Sensei Goran Powell of Daigaku Karate Kai (DKK) talks to Kung Fu Kingdom about his life in martial arts, and taking one of the toughest tests in karate, the DKK 30-Man Challenge.
The DKK school prides itself on bringing out the best in anyone who wants to learn karate, embodying the philosophy that you get out of it what you put into it. To the casual observer their methods may seem harsh and tough but, I can testify as a DKK student, they do bring out the best in us. Each of the three senior instructors exemplify every quality of martial arts; where Shihan Dan Lewis (of DKK Bristol & Portishead) combines a tough no nonsense approach with technical intricacies from the variety of systems he has studied, Shihan Gavin Mulholland follows the warrior ways of karate (although he would never describe himself as a warrior). Sensei Goran Powell therefore would be DKK’s spiritual guide.
Sensei Goran’s journey in the martial arts has been one of self-discovery through hard training and combat, to the discovery of Zen and a more spiritual aspect. His Kyokushinkai background gave him an insight which would later serve him well in one of karate’s toughest tests; the DKK 30 Man Challenge – 30 minutes of full contact Kumite (which Jean-Claude Van Damme’s “Bloodsport” made famous) held at DKK’s summer school on the “field of truth”.
Having taken the test himself Sensei Goran came out the other side with a new appreciation and awareness of how karate builds character and sprit. His test, and life events leading up to it, are chronicled in his book “Waking Dragons” (named the British Martial Arts Award, Writer of the Year in 2017) now Sensei Goran uses his own experience to help train those students wishing to undergo the challenge, preparing them physically and mentally for the test. In between teaching, family life, and a career as a writer we’re honoured that Sensei Goran took the time to share his experience with us.
Hi Goran, it’s great to connect with you and we hope you’re keeping well. First of all, welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom and thanks so much for taking some time out to chat with us. What’s your general impression of our site and name?
I like the site, you guys have certainly talked to plenty of top people and there’s a wealth of martial arts wisdom there!
Thank you. So a little background about yourself first; where are you from originally?
What’s your height and weight?
I’m from Worcester in the West Midlands, a little way south of Birmingham. My mum came to England in the 60’s from the former Yugoslavia, hence my name. I’m 5’10” and 84kg.
Interesting. So, when did you first get into martial arts?
Well, my mum showed me a newspaper article that said a small guy could beat a big guy using judo. It sounded cool, so I went along to the local club. The year was 1972 and I was 7 at the time.
Okay, so quite young then. What was the first system or style you studied?
So, judo was my first system and I still think it’s a great way for kids to start in the martial arts. It teaches so many fundamental aspects of balance and weight transfer, and allows kids to fight hard in a safe way that’s not too violent.
Then years later at University you took up Kyokushinkai karate. What appealed to you about this knockdown, hard as nails system?
I’d seen some karate and kung fu schools that seemed very soft and a bit unrealistic. But when I trained in Kyokushinkai I could see they did a lot more than punching the air. They hit bags and pads and people – including me! It had the same physicality I’d experienced in judo.
Indeed, it’s very physical compared to other forms. I know you competed in judo and karate. Would you tell us about your competition days, titles won etc?
As a kid I would compete in judo in the West Midlands, I picked up some gold, silver and bronze medals as a teenager. In Kyokushinkai I entered a couple of regional knockdown tournaments early on, but the standard was very high and I didn’t place. I certainly got a lot from the experience though. Later, in DKK Tournaments, I competed in the black belt section for several years and picked up medals in kumite, kata and grappling.
Very impressive. How important would you say is competition in developing a martial artist’s skills?
For me, competition was never the purpose of my training, but it’s an invaluable learning experience. For one thing, it’s a great focus to get you training hard. It’s a chance to test yourself under pressure. If you win, that’s great and you get a shiny medal. If you lose, you were exposed to fighters better than you, and that’s a great way to learn.
Certainly is. What karate variations, and other martial arts did you practice before finding Goju-Ryu?
As well as Kyokushinkai, I’d trained in Shotokan and Taekwondo for a couple of years. If you find a good teacher, you can learn from any style. Don’t settle for mediocre instruction just for the sake of a style. Find a great teacher and open your mind to new ways of doing things.
That’s good advice. Can you tell us a little about Goju from your perspective, what was its appeal for you?
While I learnt so much from other styles, I always felt there was something missing. When I discovered Goju-Ryu, I felt it had it all. In terms of self defence, it includes throws, locks and grappling as well as kicking and punching. It has the beauty of crisp Japanese kata combined with elements of Chinese internal styles. It felt like a system I could study for a lifetime.
