Let me start by saying that it was one of the best days of my life. Full stop.

It’s funny because there aren’t many times in life you get to test yourself physically and mentally to the point of experiencing real fear. Even less so voluntarily.

I signed up for the tournament as it had been a long-term ambition since I was a kid. Little did I know that it would live up to all my expectations and more.

The weigh in:

Pre-tournament I was rocking in at 80.2kg, an all-time high. As a veteran fighter (45 years and over) I had the benefit of only needing to be sub 75kg to compete at lightweight. Four weeks of steering clear of wine and chocolate Florentines would do the trick – surely?!

I arrived at the hotel bang on midday and made my way up the stairs and through the corridor to check in. Thankfully there were a few friendly faces in the queue to ease any nerves. Actually, I recall being extremely calm and talking to a couple of guys my age from Belgium who were there with their daughters both of whom were competing.

As I stepped onto the scales, I knew I would make weight. I was 74kg when I left the house and hadn’t consumed anything since. A quick pad session with Sensei also meant that I’d probably dropped a few kilos of water. 72.7kg and all set for tomorrow. The lady at the scales suggested I would have been sub 70kg had I actually shave my chest!!! Hilarious.

Home to eat. Some Haribo for the first time in ages and Nando’s! Perfect.

Game day:

I actually slept really well. That said, at 6amit was as if I shotgun had gone off and my mind was racing. I was pretty wired. It was impossible to think of much else. Multiple scenarios played through my head. What would I do and when?

I’d organised a cab across to the tournament. For some reason I didn’t think that I would make for good company that morning. I also didn’t want my family there. This was my first fight and who knew what could happen? I was ushered from the house with more of a push than a hug. I hope this was simply to get rid of me and my nervous tension!! I definitely got the sense as the day got closer that my wife Mary was less and less happy about it!

I arrived early as the doors were opening and headed to where our team was congregating. We already had good representation early on which was encouraging!

Looking out from the stands was amazing. It was like looking at a scene from an eighties movie but in high definition and no mullets or perms. There were four Tatamis side by side. Two large screens and cameras set up on the far side of the viewing gallery. Behind us there was probably enough room for four to five hundred supporters to watch. A big bank of tables surrounded by judges dominated the middle section of the far floor.

All good. Nervous but good. Shake some hands, “Osu” all round, and then get changed into my Gi.

The great thing so far was how friendly everyone was. Folks were chatting whilst getting changed. Lots of guys also there for the first time. Clearly there was nervous tension but it wasn’t anything like you would experience at a rugby or football match build up. There was much more camaraderie.

Ready to go. Once at the stands, the news got even better. I was due to fight at least one guy (Dave Martin) from Crawley and also Pavel from our Dojo. That morning Pavel had missed weight by 800g which meant he would fight middle weight not lightweight with me. That was a big win already. As a veteran there are typically fewer competitors. Chances were now that I would only have one fight. I’d spoken to Rabi in our Dojo and he had said as long as I stayed close to Dave, I would have a good shot.

Then the reality sets in. The tournament starts, already 45mins later than planned. Then you have to wait as the tournament works through Junior rounds, Cadets, Novice and then Vets. Rough maths said I’d be on around 12:00. I reckon I must have warmed up 3 times before my fight which I think ended up starting closer to 12:40.

I was thankful I had my good friend Matt there to keep me calm and entertained / preoccupied. I managed to watch some of our team fight in the novice section but it was easier to stay calm by being up in the stands away from the action.

Max was also great getting up a couple of times to do pad work and work on my blocking. And then the announcer with a Welsh accent called out names.

Fight time.

I was up. Sensei was looking after another team member at the time so I asked Dmitry if he would be my second. It was awesome of him to come over and join me.

It’s hard to describe the ramp up in nervous tension. I was feeling tight, excited and apprehensive. Once the red belt was tied around me by the official and I stepped into the arena Sensei actually joined me as the other fight had just finished.

A massive slap on the back from Sensei as I walked on and this was it. I recall having an extreme change internally. I went from being really nervous to being quite calm. Make eye contact, don’t back down, show good body language and posture. A series of bows and we would be going. Hajime!

Round 1:

I think I started well. Frankly it was a relief not to freeze in the moment. A quick early exchange of kicks and punches from both of us and we were up and running.

