Jackson's Five: Ocean State Grand Nationals 2023

Avery Plowden Kameren Dawson
Photo Courtesy: Black Belt Magazine

In 2022, I claimed that the Ocean State Grand Nationals had one of, if not the, most exciting and competitive night shows on the entire NASKA world tour. The SuperFights attracted world class talent, newly-recruited Team Paul Mitchell athletes showed out in forms and weapons, it was a fantastic show. This weekend, the 2023 edition of the event may have outdone it. Promoters Don and Christine Rodrigues once again put up well above-standard prize money with the help of sponsors like Ocean State Collision Center and Female Fighters Matter Too, attracting top fighters from all over the country that gave us multiple huge bouts over the course of the weekend. Forms and weapons competitors lit up the stage in the night show with a couple of competitors that will receive a special spotlight in the countdown below. There were so many incredible performances that I need to give out some honorable mentions before we get into my top five. The Virtual Fight Tour Last Man Standing was back, and delivered a great fight between lightweight champ Enrique Letona and heavyweight champ Alex Mancillas. There was some controversy in the closing moments of the fight, but that shouldn't take away from the fact that Letona used world class kicking skills to put himself in a position to win and deserves respect for taking it home. Sammy Smith made her return to the mat while being inducted into the hall of fame this weekend and won the women's weapons overall grand championship. Isabella Nicoli won her first double divisional grand championships as a 14-17 competitor in the CMX divisions, and Sofia Rodriguez-Florez continued her impressive run by winning both overall grand championships with her traditional performances. I'm certain that I'm forgetting people in these honorable mentions, a testament to the level of competition present at the entire event. Without further ado, let's get to my top five.

5. Alex the Great

Alex Mancillas

Photo Courtesy: Alex Mancillas via Facebook

Alex Mancillas looked like a different fighter this weekend. He recently won his first sparring overall grand championship as an adult at the Compete Internationals, but would face a deeper field in Rhode Island. He had a remarkable run to the open weight finals on Friday night in which he eliminated formidable opponents Kevin Walker, Oscar Garcia, and Tyreeke Saint before suffering a 3-point loss to Bailey Murphy (who deserves his honorable mention here for winning the open weight title). What really impressed me and earned him a spot on Jackson's Five was the way he fought on Saturday en route to the heavyweight overall grand championship. He was trailing former Warrior Cup champion Darren "Dee Stacks" Payne in the second match of the division when Mancillas connected with a massive left hand that completely shifted the momentum of the fight. The Texan started exploding off the line to score with his blitz, and added a nice defensive side kick to seal the 2-point win. He faced another tough fighter to win the division, duking it out with Brandon Ballou and coming out on top 6-3. In the middleweight grand championship round, Kevin Walker got a shot at redemption from the open weight, but Mancillas was again able to take care of business against a solid opponent and secure the 9-5 victory. The only fault in his quest to retain the heavyweight crown was out of his control, as unfortunately Avery Plowden had to bow out of the overall grand championship fight due to an injury. Obviously, that is not the way Alex wanted to become the heavyweight champ as he wanted to prove himself against a man widely regarded as one of the elites of the division. Either way, Mancillas has now won back-to-back heavyweight overall grands and is displaying the best fighting of his career.

4. JPM's Three Musketeers

Esteban Tremblay Ben Jones Dawson Holt

Photo Courtesy: Black Belt Magazine

Esteban Tremblay, Ben Jones, and Dawson Holt have been an impressive trio since being recruited to Team Paul Mitchell at the same time in April of last year. Their performances in Rhode Island continued that trend as Esteban and Ben won the synchronized weapons title and Dawson and Ben won the synchronized forms title, resulting in an always-entertaining three-man demonstration during the night show. They put on a remarkable show as individuals too, the three of them pitted against each other in the men's CMX weapons grand championship. Ben nailed an awesome bo form with his signature creativity to compliment clean striking, his teammates would have to be at the top of their game to defeat him. Esteban unfortunately suffered a drop, but Dawson would deliver the performance that would ultimately take home the title. He brought out double sword for just the second time in his career, the first being at the AKA Warrior Cup where a drop set him back. This time, he landed all of his big releases including a massive double boxcutter that I have only ever seen landed by his idol Kalman Csoka. Every time you thought he was done throwing big tricks, the swords would leave his hands again. He told his teammates after the show that the crazy double boxcutter was actually supposed to be a 360 degree spin before the catch, but that he wasn't feeling it at the time, showing just how much he still has up his sleeve. While we never know what craziness is going to be done in their forms next time, I can guarantee these three boys are going to continue to challenge each other for the CMX weapons title for a long time to come. In addition to CMX weapons, Dawson and Esteban went at it in the traditional weapons overall grand championship as well, with Esteban taking the win. Then there's forms...

In the men's CMX forms overall grand championship, Air Canada might as well have been a member of the Blue Angels the way he flew all over the stage landing tricks in combinations that I have never seen before. His main tricking combination featured two different shuriken-cutter setups in one combo, using a cartwheel then a touchdown raiz to set up the wildly impressive double-spinning, double-kicking technique. As if that wasn't enough difficulty, he proceeded to do a full double-leg twist in the last section of the form, a back flip while twisting twice in the air with a stall while tucking his hips in between the two spins. If you didn't understand any of what I just attempted to describe, that's because everything he did in this form was just that ridiculous. In addition to the out-of-this-world tricking, he has also cleaned up his hand combinations which now feature stronger basics with full extension that has transformed him from a weapons competitor that can do forms to a true dual threat that can consistently win the overall in both divisions.

