Master Keith Cooke Hirabayashi is a humble legend in the martial arts world in his own right.
A 5thdan in karate, he’s also a 5-time World Martial Arts Grand Champion and was named Competitor of the Year in 1983, 1985 and 1986. He’s been inducted into the Halls of Fame for Inside Kung Fu, Black Belt magazine, as well as here at Kung Fu Kingdom for his significant contributions to the arts and one of the most influential martial artists. As an actor, he’s starred in the movies “Mortal Kombat”, “King of the Kickboxers”, “Beverly Hills Ninja”, “China O’Brien”, “Heatseeker”, “Born to Ride” and many more. Fred Weintraub, the producer of “Enter the Dragon”, once said that “Keith Cooke’s feet are as fast as Bruce Lee’s hands!”
Keith is known for his sincerity and passion as a dedicated teacher and trainer and runs “Champions Martial Arts and Fitness” in California. He’s spent more than two decades patiently instructing hundreds of people whilst producing strong, confident high-level champions. Some of his students include Djimon Hounsou, Zoe Saldana, Shannon Lee (Bruce Lee’s daughter), James Cameron and many others. In this exclusive interview, Keith candidly shares his martial arts experience, movies, training, insights and much more in what may well be the single most detailed interview available with him to date…
Well hi Keith, it’s great to connect with you and thanks for taking some time out to share with us!
Thanks for having me!
Now let’s kick off with some basics, when and where were you born?
I was born on 17th September 1959 in Seattle (where I mostly grew up), USA.
What is your height and weight?
I am 5’ 8” (1.73m) tall and weigh about 155lb (70kg).
What is your ethnicity exactly, part Asian part American?
My father is of Japanese heritage, although he was born in America his parents were from Japan. My grandma on my mom’s side was from Scotland and her father was German and English. So, I am part German, Scottish, English and Japanese. Actually “Cooke” is my mother’s maiden name, my real last name is Hirabayashi. It was actually Fred Weintraub’s idea to change my name to ‘Keith Cooke’ because he envisioned me playing Native American roles. I think he had the idea that I could be the next Billy Jack, after the movie “Billy Jack”.
Interesting heritage! OK, so how did you first get into the martial arts, how old were you?
I started when I was 12 and I first got very intrigued with a book that a friend had given me about Karate so I started trying to figure it out with the kicks and all and just started practicing. Then I saw a Bruce Lee movie and I was like; now I’ve got to do Kung-fu because that’s what Bruce Lee does! I was in Seattle and they had a street fair by the University of Washington where I saw a Kung-fu demonstration -I was just blown away. I felt like the teacher looked and talked like Bruce Lee so I went and signed up right there.
The instructor was Master Roger Tung. He was actually a pretty well-known martial artist and he had started taking people to China to train in Wushu. I ended up on one of those trips too but had already trained with him for 7 or 8 years before I actually went to China.With Roger, we were learning Northern Shaolin but he was also a 3rd degree black belt in Taekwondo so I felt that was pretty unique, he taught Tai Chi too. He was very good at Tai Chi but he had really beautiful kicks and he was a very good martial artist in lots of ways. It was just a stroke of luck that I happened to find that place and that he was teaching Taekwondo kicking and Kung-fu in the same place. It was perfect for me because I loved the Taekwondo style of kicking shown by for example, MMA fighter Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, he’s a Taekwondo guy and a really good kicker. I would say I still had close ties to Roger until about 1986/87 when he moved away. He was living in China; he became a business man working over there, he passed away two years back.
Sorry to hear that. So, you learned these combined skills of Taekwondo, with Tai Chi as well?
I learned some Tai Chi, but I didn’t like it, I was just too young to appreciate it and I didn’t have the patience! I’ve got a great appreciation for Tai Chi now, but I haven’t gone back to learn it, I’ve been too busy. However, I do like the whole concept of Tai Chi.
I see, OK, so apart from Taekwondo and Kung-fu in the early stages did you incorporate or study other styles?
There was a very prominent organization called the Washington Karate Association that had a lot of schools in the Seattle area. They did a Japanese style called Shito Ryu; I always thought it was a beautiful style but one of the things I loved about watching Japanese style fighters is that a lot of them used almost only one weapon which was like a reverse punch, like a right cross down the body. It was just the appreciation of landing a powerful punch with the rear hand and I loved the way that they would rotate their bodies and stuff like that. That had a pretty big influence on me back then by the way I am also big fan of boxing. I found that over the years that even if you become a really good kicker you’ve got to be comfortable on the inside and I was still had a kind of panicking behaviour on the inside thinking; oh, he’s too close! I could watch boxers who would stand really close together and throw fast punches and I could watch them make people miss. That was fascinating, so I wanted to learn boxing, it turned out to be a very big deal for me.
I started recognising things in traditional martial arts that are similar to things you do in boxing, especially defensively. I find that when you study traditional martial arts, a lot of the time they don’t explain things to you very much, I have the feeling that a lot of them don’t have the answers to certain things. For example, applications to a kata: a lot of the teachers really don’t know what the applications are, so they don’t teach them! I think it’s utterly important to understand what you’re doing. Boxing helped me to figure out a lot of things about martial arts. It was an interesting experience for me and I still love to watch and practice boxing.
Who else would you say were inspirational figures in martial arts for you?
Aside from Bruce Lee I would say that one of the guys I admire a lot is Ernie Reyes Sr. I always admired him in that he was a tough guy that he ran martial arts schools, and always put on really good demos -he just strikes me as a good old warrior kind of guy. I always felt like every time I saw him, he had just gotten through teaching ten classes or something! I’ve known him for years, since the 80’s and I just think he’s a great guy, someone I have a lot of respect for and of course Ernie Reyes Jr. is an awesome martial artist. I think there are so many great martial artists that came out of West Coast Taekwondo and I have a lot of respect for that because of the likes of Jhoon Rhee, a lot of great guys came through him.
