The following interview dates back all the way to November 9, 2011.
Initially, this interview was part of a brand new sports-variety talk-show called The Sportstender (hosted by myself), but not long afterwards, was permanently removed off of YouTube, and the show later became an Internet-only, play-on-demand podcast (also currently inactive).
Shortly after the video was removed however, the interview was fully transcribed and was included as an update in my then self-published book, entitled; Desolate Warrior: The Inspirational Story of Will Ribeiro (mixed martial arts). The interview was never shared on my blog (mrjamesryan.com) or with the SWKKF Community. Until now that is.
The hope is that this interview with Sensei Neil Prime (slightly edited for easier reading) will be the first in an all new interview series that will be exclusive to the SWKKF Harmonizer moving forward. Please enjoy and stay tuned for more.
Sensei James Ryan: How long have you been training in martial arts?
Sensei Neil Prime: I started when I was 14, so I’m gonna date myself here… 33 years now. 34 years.
JR: Wow, great. And how did you get started?
NP: You know… it wasn’t a real interest of mine or anything. At first, a neighbour of mine at the time had been in judo prior to a very bad car accident, which he was involved in at an early age. He was a little bit older than me. We were at the Fairview Mall in St. Catharines, and there used to be a flea market – that was before it was renovated, and it’s the new mall and everything now, but uh… there was this sign that was up as we approached the restaurant that showed a picture of a Japanese man throwing a front kick and uh… you know, karate lessons. And my neighbour, and a very good friend of mine that I also went to school with at the time, were very much into this. Right away, this is what they wanted to do, and I ended up just tagging along with them. There was, I’m gonna say, at least six of us that started at first.
JR: So it was just out of curiosity? You thought you’d check it out?
NP: Well, you know what? It was gonna be a night where my buddies were all hanging out, and I’d have had nothing to do, so I just more or less tagged along and that’s the absolute truth.
When we went down there and I saw the man on the poster, actually performing – teaching, I was sold instantly. It was the most incredible thing that I had ever seen in my life. I was just absolutely mesmerized by his movements, his command, his aura – he had an aura about him, and that was Sensei Shintani.
From that point there, we only stayed about 15 minutes. We didn’t know what to do, we were just in our street clothes. Sensei Shintani basically said, “Hang around, watch, and see what it’s all about, and if you wanna come back, we’re here every week.”
15 minutes later, we all just kinda looked at each other and were like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah… we’ll come back, we’ll come back,” and sure enough, the next week, a whole crew of us went back. We recruited a couple more people, and uh… funny thing is, as time went on; me being the tag along, ended up the only person that was graded beyond yellow belt out of that whole crew that started, so it was just – it was an instant passion for me.
JR: So you trained with Sensei Shintani for a long time?
NP: Yes. He was my personal instructor right up until brown belt.
By the time I had gotten to brown belt, he had actually stopped teaching in the clubs. He had many, many clubs that he was opening to form the Shintani Karate Federation, and he would go around every single night to different clubs. Being the one night in the Niagara Region, at the Fairview Mall in St. Catharines – being a central location, I was very, very fortunate. I had, at the time – I had no idea of all these people who would always come in and visit, you know? Just come in to find out what Sensei Shintani was teaching. It’s kinda one of these… you don’t really appreciate what you have when you have it. I mean, to me, karate was a Japanese guy at the front of the class teaching people how to punch and kick. And so, it was just a natural progression. I didn’t realize until after I actually started going out and educating myself in other organizations – going to seminars and all that; how good I really had it as a direct student of Sensei Shintani.
JR: Amazing. Now, Wado Kai karate… it’s not really all that popular, is it? I mean, there are a lot of different styles of karate out there, so what separates Wado Kai and Shintani’s style of karate from say… Shotokan, or any of the other more popular forms of karate that are out there? Is there a real difference?
NP: Well, there were actually five major styles of karate that were formed in the 30’s and Wado was one of them. It’s actually very large around the world. The Shintani Karate Federation on its own is almost 3000 members strong across North America right now. So, I think that’s pretty big.
That’s all under one organization, and unfortunately, Sensei Shintani is no longer with us, but he set up the organization with a Senate – a number of people that he trusted to carry on the traditions of Wado Kai and the teachings of Sensei Hironori Otsuka, who was Sensei Shintani’s instructor. And he had it set up so well that after his passing, it was just a mere transition – almost all of the organization stayed intact. We lost very few clubs, and I would go as far as to say that the clubs that we did lose, were clubs that weren’t really that closely affiliated with the organization anyways. They were outside members, and once they lost Sensei Shintani, they didn’t see the need I guess in maintaining their membership, but at the same time, we’ve brought new people, new clubs, and new organizations into our system.
