Exclusive Interview: Junior Lefevre – Kumite & Kata Legend

Question:

Is it possible to become a world-class champion in both kata and kumite?

Many people would say no.

But Junior Lefevre proved them all wrong.junior_lefevre (484x640)

Raised by the harsh streets of Brussels, molded by the kill-or-be-killed mentality of old-school Karate, sensei Junior Lefevre is no stranger to hard work and dedication – whether in kata or kumite.

A trait that took him all the way to the top of the global Karate scene back in the days.

To him, it really doesn’t matter if you call something “kata”, “kihon” or “kumite”.

It’s all Karate.

And today in our exclusive interview, he reveals the stories, lessons and secrets that took him from the bottom to the top.

From a young Brussels sprout to a World Champion.

Although sensei Lefevre has retired from actively competing, he still regularly travels all around the world giving kumite seminars, inspiring Karate Nerds and coaching new champions, like Rafael Aghayev and George Tzanos – when he’s not busy teaching traditional classes in his dojo in Belgium.

And yes – he has the track record to back up his teachings.

Here’s a small sample:

WKF World Champion 1996 & 2000
WKF Vice World Champion 2002
WKF Bronze World Championships 1996 & 1998
EKF European Champion Open Class 1999
EKF European Champion -70 kg 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999
EKF European Champion Kata 1995, 1996
EKF European Championships Open Class medalist 1997, 2003
EKF European Championships Medalist -70 kg 1997, 2000, 2001, 2003
EKF European Championships Medalist Team Kumite 2003

Now…

Are you prepared to dive into the head of a unique Karate master?

Then saddle up!

Because here’s Junior Lefevre – Kumite & Kata Legend.

Enjoy!Lefevre2010_0

J (Jesse): All right! Let’s start from the beginning. When and why did you start Karate?

JL (Junior Lefevre): “I started Karate when I was 8 years old. The reason was for self-defense. I was living in a neighborhood in Brussels that was… not so good. I was always teased by other boys in school, and one day the principal asked my father to take me to a martial arts club.”

J: That’s often how it begins. So how was training back then, compared with today? 

JL: “Well, there was certainly a difference in how people trained. It’s absolutely not the same today. In those days, training consisted mostly of copying what the others were doing. We trained very hard but never asked any questions. So I think Karate has made a big evolution in the way that practicioners are thinking today.”

J: Being able to ask questions is critical. But some people argue that we have lost a bit of the “shut up and train” mentality in this evolution. What do you think?

JL: “I know what you mean. It depends on who gives the class. Is the sensei a real Karate person? Or only a fighter? Or only a sport kata person? It’s a big, big, big, difference. Luckily, I was taught by a sensei who was traditional. He followed a certain Japanese lineage, Kaze and Shirai, that most Shotokan people will recognize – so I never did Karate for competition. Never. And that shaped my career.”

J: You didn’t do Karate as a sport? But you became a World Champion!

JL: “Sport kumite was just a step in my Karate evolution. This makes a big difference, because now when I’m retired as an athlete, I can continue my evolution in Karate. Of course I teach young kids for competition, because their parents pay me for that, and I need to live off Karate. But on the other hand, I can also teach people traditional Karate. I can always fall back on my basics – kihon, kata, kumite – and the link that you have between those three disciplines.”

J: This is interesting, because most people – especially competitors – seem to draw a line between kata, kihon, bunkai and kumite. They like to cherry-pick. But you actually competed at world-class level in both kata and kumite. Explain.

JL: “For me, kata and fighting have never been separate. When we trained, we always did both. Kata and fight. It’s the traditional way. Now, perhaps I was not known as the greatest technician of kata, but you could always sense I was fighting in my kata.

That’s why I was often successful in kata tournaments, despite my “not perfect” technique. The referees could see I was really fighting. I was expressing a fight in my kata. Referees could feel that.

That’s why I placed third in Open de Paris in kata, after [Michael] Milon and the Japanese guy. I was European Champion in kata and kumite the same year. You don’t see that a lot. When I did kumite, I was very traditional too. I had that basic stance, with my feet firmly on the floor. For me it was no problem to fight in the open weight class – against people twice my weight, because I had really good stability on the floor – thanks to my kata practice.”

J: So, do you think it’s a mistake for young people to specialize in one thing?

