Despite having my big toe dipped into the pool of the local great and the good, it is still rare to come across a master in any martial art discipline. A grand-master is harder to find than a leprechaun riding a unicorn…..while playing the banjo. Despite this, find one I did (Grandmaster that is), in the form of Cardiff’s Grandmaster Prewett. He was kind enough to let me interview him and get a bit of background on how a local lad could rise up to become a globally known respected figure in ITF Taekwondo and part of the small but elite group of Grandmasters. Here’s how it went……
How did you get into Taekwondo?
I joined in 1971. I was playing rugby and broke my leg so had some time away from it. In those days, there were no fitness clubs or leisure centres such as they are now and someone suggested that I try Taekwondo to keep fit. There were only two Taekwondo schools in Wales at the time; one in Barry and one in Bishop Hannon School – Cardiff. I went to the Cardiff one, loved it and just didn’t leave. Our club was very successful especially in the 1980s where we’d won everything. Don’t get me wrong, there were peaks and troughs but we did win pretty much every competition you could think of back then.
The dropout rate was huge….and still is.
Bishop Hannon School was the first club in Cardiff and was opened by Colin Lawes, who was my instructor. I tried Karate and Judo but Taekwondo seemed to suit me better. I wasn’t a bad kicker but that’s because the instructors would used to brutally stretch your legs open!
Taekwondo then was very much about discipline, like being in the Army. The instructor was more like a regimental Sergeant major. When I started training, it was roughly the same time that ‘Kung Fu’ was on the television with David Carradine, so martial arts was becoming very popular. I had over 50 students ahead of me but not one of them still train. Some felt it wasn’t for them, others weren’t expecting the reality of hard training. The dropout rate was huge….and still is.
What was the appeal of Taekwondo to you?
When I was a yellow belt, I saw a demonstration in Barry. The instructor, Ricky Yarr easily smashed his finger tips through an inch and a half of wood. He was kicking boards about ceiling height. I thought it was amazing. About a year after that, the ‘Korean Masters Demonstration’ visited. It was out of this world. People were doing jumping kicks over motor bikes, while others were kicking through 7 inches of wood. That really spurred me on. I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I could do that!’
I had a pair of lucky underpants that I always wore to competitions. They were full of holes!
I was attracted to the discipline and the power of the art. I loved the tournaments and loved to enter as many as I could. I stayed a colour belt for five or six years because there was very little opportunity to compete at black belt level and I was very successful. I had a pair of lucky underpants that I always wore to competitions. They were full of holes! The wife threatened to throw them away many times. I said, ‘Don’t you dare!’ I had them for over 6 years!
I’ve had a few good adventures when travelling to competitions but I’m not sure what I can mention! (laughs). In the 70s, to sort out the weight categories, you’d get all of the grades together and weigh everybody and then they would split it down the middle into two groups.
I was super fit but stocky, so I would always be at the bottom of the giants! The perfect place to be would be the heaviest of the light weights, but I was always the smallest of the biggest lot. If you didn’t block in them days, you would be really hit and there wasn’t any padding.
Have you suffered any injuries when competing?
Over the years, I’ve cracked my cheekbone, fingers and ribs but the worst injuries I’ve seen have happened to other people and were from breaking (boards). In Crystal palace there was a man who landed badly and broke his leg. You could hear the snap all around the hall.
When I sparred European finals in Naples in 82, I got to the semi final but lost to a German. He went on to spar in the final and caught the other guy with an axe kick and broke his collar bone. I said to the others ‘That could have been me!’ We had never seen that move before in competition.
He actually growled at me. I thought, ‘I’m dead!’
I loved sparring but it was grueling. There is a photograph of me in the final of the British championships in Wales in the 70’s, where I had been punched here (points to his cheekbone) and I’ve gone down but then got straight back up. I was all over the place but if you didn’t get straight back up you would lose. So, I got straight back up and managed to score some more points. The next thing I knew, the referee, who was Grandmaster Rhee Ki Ha, was holding my hand up as the winner. You knew you’d been in a fight back then.
In the London open in the late 70s, I was up against this, guy – unfortunately I can’t remember his name. During the fight, I caught him with a good straight punch in the mouth. He stopped, glared at me, spat the tooth out and then just growled. He actually growled at me. I thought, ‘I’m dead!’ I managed to win in the end but I kept thinking all the way through the fight, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead!’ I will always remember that. (laughs)
Do you still teach?
I have been teaching since 1978 and if I had to guess, I’ve trained in the region of forty black belts. At the moment, I have only four of them training. I still see others in classes elsewhere. In fact one is now a master himself. I loved coaching and back in the 80s I was the UK coach and we won the world championships. That was very good. After that, I went into referring and umpiring.
