The 2023 Compete International Martial Arts Championships have come to an end, with two days of world class black belt competition on Friday and Saturday followed by the record-setting under belt crowds on Sunday that are a staple of this event. The Jahanvash family once again put together a phenomenal tournament, the climax being the Saturday night finals where it wouldn’t be Competes without punchlines from Chris Casamassa scattered throughout the show. The show began with a touching tribute to Shihan Louis Casamassa, the father of Chris and founder of Red Dragon Karate, who passed away on February 20th. After that emotional moment, it was time for some grand championships to be decided. This is Jackson’s Five, my top five moments from the tournament, focused on what took place on Saturday night.
5. Couldn't Stop Kevin
Photo Courtesy: Kevin Kowalczik via Facebook
I have written about the depth of talent in the 30 & over division on the NASKA circuit many times now over the last few years. Traditional, creative/musical/extreme (CMX), point fighting, virtually every division has high-caliber talent. It is an amazing time for our sport, and a testament to the passion and work ethic of those who participate in these divisions.
At the Competes, one man stood out amongst the pack: Kevin Kowalczik of Team Revolution. He won multiple traditional and CMX divisions, displaying his versatility en route to overall grand championships in both forms and weapons. This is no easy task with a deep field at the event including Andrew Cabilan, Samuel Diaz III, Eric Tremblay, and more. Kowalczik’s style is complete with strong basics, some old-school tricking, with modern pacing and performance. His unique blend of skills helped him set his forms apart from the competition in California, and earned a couple more overall grands in the process. Let’s not forget he is also a fighter on the Karate Combat roster, who showed significant improvements in his most recent bout for the promotion.
4. Fantastic Firsts
Everyone who has accomplished the feat remembers their first overall grand championship, and this feeling come rushing back if you are able to win an overall grand championship as an adult too. Fortunately, fans at the Compete Internationals got to see both of these moments through Olivia Cano’s win in the 13 & under girls’ weapons division and Katelyn McMillan’s victory in the women’s weapons division.
Olivia Cano, one of the newest members of Team Competitive Edge, revamped her form for the 2023 season. She has been known for a couple of years now for her technical skill despite her young age, an athlete who takes the basics seriously and executes them at a high level. However, she knew that she needed to step up the difficulty if she wanted to win overall grand championships this year. A student of mine, we got to work adding some upgrades and closing out the form with a body roll-release hybrid that ends her run with a bang. She nailed it in the runoffs, and tears filled her eyes as competitors and friends embraced her after the win. She took the stage with confidence later that night, nailed the new-and-improved form again, and claimed her first career overall grand championship.
Katelyn McMillan of Team Excel is no stranger to the night show stage. As a junior over the last few years, she garnered a reputation with her traditional bo form as a remarkably strong competitor with intensity that was nearly unmatched in her division. Performance through intensity is a skill that can be developed, and it is an essential component of McMillan’s game that sets her apart. Her ability to perform, combined with her martial art skills of course, helped her make the finals a couple of times already this season in different divisions. We saw her on stage at the AKA Warrior Cup for Kenpo forms, and again in the night show at Competes for extreme forms. However, it was her trusted traditional bo that ultimately rose to the top of the women’s weapons division and earned her an adult overall grand championship in just her second tournament in the division.
3. Long Live the Iceman
Photo Courtesy: Jack Felton via Facebook
I feel that I am doing a disservice to the sport karate community if I don’t write about it every time that Jack Felton does something impressive, which is most of the time that he steps on the mat. The 36-year-old California native and captain of Team All Stars has remained one of the top fighters in the sport despite a massive influx of young talent over the past few years. He started the weekend hot on Friday, defeating eventual heavyweight champion Alex Mancillas 10-7 in the open weight finals. On Saturday, in true Iceman fashion, he maintained his trademark cool and collected demeanor as he trail-blazed through the lightweight bracket. For the lightweight overall he would face another formidable young star in Tyson Wray, who gave Felton a great fight but was unable to stop a late run from the veteran that led him to victory. I have to add that Felton did not just achieve all this behind his trusted reverse punch and defensive side kick, he was consistently showing off mobility and throwing spin kicks that you wouldn’t typically expect from a fighter in his fourth decade of life. He landed one such spinning hook kick while going to the ground (which made it ineligible for scoring) that was so spectacular he had Michael Pombeiro yelling at ringside, “if he’s over thirty you have to count that!”
While I was watching one of Felton’s matches against a lesser-known regional competitor, someone asked me why I was going out of my way to watch a fight in which the outcome was effectively a foregone conclusion. My response was simple, that I’m going to watch Jack Felton fight as many times as I can, because you never know when we aren’t going to get to see that anymore. I feel we have a bad habit in sport karate of not appreciating our greatest competitors until it is too late, let’s appreciate Jack Felton while we can still watch him 10-point spread fighters who are half his age.
