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Kicking on

Former K-1 Japan champion Nicholas Pettas
shares his love of martial arts at the new Spirit Gym in Nogizaka. Chris Betros goes along to watch.

For most people, martial arts conjure up images of Bruce Lee, Jet Li and The Karate Kid. For Danish karate and kickboxing instructor Nicholas Pettas, those pop-culture icons are inspirational, but not what martial arts are about. “Through the way you practice, you get to learn new things about yourself,” he says. “You realize there is no point in hurting other people and hopefully become a better person.”

Since December, Pettas, 31, has been running his own dojo in Nogizaka, the Spirit Gym. All levels are welcome—his students range from 5-year-olds to pro kickboxers who come four mornings a week. In fact, children are among the gym’s most enthusiastic pupils, especially since parents aren’t allowed in the dojo.

Fluent in Japanese, Pettas puts his young charges through their paces, eliciting shouts of “Osu!” as he explains each exercise. Japanese and other foreign sensei—all black belts—mingle with the kids helping out. “We want to create an atmosphere where people can have fun and use martial arts in a friendly environment,” says Pettas. “We do a little sparring, but nobody gets hurt. What you learn here is balance, flexibility and to be aware of your body in a different way.”

Karate kid
These days, Pettas is easing himself back into the rigors of training after breaking his leg in a K-1 event in Toyama 18 months ago. He looks quite formidable, standing 180cm tall and weighing 107kg of mostly muscle. After undergoing surgery, he finally had the last two bolts removed from his leg last month. During the recovery process, he has been teaching one or two classes a day and doing TV work on Fuji’s satellite network. “I’m on a regular kids English show, dressed as a samurai,” he says. “I love it. It’s called Go! Go! Eigo.”

Nicholas Pettas puts his young charges through the karate paces

Being a K-1 fighter and TV personality are two things Pettas could never have imagined himself doing as a child growing up in Denmark. When he was 15, his life changed after he got beaten up by an older kid. “I was really scared because I had never been in a fight. I knew I had to do karate, even though I had never even seen a dojo. I started doing the Kyokushin style of karate. Then someone suggested I go to Japan and be a live-in student with the founder, Masutatsu Oyama. I quit school, saved up for six months and came here when I was 18.”

Under the eye of his sensei, Sosai Oyama, Pettas embarked on a rigorous training regimen for a thousand days. “There were 15 guys jammed into a room. We were up early in the morning to go running and do push-ups on concrete,” he recalls. “The first time I saw the breakfast, I thought I gotta get out of here. Making matters worse, I broke a toe after a week, spent four weeks in a cast, then broke another toe after coming back. I was really getting frustrated.”

A month after he graduated, Sosai passed away.
Pettas went on to become European heavyweight karate champion in 1995 and placed third in the World Championships in 1997. In 1998, he decided to venture into the world of kickboxing. “I was at a time in my life where I thought, ‘Either leave Japan now and maybe leave karate, or try something new.’ So I went to America to check out K-1 to see if I could do it or not.

I lived in a kickboxing camp for six months.”
He proved adept at K-1, becoming the Japan champion in 2001.


Class act
Teaching, however, remains Pettas’s primary interest. “The way I used to teach ten years ago is totally different from today,” he says. “At that time, all I wanted to do was fight and be the strongest. That’s good motivation, but it isn’t the way to teach people. My philosophy has had a lot of turns, but my basic love for martial arts has never really changed. With this place, I want to teach people who might not normally try martial arts, maybe because it has a bad-boy image.”

Professional and aspiring kickboxers perfect their form with classes and individual practice

Not all sensei would agree with his philosophy, but that’s OK, says Pettas. “You have to move with the times. Sometimes it is good to have the courage to change things. There are heaps of places that still have a spartan routine, where you don’t just go for karate. It becomes part of your life. For me, the beauty of martial arts is breaking out with your own ideas to practice a variety of styles. That’s evolution.”

K-1 is certainly evolving, especially thanks to characters like Bob Sapp, although Pettas is dubious about their long-term effect. “Bob Sapp is not a fighter. He knows it and doesn’t try to be. He’s a showman. However, he is an incredible athlete and because [of that] he is able to pull it off,” he says. “I think K-1 has got a good core fan base, but it’s going to be hard for them to keep going because they have got a bit away from the real martial artists to the freak show department… PRIDE is another case. I think there are a lot of great athletes in PRIDE. When it first came out, it was really rough. Nobody knew what the hell was going on. Fans have become more knowledgeable, which is good.”

Movies also play a big role in inspiring students to sign up for karate classes. “When I was young, I thought The Karate Kid was unreal. Then after I did karate for six months and I watched it again, I couldn’t stop laughing because you can tell the old guy doesn’t know karate. It’s a great movie, though, because it shows the real spirit of karate. Every time they show it on TV, people want to join. Of course, Bruce Lee is still an inspiration. Jet Li is cool; he’s got that quiet aura about him. And I really respect Wesley Snipes for his martial arts in the movies.”

In between teaching, Pettas likes to indulge his other interests of basic survival camping and exercising in the great outdoors. If you go camping with him, be prepared to go dashing up hills or bike riding. He’s also a practical joker and UFO enthusiast. “Get me started on UFOs and I’ll talk all day.”


In the spirit
Spirit Gym has about 150 students, 20 percent of whom are foreigners. Classes are in Japanese, except Saturdays, when there are two classes in karate and kickboxing, in which instruction is given in English. The karate consists of the basics and lots of kiai (yells), while the kickboxing focuses on cardio and straight-up bag work. Students pay a monthly fee of ¥10,000 to attend as many classes as they want.

Pettas is giving away three months of free membership to the first ten Metropolis readers who apply either by email at or by phoning the Spirit Gym at 03-5771-129. For more information, visit

Photos by Chris Betros

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