I have been very fortunate and honoured to have been asked to publish the following interview with John Kelly. Both interviewer and interviewee are high grade and distinguished Shotokan Karateka.
The interviewer is John Johnston, 6th Dan, who has previously given a fascinating interview with myself on this website. This time though, he has interviewed his friend, Sensei John Kelly, who is a truly amazing man. Having survived a near death crash that would have killed most men, or at least made them lose the will to live; John Kelly has come back fighting. He is now a 4th Dan, runs his own association (the Munster Shotokan Karate Association) and even does door work. Some people just can’t be kept down!
So I’ll pass you over to John Johnston and John Kelly for an insight into a truly inspirational Karateka:
JJ: I know you started Karate when you were quite young, when and where was that?
JK: I went to a Karate demonstration in my home village (Kilmacthomas, County Waterford, Ireland) in 1982; I was blown away with the movements, power, speed and power breaking.
The Instructor was Dermot Carew, Chief Instructor to the R.I.K.A. (Republic of Ireland Karate Association). I joined immediately with my twin sister.
There were 95 members originally, so classes had to be separated by age and so on. Training was tough but I loved every minute.
Out of the 95 members only 5 stayed to Shodan and only 2 for Nidan myself and my twin sister. I am the only one from the original bunch still training.
Although now I have 4 clubs of my own (Munster Shotokan Karate Association).
JJ: At what age did you start to compete and how successful was you?
JK: I competed almost straight away and was very successful both home and abroad, being selected for the squad early in my kumite years. For a small guy I was well known for my flexibility and fast kicks.
JJ: We all know that Shotokan is your chosen style, what made you choose it and stay with it?
JK: I guess it was from the first demonstration when I saw the power, speed and destruction with one’s bare hands and feet.
After many years competing I have always felt shotokan to be the stronger art with much more power in its kumite and kata.
It is like a book with no final page, you never stop learning. Shotokan is the ultimate and covers all areas.
JJ: We also know that you have experienced other Martial Arts. Tell us a little bit about which ones and your impressions?
JK: I tried kick boxing in the early years and Taekwondo. Mainly for more competition. I enjoyed the physical fighting in the kick boxing but in the early days of kumite it was very physical also. I remember my dad and mam saying to me after several competitions “why would you stay doing a sport that leaves you with a black eye, split lip. Or broken nose” THE GOOD OLD KUMITE DAYS.
Kumite these days is a lot tamer than then, with more and more kids joining and competing I suppose it’s for the best.
JJ: John, you are known as a man who will not compromise. How does that work out for you in today’s financial climate and people looking for instant results?
JK: Well I suppose in Karate, I will not allow students to grade unless they are competent with their relative grading syllabus, to many allow students to grade once they have paid their fee. This is all too common. But sadly the only one that suffers is the students who will find out very quickly that they cannot compete comfortably at their grade level.
As a coach it is my job to ensure a high standard and that all members when they compete have an equal opportunity and not compete above their grade level.
There is no set time for Shodan as far as I am concerned. It is better for a student to earn their grade than to buy it.
I am fair in competition if I am reffing, the student that deserves the win will get the win whether they are mine or from a different club.
I suppose in business things have changed a lot and as a Professional Painting and Decorating contractor you have to be firm, it is a cut throat business.
All in all if a student is dedicated they would rather wait a bit longer to earn their grades but if they want to progress quicker and become a black belt at 6 or 7 they may go elsewhere.
JJ: We know that you had a few personal setbacks over the years. If you don’t mind I’m sure people would love to hear about them and how you coped.
JK: Yes I had my fair share of knock backs; in the summer of 1997 I was very busy at my Painting and Decorating work. With that summer being very good, I worked long hours 7 days a week .
It caught up on me on 18th August 97 when I feel asleep while driving and hit a wall with concrete post with steel cables running through them.
There was nothing left of the car and my head.
I sustained 9 multiple skull fractures, broken neck in 2 places, right eye socket crushed, left shoulder crushed, all facial bones fractured and my right eye was hanging out.
I had to have many reconstructive operations and had a front lobe elevation as the top part of my head ended up down by my chin.
Even though it took many years to recover fully, I honestly believe Karate had a lot to do with my mental strength in my recovery as well as help from the man upstairs.
I was very lucky to survive such a horrific road accident and look at Karate a lot different now.
I try to give back to it and the members what it gave me.
One thing I will always remember was the pains in my head for so many years; sometimes I would physically cry it was so unbearable.
But life is for living, there was a poor guy in Cork hospital around that time that was in a less serious car crash but the difference was when his brain swelled it had no room as his head was not fracture, poor man ended up brain dead for life, my skull had several open fractures , the brain was visible (yuk) but when the brain swelled it had room.
I feel very lucky today, 15 years later I have a beautiful wife and son.
Still have a few more operations to go but will deal with them when they come up.
If I could give advice to anyone, no matter how bad their situation is whether it be financial, medical or personnel, there is always someone worse off and never to give up, where there is a will there is a way.
JJ: You were very lucky.
JK: Yes I was very lucky, I still have some major operations to go, you don’t come out of a smash and sustain those types of injuries without some problems down the line.
