Coach Bill Judd, the founder of KO Combat Academy. Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
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KO’s Bill Judd: Former world champion kickboxer and lifeline to the East End

‘Boxing has always been an outlet for a lot of working-class kids’: Former world champion kickboxer Bill Judd on martial arts, mental health and building a community sanctuary in Globe Town.

It’s easy to miss KO Combat Academy if you aren’t searching for it. Located just off Bancroft Road in Bethnal Green, the martial arts hub can be found under three railway arches next to an MOT centre. Its outward appearance may be humble, but once you enter the hollowed arches you might find that your world changes forever.

For those in the martial arts scene, KO Gym is unrivalled. Founded in 1976, the academy has nurtured 39 world champions, from the formidable Muay Thai fighter and boxer Ruqsana Begum to Sak ‘The Slayer’ Nayagam. Its reputation in London is matchless: if you want to master combat sports, the three arches off Bancroft road is the place to be.

To understand the unique formula behind KO’s excellence, you have to meet its founder, Bill Judd. Judd, 64, is synonymous with the academy, which grew around the philosophy and values he learnt from over 60 years of immersion in the world of martial arts.

As a former world champion kickboxer and Hall of Famer, you might expect Judd to be an intimidating, stern-faced force of nature. Judd is the opposite: he’s remarkably humble and genuinely caring, devoted to mentoring the athletes at KO who see him as a father figure.

‘It’s an academy rather than the gym. I always use the word academy. An academy is where you go to learn. You learn the art, the science.

‘So I never used the term the gym, because a gym encompasses people going to an individual thing; they go to a gym, they pump a few weights, and they’re gone. Whereas an academy and a community are very different.’

One arch is dedicated to wrestling, jiu-jitsu, and MMA. Another is predominantly boxing – recreational, amateur, professional – and the other is for kickboxing and Muay Thai. Despite its credentials for nurturing world champions, KO is also a home for complete newcomers.

‘You’ll see a complete mix of gender training, men, young women, young children. We have five-year-olds training, we have 65-year-olds training. It links everybody together, they feel part of something.’

The academy prides itself on its training – ‘the coaches are of the highest calibre, they’ll take years, even decades to cultivate their level of ability’ – but it’s not just about perfecting technique. Those taking a Muay Thai class at KO will not only learn the ‘Art of the eight limbs’, but also gain an education in the philosophy of the historic sport. Judd said:

‘You take Muay Thai. It’s part of the culture of Thailand. So they learn what’s known as the Ram Muay and the Wai Khru, and they learn that and the Thai music. Everything is related, so they’re encouraged to visit Thailand.

‘There’s a whole cultural side of it. Brazilian jiu-jitsu has initial origins in Japan and then you have the Brazilian flavour added to it. It’s based on culture and respect, you see people with their guidelines, always shaking hands at the end of the class.’

Judd has been practising this philosophy of mutual respect all his life. As the son of a boxer, he was involved in combat sports from a young age, from boxing and judo to Kung Fu. His talents took him to Japan, where he competed on the international stage and won a world kickboxing title.

Throughout his life, Judd was coached by true giants of martial arts, from the great Judo instructor Matsutaro Otani to Grand Master of Chinese kickboxing C.K Chang. In the 1970s, Judd spent extensive time in Thailand, where he discovered Muay Thai, which at the time wasn’t widely known about in the West.

‘There was a Thai Master here in the UK that got me hooked, Bun Riang, and the main Thai instructor was Yodtong Senanan, and he was legendary, one of the greatest Masters in Thailand.’

After Judd founded KO Gym in 1976, the academy grew to become one of the first martial arts centres to provide comprehensive Muay Thai training in the UK, firmly putting the lesser-known sport on the map. In 2021, Muay Thai was officially recognised by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), meaning it could feature in future games.

Despite Judd’s impressive accolades, he isn’t concerned about brandishing his titles. After years of rigorous mentorship from his masters, he learnt the importance of stripping his ego.

‘The things I learned from those people was unbelievable. I saw them come at six o’clock in the morning to clean the gym. And I’m thinking, you’re a Grandmaster, you’re cleaning the gym, and he’d say, “It keeps me humble, takes my ego off”.’

Learning from the humility of his masters, Judd keeps his office wall out of sight from everyone. ‘It isn’t for anybody else. If you have to tell people what you are, you aren’t anything.’ From cleaning the gym himself in the early hours to training complete beginners, Judd isn’t interested in eternal glory – what motivates him is service.

‘If you ask me one thing I would want to be known for, it would be the community, that’s my real passion.’

As the son of an Irish nurse who’d finish a 12-hour shift and then go on to feed the elderly, Judd has grown up with a keen sense of duty. KO Gym is a manifestation of that sense of duty in action.