Agree. Your book “Waking Dragons” charts your martial journey in detail and it features a profound spiritual discovery. Would you say there is a link between karate and spirituality, say Zen Buddhism?
True martial arts certainly help to build character and change lives. If I had to put my finger on it, I’d say they develop a kind of emotional toughness that helps us deal with the rough times and curve balls that life throws at us. In terms of a connection to Zen, it’s more about learning to fully engage mind and body in the task – the exercise, the kata, the fight – without letting our own minds sabotage us. Prolonged training also helps us to develop a certain clarity and honesty with ourselves.
And how much of that spiritual influence came from your first Goju sensei, Shihan Chris Rowen, was he a Shinto Priest?
Shihan Chris was the first instructor who would talk about bushido and Japanese culture, and I was instantly mesmerised. His impromptu lectures stimulated my interest and I began to devour books on Zen and martial arts strategy and philosophy. Chris spent several years studying in Japan under grandmaster Gogen Yamaguchi, and I believe he was also ordained as a Shinto priest during that time. He was a huge influence in my karate and I will always be profoundly grateful to him.
Then of course you met Shihan Gavin Mulholland at his school, Daigaku Karate Kai, and your introduction led to – quoting “Casablanca” – the start of a beautiful friendship, but also an interesting milestone on your martial journey (which we’ll touch on later). Can you tell us more about your early days at DKK, your first impressions of the dojo and especially of Shihan Mulholland?
My recollection and Gavin’s are quite different. I recall coming along early one evening and politely requesting to train. He told me that as a 3rd Dan I would stand at the head of the line. This made me the instant sempai, and I was forced to prove myself pretty much from the start. It was a tough club and a tough crowd and I struggled for a while, but I’m happy to say I got there in the end.
And Gavin’s recollection…?
He says I turned up drunk and it took him an hour to sober me up before I could train…! But seriously, my first impression of Gavin and DKK was that it was very pragmatic. Gavin’s style incorporated a holistic mix of striking, throwing and grappling and he referenced it all back to the kata. It was like all my previous martial arts had blended into one and made complete sense. The training was hard and everything got tested under pressure. I felt it really got under the skin of the kata and brought them to life. At first, I felt maybe it was missing some of the spiritual aspects I’d enjoyed before. But later, I found they were there, I just needed to look a bit deeper.
Which you did. Now your book, “Waking Dragons” is the story of how you came to take part in the renowned 30-man kumite, and I must say the way you write about it makes for an intense and emotional read. Firstly can you give us some background about the 30-man challenge? How did it start and what is generally involved?
The extended kumite test was made famous by Kyokushinkai, with Steve Arneil doing the first 100-Man Kumite under Mas Oyama, and 30, 40 and 50-Man tests becoming available for advanced grades. The idea was adapted for DKK as a grading for 2nd Dan. The beauty is that it’s a very different test to the 1st Dan. Instead of being long and general, it’s relatively short and very specific. The student must specialise in one area – kumite. They know they will face thirty hard fights, one after another, and must prepare mentally and physically for just such a test.
I imagine they would. What led you to decide to take part in the challenge?
My case was a little unusual, since I was already at 3rd Dan level, so for me the test was voluntary.
So you volunteered, right?
Not exactly. I’d taken part in three line-ups and I’d seen how tough they could be. All three of the guys who went before me were great fighters and they were battered and bruised by the end. Gavin said I could take the test if I wished, but in truth, I was in no hurry! It took me a while to man-up and take him up on the offer.
Getting ready for your challenge you put yourself through a strict regimen in terms of fitness, fighting technique and nutrition. How much of a toll did that take on you personally both physically and mentally?
The training was hard but I enjoyed every minute of it. I think I got the balance right and I could feel myself getting stronger each week. The test itself certainly took its toll and it was several weeks before my body was back to normal. But strangely, I missed the training once it was done. Other people have said the same. The training takes all your attention and you develop a kind of tunnel vision, but paradoxically this singular focus can be very liberating. As long as you’re training properly, life’s usual worries and concerns just don’t bother you. Life’s very simple, and you miss that simplicity when it’s gone.
Sounds hard but enlightening. Reading about your 30-man challenge I could feel the intensity to the point my adrenaline was flowing. I got the sense you were nervous on the day of your line-up. Would you care to share some snippets of the experience with us, were you nervous at all?
I was certainly nervous, but I didn’t suffer from those nerves as badly as I had done in the past, for lesser gradings and tournaments. I knew I’d trained hard and trained right and I was as ready as I would ever be. This gave me a quiet confidence.
On the day, I started the fights well, but when I saw someone get knocked-out ahead of me, it rattled me for a while. I began to doubt myself and it took me some time to get my composure back.