I took a shot to my left leg which was giving me problems in the lead up to the tournament and thereafter subconsciously kept pulling my leg back rather than taking any shots. That would have looked weak to the judges and wasn’t something I thought about at the time but I could have and should have shown better composure with that leg and actively blocked more.

That said, I don’t think he was doing any damage up close with his punches and he wasn’t flexible enough to kick me as long as I was on his inside.

My Mai Geri was working OK but it’s amazing how lax it gets as the fight progresses. It starts getting lazy very quickly. I felt I could move him back and out of the arena but he had a knack of working his way round me before I could get him off the matt.

Bizarrely the mark of the end of the round is when a bean bag gets thrown onto the Tatami.

I looked around at the judges and it had been scored a draw. I felt I’d done better than that but it’s not like I could be that objective in the thick of things.

Round 2:

I think this was a tough round for Sensei. I could hear him shouting. ‘More Mai Geri, push but the reality was it was hard to implement anything with decent effect. It got a little scrappy.

Both of us getting in the occasional blow but nothing substantial or sustained and neither party really moving the other one back.

I was actually finding my legs were tired. I wasn’t gassing out, but I just found I had no venom in my shots or kicks. I somehow expected during the middle of the round that this would go the distance.

The judges scored this one each and two draws. We go again…

Watching the round back again, it is clear I caused my own problems by not working hard enough for the last 40 seconds or so.

Round 3:

Last round. Make it count. Start as strong as you can. By this stage I had literally fallen back to basics at this stage.

Switch feet. Straight punch, uppercut. Left right left right. Keep going. Throw knees. Starting to get a momentum shift and moving him back. He’s retreating now. He gets a warning ‘Chui’ for holding my Gi.

Toward half way Dave tried to kick to my right temple. He caught shoulder and I was lucky he didn’t score. Had the kick been any higher or with better rotation, the judges could have awarded him the score. As I moved forward, he fell backwards.

In my head I knew at that stage he was gassed. He used the fall to get a medical timeout and then the judges seemed to confer forever. This is fine for me. I’m confident he just fell with momentum and I didn’t push him. That said, when the judges finally conclude I’m given a warning for pushing!! ‘Osu’, don’t argue. Just get on with it.

At this stage I knew there was limited time left and Sensei was telling me this was the last burst. I came out strong and found a rhythm of punching and knees and switching feet that got me momentum. I kept pushing and he kept going back.

The beanbag landed and I tapped Dave on the shoulder in a job well done and walked back to my mark.

I looked around, trying to keep the glance subtle. All four flags were red in my favour. I had one.

Bows to the judges, then the ref and Dave. I walked up to Sensei and shook his hand.

Elation. Pure and simple. Real unadulterated pleasure.

After watching the remaining novice fights, we then had the walk in which was also great. Lining up in our dojo knowing I was done was a great feeling. Listening to all the talk around me and the collective excitement was great too.

Getting home:

After a lift home with Morten, I arrived to a hero’s welcome at home. Mary, Ava and Jonty had made decorations and a bottle of red was ready and waiting. Not to mention a steak dinner. I felt a million miles tall!

The kids loved seeing the trophy too which made for such a happy evening.

Looking back on it:

Sensei said I gave him a stroke! I think with a little more experience I could have finished the fight earlier perhaps and with less risk.

Fighting is also a demonstration to the judges. It shouldn’t be, but it is. I know for next time that I have to show more intent and earlier. I also need to inflict more heavy shots early on to put fear into my opponent. That’s my mission now – find some venom and explosive power. Some of our team were pretty unlucky on the judging side and rightly or wrongly I felt could have been on the other side of the decisions quite easily.

Top fighters dance. That’s the other thing I noticed. They don’t give much ground. They block a huge array of shots, and their movement is incredible. When the look to attack, it’s with real intent. I have a long long way to go!

It’s also a team sport. The more fighters enter, the better your dojos chances. It sounds obvious, but your fighters are inflicting damage on the other teams, as you work through rounds, this works in our favour because you are incentivised to keep going hard even if your individual fight isn’t going that well. The team dynamic was awesome.

Sensei described my fight as something between karate and a pub brawl. After 3 years training, I’ll take that!! Let’s see what the next 3 years bring!