I’m deputy chairman of umpires now (for the World Championships and Chairman of the European Umpires), so I teach and select umpires for European and World Championships. I then oversee them during the championships which I like very much. I also do umpire seminars. I will probably be doing one in Minsk now in November. I still teach regular Taekwondo classes in Fairwater Leisure Centre but I have a leg injury so can’t kick very much. I can demonstrate most things but you teach more with your mouth when you get to my age anyway.
Is Taekwondo also your job?
In 1983 I was made redundant as a company project manager. I spoke to my wife about whether I should go for professional Taekwondo or start my own business. In the end I set up my own business as I love Taekwondo and I didn’t want it to change me.
I’m not pointing any fingers but too many people do Martial Arts for a living and their judgement is clouded by their income. For an example, I was in America in the 80’s in Florida and I saw a sign. It said, ‘Black belt course. $5000 – guaranteed black belt.’ What I am saying is that it didn’t matter what you’re like (as a student). If you went in and paid that $5000 you’d get that belt. That’s a business and they don’t care who they’re promoting up. I won’t do that, I’ve had people leave because I have told them they couldn’t go up the next grade before they were ready for it. Most of our instructors are the same as me.
I stayed and earned my grade.
In the 80s when we had our first big split, (there are lots of association splits in martial arts as you may well know) while I was going for my 4th degree. A lot of Wales Taekwondo went with the split but I managed to keep most of our instructors in our association which was headed by Ricky Yarr. I failed the grading but it wasn’t a problem to me because I realise that I wasn’t that up to that standard at that time, so accepted it. With everyone leaving to different associations, that was a time to promote someone, but he didn’t. I could have just left and got a promotion….and I have been offered many promotions from other styles… but I stayed and earned my grade.
How did you become a Grandmaster?
I was deeply honored as it’s not something that you can train for and it really is the pinnacle of Taekwondo. There are only around 25 in the world. I’m the first in England and Wales (within the UKTA). There is another Grandmaster in Scotland.
With ITF, you can grade all the way up to 7th degree but from 7th to 8th there is a minimum of seven years and then you are eligible for 8th. Another 8 years after that, you have time in to become a Grandmaster. They don’t give it to everybody just because you’ve had those 8 years in though. It’s about what the other Grandmasters believe that you have done for Taekwondo. Some people will never get it. Some people get to Master level and don’t go internationally, so they will never get it.
You can’t ask to become one. Your association nominate you and put you forward. They give you a big form to fill in detailing all of the things you’ve done, awards you’ve had, your history and that’s presented to the promotion and ethics committee. They put people forward to the executive board for approval the night before congress at the World Championships, so you wouldn’t know until the morning if you’ve got it. If you’re not there to receive it, then you wouldn’t get it – unless there is a significant relevant excuse of course. That’s your commitment. If you’re not at our World Championships then how could you be a Grandmaster?
Has Taekwondo affected your home life?
My wife doesn’t allow anything to do with Taekwondo in the house. I have lots of medals, plaques, awards and magazine articles but they are all kept in my office. My wife is very proud of me but calls herself the Taekwondo widow!
She knows that if I need to go somewhere for Taekwondo, then I would go. Sometimes she will come with me, sometimes she won’t. When I competed in the UK Black belt Team Championships (regional) my wife sister used to watch all of the time.
She’s fed up of Taekwondo, but she has had 44 years of it!
During one competition, there was this one guy who punched me in the solar plexus and I ended up going to the floor, winded. While laying there fighting for breath, I could see my wife and my sister coming down to the Tatami-the competition mat, worried and angry. I knew I was in trouble with them then!
Now, if I go away for the World Championships, I’m just too busy with meetings, so it can be difficult to spend any time with her. Next year, the Europeans will be held in Greece. She’ll probably go there and go out with the other Taekwondo wives, so I won’t have to worry about making sure that she is alright.
When I had received my Grandmasters, there was an article in the local Echo about it. My wife’s friends were over our house one day and they congratulated me after seeing the article. They said to her ‘You must be so proud.’ She said, ‘Yeah, but I’m still not afraid of him!’ (laughs) She’s fed up of Taekwondo, but she has had 44 years of it!
Have you travelled to the home of Taekwondo?
This year in April, I went to North Korea. It’s their National Sport and it is huge there. They’ve built a Taekwondo palace. It is fantastic. General Choi, the inventor of Taekwondo, died in 2002 but all his memorabilia has been donated to the palace. Inside, there is a hall of fame with plaques on the wall. I went there as part of a celebration but was surprised to find that they had put a plaque of me on that wall. I think there are around 11 or 12 and that includes pioneering masters who have since passed away as well as the living….it’s a huge honor, as long as it doesn’t mean I’m next to go!
