Brian Jacks: 'British Judo is a complete joke, but I've got the answer... me'

Tom Cary
After the sport’s administrators ignored his calls, the Olympic medallist Brian Jacks is ready to take them on - Christopher Pledger

Brian Jacks, superstar of Superstars, is wearing the sort of intense look he might have worn back in his 1970s pomp when he was preparing for an assault on the parallel bar dips or the squat thrusts. This time, however, the object of Jacks’ intensity is not Daley Thompson’s clean and jerk score, it is the British Judo Association. Jacks, a 10th dan judoka, is distinctly unimpressed. “Everyone tells me the same thing,” he says. “It’s too soft. It’s too easy. British men’s judo is a complete joke. But I’m here to tell you: I’ve got an alternative.”

So begins an extraordinary hour in the company of one of the Britain’s most colourful sports stars. And that is colourful in every sense. Now 71, Jacks has been living in Thailand for the last 17 years after “getting the hump” with Health and Safety in the UK. He has the sort of tan and complexion you might expect Ray Winstone’s character from the film Sexy Beast to have if they did a sequel in 20 years. But he is rollicking company. Bombastic, brazen, completely uninhibited.

Jacks is a name which may well be lost on anyone under the age of 40, but for those of a certain vintage, his performances on the cult programme Superstars, which used to pull in audiences of well over 10 million back in its heyday when it was presented by David Vine and Ron Pickering, encapsulated a more innocent sporting age. Blond perm, freakish upper-body strength. Jacks pioneered a ‘rocking’ technique in the parallel bar dips which was widely copied but never matched. He managed 100 in 54 seconds at a starkly lit Wycombe sports centre in the 1981 Challenge of the Champions.

Jacks has just written an autobiography about his life: Brian Jacks: The Mindset of a Champion. It has a foreword by Brian Blessed, a former student of his, and it is as colourful as you would expect from a guy who was born in the East End of London, the son of a cab driver; who overcame a severe birth defect (“a sort of hernia in my abdomen which went undiagnosed for eight years”) to become a judo champion; who went to live on his own in Tokyo’s concrete jungle at the tender age of 15, where he was “thrown from pillar to post” by the older Japanese students at the feared Kodokan; but who refused to give up and return to “a job on Marmite’s factory floor like many of my schoolmates”. 

Instead Jacks toughed it out, “becoming a man in every way” (there is a lurid tale about losing his virginity which involves a lot of sake and a middle-aged American woman) and was eventually awarded his black belt. “I became the youngest British person, at that time, to win my black belt and I did it in Japan where no foreigners my age had ever achieved this grade in judo before,” he says, proudly. “I put this whole experience down as a big factor in making me the person I became. I wanted to win. I had to win. Coming second meant nothing.”

Jacks managed 100 parallel bar dips in 54 seconds Credit: PA

The trouble is, Jacks does not see this will to win, this insatiable drive – which saw him go on to win Britain’s first judo world championship medal in Salt Lake in 1967 and another bronze at the 1972 Olympics in Munich – in the UK today. 

Jacks is just nearing the end of a 100-day tour of the country to promote his book, and has been in and out of the country’s dojos putting on masterclasses and meeting judokas young and old (his ghostwriter, Marc Gingell, tells me Jacks is treated “like a god wherever he goes ... Brian is the Bobby Charlton, the Gordon Banks, the Geoff Hurst of judo all rolled into one.”) What he sees is political correctness gone mad.

It was what drove him to Thailand in the first place, he says. The year was 1999. He had been running his own judo club for 23 years and had 75 per cent of the British team with him. “Then one day a Miss Prim and Proper turned up from the local council,” he says. “She wanted to know how cold my fridge was and how hot my hot water was. I got the hump with her and threw my fridge out of my club so she didn’t have to worry about it any more.”

I’m deadly serious. Judo has deteriorated so badly and the BJA is doing nothing about it

Suffice to say, if you are one of those who feels the recent spate of inquests at sporting governing bodies, the allegations of bullying and the new codes of governance, are a sign of a society gone soft, then you will enjoy Jacks’s book.

Luckily, Jacks has a plan. He will come back and run things his way. The Jacks Way. It is the only option, he says. He has tried to get in touch with the BJA but he says it will not return his calls. So he is now calling on sponsors and interested parties to back a special Brian Jacks training squad. He is even prepared to sign a “written guarantee” that one of his judokas will win a medal at Tokyo 2020.

Jacks (right) in action during the 1972 Olympics in Munich on his way to the bronze medal Credit: Getty Images 

“I’m deadly serious about it,” he says. “We’ve been everywhere – Blackpool, Kendal, York, everywhere – and everyone says the same thing. Judo has deteriorated so badly and the BJA is doing nothing about it. All people are interested in is walking around with a red and white belt. ‘Oh, look at me’. It’s crazy. These guys are not helping anybody, they are not training anybody. They haven’t learnt properly. They haven’t been through the Japanese system.”

If they can’t handle it or try to question my authority, they will be out

Jacks is on a roll. “Just as an example, there is a young lad called Ashley McKenzie and he is the No  1 lightweight in the country and he is not getting any sort of grant. He is self-funded. Because he doesn’t want to conform with what they want him to do.

“There’s another guy in Tonbridge called Chris Bowles. He has been in the British team in the past – a great competitor. He’s got like 200 people coming to train in a camp, from all over the world… Japan, Russia, all over the place… and the BJA aren’t supporting it. They’re not sending our best players there to train for a week. It’s crazy. They’ve got a team from Japan coming. From Japan! But because it’s not their thing they’re not supporting it.”

Jacks snorts. He says he would take it all back to basics. No iPhones, no iPads, and – controversially – no women. “I’m not interested,” he admits. “It’s not sexism, it’s just they’ve been pretty successful the girls.” 

Jacks has a vision for the future of British judo, though he admits he may upset some people Credit: Christopher Pledger

Just blood, sweat and tears. The way he was taught. The way his father coached him for Superstars when he got him doing 400 dips a day. Jacks says his students would hate him. He admits he would be controversial, politically incorrect. “If anyone can’t handle this, or tries to question my authority, they will be out,” he adds. “This is the Japanese way and why they are champions.”

He tells a story about a former student of his, Neil Adams, who he punched in the face as he was about to head out onto the mat at the 1981 world championships. “He wanted to punch me back but I pushed him on to the mat to win gold,” he laughs. “Adams is still the only Briton to win gold in the world championships and I’m still the only coach to have coached anyone in Britain to a cold. Me. Brian Jacks.”

Jacks will need no introduction to readers over 40 – he was one of Britain's superstars in the 1970s Credit: Getty Images 

Our time is up. Jacks has to head to another martial arts centre, in south London. He profers a huge hand. It is difficult to tell how much of the last hour has been salesmanship, how much bravado, and how much a genuine belief he can make a change, at 71, and with his body, by his own admission “in bits”. But it is worth considering that Jacks has not simply been working on his golf handicap and his tan out in Pattaya. He has married for a third time and has built a 64-room apartment block called View Dee. You certainly couldn’t accuse the King of the Dips of lacking industry.

“I just hate to see the state that British judo is in,” he reflects, sadly. “I want to a group of people who will come and train hard. And if they don’t like it I will tell them to f--- off.”

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