Now you’ve got me thinking of Simon and Phillip Rhee…
Well, I stay in pretty good contact with Simon. We’re good friends and we’ve worked together a lot in various films. Robin Shou was a student of Roger Tung’s so we’re sort of in the same martial arts tree. Robin’s instructor was Master James Ibrao. He was actually a Kenpo stylist from Hawaii and he became really good friends with my instructor; we started doing exchanges and I ended up going to China with Robin back in 1982. So, we go way back and he’s a very good friend.
There’s one more guy Master Steve Fisher. He’s actually a student of Mike Stone and Tadashi Yamashita and based in California. When I was up in Seattle I had a really great place to train with all these guys that were future champions which was just awesome. Then I moved down here, and I didn’t know who to train with and I was talking to my friend (Arlene Limas -she won the Taekwondo gold medal in Seoul, Korea, 1988) who told me that I should go train with Steve. So, I went over there (he had open black belt sparring every Wednesday night) and you never knew who you would run into there. Guys like Bill “Superfoot” Wallace and a lot of really good fighters and kickboxers would show up. Training down at Steve Fisher’s turned out to be a great experience. There was this guy called Leon Preston who used to a be a running back for the Baltimore Colts; he was very strong, fast and a really good all-round athlete. I spent a lot of time training with him which was just killer, so I got into the best shape of my life as he ended up becoming AVU Taekwondo Heavyweight National Champion and now he’s an international judge for Taekwondo and goes all over the world. He was a pretty big mentor to me and we still keep in touch.
Fascinating background! Let’s talk about your competition days, can you tell us how many years you were on the tournament circuit, fighting in championships and so on?
I went to my first tournament in 1973 and my last in 1988 so about 15 years but that excludes competing as a kid, I was pretty young when I started competing in the junior division.
I got into martial arts because I wanted to learn how to fight like Bruce Lee. So, I went to every tournament I could possibly go to; I went to traditional Japanese tournaments but couldn’t compete in their forms as I didn’t know any of them. However, I fought in their traditional Japanese tournaments quite frequently as well as Taekwondo ones, you know where you put the chest guard on and you fight full contact; Olympic style Taekwondo. When I look at it now it doesn’t look familiar to me. They don’t throw any punches or anything (they must not give points for punches because people don’t throw them!) but back then we used to throw punches, kicks and everything. I also fought full contact and boxed, I just wanted to learn how to fight so I tried just about everything. Then I competed in the national Karate circuit in the United States for years.
You were and still are a busy guy! Can you tell us a few memorable experiences from your fighting days, full contact and otherwise?
One of the things I remember was the very first time I fought in the black belt men’s division. I was 16 years-old and I was fighting in the Portland, Oregon area and I got matched up with a guy I didn’t know. They started the fight and the very first kick I threw was a front leg hook kick landing right in his jaw. I said, “Oh wow that was a point!” I turned around, went back to the line, looked back and saw he was knocked out. That was a pretty memorable experience.
Actually, going to the WAKO world championships in Munich, Germany was also really cool because I ended up winning the weapons and empty-hand forms there. When you go to a tournament there’s lots of people but a lot of them were also competing in this tournament, watching the finals so it was like watching a soccer game in Europe, with all the fans chanting and stuff like that. Plus. it was in the Olympic auditorium and sold out so it was packed; standing room only. People were just cheering and it was a big deal, a really big experience.
Another one was when I took Grand Champion at a tournament in New York City at Madison Square Garden -it felt special because a lot of great boxing matches took place there over the years; ie. Muhammad Ali and Joe Lewis fought there. There was also a big tournament in Bermuda that was sponsored by a Dutch billionaire who lived in Bermuda. He flew us all in and it reminded me of “Enter the Dragon” going to this island with all these fighters, judges and referees being brought in, so it was really cool! I won that tournament for all four years that it ran.
I feel pretty proud of those achievements, I really worked hard for them. I used to say; I never wanted to lose to someone because they were in better shape or trained harder than me. So, I was a very strict, disciplined trainer, I would train, train, train; if somebody could beat me because they were more talented, that’s OK but not because I didn’t work as hard as they did.
Terrific ethics! Did you have any idea of how many awards, championships, or trophies you actually won and did you keep them?
I think I won between 50 and 100 forms Grand Championships and 11 fighting Grand Championships. Yeah, I did keep the trophies for a long time but then when I was moving around in my twenties it became a big hassle so basically, I kept some of the plaques and cups that were really nice, but I ended up taking three pickup truck loads of trophies to the dump. No disrespect meant but I couldn’t haul them around and frankly after a while they started falling apart, so I just got over it!
As for other accolades, I twice got chosen as Competitor of the Year by “Inside Kung-Fu” magazine, in 1983 and 1986. They also did a 30th Year Anniversary edition selecting 30 masters from the last 30 years; Bruce Lee was number 1, I was number 7, Cynthia Rothrock got number 9, David Carradine was number 2. Then I got Competitor of the Year in “Black Belt” magazine’s Hall of Fame in 1985.
In great company there! OK let’s go onto your roles in the film business. Your first big role came with “China O Brien” with Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton. How did you get involved with that film?
