You are about to enter the highlight zone!
by Perry William Kelly
Photos Courtesy of Century Martial Arts
You are about to travel to another dimension. A dimension of sights that include jaw-dropping martial arts feats. A dimension of sounds that include boards and concrete blocks being shattered with ease. A dimension of performances that include combative skills that are almost beyond imagination.
Your destination is the world's largest martial arts competition, an event called the U.S. Open ISKA World Martial Arts Championships, also known as the Highlight Zone.
Before you begin your journey, we will look back at how this event came into being and how it grew to regularly attract more than 6,000 competitors from 70 countries, not to mention some 10,000 people who attend as spectators.]
Held annually in Orlando, Florida, on the July 4th weekend, the U.S. Open was born in 1973, when it was known as the East Coast Grand Nationals. In those days, it took place under the direction of Robert Trias' United States Karate Association banner. An American martial arts pioneer, Trias opened the first public karate school in the mainland United States in 1946.
In 1980 the East Coast Grand Nationals got a new name: the U.S. Open. Since then, the tournament has changed hands a few times. In one Twilight Zone–esque shift that occurred in 1981, then-owners Ted and Kim Kresge sold the U.S. Open after Ted dreamed that the world was coming to an end.
A martial artist named Mike Sawyer had competed in the tournament as a colored belt and then a black belt since the 1970s. He and his top student Mike McCoy went on to become event promoters in Florida, and by 1981 they were helping run the U.S. Open. In 1983 they bought the show and have been managing it ever since.
[The next stop on your journey into the Highlight Zone will take you to the Hall of Sport-Karate Innovations, a museum dedicated to the many industry developments that were born at this tournament.]
“Ted [Kresge] was an innovator, and I remember that the U.S. Open always built its reputation on having something new and different than the other tournaments did," Sawyer recalled. “Every year, he would have a grand-championship trophy that was an inch taller than the year before so it would become a new Guinness World Record for the biggest trophy ever given away."
Sawyer and company effected numerous other updates during their ownership. One key focus was to boost the safety factor by making protective gear mandatory. This started when Sawyer witnessed a potentially fatal accident.
“I remember standing on the podium in 1984 and watching an adult fighter slip during a match on the concrete floor and hit his head," Sawyer said. “Although it did not knock him out and he was not seriously injured, it cut his head and there was a puddle of blood on the floor. I remember specifically thinking to myself, Tournament, concrete floor, head, blood — bad combination!
“In 1985 we made headgear mandatory for under-belts and optional for black belts, and we had [extra] pairs at ringside. As soon as parents saw [that this was] safer for their kids, they wanted to know where to buy them.
“By 1987 it was mandatory, and this became the standard for every tournament. We would be very surprised if we went to a tournament [today] and saw people competing without headgear."
Other changes instituted at the U.S. Open included requiring officials to wear uniforms denoting whether they can be a corner judge or a center judge and at which level of competition they are certified: under-belt or black belt. The changes also meant adding a traditional forms division that was expanded to encompass creative forms and musical forms for both empty-hand and weapons competitors — something that's taken for granted today.
Something for Everyone
Among its usual something-for-everyone offerings with respect to competition, the 2019 iteration of the U.S. Open featured a first timer's division. It was designed to allow people who'd never competed — regardless of rank — to join the fray with less stress and more fun so they might become regular participants.
This year, those who fell outside that category and who like traditional karate forms and fighting had the option to compete in the newest Olympic martial sport by entering the Punok U.S. Open Championships, held on-site. Those who prefer to get their kicks from ITF taekwondo could have entered the U.S. Open Challenge Championships, also on-site. Those who are grapplers at heart could have rolled in the Kasai Super Series. And, of course, those who are into point fighting, continuous sparring, team fighting and practically every other subset of martial arts competition had dozens of divisions catering to all ages and skill levels.
Those who are like me in that they enjoy watching martial artists smash things into smithereens were in luck, too. The ISKA/USBA World Amateur Breaking Championships, also held at the U.S. Open, was awesome. In the power-breaking division, competitors demolished rows of concrete slabs so large they would not have been out of place on a construction site. One highlight came when Lexi Thompson practically stole the show in creative breaking by smashing two slabs of concrete with a front kick/jump spinning back kick combination.
Sawyer summarized the logistics of offering such variety: “The U.S. Open is a monster. We have 150 officials and another 100 people we employ for that day. There are 800 divisions and 30 rings. Without our team, it would be totally impossible. [And] we want it to get bigger and better every year."
The Highlight Zone
[You have arrived at your final destination: the 2019 U.S. Open Night of Champions.]
