Bella Nicoli
Photo Courtesy: Lindsey Little Photography


Another major sport martial arts tournament has come and gone, which means it is time for another review of my top five favorite takeaways from the event. The attendance was extraordinary and the promoters did a fantastic job of making the necessary adjustments to keep the tournament running smoothly. On a personal note, I was blown away by the resources dedicated to the production, including two live episodes of The Jackson Rudolph Podcast featuring athlete interviews and analysis that helped the Battle of Atlanta feel like a true professional sporting event. There were two significant mistakes involving incorrect information making it to the broadcast booth during the Battle Zone Finals that I wanted to set straight at the beginning of this article. Ki'Tana Everett was NOT disqualified due to any unsportsmanlike conduct, she bowed out of the final fight at her own discretion. Kameren Dawson did NOT suffer a concussion at the event, he also bowed out of the finals at his own discretion. As a broadcaster, I never want incorrect information shared on the show. If you haven't seen the broadcast yet, you can view the entire finals via the link at the bottom of this article. Now... on to Jackson's Five!

5. Sport Karate is BACK

Tyson Wray Devon Hopper

Photo Courtesy: Juan C Rodriguez

If it had not already been proven by the success of other tournaments this year, the Battle of Atlanta was definitive evidence that sport karate is all the way back following the COVID-19 pandemic. The men’s open weight division had a staggering 65 participants, the women’s open weight had a record-setting 22 competitors (a North American record for the division), and total attendance exceeded the promoters' projections. In addition to the sheer numbers, the depth of talent was as impressive as it has been in a long time. The final four of that massive men’s open weight featured Devon Hopper who was incredibly impressive this weekend, Alex Mancillas in his first NASKA final four as an adult, the always-explosive Ryan George, and eventual champion Tyson Wray. Kameren Dawson also deserves a shoutout here for taking home the heavyweight grand championship and proving to the world once again that he is one of the very best. Ki’Tana Everett was also dominant in her matches this weekend, claiming the open weight title in that very large division. I’ve named a long list of rising stars and bonafide superstars already, and that was just the fighters.

4. Lil Wayne

Michael Molina

Photo Courtesy: Black Belt Magazine (Broadcast Screenshot)

No, the Grammy-winning rap legend was not at the Battle of Atlanta. This is a reference to Wayne Dalglish, one of the youngest superstars our sport has ever seen who earned that distinction through unparalleled showmanship and execution at just nine years old. So who is “Lil Wayne Dalglish”? Michael Molina. He strutted on stage with arms extended wide playing to the crowd from the moment they saw him. His bo form was off to an electric start until he missed on a difficult 900 degree spinning catch causing the bo to stab into the ground and be dropped on the following transition. However, even in a moment of defeat, Michael maintained his composure and finished his performance with a crowd-pleasing triple spin. Sometimes this sport isn’t about winning and losing, sometimes it’s about the performances that we will never forget.

3. Weapons Wonderboys

Jake Presley Dawson Holt

Photo Courtesy: Juan C Rodriguez

Team Paul Mitchell’s Jake Presley and Dawson Holt absolutely dominated the men’s weapons divisions. Holt claimed early wins in the extreme and creative bladed divisions, then Presley answered with wins in the creative non-bladed and musical divisions on Friday night. Saturday was much of the same, as Holt won traditional bladed and Presley took the non-bladed win. The trend continued into the grand championships where Holt was crowned the CMX overall grand champ and Presley won yet another traditional title to keep his undefeated season alive. Speaking of undefeated, this dynamic duo’s dominance resulted in a perfect 8-0 record for Team Paul Mitchell in men’s 18-29 weapons divisions including grands on the weekend.

2. Seeing Double

Esteban Tremblay

Photo Courtesy: Juan C Rodriguez

Isabella Nicoli and Esteban Tremblay both won double overall grand championships in forms and weapons at the Ocean State Grand Nationals, and they did it AGAIN in Atlanta. Nicoli achieved the ridiculous feat of winning all four runoffs en route to her double overall win, something that almost never happens at back-to-back events. Tremblay won his titles as a CMX specialist, using high-flying extreme routines to beat formidable traditional opponents in the finals. Eight overall grand championships by just two competitors in two tournaments since joining Team Paul Mitchell is pretty good, don’t you think?

1. Back-to-Back

Bailey Murphy

Photo Courtesy: Bailey Murphy via Facebook

Three competitors were able to defend their Battle of Atlanta Ultimate Grand Championship titles, a special bonus round of competition unique to this event. Haley Glass joined her teammates Bella and Esteban by winning double overall grands in the women’s division, automatically guaranteeing her the Ultimate Championship title defense. That brings her overall grand championship count to 7 in her last 5 tournaments. Bailey Murphy returned to action after taking several months off to focus on collegiate track. On Good Morning Sport Karate, he admitted that some ring rust resulted in a surprisingly early loss in the open weight division. He made the appropriate adjustments on day two to win the lightweight grand championship and ride that win to the Ultimate Championship in the Battle Zone finals. Having one of the top fighters in the world back for the rest of the season makes an already exciting point fighting field even more interesting and fans everywhere are excited for B-Reel to be back. Last, but certainly not least, Mason Stowell powered his way through the men’s traditional forms divisions to earn an overall grand championship and a chance to defend his title. In a deep division featuring the opposing Shotokan kata of Joey Castro, a musical traditional kata by Diego Rodriguez-Florez, the killer katana of Dawson Holt, and the lightning-fast bo work of Jake Presley, the Goju-Ryu of Stowell stood out above them all. The Top Ten Team USA leader rides this momentum into the traditional scene’s USA Nationals in Seattle, which his mother told me could be a major turning point in his martial arts career.

That does it for Jackson’s Five from an action-packed Battle of Atlanta. Be on the lookout for updated Black Belt Magazine Sport Karate Rankings that will heavily impact matchups at the U.S. Open’s invitational Night of Champions after the committee agrees on any changes following this major event.

Special thanks for the images in this article to Juan C Rodriguez (@drjcrodriguez on Instagram) and Lindsey Little (Lindsey Little Photography on Facebook).

If you are interested in watching the full Battle Zone Finals broadcast from Black Belt Magazine, click here.

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