Well I actually had moved down to California relatively recently and was there maybe a year and a half or so. I was studying acting and trying to get into the business. I did a commercial with Ernie Reyes Sr and we auditioned for a “Gatorade” commercial and we ended up getting it. Ernie and myself got chosen out of all the people that auditioned and we did a martial arts thing in one of those “Gatorade” commercials which played during the World Series. Then, one day I came home from working out and the phone rang; “This is Fred Weintraub” and I go “Yeah right. You mean this is the producer of ‘Enter the Dragon?’” He goes, “Yes it is!” I had never met him before and I thought somebody was playing a prank on me. (Fred Weintraub had called Dave Cater the editor of “Inside Kung-Fu” who was a big supporter of mine, asking if there was anybody they could recommend for this one role.)
So, still in my sweaty workout clothes Fred says to me, “I’d like to meet you and want you to come to my office right now.” I said, “OK I’ll take a shower and I’ll be there” and he goes, “No don’t take a shower, I want you to come right now, RIGHT NOW!” So, I got in my car and drove straight over to his office which was in West LA and I lived in West LA, so I was literally 5 minutes from his office. I had no idea he was just there!
So, I go in there and I am telling you, I was so amped up, I was so happy to be there too that I was just so ready. He goes “So, I understand you practice martial arts?” I said, “Do you want to see some?” I stood up, showed some moves and that meeting resulted in other meetings and I ended up working for Fred about ten times.
He hired me to do a show, a period piece with a guy named John Stamos (an American actor) which was filmed in Yugoslavia so I went there for 3 months after shooting “King of the Kickboxers” -so, straight from Thailand to Yugoslavia.
What was the name of that film?
It was called “Born to Ride”. Honestly, it’s not that good a movie but there are a lot of good actors in it (I’m not talking about myself, laughs!) a lot of them went on to have successful careers.
Was there much fighting/martial arts in that one?
Not really, mostly shooting guns and such; I much prefer the martial arts stuff. I am very comfortable with using guns but honestly, I’m hugely turned off by all the gun violence in the world. I think there are too many guns in our country and I think they should have more gun control. I mean it’s just crazy. I think the whole thing with ISIS the way they promote themselves on the internet is almost Hollywoodish, you know? They try to make it look glamorous and I just think it’s pretty disgusting actually. I would prefer to do martial arts movies without guns in it but unfortunately, contemporary action movies have to pretty much feature guns these days.
Look at the original “Karate Kid”, that’s a good contemporary story, it could have taken place now and it wouldn’t have to have any guns in it, so there are definitely ways of doing it.
This is a highly charged subject for many that’s for sure. So, you said Fred got you into the “China O’ Brien” movies?
Yeah “China O’ Brien” which led to a face to face meeting with Raymond Chow afterwards because they made me some offers. Fred wanted Golden Harvest to make more movies with me and I think that Fred was going to produce them. So basically, they gave me a three-picture deal with a two-picture option. I had a fancy lawyer at the time and he messed around with the deal too much and it fell through. I think they felt a little offended that I didn’t just take the deal and honestly, I don’t blame them. Thinking back, I probably would’ve had to move to Hong Kong, it’s weird how things happen like that.
Despite that, Fred tried to get a movie set up for me at Warner Bros. In fact, they had a script written and everything; it was a cop movie around the time that Brandon Lee had done “Showdown in Little Tokyo” which didn’t do too well so they pulled back (they would wait to see how that movie did and if it did well they would make another martial arts movie with another young actor). That didn’t work out, so they moved me onto a series at Warner Brothers called “Noble Quest”.
It was about a kid born in Vietnam with an American G.I. father that he doesn’t know. He grows up not knowing his father, since his father went back. His mother lies dying and she gives him his high school graduation ring and tells him, “go find your father.” So, I take a boat and while on the journey I get wrongly accused of a murder and have to go on the run and look for my father. It was very much meant to be designed like the “Kung-Fu” series, I was really proud of the pilot, but unfortunately the show didn’t get picked up, it didn’t actually air, nobody’s ever seen it! So, that was due to Fred Weintraub and it was produced by a very large television producer named David Wolper, who produced “Roots”. Since it didn’t get picked up it was very disappointing for me because I thought it was a very good story and all of a sudden, around that time, a lot of movie actors and movie stars started to do television, so you’d be competing against some famous movie actor in a series.
I also did a second pilot for Fox where I played a cop who didn’t want to carry a gun anymore because he shot an old man (who was senile and carrying a toy gun) by accident so he didn’t want to carry a gun anymore because he didn’t want any more accidents to happen. Instead, he’d use martial arts in various situations. That was shot in Hawaii and John Landis directed it.
John Landis, the director of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video and the cult horror classic “An American Werewolf in London”?
Yes exactly! It’s not on my resume because it never got picked up. They’re cool, and you know I actually have footage from both pilots that nobody has ever seen.
Are you doing martial arts in those?
Yeah, I do martial arts in those!
Sounds awesome! Now, let’s go back to your work with Cynthia and Richard Norton; can you tell us a little bit about that?
Let me tell you, I was having a blast and so much fun, I loved it! I had already known Cynthia pretty well a long time before from competition and tournaments since around 1982 and we shot “China O’ Brien” around 1987 or 1988. I didn’t know Richard Norton though but he’s a great and a really nice guy. I ended up working with him again because he was doing Second Unit directing and fight choreography for Weintraub on the “Adventures of Robin Hood”. I really loved being there, I felt honoured because Bob Clouse, the director of “Enter The Dragon” was there. “Enter the Dragon” was my favourite movie of all time so I loved that I was working with its director and producer; I was in seventh heaven let’s put it that way!
Soaking it all up! I think the first time I saw you in action, (as ‘Prang’ in “King of The Kickboxers”) I was just a kid of 11 years or so seeing you do those amazing kicks in that scene where you defend Loren Avedon’s character from some thugs. I was telling everybody “check out this guy’s kicks!” and they’d say “Oh the film’s been sped up” but I kept thinking, “No, no this guy’s for real!”. Can you take us back a little there?
