Richard Norton: Master of Freestyle Fighting

Written by Ben Stone & Mark Boon Souphanh

Soke Richard Norton, 8th Dan, is as well known for his lightning speed and mastery of multiple martial arts as for his many action movie roles, both as an actor and fight choreographer. When Norton graced the very first cover of Blitz — his first of many over 25 years — he already had many years of fighting experience, having been a founding member of the notoriously tough Zen Do Kai and working for many years alongside its creator, Soke Bob Jones, as a bodyguard to the stars. Today, he heads the Zen Do Kai/BJMA organisation in Australia, has co-founded Tactical MMA with Jeremy Ta’kody, and is branching out with his own BJJ organisation.

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Richard, you were involved with Blitz from its inception. Has much changed in martial arts since then?

I believe there was a different kind of passion for martial arts back then. These days there's such an emphasis on who's making the most money, doing the most seminars, or got the most belts and rankings. Of course, this is a very general statement, but I do think 25 years ago there wasn't the same acceptance of mediocrity in martial arts schools that there is now.

You were part of the golden age of martial arts action movies in the late '80s and '90s, when Van Damme, Lundgren, etc. were at their peak. They paved the way for Jackie Chan and Jet Li to grab Western audiences, but after 2000 we saw a switch to more Hollywood actors being trained in martial arts to do action movies. What is the future for martial artists in cinema?

We have to remember that guys like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and, of course, Bruce Lee were the inspiration for people like Van Damme and Steven Seagal to even become involved in the first place. People like Jackie still had an incredible audience in America, and even Australia, it just wasn't as mainstream. I think once you take martial arts films out of the realm of believability, Western audiences become less inclined to take a liking to them. Movies like Rumble in the Bronx were targeted to more of a Western audience with a more developed script and characters. Jackie realised while doing the Rush Hour movies that he had to work on two types of movies; he knew whatever he did in the West wouldn't work in the Asian market and vice versa. There was just a whole different level of appreciation, depending on the audience.

As the popularity of action movies grew in the West during the '90s, you had to have lead actors who knew how to act. A great martial artist could be fantastically skilled, but if he didn't understand the skills needed to be a good actor, it just wouldn't work. In the movie industry you need big names; a Tom Cruise would obviously bring more people to the cinema than a martial artist. This led to a lot of pre-production where the actor would be trained beforehand until he/she was passable, and of course they would have a very talented martial artist double.

People ask me how they can get into movies and I always tell them you have to work as hard on your acting as your martial arts, otherwise you'll always end up being ‘stuntman number five' in the background.

The future for martial artists is healthy because they realise that they have to be good actors to work in film. Guys like Mark Dacascos are fantastic actors who are also great martial artists. There are so many shows nowadays that involve action, so the scope for martial artists to work in film is better than ever. I currently do a lot of stunt and fight co-ordinating. I actually have a role in an upcoming Mad Max film, and I started training the lead, Tom Hardy [Warrior], who absolutely loves BJJ and couldn't get enough of it. He was constantly sneaking out of script meetings to go do some ‘jits', as he always called it (laughs).

Given we're now in the ‘information age' and cross-training is so popular, backed by huge interest in MMA, is this the best era for organisations like ZDK?

No doubt about it. When ZDK first started, it loosely meant ‘the best of everything in progression'. So technically, we were doing MMA back in the '70s. Most people associate MMA with the UFC, but if you're speaking in terms of Mixed Martial Arts, we were integrating a variety of styles into ZDK so it's not really new for us. However, what is new is the fact that it's now mainstream. ZDK now caters for BJJ, Muay Thai and karate, as well as other arts.

Some may see it as ironic that many ZDK seniors are now going back to the system's roots in Okinawan Goju to discover what's been lost. What do you make of this - is it a necessary stage in the evolution of the art? There's never been a lack of interest in kata training in ZDK. We're a product of what we're exposed to. Anything that helps us do our fundamentals better is always a good thing. This modern combat environment has, of course, influenced the evolution of our kata. I think it's exciting to go back and look at the original kata and put a modern-day combat adaptation to those techniques. In other words, make it applicable if, say, three guys attacked you with knives in downtown Melbourne. Whether we like it or not, the traditional martial arts are not surviving in the same way they were. Again, it is due to the modern combat environment.

One of the biggest developments we've seen since Blitz first hit stands is the MMA/grappling revolution, of which you've been a big part Down Under. In the 1990s, BJJ was considered revolutionary; a realistic rebuff to the more traditional arts that were considered either too unrealistic or sport-focused. Has it now come full circle, with BJJ being derided by some as too sport-oriented and some revered instructors, including several of the Gracie brothers, trying to push ‘traditional' BJJ over sport BJJ?

I recently had a great conversation with Rorion Gracie, and his big gripe was that Gracie Jiu-Jitsu was never meant to be a sport. He believes the sport has destroyed a lot of what it was meant to be about. It was always created to be about the street and a submission art. Their early techniques were designed to stifle the attacker on the street; they would learn to defend themselves against someone who was trying to punch and kick, rather than just arm-barring them.

I absolutely agree with that; it's very important that BJJ students are introduced to the self-defence aspect before they focus on the sport aspects. Nowadays, a guy can have a good takedown, guard-pass and maybe a good side-control, and they have the tools to be a world champion. When I first started training with Rickson Gracie, the first thing he taught me was how to escape a standing headlock, before we did any techniques on the ground. This was a great intro for me because, let's face it, no one is going to do a spider-guard, de la Riva, x-guard, or open-guard on the street... it would be ludicrous. Don't get me wrong, I think the sport aspect of BJJ is necessary as it gives practitioners a chance to compete against one another in a safely regulated way, as well as develop confidence and character. We just have to accept the sports side for what it is. If BJJ practitioners want something more realistic, they have MMA.

What is ‘Tactical MMA', the system you co-founded with former Blitz editor Jeremy Ta'kody, and why did you establish it?

TMMA is essentially ‘modern techniques with traditional values'. It is, again, a product of this modern environment. We are trying to instil the traditional values of being a martial artist and not just a ‘fighter'. If you're a martial arts instructor and don't accept that today's environment is about MMA, you most likely won't last. It's a matter of evolving and keeping up with the times. We've been working on this for about three years so it's very thorough; we're trying to make it reasonably user-friendly. There's a demand for MMA everywhere, so we're trying to provide a curriculum that will satisfy that. Jeremy is a fantastic martial artist and has put so much effort into this. We've incorporated all our martial arts experience to create something cutting-edge in TMMA.

People go to train martial arts at a dojo because they appreciate the ‘authentic' martial arts experience that they can't replicate at home. We're teaching people some quite lethal techniques once they get to a certain skill level, so if we don't instil a sense of respect, honour and integrity, then we're doing society an injustice by letting these individuals out on the streets.

What does the immediate future hold for you and the BJC?

Well, for me it's business as usual. Talking about MMA and cross-training, I've cross-trained since day one. All I've ever done is search for people who can teach me something new and that's still what I endeavour to do. I continually want to be a student of martial arts and I will continue to instill this philosophy with the BJC. I'm still not close to the end of my martial arts journey. It's about ‘emptying my cup and wanting to taste someone else's tea'. Very soon I'm starting my own BJJ association called Richard Norton BJJ, which will be under Jean Jacques Machado, who I have trained with for over 25 years. The TMMA will be underway and it will be online, so that is also really exciting.

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