I’ll bet. In his interview Shihan Mulholland explains how the 30-man can leave you exposed and so it can be a very emotional experience for everybody involved, where you learn who you are. Would you say that was true in your case?
Absolutely. I learned to trust myself a bit more, and most important of all, I learned to stay in the moment. Worrying about the future takes your focus away from the present – the fight you’re in now. It wasn’t until I got to 20 fights that I got my focus back and the last 10 fights were quite enjoyable. Well, almost. I had no concerns about what had gone on before or what would happen next. I was just there, doing what was required, unobstructed by ‘problems’ of my own making.
And you did it. Your next book “Every Waking Moment” is about how to prepare for the 30-man, and you in fact train students for their challenge. How do you go about putting together the best training program, do you tailor it to the student’s best traits?
Actually, I begin by focusing on their worst traits. The 30-man uncovers weaknesses fairly quickly, so if your cardio is poor, or your footwork is too static, or your structure is weak, it becomes a problem early on and only gets worse. We all like training in what we’re good at, but if there’s ever a time to pay attention to weaknesses, it’s now. Once we see some improvement and get a more rounded fighter, then the hard training can begin in earnest.
I see, good to know this for when my time comes! At last year’s summer school you taught us how to use kihon to develop skills in kumite, and showed us some drills to practice. Could you go into some detail about those exercises and how kihon can help with this?
The beauty of kihon is that it enables us to focus on the fundamentals of good technique. Moving in straight lines… punching straight… aiming true… twisting the hips and shoulders… using a full range-of-motion… engaging the hikite action (pull-back)… all whilst staying in balance. It’s not exactly how you should move in kumite because fighting is much more fluid and varied, but all these elements should be present in your movement. And something like kihon-ido (moving basics) is a good way to embed them. The drills I created are simple block, strike and kick combinations that are very common in kumite. The techniques switch from side to side to develop continuing momentum from left to right.
There’s no point in spending forever on kihon at the expense of sparring because you still need to fight to bring the principles to life. But it’s a useful way to check your fundamentals and prime your body for more advanced movements. It tends to help fighters who are a bit scrappy and struggle to land clean techniques on target.
And it certainly works. So aside from the legendary 100- man kumite, would you say that DKK’s 30-man challenge is one of the toughest a karate-ka is ever likely to face?
Undoubtedly. Keep in mind that this is a test you cannot ‘win’. Even the best fighters will soon get tired and start hurting. Your natural brilliance isn’t going to be much help, and this is when the true test begins. It’s interesting that other clubs and styles have begun to incorporate similar tests for their senior grades. It’s a wonderful rite of passage for any martial artist.
Agree. So going back to the more esoteric aspects we touched on earlier, would you say the 30-man is the ultimate spiritual experience, as well as a very painful physical one?
I’d hesitate to call anything ‘ultimate’ because spiritual experiences happen at every level. The red belt grading is a shocker for many people – as I think you know! The first tournament, the first time you get knocked down and get back up. All these experiences build you as a martial artist. What Gavin and Dan (Shihan Lewis from Bristol DKK) do so well is take you past your comfort zone at every level. For someone who’s already a black belt, that means a test like the 30-Man Kumite, but it’s just one example among many.
I remember grading for red and thinking “I am going to die” and then was elated that I finished – a feeling that never fades with each grading, so I do understand what you’re saying to some degree. You reflect a lot on how karate has helped your own spiritual growth and you are currently exploring that in some detail. Would you care to go into more about that?
I’m glad you asked because fighting spirit is not the only kind of spirit. There’s also a clearer way of seeing the world that comes from training. A kind of open-mindedness and honesty and lack of ego that you just can’t fake, not at a high level. For example, when I’m coaching people for the 30-man, I delve into their weaknesses and pick holes, week after week. This isn’t easy for them. No one likes to have their bad points gone over with a fine-toothed comb. But they set their egos aside and get past this. They get better. They feel the benefits. Best of all – they pass the test.
It really does build and test your character. Let’s lighten the mood a little; do you enjoy martial arts movies, any favourites?
Sacrilege, I know – but I don’t really watch martial arts movies!
Care to elaborate Goran?
OK, let me explain. I know most of the actors you mention and I admire their skills, but to me, movie fight scenes are choreography and quite unlike real fighting. The choreography’s very impressive but it’s just not something that interests me. So the martial arts movies I like best are the ones about human relationships: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon“, “House of Flying Daggers” – those are my cup of tea.
I used to enjoy watching boxing and MMA, until recently. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age but I can’t get beyond people getting seriously hurt now. Just recently, a boxer dropped dead, and that was after winning his fight. In MMA, MVP’s knee-strike against Cyborg was spectacular – stunning skill and timing – but was it worth the damage to Cyborg’s skull? I won’t preach though because I used to watch for many years, but now not so much.
