Sport Karate Christmas
Photo Courtesy: Town and Country Magazine / Century Martial Arts

I still remember being an eight or nine-year-old kid, adding things that my parents could never give me to my Christmas wish list. My parents could not put me on Team Paul Mitchell, or win an overall grand championship for me, but those are the things I wished for. It got me thinking, what are some things the sport karate community should be wishing for today?

We have reached a pivotal point in the evolution of sport karate, as we approach the post-pandemic era. There were some great innovations like the use of a session-based schedule so that competitors aren’t waiting around all day for their divisions, and some online events to keep the sport alive when no one could gather together. There were also some setbacks required by the pandemic like a shortened season and reduced prize money. The beautiful thing about a transition period like this is that it presents opportunity for something that every sport karate enthusiast knows that we need… change.

As Rudolphs do, it is time for me to lead the sleigh and suggest the top five things that sport karate competitors should hope to find under their metaphorical tree as we move towards the 2022 season.

5. Updated Rules

Danny Etkin

Photo Courtesy: Century Martial Arts

There is never going to be a rulebook that makes everyone happy. Someone is always going to be disappointed because they disagree with one rule or another. However, when there is a clear disadvantage at some level of competition because of the rules, that at least warrants giving some new rules a try. The following example is for the creative divisions, but there are other changes that can be made in the traditional divisions and in point fighting as well.

The creative forms/weapons division on the NASKA would tour has an admittedly bizarre set of rules. The official NASKA rules state “Movements that involve more than a 360 degree spin, require the body to be inverted more than parallel to the floor, or are similar to movements found in gymnastics and/or non martial arts disciplines, or forms that meet the above definition of strictly traditional forms, will result in a downgrade by the judges or, upon a unanimous vote of the judges, a ‘no score’ as a form inappropriate for the division.”

However, there are moves that fit these criteria that competitors have been disqualified for. The butterfly twist is a technique rooted in Wushu in which the competitor rotates only 360 degrees while parallel to the ground, but this move is considered illegal. A “540” kick1 that only requires 360 degrees of rotation in the air is illegal if the athlete lands on their feet, but according to an arbitration that happened almost a decade ago it is considered acceptable to do a 540 kick landing on one knee in this division. Part of this confusion is the result of the tricking community’s inconsistent terminology for naming kicks by the degree of rotation, but that doesn’t change the fact that the rules are in need of an update for clarity.

The other issue in the creative divisions is the difficulty gap that is evident in runoffs2 when creative division winners have to face off with extreme and musical division winners. This difference is not as severe in weapons, where creative competitors can add more weapons tricks and manipulations to their routines to cover the gap. On the other hand, in forms, how is a competitor who is not even allowed to do a butterfly twist supposed to match the difficulty level of competitors who can do literally any gymnastic or martial arts tricking technique that they are capable of? A solution to this would be an updated rule that allows creative competitors to perform any aerial kick that they wish, regardless of how many rotations are involved. Inversions can still be outlawed in creative to prevent these routines from having the cartwheels and backflips that the rules were designed to exclude, but allowing competitors to do as many aerial spins as they would like evens the playing field in the runoffs. The creative competitor can then match the extreme competitor’s double cork3 with a hurricane kick4 of his/her own, and it is up to the judges to determine which technique was better in terms of difficulty and execution.

4. Grand Championship Restructuring

The overall grand championship is the highest honor that a sport karate competitor can win at any given event. It means that you have advanced through every round of competition for your age group and discipline at the black belt level, and won the final prize. Unfortunately, the current rules have watered down the level of competition in the junior overall grand championships, and have brought inequality to the adult overall grands.

At the time of this article, all 13 and under and 14-17 overall grand championships place the traditional weapons or forms winner for that age group and gender against the creative/musical/extreme (CMX) counterpart. This creates a head-to-head showdown between routines that are very different in presentation, and often the winner is simply decided by if the panel of judges that evening prefers tradition or innovation. This is unfair to the competitors, and doesn’t provide much excitement for spectators either. I have a few ideas for how to fix this, the least radical of them being to let the boys and girls compete against one another in the overall grands like they used to. I understand that at the adult level, men and women should remain separated as they are in every other professional spot. At the junior level, however, I feel there are significant benefits.

Combining the boys and girls would restore the four-competitor format with two CMX and two traditional competitors. This provides a baseline comparison for the judges that makes their decision less about preference. If one traditional competitor is substantially better than the other, while the two CMX competitors are about even, it allows that great traditional competitor to differentiate themselves more clearly. This principle works in both directions, meaning a CMX competitor could also differentiate themselves more clearly by being substantially better than their CMX counterpart in the division. At the end of the day, the competitor who is the strongest all-around martial artist should demonstrate that through their routine and win for that reason. My point is just that a four-competitor format would make it easier for judges to distinguish that athlete.

Regarding the supposed athletic differences between males and females, I would argue that this is less pronounced in the juniors than it is in the adults. Additionally, most great adult female competitors who competed in the mixed gender format as juniors would credit their development as an athlete to training to beat the boys. Sammy Smith and Mackensi Emory were pushed by the fact that they had to prepare to compete against the likes of myself, Reid Presley, Cole Presley, Tyler Weaver, and others. The same can be said for Haley Glass training to face off with Jake Presley or Mason Stowell when they were juniors.