JL: “I think, of course, it’s logical that you will always come further if you specialize in one direction. But we must never forget that we also need the other parts. Today I teach a lot of athletes at a really high level… and what do they do? They go to the gym. And they do Karate. Personally, I never did gym – my gym was kata. For me, that was my strength exercise. I think you can use your body to train a lot; speed, strength, endurance. You don’t need to go to a gym for that. But you always need a good physical foundation before specialization.”

*Pauses to write autographs*

J: What about the popular chasm between “modern” vs. “traditional” Karate? What’s your view on this?

JL: “There is a difference. For example, when I was fighting in traditional JKA [Japan Karate Association] it was different from WKF [World Karate Federation]. That’s true. But I believe you should always train with a traditional mindset. When you hit… hit. Punch a makiwara a thousand times. Then have that same mentality when you go for a point in a fight.

You can’t just do sport Karate. You should always have traditional Karate left. Unfortunately, the referees don’t care about this, so many coaches don’t teach traditional Karate anymore. But I don’t think it’s the athlete’s fault. They just do what they’re being taught!jutsko

Old athletes, like José Manuel Egea were technically very good. But today’s top fighters are just fast, not technically good. Rafael [Aghayev] is an exception. They’re just clinching all the time and jumping around. This is the difference between modern and traditional.”

J: So, you think the old-school fighters were actually better than today’s fighters?

JL: “The old athletes, like the French guys, were technically very good. Like [Alexandre] Biamonti, for example. Of course he was not a kata specialist, but a punch is still a punch! Today, if you look at many kumite champions, they can’t even punch correctly. You can’t see where the punch is coming from! It’s not Karate anymore. It’s a mix between boxing and wrestling.

And by the way – I totally don’t agree with the new WKF rules about clinching.”

J: Yes, I heard you have some strong opinions about the WKF kumite rules. Tell me more.

JL: “First of all, I think it’s good that the rules are constantly developing. We need evolution in Karate. We need a system to encourage nice kicks and nice throws so it’s exciting to watch, improving our chances of becoming Olympic. I totally agree with that. But – clinching with both hands, so that the opponent becomes immobilized – I think it’s incorrect.”

J: Why?

JL: “Because now, if you clinch and the other guy tries to make a move, he gets a warning. I think it would be better for everyone, including the referees, if we give warnings for two-handed clinching. The only clinching we should allow is with one hand. Because then you still have one arm free to strike, block, punch, whatever.

We are not Judo people. We need to make a distinction. But we should still make everyone able to do throws and sweeps and keep it interesting. This is something I want to put on the table for WKF, but I need a lot of support.”

Lefevre teaching the biomechanics & tactics of gyaku-zuki

J: You’re also known as a world-class coach. What is your #1 advice for people who want to become good coaches?

JL: “Look a lot. But not only on your own athletes. You need to look at a lot of different things, and then accept. Accept that you can be wrong. There is more than one way to achieve a goal. There are many different methods to make a champion, and sometimes you have to accept that the way you are training your athletes is not a good one. Maybe you have to change.

Unfortunately, some coaches never consider this. They cannot accept any other way, and only think their way is the only correct way.

It’s the same with both kumite and kata. For me, every kata person is unique. Even though I don’t have the same hip mobility as a Japanese champion, I can still be good! Sure, my Chatanyara Kusanku will look a bit different than his, but it can still be technically good.

This is the treasure of Karate; we all do the same things, but a bit differently. That’s good. No stereotypes.”

J: So let’s flip it around: What’s your best advice for Karate students, or athletes, who want to achieve greatness in what they do?

JL: “Mentality is most important. Not only the physical. Because, many times you have athletes that are on the same level from a technical, physical and tactical point of view, but what makes them different is their head. If one wants to achieve his goal more than the other one, he will do it. Believe me.”

J: How can people train this?

JL: “The way you go to training is important. When you want to become a champion, every training is a championship. Every single training. You are not there to train. You are there to kill. And this mentality is completely different.

Today I’m 35 years old – I’m soft, compared to what I was when I was 20. I remember those days clearly, because nobody wanted to train with me. I was knocking people out. Even if my sensei said: “Go softer”, I didn’t care.

My idea was; If you are in front of me, you want my spot. That’s all. And if you want my spot, I will punch you. This was my way of looking at competition.”

J: Wow.

JL: “So when I went to tournaments, my opponents were afraid of me before we started. I won before the fight had even begun.”

J: Did that make you enemies?

JL: “This is a funny point: On a national level, yes. But on international level, no. The top fighters that I met from other countries became some of my best friends. Like Iván Leal, whom I beat twice in the final of the European Championships – he became my best friend!

