An interview with martial artist and hall of fame All-Round Weightlifter John McKean (Part I)

An interview with martial artist and hall of fame All-Round Weightlifter John McKean (Part I)

When you're 71 years old, and still setting world records in International All-Round Weightlifting, there is a definite validity to the expression "I still feel like a young guy".

Born on December 15th, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, surrounded by fields, woods, and neighboring kids. John McKean was a typical middle class kid. A bit backward during his elementary school years, he was an unathletic "little fat kid" with a liking for mashed potatoes and gravy. Cheerful and helpful to others, his plumpness however brought its own brand of attention.

John's McKean's long road through martial arts and competitive weightlifting started early when he became fascinated reading about judo, jujitsu, and American boxing. Unfortunately for him, there were no teachers anywhere near his little rural town. But that didn't kill his desire.

Lacking an instructor, John a self professed loner, did what he is best known for; he improvised, adapted and overcame. He acquired a copy of famed boxer Joe Louis's "How to Box", set up a portable punching bag, and began to teach himself. "Surprisingly, I did a fair job", he would say in hindsight. As life progressed this trait of making his own unique "discoveries" in martial arts and weightlifting training would become his trademark.

Impressed by his son's self motivation, exercise, and progressing body tone, John's father, a WWII U.S. Marine Master Sergeant, presented him with his old wartime combative field manual. That and the simple words, "Practice! Perfect that youthful mental push to learn and train"! An interesting curiosity is that after a lifetime of martial arts and championship weightlifting John would come full circle back to his father's world of Combatives. When queried regarding this retrospection John replied, "If I had stuck with Combatives and my own home training approach over the years, rather than delving in to formal oriental martial arts systems I'd have been far better off".

At this time John encountered the renowned works of Rex Applegate's "Kill or be killed", and police Ju-Jitsu instructor Swen Jorgensen. These fired up John's self training and in retrospect, set his path.

John was fortunate in that parents supported his self driven manner. Fostered in this independence, he found his ambition, strength, and a strong ability to teach himself. Something he continues to this day.

By 15, trimmed down from calisthenics training, bicycling and fly by chance dieting program, John saw himself quite weak and perhaps too thin. It was in this conclusion that his fascination with weight training took hold.

That Christmas he asked for and received a barbell set. This was magic as strict adherence to the set's program book brought immediate gains in both muscle and power. Driven by the "Iron Game", John devoured every morsel he could find about nutrition, and became a very dedicated lifter, stacking up both results and respect. He had really "found himself" through the weights! Soon he was "experimenting" with his own ways to build strength.

Motivated by his gains John became enthused with High School wrestling. The coach, a former Olympian, held daily pre-training workouts that the team's State champion superstars could barely make it through! Yet, when the run, an hour of calisthenics, the gym, and all the push-ups were done, John found himself the only one still fresh.

Before long wrestling practice proved to be disappointing. New guys just stood around watching the experienced guys go at it. The few times he did wrestle, he was amazed that he much stronger than the others in his same weight class. But soon the weights called to him and he returned to his "home Combatives dojo", and basement "lifting gym".

The decision turned out to be a good one. As his strength gains accelerated he was soon drawn to weightlifting and bodybuilding competition. John believes his "never letting up" was due to being his own coach, in his own world, free to go his own way!

During college, John rarely missed a workout. At 5 foot 3 inches, with a 50 inch chest over a 30 inch waist, John was certainly a "freak". Since colleges of this period had very little in the way of heavy barbell equipment so he would hitchhike 20 miles or so to Erie, Pennsylvania where he could use the Olympic barbells available at their two YMCAs. In between Erie visits he hid heavy plate dumbbells under his bed for a few extra workouts.

John's first introduction to formal martial arts training was while studying teaching at Edinboro State. Drawn by their drills and non-contact sparring and tournaments which were rarely non-contact, John joined an on campus Shorin Ryu Karate group. John reveled in it. For the first time he got to hit as well as get hit! Able to hit faster and harder, and withstanding blows more easily John again saw the effects of his training and conditioning stand out. This combination of karate and general weightlifting kept him hopping, and he soon found himself improving at both. Its constant activity kept him driven to self betterment and feeling vitally alive.

He began to realize that contrary to his earlier Combatives work outs, their emphasis on "non contact tournaments" watered down his ability to respond to real street attacks. With this, his graduation, and a pending career teaching Junior high school math, John left Shorin Ryu for home.

It was at this period that "power-lifting" (squat, bench-press, deadlift) had recently been established as an official competition. John felt that their heavy lifts seemed perfectly pre-fit to his body, methods, and temperament. He became deeply involved in Power meets, eventually winning all local meets repeatedly in the middleweight division, and setting district records.