I don’t think it was sped up, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t. They wanted me (as has happened on several films) to kick rather than punch, and he (Corey Yuen who put that fight scene together with me) really wanted me to kick! He would just say, “These guys are going to come at you, what are you going to do here?” That’s just the way it went. I love doing punches and all kinds of other stuff too but what was amazing to me is that we choreographed and shot that fight scene all in about 6 hours. There was no rehearsal, except on the set right then and there. We felt really good about what we got in such a short amount of time. I just liked the fact that we could get in there and finish that fight so fast without any rehearsal that’s why my hat’s off to Corey Yuen because I think he’s very professional, he knows what he wants and that helps a lot. As you can tell I was really impressed with Corey and have a lot of respect for him as did all the crew members. Overall it was a really fun and exciting experience to be in beautiful Thailand for the first time. Of course, then I was working again with Billy Blanks (who I worked with on “China O’ Brien”). Actually, I haven’t had a bad experience with movies they’ve always been really good experiences.
Of course, Billy Blanks was famous for creating the hugely successful Tae Bo movement in the 80’s. Are you still in touch with him these days?
We both teach fitness classes and he was actually teaching at my school for a while. He’s moved back from Japan (where he got married and had a daughter) re-establishing himself in L.A. You know I see guys like that and it feels like no time has gone by even though I haven’t seen him in five years, it’s the same Billy!
You also worked with Loren of course, Ong Soo Han and Jerry Trimble any reflections on what it was like working with them?
I didn’t know Loren previously but he’s very nice and I worked out with him a couple of times. I do remember seeing Don Wilson at the audition for the role of ‘Prang’ as well when I was there, I don’t know if he went in before or after me.I also thought it was funny because, when I went to this audition for Ng See-yuen; the guy who owns Seasonal Films…
Yes. Can’t remember if Keith Strandberg was there but Ng See wanted to see me do some martial arts, I was so ready! I stood up and he had Loren stand there in front of me and I just started going off and attacking Loren and I saw Ng started smiling. I don’t know if Loren remembers that day, I think maybe he was a little shocked because I was kicking right next to his head and stuff; I figured, ‘Hey this is Thailand right?’ so I was kicking his legs…
Thigh-land? Anyway, moving on…in “Heatseeker” you co-starred with Gary Daniels can you tell us a little bit about that?
It was great! Gary’s a really nice guy; a very skilled martial artist and very solid, so it was really good to work with him, that’s the only time I’ve been around Gary and that was about a ten-day shoot.
Great to hear. So, you had your big break in “Mortal Kombat” where you played the ‘Reptile’ in 1995. Can you take us back to that? What was the issue with the fights?
Well, the producers felt there wasn’t enough good action in it and wanted two more fights. So, they built sets and Robin called me basically saying he needed somebody to come in and have a really great fight -Robin wanted to fight me! They built a set in an airplane hangar at Van Nuys airport for that and the Scorpion fight done with Chris Casamassa (as Scorpion). They shot two more of what I thought were the most elaborate fight scenes in the film that came after all the principal photography was done, I think the movie had already been put together, at least a rough cut.
What was it like doing those fights with Robin, was there anything elaborate or difficult, what kind of martial arts were shown there?
I didn’t find it difficult at all and I work really well with Robin, so it was pretty smooth. He was very welcoming and appreciative of my input and ideas for the fight, we had longer to choreograph and shoot so it was a much bigger, longer fight which took 6 days and it was fun! Robin is one of the toughest people I’ve ever worked with. He can go! he’s got determination and talent.
Who would you say has got more acrobatic or gymnastic Wushu experience between you and Robin or are you roughly about equal?
I competed a lot more than Robin, so I could do some more of what he might call silly little flips, so probably me! [Both laugh]
You were also with him in “Beverly Hills Ninja”, right?
How was it working with Chris Farley the comedian in that movie?
It was great! He was a very funny guy and he trained at my studio, getting into pretty good shape in preparation. He was surprisingly agile for somebody overweight and he could for example do really good cartwheels, he learned fast so it was really cool.
You mean kind of like Sammo Hung who is pretty big but sure can move…
There you go! I mean Chris was good, but he was no Sammo Hung. Surprisingly you would think a guy like that who’s out of shape wouldn’t be able to do physical things but then Chris was a very physical comedian and I think that just carried over to doing the martial arts.
Have you met Sammo by any chance?
I never met him, I saw him maybe a couple of times at this Vietnamese noodle place in Van Nuys where a lot of stuntmen go. The guy who told me about it was Andy (Jackie Chan’s double). He moved over here, and I was working with him on “Beverly Hills Ninja” and he told me about this restaurant and later when Sammo was doing the cop series, “Martial Law”, he used to eat lunch there a lot. I was always too shy to go up and talk to him, I wish I did! Anyway, I am a big admirer of his and love the fact that he was in that first fight in “Enter the Dragon” in the Shaolin Temple.
Awesome! Later your returned in 1997 to play ‘Sub-Zero’ in “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation” how was that?
My wife Suzanne, and my son only 2 weeks’ old came over with me, and it was a little rugged because I was working 14 hours a day helping Robin Shou who was doing the choreography. I was doing a lot of work on it behind the scenes like running rehearsals, auditions for fighters and it was just a really busy schedule. I worked with some fun guys like Ray Park from the UK who played Toad in “X-Men”, I really like him and he trained at my school a couple of times out here. I also worked with JJ Perry, another great guy and really good martial artist -it was cool meeting a lot of people and it was nice to visit England, that was my first time in London too!
Wonderful to hear that. You mentioned your son, does he do martial arts then?