We have to respect North Korea as it saved ITF Taekwondo.
We are treated like kings when we go there. I’m not getting into the politics of it but when I went there in 89, I hated it. Then I went back in 2002 and it was OK. I then went back in 2011 for the World Championships and I just couldn’t believe the difference. There were lots of cars everywhere and you could get BBC News on the television. In 2011, I don’t know if you’d remember but the great leader died. I wrote a letter to them (as president of European ITF Taekwondo) offering condolences. I’d got a letter back off them in return and I still have it. We have to respect North Korea as it saved ITF Taekwondo.
It has really come along and they are now doing tourist trips. The 2017 World Championships will be held there and anybody can go who wants to go. It’s not just the senior members. The people we’ve met are extremely courteous and polite and if you’re the same back, there isn’t any issue. I’m lucky enough that I’m at the level where I am looked after where ever I go!
Have you been to any other memorable places through Taekwondo?
This year in Bulgaria, they had the finals of the team sparring in an amphitheater that is 2000 years old. I was very well looked after and it was a great experience.
Have you noticed many changes in Taekwondo?
I’ve noticed that not many adults are taking up the sport nowadays but speaking to the Sports Council, this is the same across the board for everybody.
How do you feel about Taekwondo in the Olympics?
I want Taekwondo in the Olympics but they have altered it so much to suit television that I don’t like it (in its current form). They don’t use their hands. We hope to get ITF Taekwondo in to the Olympics by 2020 but it would be done jointly between ITF and WTF. The Olympic committee have said in the face of a huge ITF lobby ‘You can’t have one without the other.’ So, there have been meetings between WTF and ITF to work something out.
Jade Jones was trained in ITF up to black belt then had to change to WTF in order to be eligible to enter the Olympics. WTF used to always kick off the back leg for power but now you see them kick off the front leg techniques. They’d never used to. You’ll see that a lot of the medal winners would have started in ITF.
What would you say to anybody considering taking up the art?
In Taekwondo, you go up the grades, so you’ve got something to achieve all of the time. That’s the reason for the drop-out rate. They higher you go, the more difficult it becomes. However, if you train regularly and train hard, you potentially could be a black belt in three years.
It is very, very self satisfying. People carry the discipline in to their work place. Parents come in saying how grateful they are that their children have changed for the better and more respectful. It’s also a very effective form of self defense. It is absolutely for everybody, I mean, you have the likes of me in there! I can’t do a lot of the kicks now but I know how to defend myself. There are so many techniques, that you can use. You adapt. It’s also great for fitness.
Although there are team events, it’s down to the individual. You have the satisfaction of earning or winning something for yourself. ITF is worldwide and we have people as far away as Nepal taking up the art and coming over to fight in the British Championships.
Is there anything left for you to achieve?
Grandmaster is as high as I can go but yes, I’m still carrying on. My passion is making sure umpires in European championships do a good job because I’ve been a competitor and I’ve been on the wrong end of a bad decision where umpires are incompetent. Nowadays they are very competent, certainly in Europe.
I don’t care who wins as long as they don’t win off the back of a bad decision.
When I was British Coach, we took a team to the Word Championships. In the patterns competition, (a sequence of movements known in Karate as Kata) one of the other teams competitors, fell down during it and somehow they still won! I was furious but I had to accept the decision.
I have set up the European area into regions and I have a member of the umpire committee in each region to watch. I don’t care who wins as long as they don’t win off the back of a bad decision. If umpires don’t do their job properly in Europe, myself and the umpire committee don’t invite them back. So when they get selected we watch them closely. This hasn’t happened in the world championships…..yet. I’m trying to make that happen but I’m only deputy chairman of the ITF World Umpire Committee. So, perhaps that’s my last goal, chairman of the World Umpire Committee, then I can set up the same system that I’ve done here.
Thank you for your time Grandmaster Prewett. I’ve really appreciated it. Would you like to add anything?
I would like to thank my first instructor Colin Lawes. He’d stopped teaching when I reached my black belt but stayed to help me through it. Also, I would like to thank all of my friends in Taekwondo. Certainly amongst senior grades, it’s like a band of brothers. If you can help each other, you would. I am extremely grateful and honored to be appointed to president of the European ITF and to become Grandmaster.
I would like to thank Grandmaster Prewett for his time. If you would like to learn more about Master Prewett and Fairwater Taekwondo then please click here. Click on the above picture to view all pictures of the club in Flikr.