Again, lured by dual intentions he once more attempted to intertwine martial arts with weight training. Although he joined mostly for the sparring and "newness" of various karate styles moves; never to acquire belts, it was difficult to get far from advancing power-lift strength as he approached national and world levels in his specialty; the squat or deep knee bend.

In 1980, at the Great Lakes Championships in Erie, Pennsylvania in the 148 pound weight class John squatted 530 pounds for a Pennsylvania State Record, His best ever competition squat was 555 pounds which he performed before the age of super squat suits. That year he was listed in an international yearly Power-Lifting magazine list as second highest in the country!

If you ask him, John will say that "Power-Lifting was good to him", but then in the same breath that "the same old three lifts had grown a bit tedious". Add to this the arrival of steroids, which he refused to do, and new super squat Power-Lifting uniforms so sturdy that they almost did the lifting. John was soon looking for a new horizon

So at 40 years old, this 132 pound "lifter", tried his hand at Master's Olympic Style Snatch and Clean and Jerk. He won 2 national titles, for lifters over 40 years of age. Although he liked the fast-explosive manner of these lifts, he lacked the proper form. The form that is only acquired by starting these exercises very early in life!

This is when he discovered his ultimate form of weightlifting, "Unites States all-round weightlifting". Incorporating some 150 varying lifts from the beginning of weightlifting history, USAWA held promise. To this day, John still trains in this style, getting in 3-5 workouts per week, plus Combatives striking on a Spar Pro dummy! Strangely, it was All-Round Weightlifting that brought John back to searching for ideal martial arts methods.

Awhile attempting a final 1500 POUNDS "HIP LIFT" in one of John's first All-round World Championship victories (John won his division nine times overall), he completely sheered his ACL. Having elected to avoid ACL surgery and unsure as to whether he would ever again stand or walk steady, John found himself search for an "upper body" focused martial art!

Two hours away there was a Chinese Wing Chun school which caught John's interest. It was a different, interesting way of so-called "self defense".

John found the instruction of Wing Chun fairly bland, until for a few seminars where he trained under the noted Wing Chun Sifu Keneth Cheung, A Sifu who had done his initial work in the original Hong Kong schools of the legendary Yip Man.

"Even his instruction was the basic crap...", John began, that was until Sifu Cheung demonstrated a front knee kick used for when an assailant would pin you to a wall. "I'd heard a gi POP lots of times, but this was the first time I saw and heard a pair of blue jeans CRACK from Sifu Ken's short, fast, but brutally hard low thrust! No knee on earth would have been left in one piece"! John continued, finishing his sentence.

John would recount how he later saw another advanced Wing Chun trainee visit his school and do nothing but a series of super hard, low line kicks at the wooden dummy. "These kicks would have taken out anybody"! This demonstration inspired John to train much harder on low, Combatives kicks for use during potential street attacks!

After an exploration of "Wing Chun's hand games", John arrived at the position that unless you trained for an extensive period of time, the system didn't address the street the way he felt the street demanded!

With heavy lifts never far from his heart, John used Gradual Progression Training to bring him back into the world USAWA, doing almost as much weight as had done previously. It was an entry back to all-round weightlifting training, where he established over 200 IAWA World records in the USAWA large variety of lifts. In 1999 he was inducted into the USAWA Hall of Fame.

Then in his early 50s, a local police officer introduced him to Indonesian Silat. This style was truly fascinating. With unique entry moves, devastating elbow strikes, and complete ruthlessness, devoid of sport application it was just deadly "jungle" self defence.

For 2 years, he followed Silat, studying under another very dynamic individual, Pendekar "keeper of the Art" Paul DeThourars, the head of their Silat organization. Raised in the jungles of Indonesia, Paul had been hand reared in Silat from age 4 by his uncles, who then were the top masters of that system.

When John met him, Paul was fat and always happy, somewhat hobbled in the hips and knees, and already in his 70s. Yet Black Belt magazine still wrote a series of articles on him, entitled him as "The Deadliest Man on the Planet"!

What John took away from his experiences with Paul was the extreme respect for proper footwork and angles. He would always remember Paul's heavily accented statement "El-a-bows are your 45 calibers in hitting"!

However once again, John became disillusioned with the time required to make Silat street effective! That and an inner politic which excluded training any other form of training except a pure concentration on Silat! When John was told to stop weightlifting, it was a short route to the door.

Now middle aged John thought his formal martial arts training had come to its end. He was free to enjoy his preferred home training without constraint. However, that thought was soon to be challenged by pure chance.

