I first came across Goju Ryu and the DKK style while sat in, the now defunct, Borders in Oxford street. It had been three years since I had torn my achilles tendon and lost my Taekwondo master (a close friend to whom I had often been an Uchi-deshi) to cancer. Three years of recovery. In truth, my body had probably recovered after one year and it was my mind that was still traumatised. The memory of the pain still haunted me as did the words of the physiotherapist, reminding me that “I had been lucky” and that I could recover without surgery, but “be careful!” These things had formed a considerable wall in my consciousness. I was afraid of going back, and with my master having passed it was all the excuses I needed. Then one day I simply decided to end it and face my fear, and so I went looking for the toughest martial art London had to offer. I found it that day in Borders when I read Goran’s first book, on the same subject as this his latest, called Waking Dragons: A Martial Artist Faces His Ultimate Test. It chronicled his account of the 30-man Kumite tests he himself had undergone at the London DKK school under Gavin Mulholland. Reading it I wondered if these Goju people could truly be real?
Only three weeks later I was standing in Gavin Mulholland’s class about to find out. He told me two things I expect he thought I would not like. Firstly, he said that he would not honour my black belt gained in Taekwondo, so I would have to wear the white. I was not surprised; Taekwondo and Karate have a long and acrimonious history and in truth a black belt honestly earned is a stream you’ve already crossed and you lose your concern about belts after that achievement. Secondly, he said, “If you’re still here in 3 weeks then I’ll talk to you”. I thought to myself, “He must have all sorts walk through these doors”. My first lesson was similarly a blunt shock to senses. Paired off with the solidly built Tunde we were instructed to attack each other with chest punches. Tunde thrust his fist at me and I slip-blocked it aside. Gavin came straight over, “No No,” he said, “Don’t block”.
Gavin came straight over, “No No,” he said, “Don’t block”.
“Don’t block?” I asked astonished. “But, I’ll get hurt?”
“Yes,” said Gavin flatly.
It was then I knew that I could finally face my fears of re-injury, because If I could get through this lesson without ending up enveloped in terrifying tendon pain then I could do anything in the martial arts. For these Goju people, a pleasant mixture of London professionals; students; ladies and men; and greater number wearing black belts than I had ever seen in a single class, are tough. Very tough. Fighting a Goju Karateka is like fighting against a tank. They spar with no hand to head contact and consequently learn to endure body and leg attacks for far longer than I ever thought possible. All this conditioning means that, while you can potentially defeat a Goju fighter, you won’t ever defeat their spirit and that makes them fearsome in combat.
The ultimate expression of this is in the 2nd Dan grading and the 30-man Kumite. Japanese arts, and particularly those born of Okinawa, often have extreme endurance challenges to obtain high grades or a master’s certificate. I remember reading the story of Yamaoka Tesshu, a famous Japanese sword master and Zen poet, who challenged his pupils to endure a 400-man sword fight, something that must have lasted all day. Also, the famous Yoshinkan “Riot Police” Aikido course requires a final black belt grading of well over thousand throws, which will definitely draw blood where your skin rubs off into your dogi. But of all the arts, it is the Karate styles of Kyokushinkai and Goju that have earned the modern reputation for a huge physical challenge at, or around, 2nd Dan.
The 30-man challenge is not to be sniffed at. A line of fighters, stretching around the dojo and in grade order, await you as you step up. Each bout lasts 1 minute before your opponent swaps out for the next fighter. Stop and consider that for a moment: each new opponent is fresh and ready to erupt into effort, whereas you are becoming increasingly drained. The sheer relentlessness of the line, getting harder and more difficult until eventually you are battling high-grades and instructors, staggers the mind. Imagine the dark clouds that could envelop your thoughts, sap your spirit, invade your technique and bring despair. Imagine how at the end of the bout you are exhausted and can no longer raise your arms in defence, how only your spirit is left to you, bare and alone, drawn out of your body and presented naked for everyone to see.
Now imagine that it’s full contact. Get knocked out, broken or winded beyond endurance and it is over.
