Battle of Atlanta: Murphy Mania and Dominant Debuts

Team Straight Up

The North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) made its official return to in-person competition at the Battle of Atlanta. Following the ProMAC Championships on Thursday, the next two days of action revealed which of NASKA's mainstay competitors would remain on top, as well as which new contenders are ready to make a name for themselves on America's most prestigious sport karate circuit.

This analysis is focused on The Battle Zone finals on Saturday night, where divisional and overall grand champions battled it out on stage to claim the most significant titles at the event. However, The Battle of Atlanta also hosted a special Friday Night Fights show featuring Pro Point 5 that deserves mention as well.

In the Pro Point action, hometown hero Jermond Wiggins ignited the crowd in attendance at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel with an impressive win over Team KTOC's Angel Diaz. Robbie Lavoie of Team All Stars used his superior experience to defeat young speedster John Mercado of Team Legend in the following bout. The penultimate match was the first-ever junior team fighting event hosted by Pro Point, in which Kevin Walker coached a team representing the state of Georgia and John Curatolo did the same for his home state of Florida. Walker's fighters were aggressive from the start and cruised to victory, winning three of the four total matchups. In the main event, Pro Point 3 & 4 champions Kristhian Rivas and Ryan George battled it out to lay claim to Pro Point's first divisional title- the middleweight champion. The scoring format was different for the championship match, such that a fighter winning two rounds (regardless of point differential) would secure victory. George, of Team Dojo Elite, won the well-contested first round with his explosive fighting style. Rivas battled back in the second round to clutch out a draw that extended the fight. In the third round, as Rivas continued to mount a comeback effort, he dove in for a blitz and George caught him at just the right time with a counter reverse punch. The clash sent Rivas to the mat as medical personnel rushed on stage to care for him after a scary knockout. Since knockouts are not permitted in Pro Point competition, George was disqualified and the middleweight title remains vacant. Rivas would be taken to the hospital per the on-site doctor's recommendation and concussion protocols, but it seems he will make a complete recovery as he was seen spectating at the tournament the following day. At the time of the knockout, George was leading on the scorecards for the final round.

Now, let's get to exhilarating action on Saturday evening.

Adult Point Fighting

Battle of Atlanta Fighting

Photo Courtesy: Jessie Wray

The first sparring division on display was the open weight finals between Team Legend's Oscar "Coca" Guzman and Team Straight Up's Bailey Murphy. The combatants fought their way through a bracket of nearly 40 competitors to advance to the night show and compete for the $1,000 open weight prize. When the dust settled, Murphy used his world class footwork and speed to secure a comfortable win over Guzman by a score of 8-4.

The completion of the open weight division set the stage for the Ultimate Men's Sparring Championship between the open weight champion, senior grand champion, lightweight grand champion, and heavyweight grand champion. The red-hot Bailey Murphy won the lightweight grand championship earlier on Saturday by defeating Team Proper's Colocho Santiago, a formidable opponent who had just defeated Robbie Lavoie in an intense overtime matchup. The other two spots were filled by Team Legend's Yoskar Gamez, who defeated Kodaq Wray in the senior finals, and Team Straight Up's Brandon Ballou, who defeated Jamal Albini of Team All Stars in the heavyweight finals. Since Murphy won both the lightweight championship and the open weight title, he was given the option to pick which side of the final four bracket that he would fight on. He opted to fight Yoskar Gamez in the semifinal, granting a bye to his teammate Brandon Ballou.

In the Gamez vs Murphy semifinal, "B-Reel" continued his winning ways by defeating the Venezuelan via a 7-point spread just 47 seconds into the match. Murphy amassed a five-point lead with a series of fast blitz techniques, and finished the job with a highlight reel spinning hook kick to the head of Gamez that tacked on the final two points.

Later in the show, the final fight took place between Murphy and Ballou, much to the delight of coach Joe Greenhalgh. Ballou and his gritty fighting style was able to keep the match closer than many of his teammate's previous opponents had, but at the end of the day it was Murphy who controlled much of the fight and secured the bonus prize by a score of 10-7.

