When I first arrived at those fabled steps that led up to the Xen-Do dojo at Stables Market, Camden, climbed them and I placed my foot on the mat for the first time, I knew it was going to be my home away from home.
Since a young boy I had always been keen to learn the ways of the Jedi and martial arts seemed to be the best non-fictional alternative. Growing up in the Netherlands, I had attended various Karate and Muay Thai classes during my childhood but for one reason or another, I never really persevered with any. Although I enjoyed the classes and mastering the skills, all the systems I had sampled seemed either to be excessively brutal or ineffectively complex. It seemed to be a choice between gratuitous violence or archaic combat techniques. There had to be a system more bespoke to becoming a modern self-defence expert. When I arrived in London, I knew that it was time for something new.
During my first few months in London I worked on a stall in Stables Market (I commandeered remote control helicopters if you must know). It wasn’t the most thrilling of jobs but it did lead me to a Xen-Do leaflet. Xen-Do: a self defence class based on an amalgamation of western boxing and revolutionised Japanese martial arts. I was delighted as this description seemed to fit exactly what I was after. It was aimed at the exact niche that previous martial arts classes had failed to address. And, to boot, the first class is a free. It would be rude not to try it out, right?
My first class was a blur. I’d like to be able to tell you that I breezed through it like a future Sensei but, by the time we were dismissed, the burning sensation in every muscle fibre in my body and my panting throughout the class probably would have suggested otherwise. ‘You’re too tense’, I remember Sensei Anthony telling me. What did he mean? How could I punch and kick with power if I did not tense. “You need to be like water. Fluid is fast, fast equals power.” This made no sense to me at the time but a fire had been lit within me and I was desperate to improve. I had a black-belt in my cross hairs.
When I got home that evening, I sat down at the dinner table and thought about the Xen-Do class. I had already concluded at this point that I wanted to get my black-belt as soon as I possibly could. I was at college at the time but my brain was already performing mental gymnastics to figure out how I could rearrange my lesson timetable to fit in as many Xen-Do kickboxing classes as I possibly could to accelerate my progress. Little did I know at the time but the biggest obstacle in achieving that goal would not be my college timetable. It was, instead, sat right there in front of me, known to a select few as ‘The Diab Special.’ The Diab Special consisted of two extra-large shawarmas (one chicken, one lamb) with extra chilli sauce, garlic mayonnaise and a side of fries for good measure ready to fill my oversized gut. Food was my first love and I would never let anything get in the way of that. A 100kg frame hadn’t stopped me doing anything in the past and it wouldn’t get in the way of my becoming a kickboxer, would it? I went to bed that night feeling very content. A new challenge and a full belly, what more could I ask for.
It took me 18 months to attain my black-belt. I would often train up-to 5 times a week if I could. I was like a man possessed. I remember spending countless hours watching Sensei Anthony and Sensei Nick perform every different combination you could think of and attempting to re-enact them with varying degrees of success. The first time I saw a step-in, jump, spinning kick I knew I had to make that my special move. I just had to master it. I would constantly ask the Sensei’s for advice and help and they were only too happy to oblige.
Despite my improvements, I barely lost any weight. I was still eating about six full meals a day, and one of those was normally a large pizza, so it was hardly a surprise. My generous frame earned me the nickname: ‘The Xen-Do Panda’. I think it was a variation of the Kung-Fu Panda. Sensei witticisms at their finest… not! It wasn’t my preferred nickname to be honest but given my size and the way it meant I moved around the dojo, I couldn’t really knock its accuracy. Regardless, with my black-belt under my belt (no pun intended… sorry), I knew it was time for my next challenge and I had my eye on one of the trophies dotted round the dojo.
‘Master Raf, I have loved training at Xen-Do for the last 18 months. But I want to compete. I want to go to a competition. What do I need to do?’
I remember Master Raf was very honest me. He told me that he thought that with a little more guidance I could become a very real force at a competition. He told me that technically I had what it took and with enough work on my flexibility and footwork then I could go far. However, there was one caveat…
‘Your weight. I’ve seen you train and in terms of fitness you can keep up with the best of them. However, if you want to do the best that you can do, you have to be as lean as possible. At competition, it is a game of inches and even the slightest disadvantage can be the difference between winning and losing. It’s up to you.
I was gutted (not another pun!). Master Raf had explained the diet I needed to adopt. It didn’t mean given up food, not at all, but it did mean eating the right things.
‘Lean meats, complex carbs and a whole lot of veg. And no more shawarmas and chips. They’re out.’
That was fighter’s food. I was used to mum’s food. How was I going to do this!? I was desperate to go to competition. It was a straight choice between my first love and my new passion. Master Raf’s spidey senses were tingling. He seemed to be aware of the internal quandary that had suddenly overcome me.
He left me with this:
‘We reach our goals through discipline. Discipline means choosing what you want most over what you want now.’
As much as I didn’t want to face it, I knew he was right. I had to reach under 75kg to enter the correct weight category to give me a fighting chance. Entering anything higher would mean fighting people naturally much more powerful than me. It would be like pitting an overweight Hatton against a fully fit Tyson. Carnage.
The months that followed meant hard work, routine and a whole lot of will power. I trained more intensely than ever and ate like a rabbit. It wasn’t long before the competition was upon us.
I remember the day before at the weigh-in, stepping on the scales and reading 74.8kg. I had done it. I had made weight by 0.2kg!!! It was the most difficult thing I had ever had to do and I had accomplished my mission. With the competition coming the next day I felt energised and ready to go. Nothing was going to stop me.
My first fight of the competition did not last very long. The training that Master Raf had given me and sparring with other world class Senseis had prepared me one hundred percent for this moment. After a few seconds of moving around each other I moved in and hit him with a combination, finishing with a jump spin side kick. My opponent crumpled to the floor and the fat lady started belting out her first solo of the tournament. I was delighted! My first fight and I had won by TKO in 10 seconds.
The rest of the competition was hard fought and, although I had prepared as fully as I could, my lack of experience became a factor and I couldn’t quite make it the whole way. I took home bronze and for my first competition I was extremely proud of my achievements. I knew there would be more competitions to come and I couldn’t wait to get back to training. I never thought it would be possible for me to lose over 25kg, especially with how much I loved food. It just goes to show what you can achieve with the right mind-set and the right teacher. The next stop on the tournament train was party-ville. The Sensei motto is work hard, play hard and like most legends, those stories are to be passed on by word of mouth only.
I have now competed in a few more tournaments and my experience, knowledge and enthusiasm grows with each that passes. But without overcoming that first one and the push that I got to realise what was necessary, there is no way I could have come this far. I realised with that first competition that Xen-Do is about far more than just learning a martial art. It is an amalgamation of physical and mental disciplines that allows you to be the best you can be, not just in martial arts and kickboxing, but in life. I had finally found a system with longevity. After that first tournament I had also set my sights on a new challenge. It was to join that band of brothers that was Senseihood.
Just so you know, the Diab Special has been redefined and is now better known as a counter hook kick across the chops. Probably not as tasty as a double shawarma and fries but, should you like to try one, they are available at any one of our dojos across London.
This article is based on opinion:
– the author is not a qualified doctor or anyone who can dispense medical advice.
– any opinions stated are just that and people should consult a doctor before making any dietary changes or changes of any nature prompted by the articles published by or on behalf of Xen-Do.
– under 16’s please obtain parental permission before posting anything online.