In all my years of training, I have rarely if ever gotten into fights. By this, I mean serious fights where someone has the intent to maim, not merely a punch-up. I think there are several reasons for this, most importantly is that I don’t carry an aggressive vibe that looks or attracts it. For the most part I am simply not interested. Therefore it was a very strange and unexpected position I found myself in when trouble came knocking on my door in my London dojo in the mid to late 90’s.

I was in the middle of training with one of my students, Robert, that day when I had my arm firmly pinned onto the mat when I looked up and saw said trouble come in the form of a tall, lean stranger who walked into class unannounced, asking if we wanted the mats outside bought in. Immediately his presence felt off, to say the least. A Charlie Brown-esque rain cloud hovered above him, with visibly sad eyes which triggered a sense of sympathy in me.  However, there was something else, something darker that had my guard up instantly. In an effort to be civil it took 3 attempts trying to explain that we were fine and needed no help. The more I told him no the more he took offence. I eventually got up and walked towards him, making it clear he was interrupting class and would need to leave. Nothing was getting through to him as I raised my voice in frustration at the situation. Much to my bemusement, he suddenly darted upstairs which most definitely was not the exit. I followed.

Just as suddenly as he bolted up he came crashing back down in a fit of rage, almost falling over himself. Looking up towards him I could see he was wielding a solidly built wooden stool in his hands, the kind you get in pubs or bars. I gathered he wasn’t going to offer me a seat out of the kindness of his heart. Mid charge, he swung it at my head with all his strength. It barely missed me.

The stool broke into many pieces against the wall while leaving him shaking and stunned. Was it anger, shock, fear, or a combination of all 3 that left him trembling? It is interesting to recollect what followed. It seems unreal now, like an old movie from the silent era, a distant, ghost-like sequence, and yet it undeniably happened. What came next was purely instinct. Somehow from smashing the stool against the wall, he ended up stumbling towards the landing below where I stood. Now his back was to me but his exit was blocked by Robert. I saw the chance to get a classic choke hold on him, which I did with no difficulty as he was wearing a long trench coat but I didn’t follow through. I didn’t tighten my grip across the collar that would have likely left him unconscious. Unlike in the movies, this is a very dangerous thing to do.

Contrary to my actions just a second ago, what came out was a softly questioning “Are you OK?” He nodded. To double check, I repeated my question and received the same reply. With a short “Go”, he did just that, running towards the exit door. It was then when I noticed that I had blood pouring down my face, looking like something out of a horror flick. It was a tiny cut about 1-2cm in length on my forehead. It dawned on me that he obviously made contact with the stool, with adrenalin surging I failed to realise this.

The commotion was heard from below where staff and volunteers in the community centre came running up to see what was going on. After a brief chat, they informed us that they knew the guy and he was supposed to be in the Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous upstairs. The noise and energy of the class unfortunately drew his attention from his direction and purpose. He was a dark, troubled individual who initiated the violence that day. Meanwhile we, the dojo, were in a youth centre with children and other more vulnerable people sharing the venue. He could quite easily have come back, catching you out unexpectedly. He could come with others or possibly with a weapon, like a knife, but we would be drawing undesirable and destructive energy to us for sure.

Many years later this unpleasant encounter would rarely resurface in my thoughts, only to be occasionally reminded of it by Robert. It was strange that I didn’t want to recall it. Eventually I got to realise that the training in San Diego had in fact penetrated deep into my bones, in a way unconscious even to myself. It came out at that instance, the reflexes sharp and without thought, avoiding the full attack, seeing the opening for a choke, and maybe most importantly to let him go preventing further trouble. It was all instinct simmering beneath the skin, burnt in from years of intense training.

Of course, it could have turned out very differently. Had he made full contact, I would have been in deep shit.… I could have ended up fully choking him, potentially creating further problems for myself. I believe instincts played their part that day, that and a hard head. I also believe that the entire mad incident could have been dodged or neutralised when he first appeared but that would have needed more experience and maturity on my part.

Regardless of the hows and whys the situation unfolded the way it did. With my back against the wall, ultimately the training came through. Real, practical and not pretty. That is what ukemi is.