Another Fighting Photographer exclusive – an interview with the UK’s first female black belt, Combat Base black belt Helen Currie.
Regular readers will be aware that my friendship with Darren Currie extends way back into the mists of time, myself being a regular training partner at Darren’s club and supporter of his jiu jitsu and MMA events. In addition to this friendship, Darren’s wife Helen has been a constant presence at all the training sessions and all the events I have entered and reported on and it is now with great pleasure that I hold the honour of having the first interview with the first female black belt in the UK. In addition to this, not only is Helen a wizard on the mats, she is also a wizard in the kitchen as anyone who tasted her legendary Sunday roasts will attest.
Oh yes and now without doubt, Helen most definitely IS the boss in their house. (Sorry Darren!)
Carl Fisher: I heard you just got your Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt, congratulations. You are the first woman in the UK to get the coveted black belt and I believe, only the second one in Europe. How does it feel?
Helen Currie: Unbelievable, shocked. When we first started training in BJJ about 10 years ago having a blue belt was awesome so being a black belt seemed like an impossible dream. Guess it shows how much we have all come on to the point that the UK has its own home grown legitimate black belts.
CF: Chris tells me that you are the first ever female he has promoted to black belt; that is quite an achievement in itself coming from a guy who travels the world teaching BJJ.
HC: I feel very privileged to be Chris’s first female black belt, he is an outstanding instructor and his knowledge of BJJ is phenomenal. I first met him back in 1998 and was really impressed with his entire attitude, knowledge and ability. I knew immediately he was the real deal so made a point of training with him whenever I could. Chris was the first person I saw do iron man, take on a whole bunch of guys and beating everyone without any effort at all, considering he was only just over 150 pounds at the time, this is quite a feat.
CF: Do you still get a whipping for your get black belt?
HC: No, we outlawed whippings at our gym after one of the guys, Rob Lawlor, wrote a piece on hazing as part of his PhD. When you step back and analyse what we used to do, it is a little crazy. Especially with all the “No win no fee” claims flying around, it would be hard to stand up in a court of law and try to explain why you whip someone when they achieve something. You ought to read the article, I think it is on our website www.combatsport.co.uk  somewhere.
Saying this, Darren got whipped for his brown belt, Chris wasn’t letting him off with that despite his protests plus Rob wasn’t there to back him up either. Funny though.
CF: There are only the 5 belts in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu including the white belt, how did you view each belt you were promoted to?
HC: Well white belt is cool because you have no pressure on you to perform at all. You learn your basics and start to develop a bit of an idea what you are doing.
Then you get your blue belt and you turn into a technique collector. You want to learn new, cool things. As you spend time in the belt you may catch a purple or 2 now and again when sparring but still not much is expected of you. It’s great being a blue belt.
Next is the purple, this is where you really start to improve as you train your butt off. You start to discard a lot of things you were taught as you are discovering your individual style; purple belt is probably the best belt.
After being a purple belt for a few years we went to LA to train at the Machado Academy where I sparred with some of the best black belts around and did pretty well, it was there I got my brown belt from Chris Haueter. At brown belt I had about 8 years of training behind me so obviously things started coming together.
Then the unthinkable happened and I got the black belt, I can’t comment on being a black belt because I haven’t been one long enough.
CF: I’ll quickly mention this as I don’t want him to take over but what do you think of your husband’s ability to coach people to a higher grade than he is? I wonder how many coaches have produced a black belt without being a black belt themselves, must be rare?
HC: Might be rare for BJJ but equated to other sports it is nothing new. Every athlete has a coach, the coach may not be able to compete with the athlete but it does not mean that he can’t help improve the athlete. Pick any world champion from any sport and behind them is a good coach.
A good BJJ coach can improve anyone regardless of the colour belt they wear, if you can coach then you can coach, simple as that. My husband, Darren, knows his subject very well, can teach it very well and then is able to coach you to a point where you must improve. As a blue belt he taught/coached people to purple and as a purple he taught/coached people to brown so he has been doing this a while.
He is amused by it though, that he has some sort of novelty value as he calls it.
CF: Right, enough of him, lets take you back to the beginning, how did you get started in BJJ?
