Tony is Joint Chief Instructor of the Real Combat System. He is 6th dan Real Combat System, 1st dan Combat Ju-jitsu, 1st dan Shotokan karate, as well as a qualified life coach and counsellor in fields such as depression, anxiety, stress, bereavement and much more.
Hi Tony, thanks for taking time out to chat to Tough Talk. What were your reasons and motivations for starting martial arts?
I grew up in a house where football, boxing and a little bit of horse racing were the only sports I ever really saw. I was never interested in horse racing; that was my dad's hobby betting on the horse racing on a Saturday. So that just left football and boxing. We played football as kids at every opportunity but I loved watching boxing on our old black and white TV and I can still remember watching the Joe Frazer and Muhammad Ali fights with great anticipation and excitement. I love boxing and still incorporate it into all of my training and train and teach it at the Red Corner gym in Coventry.
As I got a bit older one of my favourite TV programmes was kung fu starring David Carradine. I loved that programme and couldn’t wait for Saturdays to come around so that I could watch the next episode. Carradine played the role of a peaceful Shaolin monk who travelled the land doing casual work and being kind and helpful to everyone he met. Even though he was a very peaceful guy you could guarantee that in every episode someone would push and prod him until he reached a point where he had to use his kung fu skills to defend himself, or others, but to do this they usually had to provoke him to such an extent that I would be shouting at the TV; “Come on Grasshopper for Gods sake do something!” Then he would usually beat up his bullying antagonist, and as well a few of his accomplices for good luck.
Around this time I also started to hear about Bruce Lee, more so just after he died. Bruce Lee and David Carradine were the cause of everyone at my secondary school seeing themselves as budding martial arts experts. Flying kicks were being practised on a regular basis in school corridors and playgrounds.
So people like Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee and David Carradine were my early influences into the fighting arts and I guess as a kid I wanted to be like them.
Do you have any early memories of training as a kid?
I'm not sure how old but I know I was in junior school - when my dad and my uncle took me to Bell Green Boxing Club to toughen me up. In those days you were thrown straight into the ring to see what you were made of. I remember sparring with an older and bigger kid and I think for someone who didn’t have a clue what he was doing, I did OK. That was until the trainer, who was actually a nice guy and ex-All Irish boxing champion, said at the end of the round; “You took a good punch on the nose there son.” I must of took this as permission to cry, which my dad wasn’t impressed with and dragged me out of the club. So my short boxing career ended after just one round.
Aside from these childhood heroes, were there any other reasons for starting martial arts?
Yes, I was brought up in a rough area known locally as Dodge City and the secondary school I went to was an all boys school and pretty tough. I was a soft, kind-natured kid and did experience some bullying but luckily some of my friends were quite tough and definitely protected me a lot of the time, or else I’m sure I would have been bullied a lot more than I was. However, I do remember getting beaten up for nothing by an older kid just after I started secondary school, so I must have been about 13 years-old. And another really scary kid and a real bully threatened to beat me up every time he saw me. It was at this point that something clicked inside my mind and I decided that the feeling of shame for not fighting back felt worse than getting kicked in the face. So I started to fight back and hey presto... the bullying stopped.
I tried various other arts, judo, kung fu, karate and even boxing a few more times but I never stuck at any of them. I do remember enjoying judo but the friend I joined with stopped training and that was enough of an excuse for me to stop as well.
When did you start training seriously?
It wasn’t until I was much older in my mid to late twenties that I really started to train seriously and to a decent level with Geoff Thompson. By this time I had two kids and I was full of self doubts in lots of different areas, one of which was my ability to protect my young family. So I decided to start training seriously and begin my amazing journey into the world of martial arts. I guess my motivation at this point was fear; an emotion I know very well from my childhood.
How did you start training under Geoff Thompson?
I used to box in my garage with my friend Tom Scott, who was a tough guy. We weren’t very good technically but they were tough sessions. It was during one of these sessions that Tom told me about a friend of his called Geoff Thompson who ran a local karate club that might be worth us going too.
So we went along to Geoffs class, which was in a school hall. Back then Geoff was teaching Shotokan karate which meant absolutely nothing to me, but it was a tough class but also friendly and I liked Geoff instantly,
For the first few months I stood with all of the other beginners and practised keon kata for what seemed like an eternity. Geoff did a lot of sparring but, as a beginner, I wasn’t allowed to spar and had to watch the higher grades which, although I made out that I was disappointed at not being allowed to spar with them, I was also glad as I remember walking into the class one night and there were three black belts from another local club in pristine white karate suits, warming up and stretching. They really looked the part. Geoff went straight into sparring and although I was still doing my basic moves with the beginners, I couldn’t stop myself from watching the higher grades sparring. Within a few minutes one of the black belt's pristine suits was covered in his own blood. My friend Tom, who was allowed to spar, had no respect for this guy's grade and his first punch was a straight right-cross onto the black belt's nose. The other two black-belts weren't fairing any better against Geoff's students. Geoff had to stop the class and change it to a pad session.
