In two decades of teaching Carl Denne has become one of the town’s most respected kickboxing instructors.
But while during those 20 years Carl has graded hundreds of students he hadn’t graded himself since passing his second dan back in 1998.
“Over the last couple of years it began to become more and more of an issue for me,” says Carl, “no one questioned my credentials, but in myself I felt I needed to push to earn my third dan to prove that I still had it in me.”
In June Carl did just that, putting himself through a mentally and physically exhausting day of drills, techniques and theory to earn that much coveted third dan. It’s the last grade in Kickboxing that has a physical element to it, from now on he can earn promotion in return for the effort and dedication he puts in to developing the sport and those taking part in it.
Carl might only be 38 but his grading was especially testing because the other men grading on the same day were just 19 and 20 and for the first time in his life Carl says he felt his age when comparing himself to others.
Earning his third dan has been an emotional achievement too. Carl first got in to sport as an eight-year-old when he started boxing training at West Hill Boxing Club, but two years later he discovered kickboxing and has never looked back.
“I just found I liked everything about it; the structure, I liked it as a sport, I liked the mental and physical challenges it brought and of course I started to develop a whole load of friends from within the sport too,” he says.
While Carl had a successful competitive career it is as a coach that he has perhaps become best known and like many things in life he fell in to that role it wasn’t planned. He had been training with Paul Biggar at Hastings Martial Arts and around the age of 14 he started helping coach some of the younger students, by the time he was 17 he found himself taking warm-up sessions and drills and then when Paul went on holiday Carl ran the classes for two weeks and has never really stopped coaching since.
In 2009 he officially set up Hastings Kickboxing Academy and then three years ago took the plunge and gave up his full-time job with BT to concentrate fully of his business.
Carl says: “It was mental when I was with BT I’d be doing 100 plus hours every week between work, teaching and the gym, but it was a big decision to give up the security of a job I’d been doing for years to go it alone but its a decision I’ve never regretted, it was absolutely the right thing to do.”
HKA now has its permanent gym in Brook Way on the Ivyhouse Industrial Estate just off the eastern end of The Ridge. The youngest member is just three years old the most senior is 58. Carl has more than 200 members and HKA runs classes across all levels and abilities six days a week.
The bond between a fighter and their coach – as graphically shown in the title photograph – is important to Carl and that’s at all levels; from youngsters just starting out in the gym to encouraging fighters like George French to greater success in the ring.
He has developed a strong team of coaches and is always pushing to develop new ideas, this week he has introduced his fight team and other elite athletes from the town to high-altitude training by bringing equipment to his gym that simulates the effects of altitude which in turns helps develop levels of fitness and stamina.
A victim of school bullies when he was a youngster Carl has worked with local schools to develop programmes to tackle bullying and work with bullies, programmes that recognise individuals have issues that need to be channelled and managed and harnessed in such a way as to deliver positive outcomes.
Carl has done preliminary work with several schools and would love to take his work to the next level but with school budgets under pressure, while head teachers and keen to utilise Carl’s skills, they don’t have money in their budgets to be able to bring him and the HKA team onboard.
But back to that day in June when Carl had to travel up to Birmingham to put himself through the mill and prove himself worthy of his coveted third dan.
With so much of his time spent teaching others and teaching them to a high level Carl recognised that he needed to find time for his own training. He realised, for example, that his own fitness levels needed to be raised if he was to have a chance of success, he needed to drop 10kg in weight for a start.
He admits he’s not a runner but started running to develop his fitness. He was reluctant to let too many people in on his plan to go for the grading just incase it didn’t work out as he planned and while he had people around who could help him with improvements in fitness he struggled to find people who could help him refine and develop his technique to the standard that was going to be required on the day.
On the day of the grading itself Carl had to play to his strengths and find ways to work around areas where he was not so strong. Things were not made any easier when less than 90 minutes in to a four hour grading that was going to test every sinew he felt his hip flexor let go.
“I had the option to call it a day or find the strength from somewhere to just get on with it and that’s what I did. They knew something had gone and asked me if I wanted to sit down for a minute but I knew that if I sat down I’d never get up again so I just battled on – I paid for it in the days afterwards tough,” he says.
Carl lost four kilos that day sweating his way through the four hours of kicking, punching and demonstrating the finest of kickboxing technique.
Despite all his experience he admits that on the big day he was as nervous as he has ever been in his life and even at the end when the examiners sat him down to go through the day and deliver their verdict he still wasn’t sure he’d done enough.
“They told me I wasn’t a natural kicker and I knew that and when compared against the younger lads that day who were so much taller than me it must have shown, one of the examiners told me to remember I’m not 21 anymore but said they couldn’t fault my work rate.
“Given that I’d been carrying the hip injury for most of the day it was good to hear them tell me that they’d seen what they described as a ‘completely different level of determination’ to get to the end,” says Carl.
Passing his third dan has been a great experience, he says. He now feels he has justified himself and says he knows he has nothing to prove.
Would he love to compete again?
“I’d do it for the giggles,” he says, but acknowledges that to get back in fighting shape would probably compromise his other work too much and for the time being he’s just happy heading up what is perhaps the best known kickboxing gym in the town.