HC: I started training in Taekwondo first of all and, whilst I liked it at the time, I quickly got bored with it. Competed, got my black belt then moved on. However, whilst training Taekwondo we also taught ourselves grappling too from watching some old instructional tapes and some Mundials so we were rolling even at that early stage although God knows what it must have looked like at the time.
Next was freestyle Jiu Jitsu under Ross Iannacarro’s NJJKC which was awesome because it allowed everything that we had trained separately to be trained together. Really enjoyed this training and the competitions were fun too. Whilst doing this I decided I needed better takedown skills so I headed to Judo.
Whilst doing do-it-yourself Jiu Jitsu/Judo we met Andy Norman from the Keysi Academy who was a blue belt under John Machado so we started BJJ properly with Andy. I owe Andy a massive thanks because it was through him we met Chris Haueter who has been instrumental in me getting my black belt.
CF: So you came from a traditional background, it’s hard to believe that we used to do that stuff prior to BJJ isn’t it. What are the main differences, for you?
HC: The practicality, the honesty, the training and coaching methodology. If someone says I do martial arts I correct them and say I do combat sports, I think combat sports is a better phrase for what we do, a sport is more athletic and competitive which is exactly what drilling and sparring should be.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu has movement and energy, there are no predetermined patterns so you learn to be proactive and reactive, you never know what is coming at you. BJJ is a great self-protection tool for women, fighting from your back, using leverage and movement in place of strength, gives me a better chance against someone bigger and stronger than if I had to kick box them. Against other people more my size, I can get the takedown and top position to fight from there.
CF: So basically you are saying that you can learn practical self-defence from combat sports?
HC: Yes, that’s exactly what I am saying. You need to get used to the movement and timing that real resistance gives you, it doesn’t need to be all out fighting but what ever you do, add a little drama. All the adverts you see that say their “street fighting” style has no sporting application but you see these people train and it is some static guy stood their whilst some other guy beats him up and looks good doing it. Guys from our gym have had to protect themselves on the streets using combat sports and have lived to tell. There are some great Street V Sport articles on the Internet, search and research them.
CF: Did you have a competitive career?
HC: I have competed in everything I have ever trained in. Taekwondo, Ju Jutsu Kumite, Judo, submission grappling, Jiu Jitsu and even an MMA match. I think you really need to pressure test what you are doing, I just wish there had been more women competing when I was. Saying that I did quite well, didn’t lose very often, won some titles and screwed my back so I had to retire from competition.
CF: Is that why you don’t compete now?
HC: Yes unfortunately, my sacral iliac joint just about dissolved fighting a big girl in the open weight division of a Judo tournament, which is not smart when you weigh less than 100 pounds. It is a real pity too because there are so much more opportunities for women now competition wise, can you believe the poor turnouts for some of the big events, how many women were at SENI? They ought to make the most of the opportunity because if you don’t take advantage of it now you made never get another chance.
CF: You say you fought an MMA match? Where and when? How do you feel generally about woman fighting?
HC: As you know Carl, we used to promote small events, interclubs, that sort of thing. I think about 6 or 7 years ago, I fought a girl from Doncaster named Cheryl Williams who became a good friend of mine after the event, we still train together to this day. Cheryl went on to fight a number of times and did very well.
I think it’s great that women fight, if that’s what they want to do then why not? We also have some good fighters in this country, to name but a few; Rosi Sexton has excelled in MMA so far, beating some tough opposition and doing Bodog at the moment, I think she’s still there.
Rachael Wheatley has just competed in ADCC, losing only to a world-class fighter in Megumi Fuji. I trained with Megumi so I know how good she is.
From our own gym, we have always encouraged people to compete regardless of their gender and have had many women and girls compete, it’s a great confidence booster.
CF: So instead of competing you focus mainly on coaching, that has its highs and lows too don’t you think?
HC: Definitely, especially when our kids were competing too, not great watching your kids do something that you have no control over but when they put in an excellent performance or pull off something that you have been working on then it’s awesome, no better feeling but then the downside is when they under perform or they are lazy, that’s a low.