Then there’s the adult division, where the grand championships are split by gender as they should be. The problem here is that the men have separate traditional and CMX overall grands for forms and weapons, while the women still compete traditional versus CMX for these titles. This creates a completely different dynamic of competition between the men and women. I personally don’t mind if you put the men’s division back together or split the women’s division to match the current men's set up, but in my eyes you have to have the same divisions available on both sides.

The elephant in the room regarding the adult overall grand championships is prize money. Before the pandemic, the prize for an adult overall grand championship was an archaic $1,000 that had been the standard for decades before. This money hardly makes it possible for a competitor to break even on the trip if they aren’t fully sponsored by a team. As a result of attendance reductions during the pandemic, this bar was lowered to just $500 for an overall grand championship. I have empathy for the promoters that have to find a way to get this money, and I understand why the reduction occurred in light of the pandemic. However, if we want adult competitors to keep coming to tournaments, the prize money incentive has to be better. Part of the reason that competitors often have such short adult careers is because they realize they cannot sustain themselves through sport karate, so they either go off to college, pursue entrepreneurial endeavors, or both. The following points could all lead to increased sponsorship of the sport, which could help promoters find such prize money.

3. Standard Levels of Professionalism

The final three of the top five will be less long-winded, but are even more important than the two examples I have given thus far. One of the first steps that must be taken to improve the future of sport karate is increased professionalism across the board. This includes properly trained and certified judges who do not have affiliations to any of the competitors in that ring and are dressed appropriately to be judging. I have seen far too many occasions in which a judge sits down wearing athletic shorts and a ball cap, who I know for a fact has trained two or three of the competitors in the ring.

This includes coach conduct, such as not yelling at referees or causing a scene any time a call doesn’t go your way.

This includes the appearance of an event, featuring well-kept mats, a presentable stage, and necessary barriers to separate spectators from the competition area.

Finally, this also falls on the competitors. Handle wins and losses with grace, iron your uniform, tie your belt properly, show up on time, follow the rules as they are written, do the things expected of a professional athlete.

2. Increased Coverage

US Open Karate Production

Photo Courtesy: Mike Chat

This is another essential aspect of the evolution of sport karate. It starts with professionalism, which allows media companies to provide higher-quality coverage of events, which gets more viewership for the sport, which attracts sponsorship dollars, which allows sport karate to become the truly professional sport that everyone in the community wants it to become. Black Belt Magazine has made numerous successful efforts to increase coverage in recent years, culminating in millions of views on multiple platforms. The efforts of other companies like SportMartialArts.com, Point Fighter Live, and JungoTV should also be celebrated for increasing sport karate’s overall viewership. There are more discussions about sport karate than ever before, thanks to groups like Richard Osborn’s Open Martial Arts Tournament Discussion on Facebook or podcasts like The Chris, Los and Travis Experience or Inside Scoop with Alex and Jeff courtesy of the Martial Arts Internetwork. Momentum is moving in the right direction, but there are still improvements to be made. Increasing the professionalism of these streams with high-level commentating, following the stories of the top athletes in the sport, and filling the gaps between tournaments with insightful coverage are all areas that can continue to grow stronger.

1. Unity

This is the single most important concept that the powers that be must keep in mind if we want sport karate to grow. The sport reached its current level by promoters, judges, media companies, registration software brands, league executives, coaches, and competitors working together to create a community truly unlike any other. All of these key role players will inevitably need to set aside any differences to keep the sport moving in the right direction. There should not be any element of the sport that is monopolized, as any entity who wants to be involved in helping the sport grow should be able to contribute. The common goal of making sport karate a better place for its competitors should always be the priority.

This call for unity also extends to the larger martial arts community. I have never heard a sport martial artist say that “we don’t need traditional martial arts”. However, I hear traditionalists bashing sport karate all the time, after sport karate has done nothing wrong to them. Every sport karate competitor has a traditional foundation in the martial arts that they respect, even if they don’t show it in their extreme routine. The front stance that forms their base and the hand techniques thrown between tricking combinations are still those same foundational skills that can only be learned from traditional martial arts training. The blitz that is thrown with speed and precision in point fighting is the same skill that a martial artist can use to close the distance in a true self-defense situation.

Ultimately, if sport karate becomes the mainstream sport that the athletes want it to be, that is going to help martial arts as a whole. Kids around the world will see sport karate on ESPN or streaming somewhere on social media, they will be amazed by what they see, and they will beg their parents to try martial arts. Where will they go? They will go to their nearest martial arts school to begin their training, enabling martial arts to change thousands of more lives regardless of what style is being taught.

Footnotes

1. 540 kick – Essentially, a tornado kick in which the practitioner lands on the kicking leg by turning their hips over and landing 180 degrees away from their target. Depending on the takeoff position, the entire move can be completed with only 360 degrees of rotation in the air.

2. Runoffs – The penultimate round of forms and weapons competition before the overall grand championships. They are sometimes used in the adult divisions, but are always used in the 17 and under age groups. Division winners advance to the runoffs, where they compete for the opportunity to go on stage and compete for the overall grand championship. Runoffs are also referred to as “Divisional Grand Championships”.

3. Double cork – In non-tricking terminology, this is a backflip done from a one-legged takeoff with two spins of the body executed before landing. If you are familiar with the term “gainer”, a double cork is when someone does two twists while performing a gainer.

4. Hurricane kick – A tornado kick set up is used to execute three hook kicks on three consecutive rotations of the body while in the air. The practitioner commonly lands with their non-kicking leg as the final hook kick is being performed. The technique was inspired by Ryu from Street Fighter and was popularized by tricking legend Daniel Graham.

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