(First published in Martial Arts Illustrated 2006)
Jamie Clubb exclusively trains with and interviews the legendary man who taught Geoff Thompson the secrets of street-fighting!
“Simply Awesome”: John Anderson
By Jamie Clubb
“You don’t want to take the chance of being in a fight. On the street the one-punch knockout is what you are after.”
– John Anderson
John Anderson is an undisputed legend and it seems rather odd to consider him part of the “Geoff’s Heirs” series. After all John is the man who taught Geoff some of his most valid lessons in reality-based self-protection, whilst the two worked the doors on some of country’s most notorious night clubs. Nevertheless it has only been in recent years that John has taken up formal teaching, under the banner of Geoff’s appointed chief instructor of the Geoff Thompson Real Combat System, Matty Evans. So, just as John helped Geoff to understand the “rules” and methods of the street, Geoff brought John to the world of martial arts instruction.
John “Awesome” Anderson was a renowned head doorman in Coventry, during the 1980s. This was a time when the over-populated West Midlands city was declared the most violent place in Europe. Ever since Geoff wrote his autobiography, “Watch My Back”, his devoted readers and students marvelled at the image of John Anderson – the fighter who had no background in formal martial arts training; a no-nonsense man of the street with the cool dialogue and the incredible left-hook. However, despite Geoff’s lionisation of this famous local character, John Anderson remains an incredibly humble and down-to-earth man.
John grew up on a tough council estate, one of four brothers. Many who know of his “Awesome” reputation might be surprised to find out that John was bullied at school. He puts these childhood assaults mainly down to his mixed race origins; his mother was English and his father was West Indian. However, a year before he left school he made a conscious decision to stick up for himself. This change of attitude would significantly alter the course of his life:
“I thought while they are hitting me, why aren’t I hitting them back? And I found, through them, how easy it was to fight someone. This was because they [the bullies] couldn’t take being hit. Their threshold of taking hits was so much lower than mine. Mine was right up there. You could hit me with a stick all day long and I would still be defiant. Whereas your average guy – your average bully – doesn’t know what it is like to be hit, doesn’t know what it is like to be hurt. And that is his downfall.”
The physical abuse John had taken at school helped build up his mental armour, conditioning him against the fear of being hurt. Knowing that he could take the violence, he decided to dish it out himself against his tormentors. When he was met with the inevitability of violence John pre-empted his enemy and won his first fight. This newly acquired confidence allied with his natural wiry strength ensured that he would turn the tables on the bullies throughout his final school year and enter the world outside with the knowledge that he need not be at the mercy of hate crime. John was never much into being part of a gang, but living around the tougher areas of Coventry meant that the shy teenager would still often find himself in street-fights.
At the age of eighteen John began weight training at a typical “spit and sawdust” gym, Coventry Baths, to further develop his strength and natural abilities:
“I don’t think weight training gives you a better punch. Weight training builds you more for taking physical punishment. If you feel strong physically and you get into one of those clinches in a raw street-fight, you feel the power is there and it helps you. Weight training for me is a great supplement for fighting.”
As part of his regular workout on the free weights, John would also hit the old bag they had hung up at the back of the gym. His interest in this area of training prompted him to buy a bag of his own, which he hung up in his bedroom. Back home he admits that he found it difficult to leave the bag alone and would work for hours perfecting the strikes that had given him the highest success rate:
“I would often spend half an hour just working a single punch in order to get it right. I would work the technique from anywhere. I would turn my back to the bag and spin around and hit it. Then I’d walk around the bag with my hands in my pockets and hit from there. This was just so that I could punch with power without having to set myself up because [on the street] setting yourself up is a waste of time.”
Little did John know at the time that these were his first physical steps in his self-education; an education that would result in the fighting method that would help influence the “reality-based self-defence” martial arts movement of the 1990s.