He’s actually a baseball player and he got a scholarship to UCLA. He’s finished his last year of high school and he’s going to play baseball at UCLA.
Did you train him in martial arts?
I did and then his baseball schedule got too involved, he’s really committed to baseball and trains five or six days a week. Unfortunately, he doesn’t train in martial arts anymore, but I like that he has his own thing.
It’s always interesting when we talk to experienced martial artists who have kids. Do you think, “OK from this age I am going to teach them the basics, see if they soak it up and then guide them along their own essential athletic bias” -how did that process go?
Yes! Actually, I got very involved in his baseball teams and I coached all the way through little league. So, from when he was about 5 until 12 years’ old, we also travelled together. It was a lot of fun because I actually grew to love the sport of baseball, I didn’t know that much about it at the start, so I had to learn through DVD’s and so on as much as I could. Initially, I started pitching to him when he was about 3 years’ old in the backyard, he had very good hand-to-eye coordination, could see the ball and hit it really well -he just loved it and I never had to try to get him to go to a practice or a game that’s when I knew it was his thing. I loved that we had that, a great father/son experience and I imagine a lot of people have that with their sons and daughters in the martial arts too. eg, like Ernie Reyes Sr and Jr coming to tournaments together, it’s a wonderful thing.
Beautiful, and such an advantage having encouraging parents from the outset. Moving on, can you tell us about the more recent movies you’d been involved in?
I did a low budget movie called “Champions of the Deep” around three years ago. I actually had an injured hip while shooting the movie, but I was pretty happy about how it came out, at least the parts I was in. It had zombies though and I asked, “Do you really have to have zombies in this movie?” Overall though I was pleased, in fact it really made me want to make another movie, so I am working on a project right now. I wrote a script with my cousin who’s actually a (Yale graduated) playwright. He’d been writing Broadway plays for years and his wife is a theatre director. We’ve been developing it for quite a while now and I actually started (at my martial arts studio) shooting rehearsal fights and loving the way it’s looking so we’ll see how that goes.
Sounds exciting. Can you tell us more about the choreography, is there anything innovative that perhaps we haven’t seen before?
I am going to have an African-American kid basically be the star of the movie with me. He’s a student of mine, a terrific martial artist and looks good on film. Nobody knows him yet because he just hasn’t been out there, but he can do a lot of the kicks I used to do like jumping triple kicks and make it look so easy. He’s just a really bright kid and actually works for me and has been studying with me for over twenty years starting out when he was four, he’s 25 now but in the film, he’ll be playing someone who’s 18. I am working on more of the fights right now, I really want to get this film made so we’ll see how it goes. It’s called “A Necessary Fight” – kind of a working title. The movie addresses the idea of when you should fight and so this is saying it is a necessary fight.
Awesome, can’t wait for this.OK, so moving on can we get your views on other martial arts stars, aside from Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan; eg. how about the likes of Donnie Yen, Mark Dacascos, Tony Jaa, Scott Adkins and so on?
I know Mark and I actually knew his dad Sifu Al too, haven’t seen Mark in years though. Scott Adkins yes, I checked him out on YouTube, somebody told me he’s a very good well-rounded martial artist and he looks really good. Tony Jaa, yes! I really like him and “Ong Bak”. I assume his background in the arts is Muay Thai. Tony seems to be able to make everything fit and I love the way he gets really good impact on his strikes in his movies; which come across as very believable. He’s very powerful and although he’s not a big guy, he seems big on film, when he hits someone it looks like it freaking hurts! [Both laugh]
By the way I think it’s a very important thing in film to be able to sell your strikes and your hit reactions, which he manages very well. I also think that some of his stunt guys take hits for him like when he comes down on top of someone’s head with an elbow, I can tell that he’s really hitting them. I guess they’re probably using helmets with wigs on top, but I just love the fact that I am watching that and going, “Oh my God he’s really hitting that guy!” Yuen Biao is really good, Cynthia (Rothrock) sings praises about just how talented he is, and I agree. I think one of my favourite guys now is Donnie Yen. I just think that the movie “Ip Man” was so good.
Totally agree there. So, now we come to Keith’s definitive Top 10 Kung-Fu films, let’s do this!
Sure, well in at #1. “Enter the Dragon” takes top spot, it’s kind of sentimental for me as a kid, no one’s ever going to beat that movie, I just love it! 2. “Ip Man” 3. “Drunken Master” 4. “Shaolin Temple” 5. “Unleashed”. You know when I watch Kung-Fu movies I like to see really good fighting and I just feel like Jet Li looks very fierce in this one. 6.“The Karate Kid”. Kind of a sentimental thing again, I just really liked it not so much for the fighting, but I feel there was a really good relationship between Mr Miyagi and Daniel. But honestly, I’ve always had a problem when someone has to get really good at martial arts really fast and then they beat some tremendous martial artist. I guess it makes a story that Hollywood loves but I have a hard time believing it. However, there was a lot of good stuff in that movie. 7. “Ong Bak” 8. “Way of the Dragon” where Bruce Lee fights Chuck Norris in the Colosseum. 9. “Hero” (Where Jet Li and Donnie Yen fight, I liked that!) 10. “Above the Law”, Steven Seagal’s first movie. I am sort of old school and I love the way he fought in that movie. I love the impact his moves had, and he really knew what he was doing. There seemed to be different kinds of fights in that movie, I like the action and the action director Andrew Davis who’s really good. He also directed what I felt was Chuck Norris’ best movie “Code of Silence” and also “The Fugitive” starring Harrison Ford.
