Enter the Tiger

MARK ANTHONY: Tony Anthony inside prison.
MARK ANTHONY: Tony Anthony inside prison.
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Tony Anthony’s more tiger than panda when it comes to Kung Fu fighting.

He had a tough childhood at the hands of his martial arts expert Chinese grandfather, a Shaolin monk and Kung Fu grand master, who ensured his “round eye” (half British) grandson learned the hard way.

He was shaped into a combat warrior from the age of four, enduring years of deprivation and suffering along the route. His feet would be bound to learn the Way of the Crane and many other Kung Fu systems.

It didn’t stop him taking a beating at the hands of kids from local Triad (Chinese mafia) gangs who saw Tony, a kid from London, as a usurper on their turf. “To make things worse I was seen as a ‘foreign devil’ by them too,” he adds.

And ultimately, although it brought him fame and fortune, it made him increasingly bloodthirsty and violent too, particularly after the death of his girlfriend.

His three year crime spree ended in prison, a Cypriot jail in Nicosia, another school of hard knocks where the blows could often kill, and where Tony finally faced some inner as well as outer demons and won.

Small wonder his book Taming the Tiger reads like a blockbusting thriller.

It won the CBC Book of the Year and won the biography category in the UK Christian Book Awards. It has been translated into more than 25 languages, and more than one million copies are in print.

His story’s now being made into a film. It also brings him to Blackpool Tower Ballroom on Friday ahead of a weekend of training and rallies in the Blackpool area, which include a book signing.

It’s a strange, almost Grasshopper-like path - for those of you who recall the old David Carradine cult Kung Fu series of the 70s.

It has led the three times world Kung Fu champion and security guard to the celebrities, making a financial killing out of short term contacts babysitting top music stars such as the Rolling Stones, REM, AC/DC and Neil Diamond, to Blackpool.

And to Blackpool Tower to boot, to rally others to follow a more peaceful path to achieve their own goals. If that sounds like a sort of evangelism you’d be right but it’s about as far removed from the Billy Graham rally days of old as it’s possible to get.

Tony, who now lives by the seaside himself, with his wife and two young sons, in the south of England, admits it’s also pertinent to the issues all seaside resorts face, behind the glitter of the promenades and the tourist infrastructure.

The issues have been highlighted graphically on Channel 4’s 999: What’s Your Emergency series but Tony says: “They’re clear to see for anyone who is prepared to look beyond the facade. And it’s the same everywhere. Unemployment, social deprivation, a sense of hopelessness, losing yourself through violence, sex, drugs.

“There’s a real poverty of spirit out there right now. We’re not religious in the capital R sense - and forcing it down people’s throats - but we’re here to say there’s another way, and people who care and it can help you find a real peace and accord within yourself.”

Tony founded Avanti, from the Italian word for “go”, and says the word defines their mission statement. The UK based charity has 180 missionaries in 58 countries going into the toughest jails and doing outreach work “where it matters”, as he puts it.

That means lots of prison visits - this time from the right side of the bars. He says his own turning point came in Nicosia jail when he could have beaten the living daylights out of the prison thug, who delighted in the nickname “AlCaponey”, but chose to walk away - thanks to a series of visits from an Irish missionary who converted 10 of Tony’s cellmates into Christians.

“I thought him a silly fool at first and just tolerated his casual church talk and what I called the brainwashing bits.”

His own Calvary came in his cell. “I didn’t understand what had happened but knew something had changed. I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from me.”

The Avanti group has been credited with reducing crime in prisons but relies on donations - and events such as the Tower talks - to run the company. In the last year alone, they have spoken to more than 3.9m people worldwide about their work.

On Friday night he’s joined by John Lawson, a reformed Glaswegian hardman, a former gangland enforcer, who now goes into some of the world’s toughest jails to share his story in the hope it will inspire inmates to change their lives. John’s now the prison co-ordinator for the team - which recently visited HMP Liverpool.

He adds: “We’re men with a mission but we’re not Bible bashers nor are we like those American evangelists on TV selling anointed hankies and asking for money. Hear us out. That’s all we ask.”

* Avanti, Blackpool Tower Ballroom, 
Friday, 7pm-9pm