Absorbed in an article on WWII Combatives, John noted the focus group of the article, the "Amercian Combatives Association", was in just over in neighboring West Virginia! Overjoyed to see people practicing the Fairbairn/Applegate tactics that he had self trained in as a youth, John's eyes popped out! More so he was amazed to see them employing striking sequences very similar to those that he believed he had "invented" on his own. He soon contacted the group's head honcho. Some guy named John Kary.

John Kary, turned out to be a rather gruff, gravelly voiced Vietnam Vet, completely blind, and hearing and hip impaired from a mine that killed most of his patrol. Yet Kary was to become perhaps John's ideal mentor.

Kary had learned Combatives from the very few old military men who still practiced it. Men such as Colonel Rex Applegate and later Carl Cestari. John found Kary to be extremely serious about this "attack the attacker" training, and he passed that mindset to all of his trainees. Kary was very inspirational to this effect, but not a nice man. Kary harbored a bitterness from the war, that would not allow him to yield any attacker a break.

John once asked Kary what would happen if he was robbed, not being able to see, by a young teenager; Kary's cold reply was, "I'd kill him as quickly as anyone else!"

John attended one of their free 3 day summer camps. Only thing was, the training was completely different than his loose, informal youthful practice. After some further home re-training, he signed on to become an instructor.

Although the Fairbairn/Applegate methods seemed simple, John quickly realized that there was about 100 things that you could do wrong, and that his former Combatives training employed every one of them! So, in order to advance, John had first "unlearn" everything he knew!

Training with Kary in his garage gym was intense to say the least! In every session there was the only trainee, John, and two instructors! Instructors motivated by their hardcore methods and that john had decided to take this all the way to certified instructorship. There were no allowances for nervousness or error. This intensity corrected all previous technique miscues, developed the correct mental attitude, and most importantly, taught you to teach your future students the same attributes!

Despite his age, John's weight training again served him well. At one point, he was told that I was the only instructor candidate that not only didn't "pass out" from exhaustion after the whole day of constant striking, but also maintained energy to do strength training back at motel that evening. Some of the current instructors actually visited him in his room and had him start teaching them in the proper form of real strength development! Quite a compliment from people not prone to compliments.

In all John found WWII Combatives very exciting. One couldn't tell the instructors from the newbies. There was no strutting, no black belts, no egos, no "tests". Everybody was friendly and outgoing. Well, except for Kary, he never liked anybody.

Of course, as it was with "home study", it wasn't until years later that John really learned the finer details in the Fairbairn/Combatives, that make them so deadly effective! Regardless, in many ways John wished he had stuck with Combatives over the years, rather than training in Karate, and other more "glamorous" martial arts!

Throughout his experiences, the results from his unique methods of "weight training for strength" were of constant benefit. At one point while of becoming an instructor he was being taught personal bodyguard tactics. His "client" was an instructor, a former Marine Drill instructor outweighed him by double.

When a "threat" revealed itself, I was to grab big Jeff behind the neck and pull him behind me as I began pummeling the armed attacker.

After the session, when Kary queried Jeff regarding John's performance, Jeff responded with "...The next time a guy pulls a gun on me, if John is guarding me, just let the gunman kill me. It'll be less painful than having that little monster yank me around by the neck!!". It was John's dedication to bent over row lifts that gave him his tremendous lateral pulling power!

After successfully achieving his ACA instructor certification, John taught from his home, enjoying a great rapport with my combative students.

He put it like this, "Despite the brutal tactics and potentially dangerous situations, it was always my easy-going manner acquired from 32 years of teaching math to Junior High kids that made the difference"! He would enjoy telling potential clients, often adding, "I'll probably be the nicest guy you'll ever meet, who will teach you to kill someone else!"

Yes, in all these instances and in many others, training with the ACA left John knowing that this style of "attacking the attacker, before he even knew he was in a fight!" was the way he was always meant to work out!

As John interspersed in between lifting events, his martial arts training was always sparked and aided by the weight trained strength. However, when a choice had to be made, weightlifting always won out! With John sculpturing his training to best fit his mind and body; he himself his own best training devise.

In john's own words. "In lifting I was my own master". I didn't bow to anybody!! Of course, if I had run into a good, no nonsense Combatives instructor, who knows...?! Then again, the intent of both lifting and Combatives training are so much alike that it would always have to be a 50-50 training split among them"!

John McKean performing a Right Arm Dumbbell Deadlift of 120.9 kg at the 2010 IAWA Gold Cup in Walpole, MA on November 6th.

In Part Two MAZ takes the opportunity to ask John offers some insight regarding his mentors, his difference to other weightlifters, his views regarding Applied Weight Training for martial arts and Maximum Intensity Lifting for Combatives. Finally we wrap up a few of John' closing comments.

So stand by because Part 2 is COMING SOON!


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