I have had the honour of witnessing four of these events. Each aspirant looked focused and ready when they stood in the middle of the mat. Each stood tall and silent. On their faces, I could see no traces of intention at all; the face of someone in the Zen mind. Once it began the crowd shouted encouragement, the walls ringing with their voices and the loud cries from the action on the mat. As each bout went on, and the fighter’s true-self emerged, the crowd’s shouts threatened to raise the roof off. Tears welled in the spectator’s eyes as they bayed and screamed for the fighter to continue, to get up, to hold on, to keep going. It’s emotional, genuinely moving, and you feel like you’re present at a birth; like something is being born anew here today, some mighty alloy hammered on the anvil and found true, with sparks shooting off in all directions. The emotions crescendo in the final bouts where the aspirant faces their own instructors, in a final quenching of the newly forged blade, and then it is over bar the sound of gasping for breath. Gis are straightened, belts re-tied and bows made. Then friends rush forward to help the fighter leave the mat. On this day a person was remade from clay into steel and tested against the dragon’s tail and they are now a sword-blade proven to cut true. Earned the 2nd Dan of Goju is, earned in truth.
How on earth do you prepare for such a challenge?
Goran has trained many fighters through their 2nd Dans and in this book he recounts his experience with a few and the training regime he has devised to prepare them for the field and their best chance of success.
Goran starts the work by setting out the challenge and asking, “what are the qualities of a karateka that can pass such a test?” In other words, “What does he look for?” As much as these chapters are for those attempting a 30-man they are also for those looking to coach for one. Indeed, the entire experience is from the POV of the instructor, including all the fears and worries he felt in building the “complete fighter”, which is a core concept in DKK. Peppered amongst straight advice are some personal chapters. For example, his experiences training his partner for the test and what worked as an instructor looking to do that most difficult of tasks: coach a loved one. It is a not an uncommon sight to see an instructor with a family member as a pupil, of course, it’s just unusual to see one at black belt. It’s a pattern I’ve seen all over my martial life, where daughters and sons never progress through to a dan grade. Mainly, I think, because black belt represents a mental step, a doorway, through which something in that relationship changes.
These parts draw to a close with concepts that take advantage of the rules of the test. For example, it is required make an announcement to the rest of the class way in advance of the day. This grants an ability to plan ahead, “walking the foothills” before the mountain, to prepare yourself and that this acclimatisation is a valuable key to success.
After presenting the hierarchy of training methods, Kumite being at the top; it being what you are to do in the event, and solo training; always dangerous in terms of leaving the path without noticing; being at the bottom, we move into the program proper.
As a guide to the 30-man and a tome to enlighten those worried about the process, or those merely interested in the intricacies of Goju in general, or the DKK style in particular, those first chapters eminently succeed in pushing the DKK philosophy to the fore, together with showcasing the classic confidence of the Goju fighter. There is an element of having “walked the walk” present in all Goju things. This confidence has been borne out by success in the MMA arena, and this has also fed into the “Total Fighter” package the style promises.
The program is suitably comprehensive, including sections on the mind, body, and spirit of the fighter. For the mind, we are told that in any fight there is a “hunter”, someone who is not necessarily the aggressor, but he who has perhaps more clarity. For this hunter, Goran uses the twin concepts of Yin and Yang in a new way I had not previously considered. Yin is that part of the fighter focussed on not being hit, the part concerned with positioning to evade after stepping into attack where one may use the last punch in a combination to push away. Yang is the striking part, looking to maximise the reward for accurate and hard strikes. Too many fighters forget the Yin and hence the existence of the “haymaker” punch, and certainly most have paid the price when up against someone in balance.
This straight forward and simple-to-grasp methodology reminded me of the tone found in the classic works of Japanese war such as those of Mushashi or Yagyu Munenori.
From mind comes body and the conditioning drills that will see someone through the gruelling challenge ahead. This section includes the use of bags, bars, and weights as well as cardio and a nod to the great cardio fighters: boxers. This training section was the most similar to my own where I have setup circuits focussed on the actions and requirements of a soldier (fight, run, lift). Another aspect, Goran tells us, to consider is footwork and positioning. I agree wholeheartedly as, in Taekwondo, positioning is the absolute core mechanic that enables the kicks to work smoothly together. One only has to watch the travesty of Olympic Taekwondo to see how bad footwork, drawn from the limitations of the rules, leads to terrible kicks.
