Sport Karate is suffering from something that mainstream sports don’t suffer from… we are too frequently forgetting our legends. Basketball fans will never forget Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when talking about legends of the game, and there’s always someone in the barber shop that will bring up all of Bill Russell’s rings. When football fans discuss Tom Brady being the GOAT, people will always bring up Manning, Montana, Marino, Elway, and more. This is true even in golf, where talking about Tiger will also lead you to Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. However, I’m afraid that if you ask the average junior competitor about Kevin Thompson, Nasty Anderson, Michael Bernardo, Ming Liu, or many others, the percentage of kids who can tell you who those people are is frighteningly low.
A few years ago, I was doing an interview after the Diamond Nationals and a couple of young competitors were watching while awaiting their turn to interview. I was fortunate enough to win another ring that night, and naturally talked about how I was inspired by Kalman Csoka, one of the most prolific weapons competitors in Diamonds history. When I concluded my interview and talked to the kids who had been watching, I was flabbergasted when they asked me, “Who’s that Kalman guy?”
I want to be clear that this is not those kids’ fault. It is our community’s fault. I am afraid that we spend so much time arguing about how things should be in sport karate and talking about all the things wrong with the sport, that we don’t truly appreciate what we have often enough. For example, Jack Felton is still fighting. You can go to a large sport karate tournament today and watch Jack Felton fight. Can we not take a moment to appreciate that? There are a ton of great fighters in the sport with a chance to become legends, but there is no argument that Jack is someone who has already proven that he is one. The purpose of this article is to be a wake-up call to appreciate all the could-be legends and cemented legends that we have in the sport right now.
Now, for all the young competitors who are reading this and feeling really guilty for not knowing their history, that is the other purpose of this article. How do you know who you should know about? The short answer is that I can’t tell you, but you can figure it out. Let me explain. I don’t consider Jack Felton to be a legend because of his titles alone, which would be a reasonable metric. I consider Jack to be a legend because of the combination of those titles with the way that he has always carried himself as a professional and inspired me to conduct myself in similar manner when I step in the ring. He is a legend to me because of how he inspired me, and that is how you should find legends too. History doesn’t remember how many titles anybody has won, history remembers the competitors who were capable of inspiring others to be great.You want to go study, don’t you? YouTube is your best friend. Go check out channels like SportMartialArts.com, OldSkoolKarate, Tournament News Online, KarateVideoGuy, and more. Go to the Diamond Nationals website, pull up the list of past champions, then put all of their names into YouTube one at a time. There is a surprising amount of footage of numerous sport karate legends going all the way back to the 80’s and maybe even a bit before that. Another way to find a dose of sport karate history is to tune into podcasts. I will shamelessly plug my own podcast where I make a conscious effort to bring sport karate legends to light, but there are others too. Martial Arts InterNetwork has several great shows. There is also Point Fighter Live, where Alex Reyes is always putting out sport karate content that sometimes features past greats. All of those podcast resources can be found on Facebook.
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Arguably the best source is not being afraid to ask. Talk to competitors and coaches who have been around the sport for years and ask about their stories, ask who inspired them. Virtually every single person I know (myself included) would be more than happy to spend a few minutes talking about sport karate history. A few great resources who you will see at almost any NASKA event are Richard Plowden, Christine Bannon-Rodrigues, Terry Creamer, Jessie Wray, Andrew Cabilan, and many others. In fact, I’ll start by sharing some names that inspired me so that you have a good place to start your YouTube and Google searches.
Being a bo guy, I’ll list my bo inspirations first. My lineage including Michael Bernardo, Casey Marks-Nash, and Lauren Kearney were all big inspirations to me. Then there are the early bo trickers who inspired me to push the boundaries of creativity such as Nate Andrade, Ross Levine, Cory Lutkus, and Billy Leger. There were also plenty of non-bo forms and weapons competitors who inspired me through the way they performed and carried themselves such as Kalman Csoka, Kevin Thompson, Matt Emig, Rudy Reynon, Steve Terada, and more who I was lucky enough to watch in-person. There were also those who I shared the ring with, who pushed me to another level, including but not limited to Reid, Cole, and Jake Presley, Austin Crain, Danny Etkin, Tyler Weaver, Dayna Huor, Sammy Smith, Mackensi Emory, Micayla Johnson, and Audrie Donihoo to name a few. There were twenty-three names just off the top of my head who inspired me, and I guarantee they would inspire you too if you did some research and saw each of them in action.
Heroes come and go, but legends live forever. Let’s keep it that way.