What did you learn from this?
I learnt allot from watching this; Geoff's students were definitely not the best technically but they were tough and demonstrated that the belt around your waist meant nothing against a tough guy with no respect for karate grades. I never picked Shotokan deliberately I just fell into it and although it was meant to be a traditional Shotokan class, we often ended up boxing or much later grappling and I loved it.
It was sometimes scary though, especially when Geoff came up with the Animal Day concept, which was way before MMA was even heard off. Geoff would get everyone to sit in a circle and ask for two volunteers to come out in the middle and fight. It was terrifying and I often used to wonder what I was doing there, but I knew I was facing my fears and learning so much about myself as well as learning something that wasn’t yet polished but it was very real. The Animal Day concept was controversial and new, and it quickly went all around the world; it felt a bit surreal as we had film crews from the TV to film us and reporters from men's magazines wanting or interview us. Geoff was becoming very well known and I think he was even mentioned one in the Houses of Parliament as an MP wanted to ban Geoff from doing an Animal Day seminar in his constituency.
Was this when Geoff's Real Combat System formed?
I can't really remember exactly when the Real Combat System (RCS) was formed but it was a natural process as Geoff had drifted a long way from being a traditional Shotokan instructor. Geoff was also working the doors at the time and with his massive amount of real-life experience from doing the doors, we started to train for real-life scenarios, multiple attackers, pre-emption and much more.
Geoff made the RCS really successful but eventually pulled away from it as he grew in the world of writing, film writing, plays and even musicals.
Myself and the brilliant Matty Evans were two of Geoff's highest level instructors and we both have been training with Geoff for well over twenty years. Geoff had graded us up to 6th Dan under him and Peter Consterdine at the British Combat Association, so we decided to take over the running of the RCS, which we have been doing now for several years.
After so many years of training, do you have a favourite style?
No, I've never really had a favourite style of training; I think all styles have something to offer and I'm not sure if one is any better than the other. I've always believed in learning from as many different people and systems as I possibly can. In my early days I loved hand work, especially boxing. As I got older I really enjoyed grappling. Nowadays though, I try to just tick over by doing a little bit of everything. Now in my mid-50s I'm trying to look after my body, which has taken a lot of punishment over the years. I believe the old saying about everyone being a teacher as well as a student and so I will listen to anyone, and am happy to be in a student role whenever I can be.
Are you still in contact with Geoff?
Yes, Geoff is still a very close friend of mine I mentor lot of people but I've always considered Geoff to be my mentor. He has changed so much as a person and is very non-violent these days but when I first met him back at his Shotokan club days, he lived in a world of violence and some of the things we did at the club were crazy, but I learnt to step up and face my fears which has helped me in so many other areas of my life.
How has martial arts changed your life?
The better I became at martial arts the less I wanted to fight; in fact I haven’t had a fight for so many years now. I even had a guy at Coventry train station a few weeks ago threaten to knock me out because he thought I had pushed in the queue for car park tickets (which I hadn’t). At no point did I feel physically threatened by this guy, I just apologised for upsetting him and walked away, but there was a time in my life where I definitely wouldn’t have walked away; my ego wouldn’t have allowed it.
We all go through different stages of life and being physical and challenging to ourselves is one of the early stages. As we grow we start to realise that we don't have to stay in the physical forge and we want more to help others and be an example to others. Finally is the spiritual stage where you realise that we are all the same, we are all connected and we are all on a journey that may be different for each person, but we will all end up at the same destination.
My real passion in life these days is working as a counsellor in fields such as depression, anxiety, stress, bereavement and much more. And so we have incorporated much more psychological work into our training. Men's mental health is recognised as a huge problem in modern day society with two men a day committing suicide in the UK - Matty's brother Lee who was also a great martial artist and a great guy committed suicide a few years ago, so it's an area close to our hearts. We still teach our physical system but we unashamedly do a lot of personal development work which is something we both want to do a lot more off. These days I give presentations on resiliency and stress management, I go into schools and talk about mental health issues and I teach doctors and nurses how to avoid getting into conflict, and how to deal with it if they do. I love my work and my training with Geoff has definitely forged my attitude in all of these areas.
I learnt a long time ago that my biggest enemy in this world was by far myself and I’ve worked really hard at changing this and now want to help others to do the same. After all, why would you want to keep battling against yourself?
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