A former British kickboxing champion is back to doing what he loves most – passing on his passion for martial arts to others.
Russ O’Keefe, 36, has relaunched his own kickboxing club and fighting career and is urging men and women to have a go at the sport and boost their self-defence skills and confidence.
Already members of Fighting Fit Kickboxing, based at Kilburn Village Hall, have formed a strong bond and are known as the ‘Band Of Brothers’.
A couple of weeks ago three members – Josh Shaw, 26, Dean King, 35, and 19-year-old Jake Newcombe-Smith - entered the ring at Norton Parish Hall, Worcester, the first to represent the club in a decade.
Shaw won his fight while King was narrowly beaten and Newcombe-Smith defeated by former world champion Ricky Glover. Russ said: “I am proud of my fighters. They have worked really hard and all fought strong opponents. None of the fights were easy, especially Jake’s when you consider he took on a former world champion. That took some courage.”
It was a double celebration for the club as following the show the world president of the WRSA (World Ring Sports Association), Steve Humphrey, asked Russ and his fighters to be part of Team GB, representing Great Britain at the WRSA World Championships in Spain next year.
Russ, who confirmed he would return to the ring for the championships, said: “We are extremely excited and are currently training hard to ensure we succeed. We are hoping to add another two students to the fight team.”
It is a remarkable turnaround for the enthusiastic fighter who has fought off first the playground bullies and then serious illness.
His passion for self-defence followed being the victim of bullying at junior and senior schools.
“I believe in self-defence,” he said. “The bullying fuelled me to stand up for myself. It gave me the confidence at 18 to become a door supervisor for nine years and eventually become operations manager of a security firm.”
A mixed martial arts instructor with 26 years’ experience in various styles — 26 years in full-contact kickboxing, 11 years in Muay Thai, and five years in karate, submission wrestling and ground and pound — he explained how he decided to re-launch the club.
“A while ago I fell seriously ill and (after recovering) lost the spark to get it all going again,” he said.
“Then last year some of my old students contacted me on Facebook and that ignited the fire in me. It’s been burning ever since.
“At the start of this year I re-opened the club and it has gone from strength to strength.
“Some come to learn self-defence, some want to fight in the ring and others come for the pure fitness.
“One thing for sure is everyone really enjoys themselves and I want this to continue to grow.
“I didn’t have any grants or sponsors. I’ve paid for it all out my own pocket and am still buying equipment now for the class.
“My students can see my passion so they are very supportive and turn up regularly to keep the classes going.
“Not only is this about martial arts, but it’s about the best group of mates I’ve ever known.
“If someone comes to the class with an issue we all seem to be able to help out. We have people from all different trades, including roofers, electricians, builders, joiners, painter and decorators. It’s great.”
Russ, originally from Heanor but now living in Kilburn, first opened Fighting Fit at Kimberley Leisure Centre in 2001, when he lived in Heanor.
At that time he became British champion and the club had two junior champions.
But in 2005, a few months after his British title fight, Russ was taken ill with what was suspected to be Crohn’s disease.
“I was rushed to hospital thinking my appendix had burst,” he said. “When they cut me open my intestines were full of ulcers.
“After about 18 months I made a full recovery, but to this day it has left the doctors baffled how I fought back.
“It also put me off fighting again for a long time as I gained a lot of weight due to my medication.”
While working as a quality engineer for JCB Heavy Products — having started on the production line building excavators — Russ applied for a job with the company in the USA.
He heard his chief executive talk about a vehicle programme in Savannah, Georgia, through which JCB was building a bomb-proof and bullet-proof excavator, the HMEE (High Mobility Engineered Excavator) for the US Marine Corps.
“I went up to him and asked if I could have a job,” said Russ. “I wanted to be on this project. Before I knew it I was living out there at the start of 2008 and was loving life.”
Unfortunately, redundancy meant he had to return to the UK around 15 months later, but Russ said it was still a great experience.
“When I moved to America the fire inside me for fighting started to burn again after the illness, but I was a heavier guy. I used to fight at super middleweight — 11st 10lbs to 12st 1lbs (72.5 to 76kg) — but whilst living in the USA I ended up weighing nearly 16 stones.
“I realised I wasn’t as fast anymore and couldn’t do all the jump spinning-kicks, so I thought it was time to learn MMA. I started training at Savannah Martial Arts in the USA and started to learn how to fight on the ground.
“When I returned to the UK I trained and helped out at other people’s classes. I was itching to set up my own classes again, but one thing after another stopped me from doing it before now.
“I really believe in what I’m doing. I have created a class where anyone is welcome and we’ve just started teaching our first woman in the class too. I hope she is the first of many to join.”
Fighting Fit Kickboxing Club, which has its own T-shirts and hoodies for members, runs classes on Sundays, from 7pm to 9pm, and Tuesdays, from 8pm to 10pm, at Kilburn Village Hall.
The classes are open for 15-year-olds upwards. Russ said: “It’s not an easy class. I treat everyone the same. I push them real hard.
“I am approachable and friendly but I don’t sugar-coat things. I tell people how it really is and I tell them how I will get them there and help them succeed.”
Classes teach self-defence and weapons defence, allowing members to take gradings towards their Black Belt 1st Dan and compete in tournaments.
Russ, who works in the defence industry, said there were many benefits for members.
“One student has lost three stones since starting, including two stones in the first five weeks.
“Another student who was jumped and beaten-up by three men one night had his confidence really dented.
“He started training with us after the attack just a few weeks ago and has already begun to excel and come out of his shell. He is learning self-defence fast.
“I say to people don’t come and watch, just throw yourself in at the deep end and have a go. Don’t be afraid — be adventurous, build your confidence, train and socialise with a great bunch of students and gain some new friends.”
To join Fighting Fit Kickboxing Club go along to one of the sessions on Tuesday and Sunday evenings or call Russ on 07919 924486.