A larger-than-life character, Gary Spiers was one of the earliest exponents of practical applied Karate in the United Kingdom. He was a no-nonsense martial artist who used Karate as a tool to protect himself. Some have described him as having one of the best combat brains. Like his good friend, Terry O’Neill, he had the ability to use Karate in real-world situations.
Gary Spiers was born around 1943 in New Zealand. He was half Maori.
Growing up, the young Spiers became interested in boxing. At the age of 7, he wanted to box, but his mother would not allow it.
Instead of boxing, Spiers began wrestling. His teacher was a fairground fighter, who regularly took on all-comers every night. Spires loved the combat side of wrestling that he was introduced to.
At schools, Spiers frequently got into fights. He attended a school where he was only one of seven Maori children in the entire school. He was often picked on, so had to learn to defend himself.
As a teenager, Spiers became interested in Karate, after coming across the “Manual of Karate“, by EJ Harrison. He wanted to learn Karate, but there was only one Karate dojo in New Zealand at the time. It was only open to Europeans.
Unable to find a Karate dojo, Spiers began training in Judo.
After leaving school, Spiers began working at a large meatworks as a butcher. He was a seasonal worker and travelled to different parts of New Zealand for work.
In 1962 Spiers moved to Brisbane, Australia, around the age of 19.
Spiers began practising Okinawan Shorei Karate at the dojo of John Ryan. Because he was a seasonal worker, he travelled to other parts of the country. This provided him with the opportunity to train at other dojos and in various styles. You had a chance to double in Jujitsu and amateur wrestling.
Around 1963 Spiers began working as a doorman at several bars and clubs in the Melbourne area. Being around 6 ft and 240 lb, he was tailor-made for the job.
Spiers was involved in many situations and was stabbed several times. He soon became an inspiration and legend among other doormen in Australia.
In April 1968 Spiers made the decision to go to Japan to further his Karate knowledge. He departed Sydney for Japan by ship.
In Japan, Spiers enrolled at the Goju-Ryu dojo of Gogen Yamaguchi. He also visited several university dojos to get extra practice. Being a big foreigner he would he would have to face the senior grades at the dojos who wanted to gain more experience fighting bigger opponents. They did not hold back, and he and his fellow foreign students were frequently covered in bruises. He was given the name Kuma-San (Mister Bear).
While in Japan, Spiers supported himself by teaching English. He also supplemented his income by working in restaurants.
There were other foreigners in Japan, practising various styles, including Goju-Ryu, Shorinji Kempo, Shotokan, Judo, and Jujitsu. Spiers and some of these foreigners formed a training group called the Ikebukuro Jujitsu Club.
During his time in Japan, Spiers made some friends with other foreigners training in the country at the time. This included Brian Fitkin, Steve Peck, John Robertson, Brian Waites, Ray Edler, and Steve Morris to name a few.
Later in 1968 Spiers travelled to Okinawa where he trained at the Jundokan dojo of Eiichi Miyazato. At the dojo, he learnt Okinawan Goju-Ryu.
On his return to Japan, Spiers continued his Okinawan Goju–Ryu training at the Yoyogi dojo of Morio Higaonna in Tokyo. Stayed at Higaonna’s home as a guest. Spiers developed an immense respect for Higaonna, stating he was one of the best fighters he ever faced.
In 1970 the 1st WUKO World Karate Championships were held in Tokyo, Japan. During this time Higaonna introduced Spier to Terry O’Neill.
Both Spiers and O’Neill found that they had a lot in common. They eventually became lifelong friends. O’Neill encouraged Spiers to come to England.
In 1971 Spiers left Japan for England. He travelled via Russia. He settled in Liverpool where he stayed with O’Neill for a couple of years.
In Liverpool, Spiers began teaching, Okinawan Goju–Ryu Karate. He also tried to find work as a butcher.
Work was difficult to find Spiers. However, O’Neill found work for him as a doorman. As in Australia, Spiers soon developed a reputation for being an excellent doorman who could resolve many situations.
Spiers eventually established a dojo where he taught his own practical version of Karate. Much of what he taught was from the experience he had gained as a doorman.
In 1972 the 7th European Karate Championships was held in Brussels, Belgium. Spiers was selected to represent Great Britain as a member of the All-Styles Karate Squad. Britain won silver behind France in the Team Kumite event. He was selected to compete in several other British Teams.
In April 1973 The Japan Karate-do College was opened. It offered Karate lessons from all the Chief Instructors of the major Japanese Karate schools, with the exception of Shotokan.
The Chief Instructors were Hironori Ohtsuka of Wado-Ryu; Manzo Iwata of Shito-Ryu; Hirayasu Tamae of Rembukan; Goshi Yamaguchi of Goju-Ryu; and Motokasu Inoue of Ryukyu Kobudo. Gogen Yamaguchi was the President of the college.
Spiers returned to Japan in 1975, where he attended the Japan Karate-do College. He was the third European to graduate from the college.
In 1975 Spiers was promoted to 4th Dan by Gogen Yamaguchi, who presented him with his belt and certificate. He was eventually promoted to 5th Dan by Yamaguchi.
On his return to Liverpool Spiers continued working as a doorman, and developing his applied Karate.
By 1986 Spiers had established Applied Karate. The style was more geared to the practical needs of doormen. He ran a training group, where many of the students were doormen who manned the doors in venues in Liverpool, Southport, and Blackpool.
With his experience in Australia and England as a doorman, Spiers saw the need for doormen who were more professional. Previously doormen would only work at particular venues with those they knew. By the mid-80s, he began bringing the different doormen together in something like a union. This helped produce more professional doormen in the industry.
In 1988, the entertainer, Michael Jackson held a concert at the Aintree Racecourse in Liverpool. This was at the height of his fame. Spiers was handpicked by Jackson’s management team to be his bodyguard during his visit to Liverpool.
By 2001 Spiers had become one of the faces of British martial arts. He was also a legend in security circles because of how effectively he ran the doors at venues located in tough areas. There are many anecdotes detailing how effective he was as a doorman.
On 17 February 2001, Gary Spiers was rushed to the Arrow Park Hospital in the Wirral. He was pronounced dead, from a heart attack after developing pancreatitis. This followed a two-year battle with diabetes. Those who had known him were devastated by his death.
Spiers’ body was returned to New Zealand for a traditional Maori burial.
Gary Spiers can rightly be described as one of the pioneers of Applied Karate in the UK. Described as the reincarnation of a Maori warrior, he was a tough man who had been a doorman for over 20 years.
Probably what made Spiers an affected doorman was his ability to take the traditional Karate he had been taught, and adapt the techniques to real-world situations.