These days, if I’m going to watch martial arts, I like to see real people – ordinary people from DKK or a local club – doing something that’s extraordinary, for them. Passing a grading. Elevating their level. Breaking through a barrier. The fighting is rarely spectacular but the changes can be. I’ve seen it time and again in DKK. This is what excites me.
That’s a fair point and I see what you mean. What’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
I wish I were more geeky, especially when it comes to getting the wifi working, but I have my darling wife Charmaigne for that. She’s my go-to-gal for all things techy.
What are some of your other hobbies outside of martial arts?
You must know by now there’s no ‘outside martial arts’.
OK, but what other passions do you have as well as karate?
Does… not… compute…! OK, I guess I love to travel and play the guitar. Although my playing hasn’t improved since I was a teenager, I still enjoy knocking out a tune. But in all seriousness, karate is my passion. It’s a huge subject and there’s always plenty to investigate. Two years ago, I joined a Zen group and began to study the writings of master Dogen. I went deeper into meditation. Last summer I did extra stick-work with bo, jo and eskrima to develop my weapons. In the autumn, I concentrated on Sanchin [three- battles kata] and rooting. Over the winter I focused on weight-training and trigger-point massage to develop new ranges-of-motion. So you can see I have plenty of things that fascinate me, but they all feed back into my one passion, which is karate.
I’d say most things invariably do, thank you for sharing. So going back to film then any favourite (non-martial arts) movies?
My all-time favourite is “Last of the Mohicans” – I guess I’m a sucker for your epic sweeping romance. “The English Patient”, too. Although I’m not averse to some fighting: “Gladiator”, “Terminator”, “The Matrix”, anything by Clint Eastwood – what an amazing director – “Letters from Iwo” “Jima”, “Million Dollar Baby”, “Gran Torino”. He seems to capture something of what I think of as true martial spirit in real life.
Some excellent choices especially “Last of the Mohicans”. So what are a few things in life that you really like?
Honesty, humour, coffee, Game of Thrones.
Hypocrisy, pettiness. Them and us. Brexit.
Looking back what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
I’m so proud of my children because they turned out to be such wonderful people despite my best efforts at being a lacklustre parent! My oldest just graduated from Leeds and got a job as an audio engineer – the career he really wanted. My second is graduating from Warwick this year and the world is her oyster. My third is going great guns at school and my little one, well she’s doing a great job of keeping me on my toes.
That’s fantastic! What are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years?
I’m pretty happy with life at the moment so I’m just holding on as best I can. I have several book projects in the pipeline. I’m hoping to publish one about Zen and karate later this year. Maybe you guys will review it when it’s ready?
Looking forward to check that out, let us know how it goes. Can you share with us a couple of warrior-wisdom quotes that have helped shape and mould you into who you are today as a person and martial artist?
Sure, the first is from the Japanese sword-master Musashi Miyamoto: ‘From one thing, know ten thousand things.’ It took me many years to really see the truth of these words. What he’s saying is drill the simple things deeply, so you can perform them every time, from every positon, against every opponent. The things you do to make one technique work will have a cascading effect on everything else. So don’t be in a rush to amass too many alternatives. Keep it simple and make it work.
The second is from Shihan Gavin, something he said a few weeks after I first arrived at DKK that made me realise there was more to the system than tough fighting. He mentioned it in his own interview with Kung Fu Kingdom. It’s the ultimate secret – the secret ingredient in the ‘secret ingredient soup’. So simple that it’s blindingly obvious, but just because we know it, doesn’t mean we do it: ‘The secret of training is training.’
There it is. Everything you need to know to become a karate master – eventually. Stop looking for a better way… and just get on with it.
Elementary and we hope that will help our readers clear any doubt! What special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and those that know you around the world?
Throw yourself into your training and it will reward you. You need to love your training if you’re going to go the distance, and there’s nothing you’ll love more than feeling yourself getting better.
Wise words indeed. If people would like to find out more about your work and keep up to date with what you’re doing, where’s the best place to go?
I welcome friend requests on Facebook and regularly share updates on the latest books and events. There’s also my website Goran Powell.com that has more about me and my writing.
Sensei Goran, thank you so very much for taking the time to do this interview and share your prodfound insights and experience with us, it’s been a real pleasure.
Thanks for your interest and your questions, I’ve really enjoyed answering them!
Whether you train karate or just love martial arts, let us know what you thought of this interview with Goran in the comments below, join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Which other martial artists would you most like to see featured next?
(Check out our other FU-versations from around the world too!)