Novelist and former karate champion Ralph Robb recounts his experiences at one of Europe’s toughest dojos and provides an insight into the philosophy and training methods of a club which produced national, European and world titleholders. In a hard-hitting story, Ralph tells of the fights on and off the mat; his experiences as one of a very few black residents in an area in which racist members of the National Front were very active; and the tragic descent into mental illness and premature death of the training partner who was also his best friend.
MEMOIRS OF A KARATE FIGHTER
My first international competition was really a more domestic affair, as it was an invitational tournament that incorporated the English Under-21 vs the Scottish Under-21 squad. Three of us from the Wolverhampton YMCA Karate Club had been selected to represent England at various weights. Up until that point, I’d never had the opportunity of leaving England.
From the moment we stepped off the train in Glasgow, I became aware of how I was being perceived by the Scots I met and by the end of that day, I felt myself going through a minor identity crisis. It all stemmed from the fact, that in my mind I represented the Wolverhampton YMCA karate club but in reality, I was representing England and in doing so I attracted the wrath of the Scottish supporters.
I have always believed coming from a disadvantaged environment bred a certain uncompromising fighting spirit. Whether this was just wishful thinking or had some basis in fact didn’t really matter, so long as it gave me a mental edge in achieving my goal. I believed, and I still do, that the strong sense of camaraderie that came with being a part of the YMCA club did give me an edge.
Now, we were up against opponents who came from neighborhoods every bit as economically disadvantaged as the ones I was familiar with. They were people who had a similar sense of camaraderie to the one generated in our club but theirs was on a national level. Plus, they had what I often referred to as ‘northern grit’ – a hard, no-nonsense state of mind that we had noticed when fighting anywhere north of Wolverhampton.
It was an uncomfortable feeling being one of the underdogs without the senior members of the YMCA club supporting me, but it was nothing I’d not experienced before. If nothing else, growing up in Wolverhampton did hone my mind for hostile situations like the one I found while in Glasgow.
By the end of the tournament, results had not unfolded as we had predicted, or hoped for, but it had served a purpose. It was a reminder of how much more training as well as mental preparation was needed for the European championships.
Once we had deposited our bags in our rooms, we went downstairs where the Scottish karate officials gave us a welcome that contrasted with the cold and drab afternoon. We had headed north thinking of ourselves as representing the YMCA but, as the evening wore on, it was obvious that our hosts saw us as part of the people they referred to as the ‘Auld Enemy’. I had been sent an England badge that was to be sewn onto the jacket of my karate gi with the letter confirming my selection but even though I had thrown mine into the rubbish bin, I was still identified as a member of an ‘invading force’ that the Scots told us they would take great pleasure in repelling. As a few more drinks were downed by our hosts, it became plain to me that the talk about being ‘part of the enemy’ was not all light-hearted banter: there was real venom behind the words. I was feeling the first stirring of a minor identity crisis: while I had been born in England, I had never considered myself, nor ever felt regarded, as English. Neither Clinton nor Leslie seemed to be troubled in the same way; to them our selection for the England under-21 team was simply a means of enhancing our competition skills and providing an opportunity to compete at the European junior championships. They were confident too that the Scots would not be much opposition – but I was not so sure.
Ralph Robb was born and raised in the industrial town of Wolverhampton, England and now lives in Ontario Canada with his wife, cat and dog. A proud father of four, Robb works as an engineering technician and loves rugby, martial arts and a good book. His world is balanced by quality TV, global events, great outdoors and of course his grand-daughter.
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