This interview was conducted in 2003.
Mick Billman is one of those names that is well known in the higher echelons of the Karate world and particularly at National, European and World levels. He has tirelessly served the English Karate Governing Body on the Technical and Executive Committees for many years and has now recently also been elected on to the Management Board of the restructured English Karate Governing Body Ltd.
Mick sits on the Technical Committee for Europe and has done a sterling job in getting all our English representatives known and acknowledged at European and World level. His expertise in diplomacy come from an extensive background in International Diplomatic Security, working all over the globe as protector to some of the most important people in the World, ranging from members of Middle Eastern Royalty to famous Pop Stars.
I was pleased to be able to interview Mick following on from the last three months interviews with Dave Hazard, Pauline Bindra and Mike Nursey and next month with Mick Randall 8th Dan MBE as all four of these founders of modern Shotokan Karate are able to give their own subjective views on the founding days of the KUGB, SKI, and their individual relationships with the early Japanese Instructors.
In these days of professionalism within our Art, it is of prime importance that we all understand who our representatives are, what their history is and their individual expertise. I am happy to be able to demonstrate WHY all these top people hold the most important jobs at National level.
SR Hi Mick, can you give the readers an insight into your background before you started training in Karate?
MB I was born in Lower Clapton in the East End of London and not long after that moved to Tottenham, where I spent most of my younger life. I was educated at the Tottenham County Grammar School. It was there that my sporting interests were stimulated with Rugby and I became a member of the school first fifteen eventually having trials for Saracens Rugby Club. I was also involved in athletics, particularly sprinting.
SR Did you keep up sport when you left school?
MB Yes, when I left school in 1962 at the age of 16 I took up Boxing and thoroughly enjoyed it for six years. Then I got married and my new wife wasn’t so keen on me continually coming home with black eyes! (although they didn’t always originate from boxing)
SR How did you find your way into Karate?
MB I was feeling a bit “out of sorts” because I hadn’t been training for a while and watched a Karate demonstration and was impressed, I was used to “keep fit” exercises and, as they seemed to do a lot of sit ups and push ups, I thought that this would be a good way to get back into training, so I signed up!
SR Which club was that?
MB It was the Tottenham club run by John Van Weenan who had recently returned from Australia and just after I’d started, the Adamou brothers Nick and Chris also began training there with Mick Randall. I was very impressed with Mick’s techniques and tended to train more under him than anyone else.
SR I’m interviewing Mick Randall, now an MBE, next week for next month’s issue, should be a good link there…
MB We then had a succession of Japanese Instructors including Sensei’s Kanazawa and Enoeda who were very impressive but I was really taken with Sensei Kato – he was very supple and liked free style sparring, whereas a lot of the “Traditional” Shotokan Sensei at the time were not so keen on fighting.
SR How would you describe the training?
MB Very hard physically with a lot of exercises at the start of the session and then stretching, because I’d also been a member of the Middlesex Gymnastics Team at school I found the stretching easy. The class would consist of a one and a half hour lesson of repetitive technique and at the end of the lesson we’d have a 30 min “warm down’ that would bear no resemblance to the modern version! It would consist of exercises and partnered stretching, with your partner standing on your back most of the time!
SR Any stories that spring to mind from that time?
MB I remember the Dojo had wall bars with one particular rail all the way around for dancers to hold on to when practising. I used the rail to demonstrate stretching technique and managed to pull the whole thing off the wall and then collapsed in a heap of rubble!
SR Who else was around at that time?
MB When I started with the KUGB in London there were Mick Randall the Adamou brothers, Mike Nursey, Mick Peachey and Glen Haslam, Bob Crystal, Terry O’Niell, Andy Sherry, Bob Poynton and Dave Hazard (who now coaches the England Squad, and is a phenomenal technician! )
SR When did you take your Black Belt?
MB I had reached 1st Kyu after 4 years of training and wasn’t particularly keen on taking my Black Belt. The problem was that there were several new Black Belts and Sensei Kato thought that I should have taken the grading with them. He put another 1st Kyu named Dave Perrett and myself up against the new Black Belts and we battered them all around the Dojo. He pulled us aside afterwards and said “that’s why you should be wearing a Black Belt!” Three months later I took my Black Belt grading and failed! It was one of the best lessons I ever learned in Karate, I was told that I tried too hard and it made me stiff and slow. That grading was under Sensei Asano. Three months after that, and after training 5 or 6 times a week, I took the grading again under Sensei’s Kanazawa and Asano and passed.
SR Then what happened?
MB Shortly after that I left the SKI and moved on to Kodokai under Sensei Kato and remained with him until I took my 4th Dan.
SR Is this where your friendship with Rick Jackson started?
MB No, I met Rick by chance in the late ‘80’s when some of my students had attended one of his courses and he told them that he admired their etiquette as much as their technique and wanted to know who their Sensei was. We arranged to meet and discovered that we had a lot in common and started doing some courses together eventually setting up TSSK. We affiliated at the time with the AKA to the Governing Body.
SR Where did Rick come from?
MB Rick and his brother Mick were the early pioneers of Shotokan Karate in the West Midlands, both are huge guys, Rick is 6 foot 6 inches tall and Mick is bigger than Rick! We formed TSSK in ’88 but eventually Rick, who was a bit of a “wanderer” wanted to move on. I eventually lost contact with him, although his brother is still with us, but now has problems now with his hips and ankles, probably due to early training methods. I kept hold of TSSK and continued for a while with that.
