Fighting talk with Def Leppard's Phil Collen
How mixed martial arts helped save the guitarist's life
Def Leppard guitarist Phil Collen is in better shape than most men half his age, so what's his secret to having the physique of a Cockney Bruce Lee? Does he have some Dorian Gray style self-portrait hung up in his Californian home, aging and fading as each year passes whilst his human form retains its youthful splendour?
It’s something far less mystical and requires a lot more effort than storing a painting in the loft. For the last two decades or so, he’s stopped drinking booze, knocked eating meat on the head and spends his spare time studying mixed martial arts.
The first thing to go was meat, and for Collen the ethical implications of not giving it up made it easy to quit.
“As a kid I’d think, ‘This is weird, it’s a dead body and it’s bleeding',' he explains. "That kind of freaked me out, but my parents would say, ‘Oh no, you’ve got to eat that. It’s good for you.’ Then I saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the ‘70s, with the slaughter house scene and people hanging up on hooks. I realised they did that to cows and it had a profound effect on me. It was easy for me to give up meat, because I was so grossed out by dead flesh and the thought of slaughtering animals.”
It was a similar sense of moral responsibility that inspired his decision to quit boozing, as his inability to enjoy “a social drink” led to some questionable decisions and potentially life-threatening scenarios.
“Steve Clark was my best friend [the late Def Leppard guitarist who passed away in 1991 following an overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol] and me and him would get so messed up that I’d end up blacking out,” says Collen. “It was a lot of fun to begin with, but then it started changing and I wouldn’t remember things. I’d do silly things like go driving, and that was when I thought, ‘I can’t do this anymore, because it’s going to end in tears.’ I did some really embarrassing things. I’d sleep with girls and forget about it, and the next day the guys would be telling me what I did. That was horrible. Then one day, I woke up in Dublin with a gold Rolex watch that I’d bought on my credit card, which was stupid and embarrassing on lots of different levels. It just kept getting worse. But it was the driving thing that eventually made me stop.”
After becoming teetotal, Collen found himself at a loss with what to do with all his free time. He also found the sensation of playing gigs sober slightly strange to begin with. But once he settled into his booze-free lifestyle, the benefits of sobriety soon revealed themselves.
“At first I was bored”, says the guitarist. “I felt different, too. I felt weird and self-conscious jumping around on stage, because I didn’t have the usual Dutch courage driving me along. But once I got over that it I found everything much easier. I had more focus, I got better at playing, I got better at singing, and my songwriting got better. Everything got better. And I had a few hours in the day. Initially I started jogging, and I don’t really like jogging, but it was the only thing that I knew how to do. Then that developed into weight training, and from there is where I got into martial arts.”
It was a chance encounter in California which marked the start of a new chapter in his life.
“I’d always been a big Bruce Lee fan, and one day I was stood outside a dojo, just peering in the window," he explains. "This guy came out and invited me in, and it basically started from there. I went from white to black belt in this dojo, learning Wadō-ryū [a form of karate founded in Japan in 1934]. After that, I started doing kickboxing, and I worked with Benny Urquidez [American kickboxer, martial arts choreographer and actor] for four years. That was cool because it incorporated a real boxing style. After that, I studied Muay Thai boxing for eight years, which was something different again, and incorporated some of the Mike Tyson stuff. You add all this stuff up and it ended up being a mixed martial art.”
The guitarist's change in lifestyle must have come as a shock to his bandmates, especially since Collen and Clark's boozing exploits earned the pair the nickname of the Terror Twins. But it’s the reason he cuts such a lean figure on stage today.
"I see people 10 years younger than me and they can barely stand up," says Collen. "We had some time in Europe recently, and I didn’t do any kicks or anything, and my back started hurting and my hamstring started getting tight. But within two days of being back home and getting into it again, all the pain went away. So the key is to keep being active.”
Of course, the million-dollar question is – will Collen keep playing shirtless as long as he's on stage?
“I think so, yeah!” laughs the guitarist with a hint of embarrassment. “I still practice and train all the time. It’s helped me focus on my career and made me younger."
Phil Collen's book Adrenalized: Life, Def Leppard, and Beyond is out now through Atria Books.