One day John was asked, as a one-off favour, to mind the doors of a local Coventry club by a friend of his, “Big Danny”. John had not built up much of a reputation as a fighter, but Danny knew John to be a strong, able-bodied person and – most importantly – an individual he could rely on, someone he could trust. During the 1970s and ‘80s reputation as a fighter meant everything if you were to be employed as a doorman and repeat work for nightclubs was decided upon by your ability to handle violent encounters. If you could not take the pressure, word would swiftly spread and any future work would no longer be a possibility. John had no aspirations to work the doors as a career, but before long it became a regular occurrence. He learnt from his experiences, growing into a formidable fighter and eventually became the main doorman in Coventry’s most notoriously violent night club.
John had already had a few experiences of knocking people out, but it was only when he began working on the doors that he developed it into a craft for survival:
“As soon as I started working the door I began going through a learning process. This came from watching. Every punch thrown I watched and I logged it. Every mistake someone made I watched and I logged it. You put them all together as you go along. You get all this DNA of fighting. Everyone does the same thing when out in the street, fighting. Then once you get this into your brain, it makes your fight game so much easier.
“Before I worked the door my fighting was very raw. Once I was on the door I worked at becoming an intelligent fighter.”
It was around this time that he began working out and trading ideas with other doormen and boxers. His boxing training was very informal. He did not go for classes, but trained in an old barn with both amateur and professional fighters, picking up tips and sharpening his skills. He trained alongside several Coventry notables such as Ricky James and Winston Davis. John would watch, listen and learn from these fighters, taking their ideas home and working hard to develop what worked best for him. Western Boxing is a combat art that John rates highly. He admires the variety of punches it provides, which are often neglected by practitioners of other arts. He also likes the way a boxer trains to punch from anywhere, any angle and at any time.
As far as the whole street-fighting framework was concerned, however, John acknowledges that Big Danny helped him understand the ins and outs of working the doors:
“I picked up a lot from him on how to handle people – how to talk to them. Even if he hated a guy he would speak nicely to him. If got into a bit of an argument with a guy he would know how to talk round them and defuse a situation. But when things went too far he would know when to cut blunt and say ‘go or fight’. That’s the way I always handled situations. I wouldn’t say a lot, but when it came to the time I would just put the question to them. That’s something I learnt from him.”
After about a year of working the doors, John became more apt at finishing fights early on with his famous knockout ability. Early on he admits to having a degree of hesitancy, where he worried about the consequences if his pre-emptive strike did not work. However, being thrust in the deep end encouraged him to get over this fear pretty quickly. Going back to his tough childhood experiences at school, John decided soon that “they couldn’t hurt me. I’d had fifteen years of being hurt.”
As well as boxers, John met doormen with backgrounds in other styles. There were Karateka and Taekwondoka working the doors in the ‘80s and he often admired their kicking ability – particularly the low kicks and the sweeps. However, with regards to punching, all he can remember is that these doormen wanted to learn about punching from him. Four years on from when he first began working the doors and John had matured as a street-fighter, developing his own informal system that would end fights pretty much before they had started most of the time. He would still continue to watch and learn, as he does to this day, but had a fairly robust individual method for handling situations efficiently.
Then, one day, another friend of his, “Colin”, sent up a “nerdy” Karate man who looked like he would fall apart at the seams when the slightest hint of trouble arose. John was not happy with Danny’s choice and even phoned him up to complain. Colin stuck by his decision and a dubious John feared for what the night might bring. As luck would have it that very night his new apprentice was given a trial by fire as trouble did surface. To John’s surprise, Colin’s recommendation proved he could more than hold his own in this violent environment. The man, of course, was Geoff Thompson and the rest, as they say, is history.
John Anderson would work the doors for another ten years, leaving in a time when the whole culture of the “bouncer” was changing drastically. After persuasion from his now famous doorman protégé, Geoff Thompson, John eventually began taking steps into the world of formal training. He began working with Matty Evans, the man Geoff appointed as his chief instructor. Today he helps Matty run classes in pragmatic grappling and striking in Coventry. It was at this stage in John’s life that I had the privilege of receiving a private lesson from John thanks to Matty who I train under regularly. The experience would further inspire me to look at the core primal basics of training from a functional point of view.
©Copyright Jamie Clubb 2010