Another Dutch guy, I broke his nose and his jaw – but he broke my finger – we became best friends!

So it’s really funny that we respect each other for that. We are the same. We are exactly the same. We both trained hard and wanted to become the champ, so we had respect for each other.

People who never had these goals can’t understand. When they look, it seems like I want to show off. But no – I don’t want to show off. I want to be the best. Point.”

J: Like Nietzsche wrote; “The higher we soar, the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.” Now, can you describe your most memorable experience from your long career in Karate?

JL: “Sure. The best period in my whole life was when I was not competing at elite level, but traveling around Europe for training. I was 12 years old, and my father would drive me everywhere to train with Japanese sensei; Kaze, Shirai and others. I was just doing tournaments and seminars. Tournaments, seminars, tournaments, seminars… All I wanted was to be on the mat. And I loved it. I loved to just train hard and squeeze the sweat from my gi.

That was the best part of my life. Not thinking about money, not thinking about girlfriends. Just hard work. That was cool.

Now, from a championship point of view; I have to mention the world title. When you work hard for something and achieve it, it’s always a success. But the joy you feel at that moment is always in comparison to the work you put in the preparation. It’s such a relief when you win. You think about all the hard work, and the pain you had to endure.

Also, I had to go through a lof of politics with the Belgium Karate Federation. Did you know I had to change my passport to become a World Champion?”

J: No?

JL: “You don’t know my story? Let me tell you: I was European Champion for Belgium. But because I have a big mouth, I said that the president of the Belgium Karate Federation was an a**hole. He was stealing money, so I thought he was an a**hole and I said it. Obviously, I was not selected for any championships after that. I missed two national team camps in one year, and was not selected. So I did the World Championships in Rio de Janeiro with no coach.”

J: What?!

JL: “You see, we went to court. They examined our case, and I won. So the federation said I could participate in the championships, but without a coach. I was alone, and nobody in the team was allowed to speak to me. So I came to semifinal, although I lost, and immediately called my dad to say I needed a coach. I was so tense!

That’s when the Croatian Karate Federation asked me to fight for them. So I had to get a new passport in 24 hours, and for the next championships I was selected by Croatia. I won everything after that.”

J: Awesome! Hard work and dedication always beats politics. Now, it’s time to wrap up. I only have one question left. We’ve been talking a lot about the past, as well as the present, but let’s talk about the future: What are your hopes for the future of Karate?

JL: “From a personal point of view, I hope to continue teach Karate like I do now – with a lot of joy. From a global point of view, I hope that Karate can become an Olympic sport – without selling out our soul. Karate has to stay Karate.

The problem is, like I said earlier, with the clinching, that Karate is transforming more and more into a sport – instead of a martial art. I hope that judges and the referee commission will give more attention to this.

Otherwise we might lose everything.

Also, for athletes, I think it would be a good point to be more professional. Today’s competitors have made huge steps in speed and strength, everyone are very high level today. We have made many good steps. But we have made bad ones also. Let’s work on those.”

J: Wise words. Thank you sensei Lefevre.

JL: “Thank you Jesse.”

