Gary Viccars

Written by Ben Stone

Master of ‘The Hardest Karate’

Shihan Gary Viccars, 7th Dan, is among Australia’s most highly regarded instructors of Kyokushin karate. Having started learning the style known as ‘the hardest karate’ in 1968, he now oversees 24 dojos as head of the Victorian branch of the Australian Kyokushin Karate Association. He’s been around, and then some: he completed the infamous winter training course in Japan under the art’s founder, Sosai Mas Oyama; he fought and won in countless tournaments; he once teamed up with a colleague to smash 300 roof tiles in 28 seconds; and in the year Blitz was born, he joined an elite few in completing the gruelling 50-man kumite.

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The year Blitz began (1987) was an important one for you, as you completed Kyokushin's notorious 50-man kumite at age 39. What did that mean as a landmark in your karate journey, and how has it shaped your view of what martial arts training is all about?

I was always keen to test myself as a martial artist and I figured that was one of best ways to do it. The training that was required really shaped me and made me realise that you don't get anything unless you put the time and effort into it.

You mentioned a ‘mental trick' helped you get through that challenge - can you explain what it was?

I trained really, really hard to get to that day and I was as fit as I could be. However, about 10 or 12 fights into it I started to feel really tired and began to doubt whether I was going to make it. I remember standing there thinking, ‘I'm really fit and prepared as hard as I could for this, so what the hell's the problem?' Then I suddenly realised that I was thinking I had 10 fights and 40 to go, and my brain was telling my body, ‘This is too much'. So I said to myself, all I was going to worry about was doing five fights at a time. Lo and behold, in no time I had only five fights to go. It just showed me that I needed to look at the task in small steps rather than look at the whole picture. That taught me a big lesson and has been a real help, not only in training but life in general.

In your opinion, what have been the most significant events in the 25 years since then, in terms of what has changed the direction or perception of martial arts as a whole?

Unfortunately, I believe society has developed an ‘I want it now' attitude and the value of traditional, long-term training seems to be overlooked in a mad rush to get qualified. I think the perception of martial arts has moved from being difficult and long-term, to guys getting Black-belts in one or two years. In my view, that is a crazy attitude - if you took any physical activity and said that, you'd just be laughed at. For example, if you told someone they'd be playing for Geelong Football Club in two years after no previous training, everyone would just laugh at you.

Unfortunately, I do know a few instructors who give Black-belts after 12-to-18 months. I've always said to my guys that some day you're going to have to prove that you're worthy of the belt you're wearing, and I'm sure a lot of people would come up short if they ever had to do that. Martial arts are primarily used for self-defence and if you can't properly defend yourself, how can you claim to be a proper martial artist? How have these trends and changes in martial arts affected Kyokushin and dojo operators like yourself? In recent years, for example, kickboxing classes have become a common side-venture for Kyokushin instructors. Obviously, people who run full-time dojos have an obligation to teach good martial arts... but they also have to pay the rent. There's often a clash between the two; if you continue to train hard and correctly, then sometimes you lose students and then can't pay the rent. There's always that clash between tradition and commercialism. In the old days when Sosai [Oyama] was alive in Japan, for every person that left the dojo, another three would come in. We are aware that some students may want to change dojos because another instructor may ‘go easier'. But there is a line there where we have to say, ‘This is Kyokushin and this what we're about. If you don't like it, then maybe it's not for you.' As far as the kickboxing goes, that's what is popular nowadays. However, even kickboxers have to learn to punch and kick properly and that's why I encourage Kyokushin kickboxers to not lose their Kyokushin identity.

Kyokushin has changed too, with a lot of branch-off styles growing out of the art. Sosai Oyama had a massive following but since his death in 1994, that huge pool of talent and experience has split into various smaller pools that are no longer connected. How has this affected the development of Kyokushin itself, and the full-contact competition scene?

Unfortunately, there are many splinter groups and everyone professes to be teaching true Kyokushin. However, I think that once the Sosai-influenced generation finishes, things will change. People introduce techniques or do things they've always wanted to do. Kyokushin will be a lot different to when Sosai was alive. Unfortunately, that's part of the make-up of people.

Some say that the age where you can teach a traditional martial art without either simplifying it for faster learning or watering it down to cater to more people has gone, and the ‘old ways' will soon be lost. What's your opinion on this?

I agree 100 per cent; the old ways certainly will be lost. I guess, in a way, it's part of the journey because the journey comes through gaining practical experience. Once the people who have trained with Sosai are gone, it's up to someone else to stand up and say ‘This is how I'm going to do it' and hope it stands the test of time. You have trained in Japan with Oyama, whose training sessions were notoriously hard.

How did the training of those times compare, in terms of its effectiveness and the challenge, to Kyokushin training today? Are there pros and cons to the changes that have occurred, and are any old ways likely to make a comeback?

Training with Sosai was really hard - some would say brutal, to some degree. They trained harder and longer, and did many things a lot of classes [now] don't do. In the end, you have to say the training he used produced a bunch of really good fighters. Unfortunately, we can't train like that these days and we're very mindful of that. If we trained the way Sosai did, we'd have no students within a couple of months. We have to balance the philosophy of what we want to do with how we're doing it. We need things to retain the students' interest, so we focus more on technique rather than physical conditioning.

If you do too many push-ups and sit-ups during class, it takes up too much of the time when you should be focusing on technique. Physical conditioning can be done outside the dojo and the AKKA are always striving to keep things interesting. In terms of training methods, I don't see many old methods having a resurgence. However, I have noticed that the older, more aggressive toe-to-toe tournament fighting style is beginning to make a comeback after emphasis on movement and evasion in recent years. You undertook a rigorous grading in 2006 for your 7th Dan. This is somewhat unique in martial arts, as many senior grades are awarded without requiring a physical exam (i.e. for time spent in the art, teaching efforts, etc.).

Do you think senior ranks should be based on an increase in physical skill and understanding, or is it more about the effort required to do the testing itself?

I believe that up to at least 7th Dan there should be a physical test. That grading I did in 2006 was the hardest day of my entire life. It was mind-numbing and exhausting. It was also one of the greatest days of my life; when I walked off, I had such a sense of achievement. It's something you really can't describe. I have a much stronger appreciation of Kyokushin because of it. I think after 7th Dan onwards it should be based more on your capabilities as an instructor; your achievements, your students, your dojo reputation, etc. All those things should come into play.

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