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Martial arts legend Burnell Williams dies aged 86

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Martial arts master Burnell Muhammad at 80 (File photograph)
Burnell Williams leads young students at the JCB School of Survival Arts, a training centre that he founded, at The Centre on Angle Street in Hamilton (File photograph)
Burnell Williams takes the stage at a bodybuilding competition in the 1980s (File photograph)
Burnell Williams at 70 (File photograph)

A martial arts master, champion bodybuilder and proponent of Zen Buddhism has died.

Burnell Williams, who also went by the name Burnell Muhammad, was 86.

Mr Williams, a former Mr Bermuda bodybuilder, was the founder of the Jujitsu Club of Bermuda in 1974 and trained generations of martial arts students on the island and abroad.

He placed third in the medium height category in 1963 and 1964 in the Mr Universe competition, run by the International Federation of Body Builders.

Mr Williams entered the Mr World competition two years later and placed second in the short-height category.

The martial artist, widely known as Sensei Burnell, credited Zen for the transformation of his life.

He told The Royal Gazette in 2002: “With physical comforts, if your mind is still in a state of confusion and agitation, it is not happiness.

“Happiness means calmness of mind.”

The veteran fitness trainer was inducted into the Bermuda Martial Arts Hall of Fame in 2013 and the New York International Hall of Fame for jujitsu in 2011 as an honorary grandmaster and eighth-degree black belt.

Mr Williams lived and taught for 16 years in Italy, where he met his wife, Giuseppina.

He counted Italian police officers among his students and earned a place in the Provincia di Milano Hall of Fame.

Karate master and fellow hall-of-famer Sensei “Skipper” Ingham said Mr Williams was taught by the prominent American master Moses Powell, who he brought to Bermuda in the early 1970s.

Mr Powell, a martial arts master who trained FBI agents, created the Sanuces Ryu Jujitsu discipline taken up by Mr Williams.

Martial arts enjoyed a boom on the island at the time, helped by the popularity of the Hong Kong film star Bruce Lee.

Mr Ingham said: “Everybody wanted to be Bruce Lee. Burnell started teaching jujitsu and got a good few students in Bermuda.

“He was a gentleman, an easy guy to talk to.”

Dale Butler, a former government minister and historian who helped Mr Williams write a book of his life philosophy, said: “He was loved by numerous people, not only students but in the community, and established an international reputation as a master of masters.

“Bermuda with very fortunate to have someone like him.”

He credited Mr Williams, Mr Ingham and Mr Powell for the popularity of martial arts on the island.

Mr Williams, a skilled harmonica player, released an album, Bermuda Music for Lovers By the Ocean, in 2013.

Mr Butler said he hired his old friend as a security guard for The Little Venice Group after Mr Williams returned from Italy in 2003.

He added: “I’ll never forget how one night a tough young guy couldn’t get in because of how he was dressed.

“The guy went ballistic. By then Burnell was very mature in years but he didn’t move a muscle and this young man left infuriated.

“He came back and apologised profusely after his friends told him who Burnell was. He knew Burnell would only have had to touch him once.”

Mr Butler said: “He was an amazing man, and a very humble guy.”

Peter Larder, Mr Williams’ first trainer and a lifelong friend, was inducted with him into the Bermuda Hall of Fame.

Mr Larder said Mr Williams was an “extraordinary man whose generosity of spirit and friendship to me was unparalleled”.

Mr Larder, originally from England, came to Bermuda in 1970 to work at the Bank of Bermuda and met Mr Williams weightlifting at the Raynor’s Hall community centre in Southampton.

He began training Mr Williams in Shotokan Karate.

Mr Larder said: “Burnell always said I was his first sensei, which was true. But he went on to become far more advanced than I did.”

He added: “He was a fantastic, inspirational character, very humble, who was in great shape, very fit and strong, right up until the end.”

Paget Wharton, a karate sensei who trained with Mr Williams in 1970, said he had excelled at Shotokan Karate before he switched to jujitsu under Mr Powell’s training.

Mr Wharton said: “Burnell was strong physically, a hard, tough guy, and a very strong personality in terms of his martial arts and ability to communicate with others.

“He was a very decent guy, and I grew to respect him on a very, very high level for what he achieved. He was always a winner, always achieving.”

James Clinton Burnell Williams, martial arts teacher and personal trainer, was born on December 1, 1933. He died this month, aged 86.

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Published November 20, 2020 at 9:37 am (Updated November 20, 2020 at 9:36 am)

Martial arts legend Burnell Williams dies aged 86

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