The best of the best went head-to-head in the ISKA World Championships. The action took place in forms, weapons, team sparring, team synchro forms, team synchro weapons and point sparring. The event was reportedly watched live by 85 million people in the Americas thanks to ESPN3 and Fight Sports Satellite and Streaming Network, which carried the competition in 53 additional countries.
Color commentary was provided by former Power Ranger Mike Chat, with post-victory interviews conducted by Caitlin Dechelle, who served as Gal Gadot's stunt double in Wonder Woman.
The current world traditional kata champion, a Spanish martial artist named Sandra Sanchez, did a winning form that was simply breathtaking. In essence, she gave a clinic on what a kata should look like. Fluid and strong, her kicks and punches made her gi snap like a gunshot, and the sound was audible over the din of the crowd. Her next challenge is to win the gold at the Tokyo Olympics.
Reid Presley won both the ISKA men's overall forms division and NASKA's overall CMX forms division. Capturing those new titles in overall forms had been a goal of his, a way to showcase his diversity. Watching Presley do his thing onstage, it was little wonder this young man's exceptional talent was featured on the AMC series Into the Badlands and on America's Got Talent.
Mackensi Emory won the overall forms titles for ISKA and NASKA — for the second year in a row. That brings her tally of world championships to 14. The six-year member of Team Paul Mitchell displayed her roots in gymnastics while turning her two kama into a whirling-and-twirling blender. During her post-victory interview, Emory teased the audience by noting that Hollywood has been calling for her talents and that she's about to move to Los Angeles. She's already displayed her skills in the movie Streetlights; it's not a stretch to imagine that soon she, like Dechelle, will be doubling for superstars.
If anyone is poised to fill the shoes of Emory, it's her protégé Megan Butterfield. The 14-year-old from Ottawa, Canada, is a member of the AmeriKick National Team. She's been a NASKA top-10 competitor for the past two years and owns 11 world titles as proof. At the U.S. Open, Butterfield displayed nerves of steel and a composure beyond her years by executing her weapons form flawlessly. What's so special about that? When she started, the DJ decided to play an upbeat tune for a musical form — which it wasn't supposed to be. Nevertheless, Butter-field was so focused she didn't even notice the music until her form was finished.
At the Night of Champions, the most popular event has always been men's weapons. No doubt this is why the organizers save it to close the show. When asked how this category became the crowd favorite, Sawyer explained:
“It has become the ultimate performance division, and the reason is that there is no limit as to how far you can go with that. It used to be you did something outrageous with a weapon and you won the division. Now, it is way over the top. They are like Olympic gymnasts at the same time they are doing amazing things with those weapons. They are doing double-release moves that are beyond comprehension, [not to mention] backflips [and] 720-degree kicks. I had a call from ESPN the day after the event and was asked if Jackson Rudolph had a string on his bo. I said, 'No, he actually throws the twirling stick 30 feet in the air, turns his back and catches it!'"
Speaking of Jackson Rudolph: The Stanford University pre-med student and holder of 14 world titles closed the ESPN broadcast with a routine that bordered on “other worldly." Rudolph, who admits to being influenced by magician Criss Angel, did so many spins, twirls and tosses with his bo that the form left the audience asking, “Did that just happen?"
For this writer, Rudolph's high point came after he won the competition. As he was handed a gigantic winner's cup, he walked to the edge of the stage, where he beckoned a young martial artist to come closer. Rudolph said, “While I was up here, the person I heard cheering the most was you. So this is for you." When he handed the youth the trophy, the boy's face showed a mixture of joy and shock — and nearly tears. The act demonstrated that Rudolph is indeed a superstar, and the gesture placed him firmly in the category of sports stars who can be called role models.
After watching what Sawyer and company showcased at the 2019 U.S. Open, it would not be a stretch to say that they're poised to give tournament karate the kind of mainstream exposure the X Games gave to extreme sports. And that would be a welcome boost to the martial arts in general.
In these days of global conflicts and territorial disputes, the U.S. Open once again brought together nearly 7,000 competitors from 70 countries in the spirit of friendship and fraternity. This writer saw South Africans mix it up with American Southerners, as well as South American preteens getting their hair braided at the Paul Mitchell booth beside kids from South Jersey. Politics was put aside as competitors from around the world cheered on their new friends from other nations. That's surely one of the most important yet least talked about benefits of martial arts training.
Perry William Kelly has a sixth-degree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He's the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. In 2017 he was a karate gold medalist at the World Police and Fire Games, and in 2018 he received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. His website is perrywkelly.com.