As well as raising huge amounts of money for Cancer Research UK with White Collar Boxing events, the academy has an extensive programme of community projects, aiming to broaden access to combat sports for those traditionally excluded from gyms.

Every year, KO provides 800 free sessions to those who identify as LGBTQ+, providing an inclusive space where the queer community can train without stigma. The gym also prides itself on its disability inclusivity and provides free classes for those with access needs. ‘We don’t we don’t treat people differently, we just treat them as normal’, Judd said.

When asked about his inspirations, Judd immediately lands on one of his students, ‘Pete the Greek’. Judd first met Pete, a promising 21-year-old fighter, at Tottenham Community Sports Centre. ‘He was a young guy and had 12 to 13 fights unbeaten.’ During a trip to Cyprus, disaster struck: Pete was hit by a racing car and entered a coma that doctors said he’d never recover from.

Against all odds, Pete did recover and then some. ‘They said he’d never walk again. He walks, he walks with a limp all the way from Tottenham to here. They said he’d never talk properly again. He talks away, you can’t shut him up now. He never once felt sorry for himself.’

For Judd, Pete’s mental strength encompasses ‘the ethos of the gym’. To this day, Pete continues to visit KO, inspiring all with his fighting spirit and proving that martial arts is for everyone.

The gym also acts as a lifeline to young people in Tower Hamlets who are in vital of an alternative to gang culture, where they can learn discipline, have an outlet, and feel part of a family. Judd said:

‘We have a project called ‘Shelve the Shank’, which is drop the knife, not only drop the knife but pick up something else.  

‘Pick up martial arts, pick up boxing, pick up music, pick up dance, pick up art, pick up creativity, pick something up that you identify with, are passionate about and have something in your life that brings you purpose and meaning.’

Judd is highly attuned to the way young people in the East End are vulnerable to gang culture. ‘They haven’t got purpose, they haven’t got meaning, they haven’t got direction, they’re isolated. So they’re pulled into a gang where they belong and then they’ve given their status by crime.’

By giving free boxing sessions to local teenagers, KO changes the direction of young lives through the power of martial arts, offering youngsters a no-judgement zone to express themselves. ‘Traditionally, boxing has always been an outlet for a lot of working-class kids.’

All over the gym, you’ll read motivational quotes plastered on the walls, ranging from ‘Refuse to Lose’ and ‘Hit Don’t Get Hit’ to ‘One Step at a Time’. Some of these mantras are specifically geared towards people struggling with addiction, whom the gym supports with its Fitness and Wellbeing in Recovery project, giving recovering addicts a free, structured exercise programme to facilitate their reintegration back into society.

Despite being a space of combat sports, the gym is the opposite of hostile. Diversity defines each arch, making the it a melting pot of cross-cultural solidarity in Tower Hamlets. ‘There’s black, there’s white, there’s Chinese, there’s gay, there’s straight. There’s Buddhist, there’s Muslim, there’s Sikh, there’s Christian, all faiths, all colours, all creeds all training all together’, Judd said. 

Begum, a Muslim Muay Thai world champion who Judd trained himself, plays a major role in the gym. She runs a ladies-only class every Sunday, encouraging Muslim women in the East End to take up martial arts despite the stigma from their community.

Pick up martial arts, pick up boxing, pick up music, pick up dance, pick up art, pick up creativity, pick something up that you identify with, are passionate about and have something in your life that brings you purpose and meaning.

bill judd

While KO Gym is a vital source of uplift for the local area, it receives no council funding for its community projects. ‘If you want the funding source, it’s me’, Judd said.

Judd is earnestly committed to keeping the gym accessible for those who can’t afford it but depend on its services. Even so, he’s running out of both funds and faith. ‘It’s difficult to do all of these initiatives, it’s not easy and it’s very, very hard sometimes. I’m only me.’

More than just a gym, KO is a community hub, bringing together the martial arts champions of tomorrow with regular working-class people. In the three arches off Bancroft Road, Judd has forged an extended family of fighters, giving people a reason to live when all other paths have closed.

The entrance to one of the arches at KO Combat Academy
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Two fighters training at KO Combat Academy in Bethnal Green
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Group training session at KO Combat Academy
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Female boxer training at KO Combat Academy
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Trophies at KO Combat Academy
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Warming up at KO Combat Academy
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Coaching young people in martial arts at KO Combat Academy
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.
Coach Bill Judd teaching at KO Combat Academy
Photo by Matt Payne © Social Streets C.I.C.

If you liked this article, you might enjoy our piece about another local hero, British Bangladeshi actor and film director, Islah Abdur-Rahman.

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