opinion. Don’t get me wrong jujutsu can be very brutal when required but that really is the key; when required. We do not need a sledgehammer to crack a walnut.

Have you taught Combat Jujutsu in any other countries?


Yes, although most of my teaching has been in the UK, I have also been fortunate to have taught in countries like Japan. USA and Bermuda. I was part of MMA fighter James ‘The Colossus’ Thompson’s corner team which went to Tokyo Japan to fight in the then biggest MMA show on the planet, Pride Fighting Championships. James was the first British MMA fighter to fight on this show and I was hugely honoured to have trained and prepared him for this fight, as well as being in his corner. Walking out to 20,000 screaming fans is a moment I will never forget. To also get to hang out, train and chat with some of the biggest MMA fighters of that time was an awesome experience, but best of all was going to the spiritual birthplace of Jujutsu and taking in the whole experience of such a wonderful place.


The Bermuda trip was really something right out of a story book. A well renowned karate instructor in Bermuda named Al Wharton held a yearly seminar which brought people from all over the world to train. He had seen my stuff from watching some of my instructional DVDs and, on the strength of liking what he saw, he flew me out to the island to be his guest instructor. It was a surreal moment but a magical one. The martial artists of Bermuda were very kind to me and loved what I taught them. It was weird though, to walk through Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda, and see posters of me in shop windows like some sort of celebrity!

Do you teach now full-time?


Yes, teaching has been my full-time job since the late '90s. Although I am now semi-retired, I still teach clients one-to-one and hold seminars, and I have other coaches who now teach the weekly classes. I teach out of Impact Gym, Bristol, which was my own gym and dojo not just for Jujutsu, but a multitude of other arts and fitness. Both my sons Jake and Tom now run it; they are both talented and skilled martial artists, training since they were both old enough to stand up and throw their first punch. Impact gym is also the home of our own MMA and submission grappling fight teams.


On top of all of this, I am also a writer and author, and this is what I do when not teaching. I have authored 10 books and produced my own series of instructional DVDs and have recently had my first fictional novel published entitled Battlescars. This has also been another long-time ambition of mine fulfilled.


I have devoted 43 years to the martial arts and have achieved all my goals and ambitions that I set out to do way back; from achieving my first black belts to opening my first club, establishing Jujutsu in the South West, fighting professionally in the cage, training my own fight team and travelling to teach in some fantastic countries.  I have appeared many times on television and been inducted into the M.A.I British martial artists’ hall of fame. And recently I have received  from my fellow martial artists a lifetime achievement award. This was the icing on the cake of my a long and exciting journey.

Copyright © Tough Talk and Kevin O'Hagan


Kevin O'Hagan

Facebook: @kevinohagansas


Impact Gym

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