Coaching the guys at tourneys is fun too. My husband, Darren, was on the mat one time waiting to start a match when the referee told me to leave the side of the mat. Darren told him that I was his coach but he didn’t believe it and told me to move again. We had to tell him again that I really was the coach; I guess in his day you didn’t get a lot of women coaches.
CF: How do the guys feel about a woman coaching them? Are there any fragile egos or people who won’t toe the line?
HC: I think they are cool about it; they wouldn’t come back if they didn’t like it. I don’t think we have any prejudices at our gym, everyone is treated the same regardless.
I have done personally everything that I ask of them, I wouldn’t ask anyone to do anything I wasn’t prepared to do.
I have promoted several people in our gym and within our group, so far no one has complained, in fact one guy said that he would rather get belts from me as I am there week in and week out so I know them better than anyone. Plus I have been told that I am difficult to get belts from, my standards are very high. I sometimes think someone is ready to be promoted then they do something silly so I don’t promote them.
CF: You roll with all the guys too? Is it not a little dangerous, especially with the previous injuries, rolling with the guys though? There are some big guys at Combat Base.
HC: I know I should be more selective in my rolling partners but I can’t help it. If I see someone sitting at the side because they don’t have a partner, regardless of size, I will spar them. Relating it back to a real situation though, if I have wrestled the strongest guys in our gym and survived then I feel confident in my ability to protect myself should I need to.
CF: Do you get many other women to train with? It is sometimes awkward finding good training partners anyway so finding another woman your size must be difficult.
HC: It is difficult sometimes but I have various women to train with at different times. I get to train with some quality blue belts and purple belts occasionally whereas at other times I have to train with the guys but it’s no big deal.
CF: Have you been on any women’s self defence courses?
HC: LOL, do you think I need to? I have taught individual women and members of women’s groups who have done self defence courses and, if it weren’t so irresponsible, it would be hilarious. I did a seminar for Rangers group which is young ladies 16 years to 24 years, we were doing some pad work and I asked one girl if she had trained previously. She replied that she had but couldn’t do sparring because she had been taught to kill, like I said would be funny if it wasn’t so dangerous.
I always called my sessions ‘Ladies Self Protection’ as I thought that protection covered awareness, confidence and actual fighting techniques better than ‘defence’ that sounds reactive. Something has happened and you have to defend yourself, but if you take it back a few steps could that situation have been avoided to start with by being more aware?
CF: When I interviewed Darren he said, jokingly I think, that he enjoyed the politics in BJJ, do you?
HC: I don’t know too much about the politics to be honest, I can’t be arsed going on the forums and stuff that he goes on, I just think it is all such a waste of time, it’s all really childish and I want no part of it.
CF: OK, time to name drop. Name some of the better people you have trained with.
HC: So many excellent people out there but the 2 that have made the most difference are my husband, obviously, as he does the day to day training and Chris Haueter, they have helped me get where I am Jiu Jitsu wise.
I got to train with Cindy Omatsu and Felicia Oh at the Machado Academy who were both awesome. I already mentioned Megumi Fuji but she was excellent to roll with, my size too so that is a bonus as there are not too many people my size.
Other people I particularly enjoyed training with were the Machados, Eddie Bravo, Matt Thornton, Marco Ruas and John Kavanagh, who recently got his well-deserved black belt too.
I just spent a week or so training with Chris Haueter and his wife Melissa when they visited us, Melissa is a solid purple belt and a great training partner.
CF: OK, now who were the worst, just kidding. I know you’d tell me if I asked but I don’t want you offending anyone. What differentiates the better ones from the other ones?
HC: Attitude, just attitude. There are a lot of guys with extraordinary ability but some of them could use a lesson in “leaving the ego at the door”. I’ve found that the very best guys are really cool, they don’t have anything to prove and are just themselves.
CF: So finally, where do you go from here? Any training ambitions left to fulfil?
HC: Just keep training, stay healthy and keep doing what I’m doing.
CF: Thanks for the interview Helen, let me just congratulate you again on your awesome achievement.
HC: Thanks Carl
For more info on training with Helen and Combat Base visit www.combatsport.co.uk