Spotlight: Terry O’Neill – The Hard Man of Shotokan

Terry O’Neill is a true legend of British martial arts and Shotokan Karate. As a competitor and instructor he is one of the most respected martial artist. At his competitive height he was one of the most feared tournament fighters. This hard man of Shotokan Karate has been described as the equivalent of a guided missile system.

The son of an ex policeman, Terence O’Neill was born in the city of Liverpool on 27 February 1948.

Through his father O’Neill developed an interest in wanting to be physically fit and strong. He developed an interest in Edgar Rice Burrough’s character of Tarzan. Through his fathers encouragement he started practising Jujitsu at the Skyners Jujitsu club. His father also encouraged him to learn Judo. He also learnt techniques from Judo expert, Pat Butler’s Judo books.

O’Neill attended the St James School, at the time one of the most cosmopolitan schools in Liverpool. He passed the 13+ exam And attended Toxteth Technical School.

In 1961 O’Neill started taking Judo lessons. During a practice session he broke his collarbone after being thrown. That same year O’Neill’s father died after suffering a stroke. He was 70 years old.

Vernon Bell had introduced a little known art of Karate to the United Kingdom in the early 1960s . In Liverpool O’Neill had heard about Karate but could find very little information on it and could not find a place to train. His mother wanted him to continue to Judo especially when she heard that Karate could lead to hand deformity.

On 1963 O’Neill finally found a local club teaching Karate. The club was located in Harold House, a Jewish community centre in Liverpool. To train one had to be 16 years old and needed character references.

On 21 May 1963 O’Neill applied to the British Karate Federation’s (BKF) Liverpool dojo. He was only 15 years old, so had to lie about his age. He gave his date of birth as 8 May 1947 . He had a police friend of his dad write a reference. He started training shortly after his 15th birthday, giving up Judo. His first instructor was Andy Sherry.

Before he started training he would attend the club and watch the training sessions. He never missed the session. He also had a chance to observe courses conducted by Vernon Bell and Tetsuji Murakami on their visits to Liverpool.

Murakami conducted a course at the BKF Liverpool dojo on 9 November 1963. Following the the course a grading was held. O’Neill was advanced by several grades, going from a beginner to a 5th Kyu.

O’Neill had always wanted to be a policeman, following in his father’s footsteps. Unfortunately he failed the eye test required for entry into the police cadets. So in 1964 aged 16 he got a job working at the Tower Ballroom. He got to know a well-known wrestler called Tommy McNally who had helped him get the job. It was around this time that he started bodybuilding in an attempt to bulk up. He soon got a job working on the door of the iconic Cavern Club, made famous by musical groups such as the Beatles.

On 23 April 1965 a group of instructors from the Japan Karate Association (JKA) gave a Karate demonstration at the St. Georges Hall in Liverpool. The group consisted of Taiji Kase, Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda and Hiroshi Shirai. This demonstration and others around the country had a massive influence on the directions of Shotokan Karate in the UK.

Several months after the JKA demonstration, Enoeda arrived in the UK and became the resident instructor at the Liverpool dojo. He initially lived with O’Neill and his mother on the 12th floor of their 22-story flat.

Enoeda had a very militaristic approach to his teaching. This style of teaching initially drove away many students from the dojo. However, those that remained would form the core of a very strong Shotokan club. Rare footage exists of Enoeda teaching some of his students, including O’Neill, at Sefton Park. The film shows a young O’Neill already showing his strong physique and trademark kicks.

In 1966 O’Neill was graded to 1st Dan by Enoeda. The following year, what was to become a stellar competitive career began with a loss due to experience.

O’Neill showed his versatility by coming second to Andy Sherry in the individual kata event at the 1968 KUGB National Championships. This led to a call up to the KUGB National Squad. The following year he became the KUGB individual kumite champion beating Danny Bryceland in the final. Later that year he won gold at the South African Games.

Through the late 1960s to the early 1980s O’Neill had a very successful competitive career. He was equally comfortable performing kata or kumite. Between 1967 to 1980 he was involved in ten KUGB kata finals, winning seven of them. He was also involved in five KUGB kumite finals, winning four of them. He was KUGB Grand Champion on three occasions. He was also a member of the Red Triangle Liverpool kumite team that won numerous titles.

O’Neill was a member of the British All-Stars Karate team. At the 1972 World Championships held in Paris, he captained the team to a joint third place finish with Singapore, behind France and Italy. On route to their podium finish they defeated a strong Japanese team that featured Norihiko Iida, Yukichi Tabata, Masahiko Tanaka and the Takeshi Oishi. Several years later he was part of another British team that defeated a strong Japanese Team, to become Team kumite champions at the 1975 World Championships held in Long Beach, California .

In 1982 O’Neill sustained a knee injury against Italy during an international match. Unfortunately this led to his retirement from competition.

April 1972 saw the publication of issue one of the influential Fighting Arts Magazine. A quarterly publication, it was founded by O’Neill with the help of Steve Cattle. Issue one featured a self defence tutorial from Enoeda and also articles on Kickboxing and Kiai-Jutsu. The magazine featured interviews with masters from a wide range of martial arts, conducted by O’Neill. In 1985 the magazine was renamed Fighting Arts International. A fan favourite, the magazine ceased publication in 1997 at the height of his popularity and success.

Away from Karate and being the editor of a successful magazine, O’Neill continued to work on the door of several clubs. During this time he had to use his Karate techniques to defuse some situations.

In 1984 O’Neill made his acting debut as a village ‘heavy’ in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Conan the Destroyer. Having a shared interest in bodybuilding, the two men became friends. While on set they would sometimes train before filming started. In the years to come O’Neill would work on some of Schwarzenegger’s biggest films as a martial arts coordinator.

The 1990s saw O’Neill’s television and film career blossom. In 1992 he appeared in the critically Acclaimed television series, Civvies, by Lynda La Plante. He also appeared in the television drama, The Governor. His feature film credits also include appearing alongside Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the film Entrapment in 1999. He also appeared in the blockbusters, Gangs of New York (2002) and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003).

In 2009 O’Neill won the award for ‘Best Actor in a Short Drama’ at the End of the Pier International Film Festival, for the film Giri. The film tells the story of a martial arts master dying of cancer. He decides he wants to commit suicide using the traditional Japanese ritual of Hara-Kiri. For the role he studied with Terry Ezra on how to use a traditional Japanese sword.

2011 saw the publication of Working with Warriors by Dennis Martin. In the book Martin describes his experience working as a doorman with O’Neill and Gary Spires on the doors of some of Liverpool’s toughest nightclubs. A fascinating aspect of the book is how the men used Karate in real-world scenarios.

O’Neill has been a stalwart of the KUGB. He has been a top competitor and one of the most respected instructors. In 2004 he was awarded his 7th Dan at the KUGB National Championships. At the 2013 KUGB National Championships he was awarded his 8th Dan. Currently he is a member of the KUGB Technical Committee alongside Andy Sherry, Bob Poynton, Bob Rhodes, Billy Higgins and Frank Brennan.

An actor/author/publisher/bodybuilder/martial artist/doorman, Terry O’Neill has excelled in whatever he has chosen to do. A physically big man, his agility and speed are second to none. One of the most respected martial artists in the world he has gained real-world combat experience, developed by working as a doorman in some of the toughest parts of Liverpool. He has shown the real practical aspects of Shotokan Karate.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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