This result meant that Murphy would be undefeated heading into his final stage appearance in the Battle of Atlanta for the men's team fighting division. Two iconic point fighting franchises clashed as Team Straight Up (joined by Tyson Wray of Team Next Level) and Team All Stars vied for the title. After the opening two matchups, both teams had accumulated eight points and the final round between Bailey Murphy and Kevin Walker would be for all the marbles. The All Star was effective early against Murphy, scoring several kicks and working his way to a four point lead with under a minute remaining. However, Murphy remained calm under pressure, using a massive spinning hook kick and a series of blitzes to come all the way back and give Straight Up a one-point lead as time expired. Per NASKA rules, the team fighting final must be won by a margin of at least two points, meaning the bout headed to overtime. On the first clash, Murphy exploded off the line to give his squad the sudden death victory and officially kickstart what we're calling Murphy Mania.

On the women's side, the Ultimate Women's Sparring Champion was decided by a bout between open weight champion Alexa Fleshman of Team Revolution and overall grand champion Mouse Millner of Team Legend. Millner jumped out to an early lead with her exceptionally quick back fist. Fleshman had a bit of a late surge to keep the fight close, but Millner was able to hold on and secure a one-point win by a score of 5-4.

Adult Forms and Weapons

Haley Glass

Photo Courtesy: Giomayra Walker

The adult forms and weapons championships in The Battle Zone finals followed a unique format in which all of the NASKA overall grand champions from the daytime competition would be pitted against one another in a winner-take-all division.

The Men's Ultimate Forms and Weapons Championship saw creative/musical/extreme (CMX) weapons champion Connor Chasteen of Team Infinity, CMX forms champion Danny Etkin of Team Paul Mitchell, traditional weapons champion Joey Castro of Team KTOC, traditional forms champion Mason Stowell of Top Ten Team USA, and senior overall champion Ray Kellison of Team Revolution all perform at the best of their abilities in an attempt to take home the coveted title. Chasteen lit up the stage with a kama routine filled with fast cutting techniques and an array of difficult releases. Etkin followed that up with his extreme form that began with a massive full snapuswipe and ended with his signature gumbi-flash kick combination as he approached the front of the stage. Castro responded to these innovative routines by exclaiming "no flips, no tricks, just karate-do" as he took the stage for his traditional eku (oar) kata. After a powerful showing from Castro, his traditional forms rival and new face to the adult division Mason Stowell captivated the audience with his rendition of Annan Dai. Kellison would finish off the division with an Annan Dai performance of his own, demonstrating his experience and representing the senior division well. When the judges' scores were delivered, it was clear that the power and technical precision of Mason Stowell was overwhelming and he walked away with a dominant victory. Six of the seven judges gave Stowell a winning score of 9.99, while Danny Etkin was able to steal the remaining 9.99 and slide into second place.

Since the women's NASKA overall grand championships combine the traditional and CMX divisions, there were only three spots available in the Ultimate Women's Forms and Weapons Championship. Haley "Bulletproof" Glass of Team Infinity, another new face to the adult division, edged out top-ranked traditional forms competitor Gabrielle Dunn of Team AKA to win the women's forms overall grand championship and used her kama skills to secure the weapons championship to match. Winning both the forms and weapons grand championships in your first tournament as an adult is a remarkable accomplishment for Glass, but she was not finished yet. She met senior overall champion Melanie Strauss and her traditional bo routine in the finals. Glass elected to run her empty-handed extreme form, and took home the title with a unanimous decision from the judges.

The dominant debuts of Stowell and Glass are noteworthy. It is very uncommon to see a competitor win the overall grand championship in their debut in the adult division, let alone two competitors accomplishing that feat on the same evening. The outstanding performances of these young athletes could shake things up as we approach the U.S. Open in a couple of weeks, where divisions are expected to be deeper and more veteran adult competitors will be returning to action following the pandemic.

Team Forms and Weapons

Two team forms and weapons divisions were featured in The Battle Zone finals: synchronized and demonstration. The synchronized division saw sibling duo Kodi and Michael Molina of Team Macho test their traditional bo routine against the traditional kata of Team Infinity's Connor Chasteen and Diego Rodriguez-Florez. The Infinity duo presented a new routine that featured some increased difficulty as they faced away from one another at times while trying to remain in synchronization. With high risk comes high reward, and Team Infinity defeated Team Macho by one one-hundredth of a point in the closest division of the evening.

