Bo is the most popular weapon in sport martial arts. If you attend a NASKA tournament and look at a weapons division for just about any age category, you’ll see about 60% bo competitors, 30% kama, and a few sword and chux practitioners mixed in. When this many competitors use bo as their weapon of choice, there are bound to be some over the years who unjustly go under the radar. There are so many great, well-known bo competitors I grew up watching like Casey Marks-Nash, Lauren Kearney, Cory Lutkus, and of course (albeit only on YouTube) Mike Bernardo. However, some of the bo competitors I was inspired by didn’t get the recognition I feel they deserved. This list is dedicated to highlighting bo competitors that inspired me at different stages of my career, who don’t get enough respect for their contributions to competitive bo. I also want to give an honorable mention to a few guys who shared the ring with me and pushed me with their bo skills such as Ricky Morris, Brandon Ballou, and Scott Cornelius.
5. Ross Levine
I’m only putting Ross at five on this list because he is the least underrated of the bunch, as he has the best résumé with a weapons Warrior Cup, ISKA title, and Diamond Ring all under his belt. The main reason Ross is underrated as a bo competitor is that he was such a great fighter that his accomplishments in that realm overshadowed his bo. When it came to the weapons division, he was the perfect blend of old school and innovation. He rocked the hakama and had a similar striking style to the Bernardo-inspired 90’s, but was willing to push the envelope and follow Nate Andrade’s guidance in terms of creating new bo tricks. From doing a gainer with his bo in his mouth to doing a multitude of body rolls that were way ahead of his time, it’s remarkable how many tricks he was able to bring to his forms without the staff ever leaving his body. This style also led to one of the greatest introductions of all time, when Ross would end his intro with “My form has no kicks, no flips, and no throws… just bo.” In addition to what he achieved as a competitor, he also coached up a few more bo competitors that deserve mention like Derek Meegan and Chiara Dituri.
4. Micah Karns
This is the first name on the list that I expect to catch people off-guard. Similarly to how Levine’s sparring overshadowed his bo, the same can be said for Micah’s prowess in CMX Forms. A man who is always in the conversation when people debate the top five extreme forms competitors of all time, his squeaky-clean tricking and technically sound hand combos led him to some all-time seasons in forms. In weapons, he was a very entertaining bo competitor. He complimented good bo work with his world class tricking, and innovated several unique bo tricks along the way. He was the first person I saw do what is now called a “zero gravity”, throwing the bo from behind the back so it rotates horizontally. That move inspired me to create all the variations of it that helped me win titles over the years. Some of the moves I created may have never happened without Micah doing a zero gravity. He also innovated some of the funkier, but cool, bo moves like switching the bo between the legs while taking a step forward and trapping a neck roll under the chin while throwing a spear hand. His style was just so unique and I feel very few people recognize how good he was at bo.
3. Billy Leger
Anybody who has talked enough bo with me knows how much I respect Billy Leger. I’d probably go as far as to say he is the most ahead-of-his-time competitor in weapons history. This Team Straight Up member was doing bo trick combos in 2007 that people wouldn’t be trying regularly until a decade later. Not only was the fact that he was throwing combinations ahead of the curve, but he was doing 360 releases with inverted catches above his head and trapping the bo in his elbow to redirect a release all in the same combo. He was the first person I saw combine small horizontal releases into a combo that moves the bo around the body, a concept that I would later manipulate and name the trick “Kill Bill” as a homage to Billy. The Pan American Internationals clip above is probably the YouTube video I’ve watched more than any other, a form with which he won the overall grand championship.
2. Connor Griffith
There’s admittedly some bias in putting my former teammate and training partner at number two on this countdown, but you can’t make a list of underrated bo competitors without Connor Griffith. We were on Team Change the Game together from late 2010 to mid-2012, and even had a ridiculous synchronized form made that the world never got to see. What sets Connor apart in my mind is that he was able to combine body rolls and releases, the two main genres of bo tricks, into one form. His opening section featured the “John Doe”, a body roll starting at one hip and approaching the opposite shoulder while he spins around and ultimately catches the bo behind the back. A move so hard to describe that the best name for it was essentially to not name it. His middle section featured his patented leg moves, which had different names based on how many releases he did in the combo. He was able to so smoothly throw the bo under one leg, spin around, then catch under the other leg and go right back into a throwing motion when needed. I believe this was originally inspired by Nick Bateman, but Connor took it to another level in terms of execution and difficulty. Then he would get right back to the body rolls with a voodoo child to close out the form, a 360-spinning neck roll that has been a staple “ending move” for generations. The wide variety of tricks that he was able to bring with his unique style that made it all look so easy made him so fun to watch.
1. Nate Andrade
Speaking of the voodoo child, number one on this countdown HAS to be the man responsible for the majority of body rolls we see in competition today. Nate Andrade was Ross Levine’s mentor, and he masterminded dozens of body rolls and multiple variations and upgrades for each. Due to these contributions, competitive bo literally would not look the way it does today without Nate. He was also an expert showman, earning him the “Showtime” nickname. I remember getting so hype as a kid when I would hear him yell “IT’S SHOWWWTIMEEEE” before his form. Then there’s the iconic “Tall Guys with Sticks” sync form that is an all-time fan favorite. My favorite thing about Nate was his willingness to share what he had innovated with others. His Black and Blue Video training series has taught these unique skills to thousands of bo competitors, myself included. I also have a personal story that sums up Nate’s character and teaching skills perfectly.
In 2010, I had one career overall grand championship to my name and my signature move was a palm spin behind my back called a “fantail”. Shout out to Justin Johnson for being the first one to teach me that move when I traveled the RSKC circuit early in my career. Anyway, the fantail was originally innovated by Nate and he had an upgraded version in his form in which he kept the palm spin going while he lifted the bo over his head. This was the ideal upgrade for my form, and I was convinced that it could put me over the top if I earned the opportunity to compete for an ISKA title at the U.S. Open that year. I saw Nate warming up in Orlando on Friday, and 12-year-old Jackson mustered the courage to go ask him about the move. He set aside 5 or 10 minutes to give me his secrets, and by Saturday night I was ready to throw it in competition. I won my first ISKA title with a move that Nate had taught me just 24 hours before. I wouldn’t have become the competitor that I did without Nate’s inspiration, and I have so much respect for him because of that.
That does it for this top five countdown, but notice this only consists of competitors I saw with my own eyes! If there are some underrated bo competitors that you think deserve a mention, be sure to share the article on social media and let me know who is missing.