I like the old simple movies like the ones Chuck Norris did because they remind me of old westerns; there’s a lot of simplicity and not just a load of special effects. I get turned off by special effects now especially if it makes anything look cheesy, I think we’re looking at so many special effects now that we don’t even know what’s real anymore. I like simplicity and I think movies like “Ip Man” have that. Even though it’s a fairly modern movie a lot of it is because Donnie Yen is skilled at what he does, that it works, and he had that character down so well. Likewise, Steven Seagal had that character down very well, in that he played the same type of character each time just like Chuck Norris did.
Solid! Can you tell us 3 of your favourite onscreen fights?
- My all-time favourite is from “Enter the Dragon” where Bruce Lee drops to the floor as Bob Wall flies over and he kicks Bob in the groin. It must have been difficult to get that shot but I love the speed; that’s what Bruce Lee showed, how fast and clean he could make those shots, I really appreciate that a lot.
- I like the fight scene in “The Bourne Ultimatum”, when they’re in his apartment and he sticks the pen in the guy’s hand. I think that’s such a bad ass fight scene, I think it’s really well done with a lot of impact, resourcefulness and creativity and it looks really dangerous, I like that.
- The 10-Man fight scene in “Ip Man” because I just thought that Donnie Yen was so smooth in that making it look authentic with the Wing Chun style.
Which martial artists would you like to work with?
I’d probably have to say Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan as I think he’s super creative, just a brilliant guy. I met him once as my son was best friends with the son of the producer on “Rush Hour” so we went out to the set and surprise! Simon Rhee was there working that day, it was a lot of fun and I got a picture of him with my son when he was little, I have to say that it’d be tremendous to work with somebody of his creativity and experience.
Excellent. Let’s turn our attention to training now if we may, since you do a lot of teaching, with quite a few students, what sort of workouts do you do these days?
Yes, I’m very active teaching two fitness classes per day; Monday to Friday I teach a 6am kickboxing class and then there’s a special core training class that I created. I still like to box and kickbox and I do a lot of stretching and strengthening exercises to keep myself in very good shape.
Should’ve have guessed, nothing less! So, do you incorporate weight training?
I don’t use weights anymore, I do a lot of my own bodyweight exercises like push ups, dips, and pull ups and stuff like that. I also use lots of different kinds of strength training resistance bands everyday as I think they’re so much easier on the joints.You can do a lot of strength exercises for the upper body and the nice thing about them is that where with weights you can only create resistance away from the Earth (because gravity is providing the resistance) with the bands you can create resistance in any direction as long as you have something to attach it to. In my place we have places to attach it high and low, so you can use all these different angles of resistance and do so much; they’re a lot more versatile than weights and a lot safer.
Sounds like you’ve taken a simple concept and stretched it further (literally!) awesome. Can you give a good training tip for readers right now?
Well there’s a core class that I designed that’s inspired by boxing, kickboxing and martial arts. In the martial arts we tip the body a lot in order to kick, and that really strengthens your core. We stand for most of the class and do a lot of core exercises like you would do with a medicine ball except that you would do it with a particular product that I have, it’s just a tremendous workout and gets right to your core.
I’m also a really big fan of the lunge, because you can do them stepping forward, backward, stationary, and to the side. They’re really good for flexibility and strength and that’s why I think all martial artists should do them. In every single one of our classes I make everyone (adults and kids) do lunges. Stretching the hamstrings works on flexibility and mobility in your hips; which are two very important things for martial artists. It strengthens your glutes and your quads as well. I don’t think I can think of a better exercise for people especially for martial artists. If I was going to recommend one exercise it would be lunges I just think they’re great, you can do them in lots of ways and strengthen your core at the same time. Often, kids don’t do a very good job when they’re stretching, and it can be hard teaching them about flexibility, well lunging is one of the best ways to gain flexibility, and you’re either doing them or you’re not. We do what’s called ‘spider lunges’ where you touch your hands to the floor when you lunge and it’s just a really good workout.
Great tip! OK, so what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
I haven’t done too many stunts, it’s mainly been fights. I don’t think anything I’ve done has been that daring. I have had stuff happen where I accidentally hit people, or when they would react in the wrong direction, that’s totally different. My very first movie (“Picasso Trigger”) comes to mind where I ended up doing a backflip very near the edge of a cliff in Hawaii, if I had landed it wrong there would’ve been a real possibility of falling off the edge but it went perfectly, and I only had to do it once. It didn’t make it into the movie though, but it showed-up on the outtakes.
We’re sure glad you’re here to tell the tale. So, what was the most serious injury you’ve ever had and how did you work around it?
I had a motorcycle accident about 3 years back. I’ve been riding motorcycles since I was 12 and when I turned 16 I got myself a street bike and I’ve been riding ever since. Anyway, while I was riding, (at about 40-45mph) this guy came out right in front of me, leaving me no time to stop. He was looking the wrong way -it was a hit and run, he just left his car there and booked out! I always knew that if I’d hit a car someday that I didn’t want my body to hit it, so as soon as I hit the car my bike flipped up and actually went over the car too. It was all the way on the other side of the car and I was even further down the road and I broke my back in two places, my pelvis in three places, and had five broken ribs and a concussion.
The doctor said that most people that have the kind of pelvis break that I had would also have internal injuries, but I think it was because I’ve been in such good shape, that I didn’t have any. I got really lucky because even though I came really close to getting killed, I didn’t suffer any long-term ramifications from it at all. I just built myself back up and I feel as good as ever, I feel just great.
Also, I always knew I’d be ready in the event that something like that happened; so, though I was going fast (I didn’t slow the bike down at all because he came out so abruptly in front of me) I had plenty of lift and I consciously launched myself over the car landing on the cement and I just kept tumbling! I’ve always said, “Tuck your head, don’t break your neck!”, I didn’t want to break my neck. I wish I could see how that looked on film because it must’ve been just terrifying to the people who witnessed it. But, alas! there’s no video, or I’d send that to you [Both laugh]. Anyway, that was my most dangerous ever ‘stunt’.