After body, we get into the heart of the matter with spirit, for the Goju way is all about spirit; both on and off the field. Spirit is the folding of the steel core that makes you train when you are tired or bored, and “turning up” is the way to improvement. Spirit also enables self-belief, that is the belief that one can do this. It is from knowing one can do something that enables realising that one will do something. So, spirit seems to me to be an ability to live in the doing of things, that is being in the clean and clear mind, and not in the mirrors of intention. In Daoism this is called De, which is the virtue of something in doing. For example, the De of a medicine is the part that actually makes you better by fighting the illness. Knowing how to grasp De is to know the “Zen mind” spoken of by the masters of Buddhism. Bodhidharma, for example, spoke of a mental state of pure clarity without his thoughts intruding. It enabled him to act without “standing in his own way”. There is a reason enlightenment comes through a doing action in Zen: the sudden realisation that nothing was standing in the way of enlightenment but one’s own mind. To me, spirit training in Karate appears to be a method of obtaining this “Zen mind”, if only during combat. This means that one “empty’s out” the mind and then just does. Whether it’s training hard, just getting off the sofa, or fighting for one’s life. Notice that in the word Karate, “Kara”, meaning “air” or “empty” is right next to “Te”, meaning “hand”. There is no gap.
Between empty mind and action there is no gap.
This all ties in perfectly with the samurai-influenced arts such as modern karate, where the great masters talk of “making all decisions within 5 breaths”, or taking “small things seriously and big things lightly”.
With a clear mind, fear is a friend and not an enemy. One can face one’s fears and let them pass over and through, turn one’s middle eye and see the fears depart. What remains is yourself. A mantra I have memorised and repeat often.
For Goran, Zen is always present for he is a Zen practitioner as well as a Karateka. The way of Zen translates perfectly to the way of the warrior and Goran presents some interesting philosophies of Yin and Yang and the way inherent between them. Putting these two into balance enables one to experience the Dao; the whole Universe of which you, reading these words, are a part. You can only experience the Dao whenever you are in harmony with your surroundings. I wonder if it was this I saw on the faces of his fighters lining up for their 30-man?
After summarising the important points of technical and tactical reasoning Goran then moves onto a chapter about strategy by drawing a comparison to the great work of the Chinese general Sun Tzu. By all accounts a man of ironclad practicality, Master Sun’s wisdom and tenets have been used by generations in the setting of strategy in competitive situations. For the single warrior on a field of battle, the philosophy treats striking hands and feet like armies, with intention and movement like feints by thousands of troops. I think it fits the theory very well.
After all this philosophy, we are drawn back to the story of those he has been training to get through the challenge. We see how they did on the day and how their hard work paid – or did not pay – off.
Goran then ends with a moving account of how this training has prepared him to face some tough moments in his own life. Drawing neatly to the fore that Karate, and Zen mind, are not just things we cultivate in the dojo for combat but are in fact things that we become; they are parts of us forever. Goran has proved this with the courage to write of such moments. Courage born of his personality and spirit, things he regularly trains in his art.
The book then covers the stories of those who have tales of their own to tell about their 30-man fights before heading into an appendix detailing the actual plans. As the rest of the book is an excellent account of the thinking behind these plans, it would be a great mistake to skip right to them, but here they are in plain text and one can follow the drills and skills with a knowledge that a lot of thinking has gone into each one. I, for one, will be printing them out and hanging them onto my home gym’s walls.
In the final balance, this is another excellent book from Goran, and it is a pleasure to see him returning to non-fiction, a realm where he is most skilled. The DKK style, Goju, and Karate are eternally fascinating and this book highlights that very well indeed, while still focussing on the core of Goju and how the training handily prepares oneself for the ultimate Karate challenge.
All four of the DKK Goju 30-man tests I watched (3 men, 1 women) were successes. In all four I was moved to near tears.
You can buy this work at Amazon here (as I did):