‘MMA coaching is in my blood’: Michael Bisping’s ex-coach Allan Clarkin talks martial arts, changing lives, and the British Empire Medal
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One of Britain’s longest-serving martial arts coaches, he has been tutoring young fighters for over 50 years. Now 71, he started training at the age of just two and is a 7th Dan black belt who also possesses superhuman-high grades in various other martial arts to boot. He’s trained countless mixed martial artists, including one UFC Middleweight Champion.
Having travelled the world, working with a raft of promising fighters as they embark on careers in one of the most physically and mentally brutal sporting pursuits known to man, Allan has also run Black Knights Kickboxing in East Lancashire for the past 41 years. He is now coaching the children of some of his first students.
Well-respected far-and-wide across the brutal, blood, bruises, and broken bones world of MMA, he has been inducted into the Black Belt Hall of Fame. But it is locally where he has had the greatest impact, helping school countless Lancastrian kids in mental, physical, and emotional discipline.
And, what’s more, he never rests on his laurels. During Covid, he saw not a chance to relax, but an opportunity to improve, completing a host of International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF) online coaching courses. Not bad for the 5’4” scrapper whose early training was hampered by persistent asthma and eczema.
A fighter is born
“I remember getting this magazine by the bodybuilder Joe Wider, which covered all the different aspects of martial arts, when I was younger,” says Allan. “I studied that because I wanted something that suited me - I’m pretty small and was about eight stone when I left school, so I tried judo and karate and thought there was something missing.
“That’s how I found jiu jitsu, which combines striking, throwing, and groundwork,” Allan adds. “I was also in the Boys’ Brigade and started teaching a self-defence class, so it progressed from there. I never had any interest in going into coaching, but I wanted to expand my knowledge, so I travelled to Blackpool and Manchester to study tai chi and wing chun.
“I’d try to pick up as much as I could from black belt instructors on every course and, on February 1st, 1982, I opened my gym at the age of 29,” he continues. “I’ve been there ever since.”
The coaching pioneer meets the young protégé
At the time, martial arts competitions were few and far between, and Allan - when he wasn’t with his young family or working a full-time job as a BT engineer - was mainly focused on coaching. But he realised his pupils needed more, so he started a few intra-club comps, which led on to a few fighters entering national tournaments.
Now, his gym is adorned with the national flag of every country a Black Knight fighter has represented. And one of those flags represents a very special career indeed.
“I first met Michael at a competition in Urmston in Manchester,” says Allan of former UFC Middleweight Champion, former Cage Rage Light Heavyweight Champion, and former Ultimate Fighter 3 Light Heavyweight tournament winner Michael Bisping, from Clitheroe. “I was sat with my wife and saw this young lad fighting with a continuous points style.
“His brother was near us so, when he came over to sit with him, I told him his style was not for him,” Allan adds. “He was very aggressive, so he needed to be going full-contact. I gave him my details and, next thing I know, his dad brought him over to the gym from Clitheroe. You could see he had potential straight away - he just enjoyed fighting.”
In 2016, Bisping became the first British UFC champion before being inducted into the UFC Hall of Fame having set a record for most fights, finishing with a 30-9 record. Revered as one of the sport’s most explosive fighters, Bisping owes a lot to Allan, who even featured in the documentary BISPING: The Michael Bisping Story about his career.
“Michael once actually picked the other lad up and threw him out the ring during one fight,” says Allan. “The referee jumped in and told him he couldn’t do that. When he came back to the corner, he asked if he could kick him out of the ring and I said of course he could. So, he went back in and kicked him out instead.
“He trained with me for three years and won three British titles with us,” he adds. “But, after that, he got a full-time job because he needed money. But I encouraged him to keep training to let his aggression out. He’s achieved some amazing things and we’ve jumped off the settee many a time watching him. We were all chuffed for him when he won that title.
“There’s so much pride in it personally and he’s a proper nice lad - really down to earth, no airs and graces,” continues Allan. “He was proper cocky when he first turned up, but he matured because he knew you’ve got to be disciplined if you want to succeed. Without discipline, you will not learn martial arts, because it’s complex.
“That’s why it teaches life lessons, because it demands a lot from you. And the kids who stick it out become completely different people.”
The transformation power of MMA
It’s often said that combat sports are transformative for young men on the precipice of a life of crime or mental health issues. “I have people coming to me to talk and open up about their problems,” says Allan. “I just say ‘right, get on the punch-bags or the tyre-basher’, which is a big tyre fastened to a frame that you can beat 10 bells out of which a big stick.
“But we’d talk, too,” he adds. “That’s helped a lot of people get rid of a lot of mental stress. I see a massive difference in people once they start coming down. We’ve had a few people who’ve been on the verge… But we’ve got around it by talking and showing them that they have friends. It works.
“I’ve been coaching for 41 years now and I’ve done qualifications all over the world, and it’s still one of the most rewarding things,” Allan continues. “Working with kids is fantastic too, because they always ask you ‘what if?’ questions as a coach and, if you can solve those, you can overcome any problem.
“Plus, no two people are the same, so the coaching is always fresh. It’s all about readjusting, which keeps everything very interesting.”
Earning higher honours
Having earned his reputation as the Encyclopedia Britannica of martial arts, Allan is revered at Black Knights - in fact, he is held in such high esteem that one club member, Stuart Gervaise, nominated him for the British Empire Medal, which is awarded for meritorious civil or military service worthy of recognition by the Crown.
Stuart initially nominated Allan four years ago, collecting dozens of letters of testimony from students past and present. But the process was halted by Covid, meaning a government representative only reached out to Stuart last year. Alas, when the late Queen’s honours list came out last year, Allan’s name wasn’t included.
Then the King’s New Year’s Honours List came out and there Allan was. He and his wife Jane are now gearing up to travel down to London for a Royal Garden Party on May 3 and the award presentation on May 19.
“When I heard I’d been awarded the medal, I was shocked,” says Allan. “I thought it was crazy - an old chap from Burnley getting a medal, but it made me dead proud. And I’ve still got the same passion for coaching as ever. I said I’d retire at 65 and here I am at 71 still going. It’s my passion. It’s in my blood.”