I remember not being able to do even one press up after the smash but when I went back training my Instructor had to pull me to one side, he said “slow down you are not the same man, you body needs to slowly strengthen , slow and steady and you will get there”. He was right, I guess in my head I thought I was the same and did not want to come to terms with my competition years being gone so early.
Now I try to give the members my experience and opportunities I never had.
But yes Karate gave me strength both physically and mentally and also the drive to now pass on and teach rather than compete.
I would have to say my wife has been very supportive both in Karate and during my recovery. In my competition years she was always there to cheer me on, I was not the easiest person to be around or live with at that time of the crash and recovery period.
I have a young son now and hopefully some day he will take it up. But that choice will be his when he is old enough.
JJ: You’ve stuck to Shotokan where as many people who have door experience have turned to Reality–Based Martial Arts or MMA. What are your reasons for that?
JK: Many train for door work in these martial arts as if preparing for aggro to use at the slightest hint of trouble, this is the wrong mentality, and is the cause of many conflicts.
I happen to fall into this line of work as a second income only and treat it as any other job.
Obviously you are dealing with alcohol and drug induced members of the public and have to be firm but fair.
You can deal with most situations by talking and having a good partner or team to cover you, aggression attracts aggression. If you portray a hard man image as a bouncer you will attract trouble where as if you treat people like human beings while still being firm but fair, you will gain respect and fewer enemies.
I think Shotokan has it all, how to deal with any situation.
JJ: As I look at Karate in Ireland as compared to the UK, I get the impression that it is a lot more unified. Do you share that feeling?
JK: Well as you know there is too much ego, politics and B–l S–t in Karate worldwide. In Ireland there is a high standard in the different groups and organisations.
They all seem to support each other at events/ seminars and competitions. So yes I would agree.
Sadly there is little or no funding for Karate in Ireland, I’m not sure about the UK.
JJ: Your Clubs are having allot of competition success. Tell us about that and how you see their future?
JK: Yes the members are very competitive and can’t seem to get enough. They have made it to medal position Regionally, Nationally and Internationally in most competitions over the last few years.
We are also members of ONAKAI (Official National Amateur Karate Association of Ireland) www.onakai.org. I am appointed by ONAKAI as Munster Junior Kumite Coach and take this role very serious and working with clubs and instructors develop students to represent their country at International events. European/world and hopefully the Olympics in 2020. I am also ONAKAI Munster regional secretary.
We make the training fun but at the same time disciplined, win lose or draw they are all winners once they set foot on the tatami.
I try to explain to them in order to be a good winner you first have to be a good loser, always to bow and shake hands with your opponent. There is a lot to be learnt from a lose.
I hope to have students compete and represent their country in either EKF/WKF European or world championships some day. That would be any clubs dream.
JJ: Unlike a lot of senior Instructors you like to expose your students to a variety of Instructors. I myself think that is a very healthy approach. Is that why you do it?
JK: I like to expose the students to many Instructors; some might think it is not wise as they may make you look less skilled as some are exceptional.
My job is to teach and to develop the students and myself the best way I can and not to just stand at the top of the class promoting myself. To many I think discourage there students from training or competing with other clubs or organisations, I try to give the members more opportunities than I had over the years
They can learn so much from a variety of seminars/course with guest instructors. We also open our courses/seminars and competition s to everyone regardless of affiliation or association. Strictly no politics/ego’s, our doors are open to all.
We have a good relationship with the many groups/organizations and associations in Ireland and further afield.
We are there to develop the members both physically, mentally and to teach them to have an open mind to make their own way on their journey in Karate-do and life
JJ: Are there any incidents whilst bouncing that you would like to tell us about, without incriminating yourself?
JK: There are a few serious and humorous ones but I will tell you in person as that job is separate to Karate and I would prefer to keep it that way.
JJ: Over the years you’ve done quite allot of Door Work. What transferable skills would you say come from Karate training?
JK: I would probably say confidence and control as you know yourself you get quite a lot of verbal abuse and I believe most situations can be handled if you are calm and able to diffuse a situation by talking rather that getting physical
JJ: What are your likes and dislikes about Karate today?
JK: I like most everything about Karate today, some are not happy if Karate makes it to the Olympics as they feel if kumite gets in Kata is left out and there goes traditional Karate.
Hmmmm. I don’t know. WKF is very fast and with 8 points it makes a fight out of it, giving the competitors a fighting chance.
In my opinion Kata should also be added to the Olympic’s as it is fabulous to watch and is one of the core values of a Karate, the 3 K’s Kihon, Kata and Kumite.
Karate is less funded than other martial arts for example kickboxing go figure. I think it would be good and give it the recognition it deserves and would grow clubs and members worldwide.
Dislikes, too much bull shit, egos and politics for my liking.
I would like to thank John Johnston for conducting this interview and forwarding it to me.
I would especially like to thank John Kelly for agreeing to be interviewed and for sharing his very traumatic experiences with us. To go through something like that and able to come back achieve what John Kelly has achieved is a real inspiration to all martial artist.