22 Comments

  • Junior is my friend,i know him since he was 14, surfacing in Belgian competitions. Later,he had the whole (Belgian) federation against him and nevertheless became world champion!!Although we took different directions in karate,he is a kumite-teacher,where i went to an application-based karate,i still like to train with him,because his insight in points karate is purely mathematics,he can say that technique works for you at this or that moment and then and then not...This guy will be or allready is the best kumite teacher in the world and,Jesse, above all, he is a karate-nerd!!!!Jos Robert
  • bhaskar sen
    Where the hell did you find this guy? You didnt write that !!!! well, TBH, what a personality!!!!! (Y)
  • Per me è un grande Junior !!solo ammirazione per lui ! è riuscito a legare bene insieme il passato con il presente/futuro, dalla tradizione alle catene cinetiche !! spero di poter andare a trovarlo presto al suo champion dojo per imparare !!!grazie
  • Ralf
    An interesting interview, Jesse. In many issues i can agree with Mr. Lefevre. And i wish there were more Karateka like him. But i can not agree with him concerning the Olympics. I hope Karate will NEVER be an olympic discipline, cause this is the irreversible path to decay. Look at Taekwondo. It became a complete farce after it became olympic. I don't want this to happen with Karate. There is no return out of such a shame.
  • Josep
    Didn't know about him, but loved his words!!
  • Ian
    That connection between kata and kumite is something that my old sensei always stressed.
  • Danni
    I'm quite impressed about what he told respect the Belgium Karate Federation. the same goes on differente countries around the World. For example, in my country, Peru, the President of the Peruvian Karate Federation...is not a Karateka! About what he told: "when I was 20, I was knocking all people around", well, for an elite competitor it is perfect, but to a Karateka, I think it is not. Karate-Do is supossed to promote values like fellowship and respect for the weaks, not to be killing all of our classmates...besides, if he was thinking that way, and he was called to be an elite competitor, he was thinking like the "sports way", and it isn't bad, the bad is to think that way like: "I am traditional, but I am the champ". I think it is contradictory in some way.
  • Maybe it is a coincidence but yesterday, after reading this article I went to train and I did some kata training alone with my sensei. He was talking about the heel turn and how I should start every movement from my hips (I train in a very small dojo in Tokyo). And then I started to ask why kata uses that kind of movements while kumite is more about hand speed and footwork.He told me to pay more attention to my techniques while I'm doing kumite and instead of step forward only with my legs, try to use my hips as well, like we had been practicing before. Then I realized that I can move faster that way!After that we stopped the training and we discussed for some minutes that kumite and kata are related, and that we should use the same techniques, although of course we use those techniques more freely while doing kumite. He also said that, is important to practice all aspects of karate. If you spend too much time only doing kumite your movements will, at some point, no longer be karate, but a mixture of boxing and other fighting sports.He told me to always go back to kata when I feel like that, because we should not forget what karate is about and where all this came from. Which is basically what Lefevre sensei is talking about.I think yesterday's lesson was a very important one, and I feel really happy to have found this dojo and this sensei.
    • Mike
      Why do some think that karate is a static thing? Karate was not developed by its founders to never change, but somehow along the way teachers started saying that if you do something different it is no longer karate. Can anyone point to where Sokon Matsumura or Ankou Itosu said that their self defense systems were not to be added to or altered? They were concerned about developing a training system and fighting ability, and change was a part of that.But no, karate has to be stuffed into a set boxed dimension with sensei teaching students that tripe, and eventually these students becoming sensei and pushing that tripe further into the future. If one wants one's karate to be dynamic, I'd suggest one use some critical thinking skills. Sadly, a lot of those skills get pushed aside in the midst of ingratiating oneself to authority figures.
      • CaDs
        Mike, actually your line of thinking (a little bit blunt BTW) is interesting and is something that I have been wandering myself as well.Some of the Japanese teachers I train with are quite conservative, some are not. For me, since I don't have such a long experience is still the beginning of an interesting journey and my opinion is that the more sources you have for learning about one subject the wider your vision grows.So I feel curious, where lies the line from where your martial art is no longer karate? Does that line exists to begin with?
  • Hi, I agree with Sensei Lefevre about "competitors have made huge steps in speed and strength, everyone are very high level today". I would like to invite everyone to check some drills that I have been developing and sharing, hoping be helpful to all of you. Check my website www.alfredomayorca.com or/and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lgsIqpomryg
    • Mike
      All that looks good, Alfredo. But why did you feel the need to speed up the video some? I'm willing to bet that you're fast enough to impress us without having to resort to a parlor trick.I thought they were excellent drills.So, can you bring it back to real life speed?
      • Alfredo Mayorca
