Regular readers might know the name Tony Vohra through his photographic articles covering basic techniques and stretching. What they might not know is that he is actually the United Kingdom’s (and India’s) highest-ranking Kukkiwon and WTF practitioner. If you do not believe this statement, just pop along to the Kukkiwon and look him up (and anyone else you might like to at the time).
Considering he is now one of the most important martial artists in the United Kingdom we decided it was time to speak to Master Vohra, and find out more about this highly-ranked but enigmatic individual.
As ever, the first question had to cover why he started martial arts in the first place; “Good question. You know David Carridine and the television series ‘Kung Fu’, that’s what prompted me. At the same time Bruce Lee was making all the action films. Carridine had the philosophy, mental mindset, calm, and the philosophy of not using martial arts to beat people, but to defend the weak against the bullies.”
Bullying is something that has always been around and is often the cause for many people starting the martial arts. Master Vohra confirmed that this was another of the reasons that he had started martial arts saying “I felt weak and intimidated myself and wanted something to make me stronger. The Kung Fu series showed that even though you were weak you could do martial arts and improve yourself.”
Master Vohra took himself down to the nearest Church Hall and signed up with “some chap who had done martial arts but changed the name to Kung Fu”. This didn’t last long however and in 1972/1973 he moved to Karate because there were a lot of clubs in his area.
It was only in 1975 that Master Vohra finally found the martial art that was to become his life, Taekwondo. “In 1975 there was a girl in college who had been to America and trained in Taekwondo. She said that I should go and train with her and from there I was hooked.”
Hooked is a complete understatement. Addicted or obsessed are probably two words that adequately describe his true feeling for Taekwondo. Master Vohra trained every day and was so diligent in his training that he managed to reach 2nd Dan in 1979, four years after he started training (not the six usually required).
Considering that he had already invested three years in studying Karate, I was curious to know what it was about Taekwondo that appealed so much. “The high kicking. I wanted to fly through the air and jump. I was also impressed by the instructors, and as a result I wanted to do well. I was supple and I suppose the Yoga that I have studied from childhood helped for that. One of the demonstrations we used to was slow kick exercises to the head and then do them fast. A lot of people in those days didn’t have the suppleness. Interestingly enough, when I went to Korea one of the guys was sixty-five and he put me to shame on my suppleness. I’m working on getting much better.”
I was also curious as to why he studied WTF- based Taekwondo as opposed to ITF-based Taekwondo, since the latter has a far bigger foothold in the United Kingdom (although this isn’t the case for the world as a whole).
“At the end of the day we all follow our instructors and she was doing ITF Taekwondo. My first exam was conducted by Grandmaster Rhee Ki Ha. I thought I was brilliant and should have been given a yellow belt but he only gave me a yellow tag.”
As mentioned above, he managed to get his second Dan in only four years. Not surprisingly he got his first Dan even faster; “I got my black belt in eighteen months through training every day for 3-5 hours a day because I was fanatical. In those days my instructor put the belief in me that I was the best and no-one was better than me.” To put this into hours trained, Master Vohra (using the three hours as the base) trained for 1512 hours in those eighteen months. Someone training the usual two hours a week, every week for four years in order to get their black belt will have (on average of course) trained for 384 hours. In other words, Master Vohra put in an average person’s sixteen years worth of training or, roughly the equivalent of a fourth Dan with fifth Dan in his sights. Now that is obsessive.
The change from ITF to WTF was a sudden one. One day they went to the club and were doing the ITF patterns and “the next minute my instructor set up his own club.”
The change wasn’t a complete one however, as he remembers still studying the ITF patterns alongside the Palgwes and Taeguks and strangely enough he actually did all the ITF patterns when taking his black belt, as well as sparring Kevin Hornsey of the BTCB in the same grading. “All I knew was that I was fighting nationally and wearing the chest protector.”
Unfortunately it wasn’t always plain sailing as Master Vohra explains, “I was selected in 1979 for the BTA to represent GB at Stuttgart. Out of an 8 man team only a couple of us went because we had to pay. I had to choose between buying a house or going over. If I was in this position again, I would choose going, not the house. In those days sponsorship was rare and when we went to events we always felt like the poor relations. Some teams were looked after and had uniforms.”
This last point clearly rankled Master Vohra to the extent that when he became a professional instructor he would kit out his team members at his own expense.
During our conversation we talked about his Indian heritage and I asked why he chose Oriental martial arts instead of Indian martial arts.
“I came across to England when I was three or four years old. In 1962 the Asian culture was vastly different here to the way it is now. I went through all the turmoil of being educated by the English and going back to a strict Sikh family who wanted me to be a doctor, dentist or accountant.”
Hearing that he was a Sikh I asked why he hadn’t done Gatka, the Sikh’s very own martial art. He actually went back to India when he was sixteen and looked for a Gatka instructor. Unfortunately certain rituals had to be followed and there was a strict requirement that training should be done everyday. Considering he was only there for two or three months, this was not viable.
It was at this point that Master Vohra’s rebellious streak started to come to the fore and when he went to College he actually cut his hair, something unheard of in a strict Sikh family. This rebellious streak has stuck with him as will become clear.
Like many of the ‘old’ Masters, he found that training ‘then’ as opposed to ‘now’ was vastly different. “The format of training then has completely changed. You trained every day hard, fought hard, you didn’t have the protection you do now and would go home bruised and battered only to do it again.”
I used to push myself so hard that I damaged myself because instructors were a little psychotic and naive. If you go to places where they don’t necessarily have the technique they seem to control people through fear and pain. If they can’t explain properly they domineer their way through the technique.”
Aside from the physical battering, the politics then were the same with some instructors telling him that if someone did Karate it was rubbish. Fortunately however, he didn’t let this tunnel vision affect him, “I think we all learned that the martial art is only as good as the martial artist. I’ve met some very good exponents and they’re all very humble. Really overall, the end of the day I wish to treat people the way I want to be treated. I have no issues with people being the same or higher grade as me.”
Many martial artists dream of going full-time and running their own dojo but very few do. Master Vohra went full-time in 1982, a ground-breaking and pioneering move at the time. Prior to that he had been operating out of sports centres and had built up a good student base of around four hundred. Having found a centre from which he felt he could operate he approached his students and did a survey as to how many people would continue to train with him if he made the move. One hundred said that they would. He was in for a very nasty shock.
“When we opened only 10 people joined. The majority of people train for themselves and aren’t willing to travel too far from their home.”
Master Vorha did not let this hold him back. “Because we were starting again I decided to do a lot of work on Taekwondo PR. One of the masters who took me for my 4th Dan in 1983 said that I should do kickboxing and kung fu to get more people in which we did.”
This proved to be a wise move as the Kung Fu and Kickboxing helped propel the Taekwondo even further. Always one to break the mould he started to teach senior citizen and “basically did free classes. Basically what had happened at that time OAPs were being mugged. We had thirty or so on a regular basis. Over the years we took one guy over 75 to black belt and another woman 65 to black belt.”
It was because of this that the media picked up on his work with the result that he appeared on Here and Now, Breakfast time with Lizzy and even Pebble Mill.
As Master Vohra puts it “I had quite a high media profile and kept up with teaching rather than the politics because at the end of the day the number of people who actually do the sport is probably 5%. I had to be a martial artist rather than a sport fighter. I was very technically orientated. I would rather lead by example than be pot bellied and shout at people.”
If that isn’t the spirit of a true Kukkiwon Master, then I don’t know what it.
Look for part two of our interview as Master Vohra speaks about his time in Korean, grading at the Kukkiwon and who is actually registered with the Kukkiwon.