That’s incredible Keith. Do you think a deep-rooted belief system followed for many years (just as you’ve done) helps a person bounce back from adversity, trials, tribulations and so on?
Yes! I think that strength developed over a long period of time consisting of regular training, goes deep into the centre of your body; even your organs are strong because they can be stretched in different directions and be fine afterwards. When I think of that moment when I hit that car, I noticed that I didn’t get scared or anything, what I thought was, “You’re going to get over this car”. It was like an instant thought then it was just a 100% commitment to that.
And you never can tell how useful a bit of kung fu karma in the bank proves to be… So, if you have these six days a week that you’re training people and having classes, how do you de-stress and relax, what do you recommend to people to chill out?
Well one of the things I like to do is look at something bigger like the ocean or the mountains. For some reason I find it amazing that our universe is expanding and the Earth spins through space at a thousand miles an hour, yet we worry about the smallest little thing, it just doesn’t make sense to me. I like to ‘catch myself’, see if I’m allowing myself to get stressed out about something, and let it go.
So, you have a wider kind of perspective or paradigm on things?
Yes exactly! One of my favourite books is the ‘Tao Te Ching’ book (by Lao Tzu). I love that book. Actually, when kids and people in general take their black belt tests at my school, I always give them a passage from that book which they have to memorize and present at the test.
I really like Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the “Tao Te Ching”, he also wrote the “The Gospel according to Jesus”. He said that the words Jesus actually spoke are so filled with light that it wasn’t very hard to put together. In other words, he didn’t want to put anything in his book that the Bible said, or somebody else repeated, he wanted to write exactly what Jesus said and I found that really interesting, so I got into that.
There’s also Thich Nhat Hanh the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, I really appreciate some of things he’s written, and the Dalai Lama too, I’ve read several of the Dalai Lama’s books and one of Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. I really like that stuff. Let me read this bit to you; “The ancient Masters were profound and subtle. Their wisdom was unfathomable. There is no way to describe it, all we can describe is their appearance. They were careful as someone crossing an iced-over stream, alert as a warrior in enemy territory, courteous as a guest, fluid as melting ice, shape able as a block of wood, receptive as a valley, and clear as a glass of water. Do you have the patience to wait till your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself? The Master doesn’t seek fulfilment. Not seeking, not expecting, she is present, and can welcome all things”. Pretty deep isn’t it?
Indeed, think I had a Zen-fu epiphany moment just there. Wonder if some of our readers did too?
I love that for the martial artist and one of the reasons why I like boxing so much is that it’s just my hands and your hands, it’s simple and I like the idea of challenging myself to watch everything that’s going on. I think there are these guys who can watch another fighter swing really fast at them in an instant and they can see it and actually interpret it because their mind is clear; they’re not thinking or reacting, they’re responding in the moment. I love that.
That line from “Kickboxer” comes to mind, “Just listen, with your mind, your heart, your whole being…” OK, now on to the nutrition that helps make things possible: which foods help you stay at your most energetic, what’s the best fuel for your training and workouts?
I think the best thing to know when you’re an athlete is that you obviously need protein which are the building blocks for your muscles and carbohydrates which are your fuel. Then you need other things like fibre in your diet, you need to eat the right foods so that your gut is digesting things efficiently. I like to eat a lot of protein because I work out a lot and, so I eat things like chicken breasts, Greek yogurt, (which is really good for protein and friendly bacteria) and a lot of rich greens like kale and spinach, so basically proteins and vegetables; I don’t think you can really go wrong with that. I do eat some red meat but no too often. We also have a juice place close by that serves very natural juices and in fact I got one the other day called “Balance” it has 36g of protein but also a lot of dates -it’s high in all non-dairy or animal proteins. I like berries a lot too, they’re very high in fibre and nutrients without being too sugary and I love nuts and beans, they work too! I have a little bit of a problem with really acidic fruits, but I love apples, oranges, and bananas. A lot of the times if I am making a shake with fruit in it I’ll put strawberries and bananas in it, like a protein shake and a lot of water
Do you take creatine or any supplements?
No, but I do take whey protein supplements sometimes or plant protein.
What are your attitudes on smoking and drinking?
I don’t smoke but I do drink beer. I like different kinds of beers that’s why I’d make out good in the UK [both laugh] that’s one of the reasons I like going to Europe, everybody freakin’ drinks beer over there. I don’t drink hard liquor or anything like that though!
Wonder if that’s enough to bring out your drunken-master style, hmm…! So, what’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t know?
Well, my girlfriend Justine, says I’m a really goofy dancer, so she doesn’t want to dance with me! It’s funny because it comes from teaching all these classes all these years -I can’t really turn it off when the music comes on, I actually enjoy dancing goofy. I can’t dance normal and look really cool, so I have to look really stupid when I dance because otherwise I don’t feel like I am able to express myself and, so I feel really good when I dance whilst not trying to look good while I do it. [Both laugh] I also like to sing and there are a few songs that I really like but my favourite to sing is “Wish You Were Here”, by Pink Floyd.
Good to be unique as Bruce Lee says, ‘express oneself honestly’! OK,if you could be a superhero who would you be and what superpower would you like the most?
I would have to say Superman. I actually really like “Superman Man of Steel”. I thought it was well done and I like the guy who played him, I thought he did a really good job as did Russell Crowe as the father. Yeah, I feel a little jealous that he can just shoot up like a rocket into outer space, it’s just awesome, that would be so fun!
Agreed! OK, favourite music?