And I think it’s a lot to do with the values that Sensei Shintani instilled, and he would say that they were the values that Sensei Otsuka had taught him.
JR: Okay. What are those values?
NP: It’s definitely about karate being pure, but pure in the sense of having a good heart and having a good head. Sensei Shintani always said, “If you have it here [points to heart], this is always gonna be strong [makes a fist].”
And Wado Kai – you mentioned Shotokan – Wado Kai is a derivative of Shotokan, and it’s a combination of that and a style of jiu-jitsu; Shindo Yoshin-ryu Jiu-Jitsu.
And that’s where Wado comes in. Wado means to blend or to harmonize – in harmony, so Sensei Otsuka took the basic form of his first style that he was the Master of, which was the jiu-jitsu. He trained with Gichin Funakoshi for a number of years and ended up blending those styles together to become Wado.
JR: Okay, so when I think of karate, I think of just as you’ve mentioned – punching and kicking and so on, and I’m sure you’re aware of this – I’ve been sportswriting for about two and half years now, mainly and predominantly in the area of mixed martial arts, and one thing that I’ve noticed in being a member of all of those martial arts forums and things like that is, karate doesn’t seem to get a lot of respect. Why do you think that is?
NP: You know… I don’t understand why any of the disciplines wouldn’t get an equal amount of respect. There are great stand-up fighters and there are great grapplers. I think it would be hard to argue that some of the best fighters in mixed martial arts don’t have a solid foundation in a single style first.
What I think that does is, it gives you an appreciation and an understanding of how the body actually works. There are certain things that you can do, and there are certain things that you can’t do. Everybody’s made up differently. Some people are gonna be able to kick high, some people are gonna be able to punch harder or faster – you need to find out what you can do first, and you need to find out where your balance points are. You need to find out what your strengths and your weaknesses are. And I agree that you always have to grow on that. To bombard somebody with everything right at the beginning like a lot of the clubs do these days…
JR: You mean like these MMA clubs?
NP: Yeah, I think it just waters it down a little bit. And I’m not – I don’t want to knock anybody. There are a lot of good guys out there that are teaching mixed martial arts and that’s no different than what Sensei Otsuka did back in the 30’s where he took jiu-jitsu, and he took karate, and he called it Wado, you know? He blended it. So I mean, people have been doing it for years. This is just a nice big sports craze that people are on right now.
JR: Do you see mixed martial arts – I actually… for myself, I’ve kinda stopped called it mixed martial arts and I’ve been referring to it as “fight entertainment” because for me, I mean… I do respect the fighters a lot and anyone who says that I don’t is crazy because absolutely I respect them, but the business model itself… I see that as being more geared towards just entertainment, just more towards – I see a very common similarity between the UFC and pro wrestling for example.
NP: I hope it never gets to the point of pro wrestling. I mean, that’s fun in its own right, there’s no doubt about it. Those guys are great athletes. They put themselves through a rigorous beating, night after night. There’s no doubt about that. They’re wonderful athletes, but I believe – if you don’t believe that they know the outcome before the fight, than I think that you’re maybe living in a fantasy world.
JR: Well, for sure. And that’s not really the comparison that I’m trying to make with the UFC. I don’t really think that the fighters go in and predetermine who’s going to win the match and so on, but it’s all that extra… publicity. I mean, I get that they have to hype a fight, but sometimes for me, I think that they take it a bit too far. Maybe I’m just showing my age, you know? I am 38-years old, so I’m not exactly the demographic of the UFC anymore, you know? They’re really focusing on their Facebook and the Twitter and kids – really targeting kids, and I think that for that younger generation coming up, my only concern is that they’re gonna come up and they’re going to see all the disrespect and the trash-talk and the lack of honour in some cases that a lot of these – not a lot, but some of these athletes exude, like Michael Bisping spitting on a corner or fighting with illegal techniques – it’s things like that that make me worry about the younger generation coming up and how they might perceive martial arts. Or if you’re a parent and you have a young child and you’re thinking, “Well, I’d like to get them involved in some activity,” and going to a karate class is one thing, but if you think that the means to an end of that karate class is that you’re training them to be some “Ultimate Fighter,” to knock someone out or to get knocked out, as a parent, if I knew very little of martial arts and that’s what they are projecting, I’d be very concerned.
NP: That is a concern, and martial arts really became popular in North America in the 60’s. It was obviously around before that, but 60’s, early 70’s, obviously driven by Bruce Lee in the early 70’s up until his untimely death and very unfortunate – there’s been a stigma about the tough guy image and all that, but that was the thing that Sensei Shintani was working towards – breaking that.