        Ey Mike, first of all I'm glad you like the drills, the idea is help a little bit to everybody. I don't know what are your intention with your comments, but it didn't sound good. It would be great if you are a karateka to train together, so you can put the gloves on and sweat for a while. So, you'll be able to check what is a parlor trick and what is not.Oss!
        • Mike
          Eh Alfredo,My only intent was to have you consider posting a video without having to manipulate impression by speeding things up. And to slow that one down to normal speed. That's all. Possible? Or are you wedded to its speedy aesthetics?I was not criticizing your skill. In fact, I complimented you by saying I was sure you were probably quite fast enough without having to resort to doing that. Maybe the "parlor trick" comment is what rubbed you wrong. Right? Hmm...well, I can't back away from that. It is what it is. I stand by that.Yes, I am a karate-ka. And no, I am not as skilled as you are, so if we put on the gloves you'd win. But I'd get in my licks. Anyways, since you are in Europe, and I am far far away from there, let's just be satisfied with us agreeing you have already won our karate match in another dimension. I'm humble enough to live with that. You?
  • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
    Dear Junior,Everything you said in response to Jesse's questions rings dead true. The WKF has lost the plot with regards to the true essence of KARATE. This being the main reason I left Shotokan and switched to Kyokushin.I hope that one day Karate goes back to being taught in the Dojo's as 'functional karate'; thus allowing ALL Nage-waza as in Judo. Otherwise the WKF will become nothing more than a staged event like two rabbits bouncing around screaming each time a point is scored. Hence losing its functionality altogether.It's one thing to be successful in high level competition but as I have said in a previous forum there are NO POINTS on the street - only life and death!Imagine how incredibly electric the WKF Championships would be if all Nage-waza (as in Judo) were allowed - it would be open season. By allowing a greater, deeper pool to select techniques from would in turn make the depth of competition truly elite !Again, funny how all these forums keep coming back to the functionality of Karate ! ???? !Hmmmmm....
    • ShotoNoob
      KYOKUSHIN VS. SHOTOKAN \ IMO, Shotokan karate has advantages over Kyokushin. Modern conventions about both are practiced has eroded both arts. \ Shotokan competition kumite can be faulted for the point fighting where the essence of traditional karate strength is not behind the techniques. Agree with Mr. Griffin on that score. \ OTOH, pounding the ba-jesus out of one another the way I see conventional Kyokushin karate practiced most often trained today, that does not utilize the essence of traditional karate strength either. Disagree with Mr. Griffin that Kyokushin is 'functional' while Shotokan is somehow not. \ Way too stereotypical views of what constitutes karate abound. Some other posters above have voiced my linbe of thinking as well.
      • Peter G.N. GRIFFIN
        Mr "SHOTONOOB" (whoever the hell you really are ?),1. Rather than you HIDE behind a 'Pseudonym', how about YOU begin by USING YOUR REAL NAME, so the rest of the world can see WHO YOU REALLY ARE !2. Your email, which has taken you SIXTEEN (16) months to respond to my ORIGINAL POST (POSTED & DATED: 0605 HOURS, 01 JUNE 2014) is PATHETIC to say the very least.3. There IS A REASON "KUDO" (KYOKUSHIN + JUDO) has been officially and formally adopted by the following Global Military Elites and NOT something as "dysfunctional" as SHOTOKAN Karate or any of the other art forms:US NAVY Seals US ARMY SFG (aka Green Beret's) RUSSIAN Spetsnaz BRITISH SAS / SRR / SBS AUSTRALIAN SAS / COMMANDO / CLEARANCE DIVERS NZ SAS JAPAN (Tokushu Sakusen Gun) there Delta Force Unit ...the list goes on....NO WHERE IN THERE is any of those groups training or utilizing ANY form or training under nor by SHOTOKAN Karate , because SHOTOKAN "DOES NOT WORK" in the REAL WORLD !, IF IT DID ! - then these aforementioned groups WOULD be using SHOTOKAN Karate and NOT KUDO (Kyokushin Karate and JUDO combined).I know Mr. Paul CALE "PERSONALLY", having served myself !, in addition, KUDO was created by Takashi Azuma Soke, whom himself also served at the elite level in JAPAN's Military.For goodness sake, have some integrity and let the world KNOW WHO YOU REALLY ARE specific to your Baseless, and Ridiculous Postings on Jesse-san website. In addition to please "WAKE UP !"It is clear YOU have NEVER served / deployed as a front-line serviceman, nor experienced a real life scenario of life and death on the street in either Policing, or private security (e.g. Cash Transit Armed Security).Unlike the overwhelming majority of people posting rubbish on the Internet, I own what I SAY, and continue to have an open philosophy of PROVING the truth on the mat / in the ring ! Full Contact IS the only way, period ! Only those who do not partake in this practise are frauds !By your response it begs the question, "Do you train at one of those McDojo's ?" I believe Jesse-san covered this issue in an 'McDojo' Article posted 19 JUNE 2014.Osu !
  • KS Diong
    I sincerely hope that one day WKF Kumite Rules........ (1) will allow grabbing with both hands, (2) will not 'yame' even though there is no effective scoring immediately after the grabbing/throwing, let the fight continue until one make an effective score.Karateka should learn to defend himself and counter attack after being grabbed or thrown. No rules will save him on the street.Just my 2 cents.
  • yusuf ali
    oss let us go with the time line ..let us not hesitate big fellas.. ur ones good my ones mine ..great fan of sensi J L

Leave a comment