I am definitely a classic rock guy at heart. I love bands like Pink Floyd, U2, The Who, The Beatles, actually a lot of the great classic rock bands that came from England. I like other types too and stay pretty up to date with it because since we play music in the fitness classes, I’m always hunting down good but still classic stuff I love. I really love “Eminence Front” by The Who that’s a great song, it’s kinda got that driving beat, it’s not really a fast song but I use it and people love it; it’s versatile and you can use it during stretching, and during the action part of the class. I like R’n’B too I admit I’m a Michael Jackson fan, he just really gets down and I love that, so his stuff is great for working out to. I think he’s probably one of the best people to work out to. I’ve got three or four different Michael and Janet Jackson mixes Janet is a great artist to work out to too.
Nice! Your favourite non-martial arts movies?
I really like the “The Getaway” starring Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw that was a great Sam Peckinpah-directed movie where they used slow motion. I just thought Steve McQueen was really cool there. I’m also a big Denzel Washington fan he’s made a lot of really good movies, but the one set in Mexico “Man on Fire” that’s a really good action movie with a great story. I mean you really care about him and the little girl and he’s such a bad ass in the movie. I think “Birdman” with Michael Keaton is a very masterful piece of work right there.
Got to check that out!How about one thing in life that you really like and one thing you really dislike?
I love friendliness, being around positive energy that welcoming kind of feeling.I don’t like racial prejudice that is very obviously present in the world and still going strong.
What would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
One of the things is that my son is a great kid. I’m not saying that’s my accomplishment; it has a lot to do with his mum and also himself (mainly himself) and the choices he’s made, I’m proud of that. I think the thing that I am proudest about myself is that I’m always willing to learn -that I know I haven’t got it all figured out yet. I don’t go around like a know-it-all and I think that’s a refreshing attitude to have, as they say; “keep the white belt mind”.
I think Malia Bernal-Dacascos had a book in mind along those lines. OK, so what advice would you give to martial artists who want to use their skills to be on film and television?
The thing about film is that some people’s martial arts transfer better on film than others. Somebody might be a great martial artist, or even a master but the camera doesn’t love what they’re doing and for some reason it doesn’t transfer well onto film. I am sure there are a lot of brilliant UFC fighters that probably wouldn’t look as devastating on film as they do in the ring. Yet I think there are other people who couldn’t come close to doing what they do in the ring but look better on film and, so you have to realise what you’re entering into.
It’s not really about being a bad ass, it’s about being willing to figure it out and honestly, I think it’s a tough way to make a living. I realise how tough it is when I’m watching UFC fighters and I get really inspired by them. I think it’s got to be one of the toughest sports as you’re working with different skills and have to be in such good shape, that’s why it’s very unusual for somebody to remain champion for a very long time because somebody comes along and is hungrier on that day. I think you’ve got to be really good at figuring it out. This is true of all films, it’s an art form and I think good taste is very important, I mean how many bad martial arts movies have you seen? I think there are way more bad ones than good ones!
A lot of people made these movies because they were martial artists, or they had some idea but really didn’t do their homework. My advice would be you’ve got to have good taste, you’ve got to do your homework and work hard. Some people are just not cut out for it. I hate watching a movie where I keep seeing bad taste, bad decision after bad decision and I am going, “Oh Jeez what were you thinking” or “I guess you weren’t thinking”.
Some might say that makes the competition easier, yet inspires others to raise the bar?
Yeah but you know the thing is, when you talk about the best ones they really know what to do. You know people like Donnie Yen, Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, Steven Seagal, Chuck Norris etc. Chuck Norris was a great martial arts champion, but I don’t think his martial arts was particularly cinematic. I think he got into people’s hearts because there’s something very earnest about him and he was able to get that across, as mentioned, I love those Chuck Norris movies! He plays that ‘good old cowboy’ character really well and people believe him. He’s not one of the regulars but he’s had an exceptional career I think you’ve got to give him a lot of credit for that.
Great insight! OK, so Keith, what warrior wisdom quote has inspired and shaped you up until this point?
In the Tao Te Ching there’s a quote that we use which teaches kids about using force: “The generals have a saying: rather than make the first move it is better to wait and see. Rather than advance an inch it is better to retreat a yard. This is called going forward without advancing”.
I guess a lot of news companies out there think only ‘bad’ news sells, so there’s a certain amount of mass hypnosis going on these days; what if we daily reported a little on the progress made by students at Keith Cooke’s gym class; might not people be really stimulated and moved by that ‘good’ news, I mean, why not?
OK, so what would you like to say to Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world at this moment?
I’d like to tell people that hard work and thinking things through pays off and that’s true of the martial arts too. Think about what’s important and make a decision about your training and what you’re going to do with it. I think it’s great, encouraging and really cool that everybody is interested in martial arts movies and that they can have that outlet and get inspired by it.
I get inspired by martial arts movies all the time and from very early on that’s how I started too, getting excited about Bruce Lee. I love that that’s still happening out there. I would just say keep working hard and thank you so much for your support! I’d also like to say thanks to you and your team and I wish Kung Fu Kingdom much continued strong growth and success.
Awesome…Thanks so much Keith, we appreciate that! Sad to say it now, but we’ve got to wrap, where is the best place for people to go and find out more about what you do?
You can always visit our website Keith Cooke studio.com it’s mostly meant for people to find us if they are looking for a martial arts school, or look me up on YouTube.
Well Keith, it’s been an honour, you’ve shared some real eye-opening stuff, experience, tips and that coveted kung fu warrior wisdom in abundance! We wish you continued success with your training of champions, classes, any movie projects and all other cool things in the pipeline, please keep us in the loop.
It’s really been my pleasure and thank you. Talk to you real soon.