That’s why he said, “You’ve got to have a pure heart. You’ve got to have a pure mind.” And I think that’s true in any sport.
The things that make the highlight reel, unfortunately, are the things where in any sport, somebody goes beyond the boundary of what they should be doing, you know? All the bad hits in hockey are always highlights, you know? These sorts of things, to me… I don’t like a lot of the trash-talking. You don’t see a lot of the – the more respected fighters don’t get involved in the trash-talking. They stand back.
JR: No, that’s true. They don’t all get involved in that. Georges St-Pierre for example – he’s a class act all the way in my opinion.
JR: It’s fighters like him and various others that still keep me attracted to the sport, you know? I still very much enjoy watching the sport – I enjoy watching the fights. It’s just all that extra stuff I could do without, but like I said, it’s because I think it sends the wrong message that this is what martial arts is, and to me, that sort of stuff, and I’ve been around it long enough to know, that kind of stuff is more reserved for the barroom or the parking lot, you know? Places where fighting may occur, but in terms of martial arts, I think that it has to be presented in a such way that it’s done respectfully. Would you agree with that?
NP: Absolutely. That’s really what the core of martial arts is all about. It’s not just getting in a ring and pounding on each other. It’s about respect. It’s about… well, it’s a military art – martial arts. It’s about commitment. It’s about control. It’s about discipline.
And when you get into these trash-talking matches, it really takes away from that. And it’s taken away a lot of years that the martial arts community has been trying to educate people by saying, “This is about discipline. This is about building yourself as a better person, physically and mentally.”
And when you start glorifying all the other aspects that we’re getting into now, it’s taken 30 to 40 years of hard work in the martial arts community and just knocked it back, because I talk to people all the time that know nothing about the martial arts and they lump it all together.
“I’m not gonna have my kid learning how to beat somebody up.”
JR: Right. So what can we do? Or what can you do as a club owner, promoting karate and promoting martial arts? I mean, what are some things that you can do to reassure parents about the benefits of what their kids are gonna get out of it? What are kids gonna get out of karate?
NP: I try to convey the message that it’s about structure, it’s about discipline, it’s about focus, and I mean, those are words that you can just throw out there, but you have to be able to back them up. Structure is, right from where you take your shoes off in the hallway and you don’t walk on the floor with them. It’s about bowing in. The kids don’t know what the bowing has to do with karate until you tell them, that it’s a respect for what we’re going to be doing. It’s a respect for the instructors. A respect for the people that you’re working out with because you need people to workout with and be your partner. It’s about following rules and it’s about doing things together. Even though it’s a very individual sport, you need to almost choreograph the techniques and have people follow along.
And the whole thing is about – when you create an atmosphere that is a good atmosphere with good people, bad people may come in and check it out, but they’re not gonna stay long.
Or they’re gonna conform, you know?
They may come in with the idea, “Hey, I’m gonna go into a karate club or jiu-jitsu club or whatever, and I’m gonna learn how to fight and beat people up,” but when they see what’s actually going on, they’re either gonna say, “This is not for me,” or they’re gonna say, “Hey, wow, this is a lot different than what I was expecting it to be, and if I want to continue on learning what they have to offer, then I’m gonna have to conform.” Because I believe as an instructor, you can’t just tell them what to do. You have to show them exactly what it is that you’re expecting from them. And you have to be that person 24-7. And you have to be that person on the street. You have to be that person when you go out at night, you know? Not just that person in the dojo, because your students are gonna be around and they’re gonna see how you act in every situation. I’ve been in situations where I could have gotten myself into a lot of trouble. I’ve done some security work at some of the local establishments, and it’s easy when there are 500 people and you just want to get rid of the trouble and just rough ‘em up, but to me, that was the wrong way of doing it. I know it happens, but that was the wrong way of doing it. I actually pride myself on telling a little story – one time when someone was giving me a really hard time at the bar one night, and this guy was in my face, I just kept saying, “Calm down, calm down, let’s forget about it,” I knew he was going out. Eventually, I just told him, “You know what? Enough is enough. You gotta get outta here.” I talked him out – he left.
I didn’t tell him, “Never come back.” Or I didn’t call him names or anything like that. It was just “You’re outta here.” He actually came back the next night and apologized. And he thanked me for not hitting him – for not taking advantage of him, because you can easily do that. And I guess that’s the type of discipline that you have to develop. I was very, very confident that I could handle myself in that situation, and many times when people are under the influence, it’s very easy. But you have to set the example regardless of the situation that you’re in.