3. Caio My Goodness

Caio DaSilva

Photo Courtesy: Caio DaSilva via Facebook

Oh my Goodness is exactly what I thought throughout Caio DaSilva's form in the finals, while I tried to find the proper words to commentate what I was seeing for The CW Network. Before I talk about his form in the night show, I should preface this by saying that he won both the Japanese/Okinawan division and the traditional challenge division with a particularly deep field at this tournament. Mason Stowell, who I thought had looked unbeatable the past couple of years on NASKA, was present, as well as an increasingly strong group of traditionalists including but not limited to Diego Rodriguez-Florez, Cameron Klos, and Samuel Diaz III. With this much depth, it makes it that much more impressive that DaSilva came out on top both times. The Unsu that he performed in the finals was one of the best traditional forms that I have ever watched with my own eyes. The speed and explosiveness of his transitions were unquestionably the best I've ever seen, complimented by beautiful pacing and a presence that commanded the attention of the entire room. He received the only "10" given during the entire show, and he absolutely deserved it (and maybe should have gotten a few more). DaSilva had not competed on the NASKA world tour for an extended period of time prior to the Ocean States, but I am hopeful that he comes around more often now so that we can continue to see his remarkable performances and watch as his presence forces his solid competition to step up their game as well.

2. Herman is HER

Katarina Herman

Photo Courtesy: Black Belt Magazine

Yes, I stole this subtitle from a popular sports phrase floating around social media to call a star athlete "HER" or "HIM". Katarina Herman deserved that title after her performance this weekend. She was already off to a remarkable 2023 season by winning the Warrior Cup, being recruited to join Team Paul Mitchell, and winning the open weight and overall grand championship at the Compete Internationals. Guess what? She did it again at the Ocean State Grand Nationals, winning the open weight and overall titles, elevating her 2023 report card even further. In the open weight bracket, she marched through a difficult gauntlet of lady warriors including Peyton Fender, Anne-Sara Cayer, KiTana Everett, and Jimena Janeiro who she defeated by a combined score of 21-7. Then, after fighting her way through her division, she met KiTana Everett, an established champion regarded as one of the best in America for several years now, yet again for the overall grand championship. Everett, being the amazing fighter that she is, had a lead on Herman into the second round. Herman battled her way back to a tied match as time expired, showing the heart of a champion. In overtime, she followed up after a quick hook kick to score with a backfist and claim the overall grand championship. Not only does this match show that Herman is capable of navigating difficult circumstances to still come away with a win, but it also shows the she is capable of winning against the top female fighters in North America consistently.

1. Kam the Closer

Kameren Dawson

Photo Courtesy: Kameren Ali via Facebook

Two of the most exciting events of the entire tournament were team fighting and SuperFights, both of which ended with Kameren Dawson being the man standing above the rest when the dust settled. In team fighting, Dawson's Team Dojo Elite would match up with the battle-tested Top Ten Team USA who had eliminated Impex/KTOC and Straight Up earlier in the tournament. Top Ten Team USA was also a bit stronger than their usual roster, having Tyson Wray of Team Next Level join forces with them for the event. After two great matches between Devon Hopper and Tyson Wray, then Dee Stacks and Enrique Letona, it would all come down to Dawson vs Tyreeke Saint. Saint, to his credit, fought the heavyweight juggernaut very well and found the match tied in the final seconds. At this moment, Kam activated his "Awesome Dawson" clutch gene and landed a clean fadeaway backfist that brought victory to TDE. However, he wasn't finished yet. This brings us to the SuperFights, the premiere fighting display of the entire tournament that featured $7,500 in cash prizes and attracted all the top talent. Throughout the bracket, Dawson defeated world class combatants like Avery Plowden, Tyson Wray, and Ryan George on his way to the finals where he would find open weight champ Bailey Murphy. Murphy looked good early in the championship match, scoring on a few blitzes. The outcome would be determined rapidly when Dawson, one of the most well-rounded martial artists in the sport, delivered a step-up sidekick that landed flush on the chin of Murphy. Murphy went down, and in an incredible act of sportsmanship Dawson was kneeling at Murphy's side immediately to ensure that he was alright. Murphy was unable to continue and Dawson was crowned the champion, deservedly so. Everything about this moment defines Kameren Dawson so well. The kick itself, a display of beautiful traditional technique. It should be noted that although Dawson is arguably the strongest man in the sport, this kick was not excessive or malicious contact whatsoever. It was a perfectly executed technique that landed in the right spot, at the right time. Then the reaction, a testament to the humble, compassionate heart Dawson has. I often write about how we should appreciate the great people in this sport before they move on with life and we don't have the opportunity to show them that appreciation anymore. Kam is one of those guys. As a former teammate of his, this man deserves his flowers.

That does it for this edition of Jackson's Five. Stay tuned for more coverage from the world of sport karate, right here on BlackBeltMag.com.

Introducing Martial Arts School Listings on Black Belt Mag!
Sign Up Now To Be One Of The First School Listed In Our Database.
Don't miss a single issue of the worlds largest magazine of martial arts.