2. Bet on Brumme
Photo Courtesy: Phillip Brumme via Facebook
The most difficult feat at any particular sport karate event is winning the overall grand championship. Only a few times each year is a competitor able to secure both the forms and weapons overall grand championship at the same event. Phillip Brumme did just that. The Team Competitive Edge superstar was coming off a forms overall grand championship at the AKA Warrior Cup, and returned to the stage twice on Saturday night at the Competes. There is so much to love about the way this kid competes. You can see his passion from the moment he takes the stage, his fearlessness when throwing some of the most difficult tricking techniques and weapons releases in the sport, and his very solid technique that is the icing on the cake. Although he is known for his extreme forms and weapons, he also takes traditional training very seriously by working on kata with Joey Castro and debuted his traditional sword form that he has been working on with Kalman Csoka at the Compete Internationals. He does just about everything that you could ask a forms and weapons competitor to do.
He hit phenomenal forms in the finals that earned him the forms and weapons overall grand championships in spectacular fashion. One moment that stood out to me most happened back stage. He came up to me after the weapons final and said that he could feel in the moment exactly what tricks he should and should not throw to maximize his chances of success. As anyone who has trained with me at a high level knows, I feel this is the secret to becoming a dominant weapons competitor. Athletes often throw too much and make mistakes, or get nervous and throw too little resulting in losses that could have been avoided. As soon as a competitor understands how to feel a moment and make the right decisions about their trick selection as the form is happening, they become a very dangerous competitor. Brumme’s performance alone was enough to make the countdown, but it is this development as a competitor and strategist that makes me very excited for his future.
1. Patience is a Virtue
Photo Courtesy: Team Paul Mitchell Karate
Number one on this countdown is an obvious reminder that Jackson Rudolph is the guy writing this countdown. The same Jackson Rudolph who decided he wanted to be on Team Paul Mitchell at his first-ever U.S. Open back in 2006, has bled Black and White since being recruited to the team in 2012, and is now on the coaching staff for the team. This being said, I am fully disclosing my bias before telling you that number one on this countdown has to do this Team Paul Mitchell. Now, I’ll stop transiently writing about myself in the third person and talk about JPM…
HOW ABOUT THAT FIGHTING TEAM?! One thing I have always loved about Team Paul Mitchell is that for the majority of the team’s existence we have had both a forms and weapons team as well as a fighting team. What makes this even better is that the athletes, in my experience, don’t feel any separation between the two sides. We are all one family. The fighting team in particular has faced criticism in recent years for not recruiting many new fighters since the COVID-19 pandemic. An important thing to remember is that a team that has been sponsored for 36 years is going to be very selective about who gets to wear that uniform. To paraphrase our fighting coach Damon Gilbert, he is always going to be picky when it comes to selecting talent.
Alex Mancillas was picked up in December of 2019, just a few months before COVID-19 would shut down the sport martial arts world temporarily. He was the first step in a new era of Team Paul Mitchell point fighting in which Coach Gilbert appears to be focused on developing hungry, talented young fighters into the caliber of legends that have worn this uniform. This project was put on hold for a few years, but with tournaments fully recovered from that tumultuous time, it was time for the plan to go into action. 15-year-old human highlight reel Sebastian Villanueva was recruited to the team just before the Battle of Atlanta last year, then over Christmas he was joined by the ridiculous kicking talent of Jake Mueck and the charisma and raw talent of Sean Magallanes. Then, the team went and got the newly-crowned women’s Warrior Cup champion Katarina Herman after Coach Gilbert had been scouting her for a while.
This new-look squad showed out in California. Sebastian Villanueva won his open weight division and the grand championship, accumulating a number of highlights along the way. Jake Mueck took the stage for the 16-17 point fighting final against another spectacular fighter in Diego Gomez, and Mueck recorded an impressive win by the time the dust settled. Katarina Herman continued her winning ways from Chicago and seemingly effortlessly kicked her way to the women’s open weight and overall grand championship titles. Finally, the man who kickstarted this whole new era for JPM, Alex Mancillas exploded for a 10-point spread in the first round of the heavyweight final to claim his first men’s fighting overall grand championship.
I couldn’t be more proud of all of them. They represented the JPM legacy very well, and I am excited to see what this crew achieves moving forward. I also can’t conclude this countdown without giving shout outs to the forms and weapons members of Team Paul Mitchell who left California with overall grand championships. My beautiful wife Gabrielle won her second forms overall grand championship, and her teammate Averi Presley joined her in winning a second forms overall grand on the season. Jake Presley also showed out for the Presley family, continuing his unbeaten streak in the traditional weapons overall grand championship. Esteban Tremblay also added to the win total with an electrifying win in the CMX weapons overall grand. Last but not least, Tremblay then teamed up with Ben Jones to secure a synchronized weapons title and overall synchronized title too.
Thank you for tolerating my love for Team Paul Mitchell over the last few paragraphs. That does it for this edition of Jackson’s Five, stay tuned for the next installment after the upcoming Ocean State Grand Nationals!