Interview with Kurt Graham
So when did your journey into the martial arts start for you?
Martial arts have always been a part of my life. My dad was a old school karate ka. While I took my first formal lessons at eight years old, I had a manic passion for it well before then. It took two years of begging my parents before they succumbed and allowed me to start training. Living in the countryside as we did always made travel awkward. However, I always had a internal drive and gut instinct to study the arts. I was absolutely fascinated by it all— spent every waking moment thinking about it, and punching and kicking everything to hand (or foot). At the time I was captured by the mysticism of it all. In some ways I miss the innocence of those days when I believed the fantasy of invincible warriors with superpowers and pure intentions. A million years later and a lot more learned of the arts, I feel nostalgic for those tales. With that stripped away by experience, it is all about mechanics, science and egos chatting up a good story. Though the spirit of them for me remains — honour, courage, loyalty, sacrifice.
So what arts have you studied and people that you have trained under that have had the greatest influence on you?
I've trained in numerous things over the years. A short version of history though starts with Seido Karate, and Judo as a kid, which I continued that until Senior Secondary College, where I started training Taekwondo and Hapkido while I was at boarding school. I also took up boxing. At seventeen I did my version of "running away to join the circus" and went to Japan in 1992 to do the Yoshinkan Aikido full time intensive course (of Robert Twigger's Angry White Pyjamas fame). I met with Shioda sensei and trained with his senior instructors— I trained hard and learned what I could from them. The main disappointment for me though was that while the Aikido approach had some great aspects, no one there really had any sort of effective comeback (or even straight up defence for) my punches or kicks.
Patrick McCarthy sensei helped my graceful departure there and helped slide me into some interesting classes through his contacts, including some time training with him in Fujisawa. During that time I regularly practised at the Kodokan, and sparred weekly at the Kyokushin Karate honbu in Shibuya. Sosai Oyama would sometimes attend, but he was was unwell by that time.
Probably one of the most important things to me as a martial artist was attending the Katori Shinto Ryu dojo of Sugino Yoshio O-sensei. I trained with O-sensei at least twice a week. He was 92 years old and utterly awesome. Not only a legend that had such an important influence on how the West saw Japanese budo through people like Donn Drager, but was also there at the time of Ueshiba O-sensei's development of Aikido and Kano's promotion of Judo to the West. He taught me the koryu (traditional) aspects of the Japanese marital arts including the sword and jo. In many respects, many of my insights into the sword I credit to him.
It was at O-sensei's dojo that I met Ari Larsen. He helped me with my sword work , and I took private lessons in Shorinji Kempo and Jujutsu on the weekends. He also introduced me to many well known martial artists round Tokyo, and visitors like Professor Wally Jay when he was "in town". I trained with Professor Jay a few years later when I was living in San Francisco.
Ari was also the first to teach me the art of cane fighting. I was completely captivated. So after three month side trip to Korea eating kimchi and gorging on the Korean arts, I headed to Manila to learn at the source. Manila was rough, dirty and dangerous, and full of "undesirables". I was very fortunate that at twenty years old, Great Grandmaster Ernesto A Presas picked me up from the shit hole I was in and placed me in a... well, on reflection shitty boarding house in the most dangerous part of Manila. He was apparently stunned that someone as young as myself would take on the study of Arnis full time and live in Manilla, so he took me under his wing.
Essentially, I trained every day all day with him for the next six years. I trained alongside GGM Presas' son (who is my age) and his senior teachers, whom I still remain in contact with. I credit GGM Presas for my martial arts skills, which were developed through his unique insights to the arts, his own awesome physical talent and the talent of those brilliant fighters gathered around him. I also have to give some credit to the bastards that tried to rob and stab me on a regular basis. I learnt a lot very frigging quickly being the only white boy in the neighbourhood of Quiapo. It isn't a stretch to say that I was tested hard and tested often during that time.
What are some of the important things that you did which refined what you learned?