Eventually with my business commitments it became difficult to continue administering TSSK, so I amalgamated with Gursharan Sahota, 6th Dan, of TISKA, whose group has close to 2500 members, and through them we affiliate directly to the EKGB. TISKA has its own full time office, and probably the same amount of members internationally.
SR How did you get involved in the Security business?
MB I’d been fighting in tournaments for Kodokai and it tended to be a bit brutal at that time, but having been a boxer and rugby player I was quite used to it, and remember in those days there were no weight categories either! In 1979 I had a call from a friend of mine that some of his friends coming out of the SAS were going to form a company for VIP Security, training Drivers and Bodyguards and were interested to see if this “new” thing called Karate would be of any use to them.
I went up to train with them and we battered each other around for a while and they then asked if I would be interested in helping on their courses. After a while I would assist in the teaching having learned their unarmed combat and would sit in on their security lectures and training. When one of the other Instructors didn’t turn up one day I assumed his role and, having taught for a while, realised that I couldn’t justify standing there teaching if I hadn’t been “out in the field” so I started doing the work as well.
I worked my way up in the business, as you can appreciate, like the Martial Arts your reputation is very important. It was very much the pop industry at first but the work tends to be more the Middle Eastern world now with Diplomats and politicians. I became a Personal Bodyguard to a lot of these people and taught Advanced Driving Techniques such anti ambush drills and so on. I eventually went into a company called Aegis Special Projects Ltd where I became a Director. Over the years I bought the other two Directors out and so the company became mine, and I changed the name to Viking Security and Protection Ltd. We have a lot of dealings with our own, and various other Diplomatic Organisations all over the world. All of my employees are ex Special Forces personnel, with a few from the police.
SR Many Martial Artists seem to gravitate towards the Security Industry and there are many courses advertised in the magazines for them nowadays.
MB I think they tend to be more nightclub type security and not the kind of work that I deal in. But even some of those come on our courses to learn more, a good example is my mate Willie Thomas, ex Middleweight World Karate champion, who attended one of our courses to enhance his knowledge and was very impressed! If the course attendees are good we give them contact numbers of prospective employers or if they’re very good we may employ them ourselves! But I would warn the readers – it’s not an easy life!
SR How did you get involved with the English Karate Governing Body?
MB When the EKGB formed in ’91, I believe you were involved in the formation Steve, I thought that it was important to take an active part and contribute. In 1994 I was elected to the Technical Committee and eventually became Vice Chairman of it. Some years after I was elected to the Executive Committee and recently as the EKGB became a company limited by guarantee, like yourself, I was elected on to the Management Board.
SR How did you get on to the European and World stage?
MB When I was a member of the Technical Committee, I was always complaining that we weren’t represented properly on these stages. Sending a Head of Delegation with the team was often on the toss of a coin, we had no one representing us properly and consistently. In my business, dealing with Royalty and Diplomats, I realised that proper representation was essential. Banging the table hard enough meant that eventually the rest of the committee gave me the job as I was the one making the fuss! I drew up the Head of Delegation guidelines and did the job for what I had assumed would only be one year, but it’s been four years now! It’s the continuity that’s important.
Being a Head of Delegation and doing the introductory part of the job I soon realised how far behind we were, but we soon caught up. Everyone knew Ticky Donovan because he’s the most important and highly acknowledged Team Coach in the World, they also knew Mike Dinsdale because of his high profile work at World level, but it took a lot of work to get all our guys well known!
Eventually I was asked to sit on the Technical Committee for Europe, which is a temporary position for two years, but after eighteen months, Antonio Espinos the President of the World and European Karate Federations asked me if I would accept the post on a two year basis as a full member. This was not only good for me but for the EKGB as well!
I was then able to promote our referees and judges on the World stage. We have a very good EKGB refereeing programme under Terry Pottage with good Technical support. Taking a liaison role I’ve been able to promote our people and Terry has now moved on to the World Committee, with Doug James (another World Referee) recently being proposed by myself, and appointed to the Committee for the new European Regional Tournaments.
The Chairman of the English Karate Governing Body is Billy Brennan who is also a World Class Referee. I encouraged Billy to become Chairman of the EKGB and with him also being a World Class Referee, it makes my introductory job easier and gets far more recognition for the EKGB on the World stage, as everyone now knows our Chairman.
This means we are now very well represented on the European and World stage and if we get into the Olympics we will need all the help we can get!
SR I understand you have to work really hard at these events…
MB Oh yeah…. There is a lot of lobbying and socialising! Everyone thinks that it’s great but for example at the World Championships in Madrid my earliest night was 1.30am and my latest was 3.30am but I had to get up at 6.30am every morning! In my business I’m used to that.
SR Don’t you find that your EKGB and business lives clash a lot?
MB It’s not easy! My work is 24/7 but I appointed an Operations Manager for my business which has helped considerably, I just can’t afford to be away for too long a period of time. I tend to plan well ahead and even use up my holiday time for EKGB commitments but I’m just proud to have made a difference.
SR Mick – it’s been great talking to you and thank you for giving the readers an insight into the world of tournament administration at International level and the security industry from a long serving Karateka’s point of view.
MB Thank you Steve.