As for team demonstration, the Premier Martial Arts franchise had two teams from different locations qualify for the finals. The first was a team from the Atlanta location, who entertained the audience with everything from breaking boards that were on fire, to Tik Tok dances, and even breaking a baseball bat with a roundhouse kick. Their routine ended with a recitation of their black belt creed, in which a beautiful display of unity was shown as their competitors, Premier Martial Arts of Augusta, GA, joined them on stage for the creed. The Augusta-based team followed with a more conventional team demonstration complete with synchronized hand combinations and weapons sequences. A win for Premier Martial Arts was guaranteed, but it was the Augusta team that claimed the bragging rights.

Junior Forms and Weapons

Salef Celiz Isabella Nicoli

Photo Courtesy: Sylvia Rago

The other black belt events that took place in The Battle Zone finals were the junior forms and weapons grand championships, which are separated into the 13 and under age group (youth) and the 14-17 age group (junior) for boys and girls.

In the youth girls' weapons division, Team AKA's Isabella Nicoli used her extreme nunchaku routine to get the best of Adelynn Lau and her traditional double sword performance. Nicoli would return to the stage in the forms division, but her extreme form was not enough to overcome the traditional kata of Sofia Rodriguez-Florez, who won the title for Team Infinity.

On the boys' side of the youth division, Team Macho's Michael Molina and Team Straight Up's Harold Lerner both made their individual debuts on a NASKA stage in the weapons category. The extreme bo routine and showmanship of Molina received the nod from the judges over Lerner's traditional bo routine. In the forms division, Angel Pérez made it to the stage in his first-ever NASKA tournament, which is a nearly unprecedented feat. Not only did he make it to the finals, his traditional kata received winning scores over the talented Judah Sagawa of Team Freestyle, and Pérez won the overall grand championship in his NASKA debut.

The junior girls' divisions saw some more relatively new faces take the stage. In weapons, Team Next Level's Katelyn McMillan beat the extreme nunchaku routine of Team Competitive Edge's Anna Beth Hedgepeth with a traditional bo kata. There was no competition to be had in the forms division, as Maddie Kennaway of Team KTOC won both the CMX and traditional grand championships during the eliminations. She demonstrated her musical traditional routine in the finals, making coach Joey Castro proud.

Salef Celiz of Team AKA made his presence known in the junior boys' division, as he was the CMX representative in both forms and weapons. His unique sword routine, in which he uses his sheath as a blunt-force weapon while slicing with his katana, won a very deep divisional grand championship against formidable opponents Benjamin Jones, Dawson Holt, Mason Bumba, and Phillip Brumme. Unfortunately, he dropped his sword on a release technique in the finals and opened the door for Shane Billow of the AmeriKick National Team to claim victory with his traditional bo form. Celiz got revenge in the forms division, where he landed a massive shuriken-cutter (two inverted twists following a one-legged takeoff with two hook kicks during the twists) en route to a win over traditional forms practitioner Caio DaSilva.

Junior Point Fighting and Senior Grand Championships

Although junior point fighting and senior grand championships were not specifically featured on stage, it is still an impressive accomplishment to win these events at a NASKA world tour event. To highlight these athletes and their accomplishments, the following list provides all the reported black belt grand champions who were not featured in The Battle Zone finals.

10-11 Girls' Sparring Grand Champion: Miclah Kennedy

12-13 Boys' Sparring Grand Champion: Sebastian Villanueva

12-13 Girls' Sparring Grand Champion: Serafina Fish

14-15 Boys' Sparring Grand Champion: Daygan Talbott

14-15 Girls' Sparring Grand Champion: Alexi Jimenez

16-17 Boys' Sparring Grand Champion: Pao Serafico

16-17 Girls' Sparring Grand Champion: Natalie Allen

30+ Men's Forms Grand Champion: Ray Kellison

30+ Women's Forms Grand Champion: Melanie Strauss

30+ Men's Weapons Grand Champion: Ray Kellison

30+ Women's Weapons Grand Champion: Melanie Strauss

30+ Men's Sparring Grand Champion: Yoskar Gamez

30+ Women's Sparring Grand Champion: Ashley Floyd

40+ Men's Sparring Grand Champion: Keith Green

50+ Men's Forms Grand Champion: Terry Creamer

50+ Women's Forms Grand Champion: Patricia Lynn

50+ Men's Weapons Grand Champion: Terry Creamer

50+ Women's Weapons Grand Champion: Patricia Lynn

50+ Men's Sparring Grand Champion: Luis Rivas

WATCH: The Battle Zone Finals

Livestream courtesy of SportMartialArts.com

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