End of story

"IF YOU are going to punch somebody in the face, ladies and gentlemen, never aim for the teeth. It's a waste of time. Belt someone in the teeth and you're going to cut your hand to ribbons, and there'll be blood and teeth flying everywhere, and you won't even have stopped them."

Thus spake Terry O'Neill: life-long body-builder, veteran night-club doorman, 6th dan karate instructor and for many years the British all- styles karate team's equivalent of the Tomahawk guided missile system. We had been doing some free-style sparring under his stern and discriminating gaze, and he'd called a halt and motioned us to gather round him for a pep-talk. He was shaking his head sorrowfully.

"Forget about teeth," he said, clearly depressed by the number of times he has had to repeat this. "If you want to stop someone in their tracks - and there isn't a lump of four by two lying about - you've got to go for the eyes or the windpipe."

I've been doing karate for about three years now. I'm a purple belt. Recently, I attended a week-long intensive karate course organised by the Karate Union of Great Britain, and Terry O'Neill was one of the instructors. Although I'd heard about him and seen photographs of him, I hadn't seen him in the flesh.

When, early one morning, we purple belts were lined up in the dojo, waiting for an instructor to appear, and in strode the legendary Terry O'Neill, sporting a horrific wild-man's beard and a pair of navy blue velvet slippers, I nearly fainted.

In order to emphasise his point about blows to the windpipe, this slipper- wearing, Desperate Dan lookalike punched himself in the throat several times. "Even if I'm playing with a toddler and he unexpectedly hits me in the windpipe, I'm going to be struggling for air," he said.

None of us believed him for a second, but we all nodded vigorously at him to show that the point was well taken.

"It's the same with the eyes," he added, punching himself first in one eye and then the other.

We returned his curt bow with exaggeratedly low, respectful ones, then jogged back to our places. For the next five minutes I repeatedly tried to punch my partner - a Heathrow baggage handler - in his eye or the throat, while he did the same to me.

When I took up karate about three years ago, I did so for two main reasons. First, I wanted to be able to take a punch without having a nervous breakdown on the spot; and secondly I wanted to learn how to deliver a fast, accurate, economical and conclusive one straight back. Bosh.

Not that I intended dishing out portions of it at the slightest provocation. I just thought that the quiet knowledge that I had a decent Sunday punch up my sleeve would do wonders for my self-esteem. Instead of instinctively ducking the threatening stare, as I normally did, I would be able, if I felt like it, to meet it and hold it.

After practising punches to the front of our partners' heads, sensei O'Neill made us practise a striking technique called uraken, a sort of backhanded clenched fist aimed at the side of the temple. Uraken is one of my favourites. Lashing out at opponent's temples with uraken, even in training, makes me marvel at my own capacity for viciousness. This morning, however, sensei O'Neill was having no truck with head strikes that aspired to nothing more than simple concussion. As he passed by me on his rounds, he stopped and discretely recommended a more surgical strike, in which the second knuckle of his clenched fist makes contact first with the opponent's eyeball, then sweeps all before it, including the bridge of the nose. "It's a good one, that one," he said lightly, as if he were recommending Martin Amis's latest.

These days Terry O'Neill has branched out into the acting profession. So far he's been in several of Linda la Plante's TV crime thrillers. I notice that Vinny Jones, too, has set himself up as a British hard man- cum-thespian. I'd like to see him and Terry O'Neill on the cobbles together. My shirt would be on O'Neill, no question. He'd probably rip Jones's head off with his bare hands and spit in the hole.

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