Teaching has always been a feature of what I have done. For instance, though GGM Presas, I taught Arnis at four universities around Manila. However, I have also had a lot of hands-on high pressure experience. After the first 3 years with GGM Presas, I was employed by an Israeli company that operated in the Philippines. They needed somebody with skills and charm to be their Close Quarter Combat instructor. Through them I travelled the Philippines, training people's private armies, bodyguards and military personnel. It was an absolutely bizarre time where I witnessed many things that I still vividly remember today, and quickly learned to understand the power of money. The company taught me to shoot with small arms etcetera, and it was during work for them I did personal protection (bodyguard) work for celebrities including Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, and a bunch of famous Asian celebs that very few in the West know of.
One of the things I always noticed about GGM Presas was in the way he dealt with people both publicly and privately. In all the years I was in his presence, I did not witness a single incident where he belittled, taunted or lost his temper with those around him. It left a very powerful impression on me regarding how you should live your life and treat others, particularly your senior students.
I also travelled with GGM Presas as his Chief Instructor throughout the USA and Europe. I eventually left Manila to go to San Francisco, where I taught at the Modern Arnis HQ and at the Korean Martial Arts Center. I have many life-long friends from that time. While based there I also trained with Professor Wally Jay in Alameda, and flew all over the USA teaching. I worked security at nightclubs, and also for a subsidiary company of Playboy, where I looked after the security of the "talent". That was a really tough job. Punching the "punters" to keep them away from the talent was the easy bit. However, the lifestyle that surrounded that job was pretty harrowing. Yes, being surrounded all the time by the most beautiful girls wears you out. Beautiful, naked, emotionally scarred, bat shit crazy, plastic girls. Not a good scene — eats you away from the inside without you noticing at first.
Eventually I realised I couldn't continue like that, so I "ran away to the circus" a second time and ended up joining the French Foreign Legion. It was an amazing time. Kiwis and Aussies are well regarded in the Legion, as they account for some of the most highest decorated soldiers in its history. As a result, we tended to be cut more slack than some of the other recruits (I have a story about beer, Mars Bars and a France/NZ Rugby match to be told another time). I was selected for the Parachute Regiment, Corsica and again learned and saw a lot.
As with most things in life, my leaving the Legion was in part accidental. I'd badly damaged my knee as a result of an altercation with a fellow recruit (let's just say I received no blow-back from the Legion over that incident). The constant training and running compounded the initial injury and was given a choice of having one of the Legion's doctors have a crack at it or head home to New Zealand to get it fixed there. I chose the latter. While recovering, I opened up a magazine to see an advertisement for a Diploma in Martial Arts Instruction headed up by McCarthy sensei and located in Brisbane, Australia. I had stayed in touch with McCarthy over the years and was really excited by the prospect of just training and learning and refining my arts again. Suffice to say, two weeks later I had left the French Foreign Legion and was living in Brisbane.
You trained directly under McCarthy sensei for quite a while then?
I trained directly under McCarthy sensei for many years, first as part of the Instructors diploma and then beyond that. There were a number of occasions where he had turned over the operation of the so-honbu in Brisbane to my instruction while he was absent either on tour or working on his writing projects. Through that association I met trained with many excellent people. I travelled the world teaching on behalf of McCarthy and acting as his "right hand man" during those years.
I was also very fortunate that through McCarthy sensei I was able to train under the supervision of budo legends such as Kinjo Hiroshi O-sensei. Like others who completed his course, I initially received renshi licence McCarthy sensei in 2004 for having successfully completed the Renshi course. My 6 Dan licence was presented to me in Japan by Kinjo O-sensei in 2007. I subsequently received a 7 Dan and a kyoshi licence from McCarthy sensei in 2011 (see attached photo).
So where to form here for you?
Well the most obvious answer is the Ittoshinkan organisation, which is the culmination of the last twenty five years of experience I have accumulated. Ittoshinkan was founded in 2012, headed by myself, but include the talents of a core team of highly experienced martial artists, who I have the pleasure of also calling close friends. The organisation offers open hand arts such as Bujutsu, Jujutsu and Karatejutsu, as well as weapons based arts including Modern Arnis Kombatan and Kobudo. But I've already talked enough right now. I think that would be better told in another interview!
Thank you so much for your time!
Not a problem!