Britain’s Oldest 7th Dan, R.I.P.
We don’t often include an Obituary in the magazine, however, I’m publishing this one for two reasons. One, I knew sensei Ron Bellwood personally, he was a dedicated karateka and a wonderful human being. Secondly, as I’ve stated many times previously, it’s equally as important to mention the rank and file karateka who devote their whole lives to the art without being a famous name.
Britain’s Oldest 7th Dan, R.I.P.
By Neil Davies.
On Dec 29th 2022 British karate lost one of its most remarkable stalwarts when sensei Ron Bellwood, 7th Dan IJKA, passed away following an accident at his home. Ron had been unwell for about six months following a knee replacement operation but seemed to be on the mend. He even officiated at a karate grading on Nov 15th. I know because I was there and he promoted me to 2nd Kyu brown belt.
This article is a tribute to Ron. A man who touched so many lives in a very positive way. He must have taught hundreds of people over the years in a career that spanned five decades. While alive, he was the oldest 7th Dan in Britain and a senior figure in the UK branch of the IJKA. I’m not sure much has been written about this amazing figure. It is my deepest wish to put that right.
At an age where most people have put on their pipe and slippers. Going out for a spot of bingo maybe. Ron Bellwood was teaching three karate classes at Poulton YMCA and training himself. Running along the promenade of his home town of Fleetwood. Doing karate and Chi Kung on the beach in all weathers. It gets very cold on the Fylde Coast let me tell you. Outdoor training in winter is not for the faint hearted. Yet this was typical of Ron. He never did anything by halves.
Every week Ron taught classes on a Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Rarely missing a single class. It was a schedule that would have challenged a much younger man. Let alone one in his eighties.Despite that Ron could remember all his basics and 28 kata. He could kick jodan with both legs. Indeed, his flexibility was extraordinary. Something he put down to a lifetime of studious stretching. A habit developed from his footballing days with Fleetwood FC. For whom he played 148 matches.
Ron took up Shotokan in 1972, under the guidance of sensei’s Jack Green and Ian Smith. He gained his black belt in 1975 with the KUGB. An organisation that spawned some truly legendary fighters and teachers. It was there that he met both Hirokazu Kanazawa and Sadashige Kato senseis. Being highly impressed by both men, but especially the latter.
When master Kato left the KUGB to join the fledging IJKA. Ron went with him. The two men having forged a bond that lasted until Shihan Kato’s passing in 2020.Whenever master Kato was in the North, he would stay at Ron’s house. The two of them discussing karate and philosophy into the wee small hours. What a shame no recording of those conversations still exists. Master Kato did courses and gradings at Poulton many times. They were always well attended.
In those days the dojo had over a dozen yudansha, including 2nd and 3rd degrees. Often Ron would step aside and let one of them teach whatever they wanted. He even let me teach a few times, and I was a kyu grade. Ron was very inclusive by nature. He believed everybody had something to offer the club and all views were given an airing. I’d never known such an open minded policy before. Normally, in most clubs, there is only one voice to be heard, that of the teacher. Ron encouraged discussion and debate as he believed that this was how karate evolved. He also felt people could do more than they believed.
I’ll give you a personal example. I’ve never thought of myself as flexible. Indeed, I’d tell anyone I met in the dojo I was rather stiff jointed. So Ron had us pause mid-lesson and do our best stretch. Legs wide, then wider, hands on floor and push a bit more. Then he’d get two seniors to grab our ankles and extend us gently even further. After which he took a tape measure to see how well we’d done. Every lesson we’d chart our progress and I was amazed and how limber I became and how much higher I could kick. Even at my age. I once asked Ron how he got into teaching karate. He said that back when he was a 4th kyu, training with Jack Green, he’d been asked to teach a group of beginners. “I wasn’t keen,” he said. “I wanted to do my own training, not mess around with a bunch of kids who’d give up in a few weeks. But you don’t argue with the sensei.”
To his surprise, Ron found he enjoyed teaching. He was good at it. Plus the kids seemed to like him. It was the start of a long journey. When Jack Green retired, Ron took over. The club moving from Blackpool to Poulton and then to its current home in Thornton.
I’d trained with the KUGB in North Wales before joining Ron’s club. He was fine about it. Even let me keep my grade. Although Master Kato insisted in testing me to see if I was up to his very high standards. Ron got me ready for the grading with some very detailed instruction. He was very thorough and missed nothing. Noting every tiny flaw. It was this attention to detail that made him such a great sensei. I think he was an absolute natural. Something else that made him stand out was his willingness to adopt new ideas.
For instance when Master Wong of Malaysia visited our neck of the woods in 2010. Ron took a delegation along to the two days retreat. He came back with a grasp of the 18 Lohan Hands. A set of qi gong exercises that he incorporated into our warm up sessions with great benefit. The moves use a lot of karate principles and stances. Some of them even look like part of our kata. I also remember that when Ron wanted to improve our cardio fitness, he got one of his black belts, Dave (a school PE coach) to construct an obstacle course for us in the dojo. Sprints, weaving in an out of obstructions, jumping on and off a low bench and various other callisthenics. It was taxing but a lot of fun and loved by junior members. Even if us old timers groaned a bit at the time. If asked his proudest moment, Ron would always refer to his 1987 trip to Japan. For any serious karateka this is an essential pilgrimage. Going with a team that included senseis Richard Burns, Chris Jones and Joe Petrowski. Ron trained with a number of top masters at their own dojos. Saying it was hard but satisfying, that he was pushed to his physical limits and beyond.
At one dojo, the master had decided to retire. At the end of the session he gifted Joe Petrowski with his gi as a mark of respect. Richard Burns was so impressed that he elected to stay in Japan. Ron always said he’d like to go back, but sadly this wasn’t to be. Happily there was always Master Kato on hand. There’s no doubt Ron looked forward to these workouts. They seemed to leave the dojo buzzing for weeks afterwards.
One of the reasons there are so few photos of Ron was the man’s incredible modesty. He never liked being the centre of attention or standing out from the crowd. Ironically, this is the mark of someone who is exceptional in my view. In a world of instant celebrities, famous for being famous. Ron Bellwood let his karate do the talking. Which, when you think about it, is what being a sensei is all about.
On our dojo wall in Poulton was a saying THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY. Ron told us this meant ‘hard work’. The key to achieving anything in karate. If you don’t train diligently, how can you expect to get any better or maintain your current standard? I think this sums up the man and his legacy better than anything.
Here are remarks made by two students of Sensei Ron Bellwood.
“I first met Ron as a shy and skinny 11 year old. An easy target for bullies at school. My dad took me to the dojo with the words ‘I doubt she’ll keep it up’. To which Ron replied, ‘we’ll see about that kid’. I guess training with Ron for 44 years proved the point.” Lynda Mansfield, 2nd Dan.
“I once asked Ron why he tucked his belt in a particular manner. He told me it had an inscription on it that only he and the man who gave it to him knew. At the funeral I got all choked up to see the belt there. I could have taken a look but didn’t want to. I wanted it to remain a secret.”
Samantha Lou, 1st Dan.
Members of Sensei Ron Bellwood’s Blackpool & Wyre Shotokan Karate Dojo.