It has been two weeks since the 2023 ISKA U.S. Open World Martial Arts Championships came to a close, and I just now feel like life is returning to a normal rhythm. This edition of Jackson’s Five was delayed by committee meetings for significant changes to the Black Belt Magazine rankings, a neurology exam in medical school, and breaking the massive news about Team Paul Mitchell’s signing of four elite point fighters. It has been a wild couple of weeks, but there are five themes that still replay in my mind from the open.
5. Terrific Teenage Traditional Forms
Photo Courtesy: Lindsey Little Photography
One of the most competitive divisions in the Night of Champions was 14-17 boys’ traditional forms, featuring Christian “Cheeks” Elizondo, Luca Ricotti, and Noah Sansait. Noah has been a consistent winner throughout the season, while Luca and Cheeks had an awesome showdown in the runoffs during the eliminations. A mathematical tie sent the division to the rulebook for a tiebreaker where Luca came out on top. Luca earned his spot on stage with the win, and Cheeks put up such an impressive performance against Luca that he deserved a spot too. On stage, despite all three competitors displaying fantastic kata, Cheeks would be crowned the ISKA World Champion. This is a division I feel sometimes goes under the radar but these performances in Orlando prove that more should be paying attention. I also want to use this paragraph to shout out Sofia Rodriguez Florez and Logan Goodman for a great duel in the ladies’ division, with Sofia (who I have written about several times in these articles for her amazing achievements) coming away with the win.
4. Elana Rapisarda is Hard Core
Photo Courtesy: Team Pil-Sung via Facebook
One of the events that makes the Night of Champions special is the annual world record breaking attempt. As a kid, I used to love watching the great Chip Townsend come on stage every year with Team Chip building the suspense leading up to a Louisville Slugger-shattering round kick by the GOAT himself. This year, Elana Rapisarda took the stage to set the record for the most boards broken with three techniques by a female. Her backstory is remarkable, as she attended the U.S. Open in 2022 but was told that there was not enough competition in attendance for the women’s creative breaking division to award an ISKA World Championship. Elana asked if she could compete against the males, was given permission to do so, and proceeded to WIN the championship! If that wasn’t enough, just 24 hours before traveling to the U.S. Open for the record attempt, she was commissioned into the United States Marine Corps. Then for the actual record attempt, one of her breaks was a tornado kick through five inch-thick pine boards WITH THE TOP OF HER FOOT! Do you understand how hard it is to break through that much wood with the top of the foot? She blasted through every board during the tornado kick and created another awesome U.S. Open breaking memory.
3. Point Sparring Spotlight
Photo Courtesy: Lindsey Little Photography
Most night shows are forms and weapons-heavy because there are so many divisions, which take stage time away from point fighters that deserve a bigger spotlight. This is especially true with regard to junior and female fighters. That’s why I was very pleased to see the U.S. Open host a set match 2v2 Junior Team Sparring ISKA title featuring Team Paul Mitchell’s Sebatian Villanueva and Jake Mueck against Diego Gomez of Team Straight Up and Luis “Picky” Rivera of Team Legend. The JPM boys took the win in a solid matchup. The Night of Champions also featured TWO women’s sparring divisions including women’s team sparring won by Katarina Herman and Maeve McColgan and women’s open weight with Jasmine Peterson of Team Straight Up taking home the title. This was a big step forward for the U.S. Open to highlight these athletes who are so often underrepresented on stage. Big props are also in order for Maggie Messina and Female Fighters Matter Too for advocating for the lady warriors and getting some bonus prize money moving their direction too.
2. Underrated No More
Photo Courtesy: MAIACON
About a month ago at the Battle of Atlanta, I described Devon Hopper as one of the most underrated fighters in the game. He has a well-rounded style molded by Abid Benwali and prior to the Open secured some big wins this year such as the WAKO Open Weight at the Quebec Open and the Heavyweight Overall Grand in Atlanta. However, I noticed that his name was not being mentioned enough in conversations about the sport’s elite. We had an exchange through some Instagram messages and planned for him to appear on my podcast, at which point he said he would come on the show AFTER he won the U.S. Open. He called his shot. Just days after that DM he claimed the coveted Open Weight title and hoisted the trophy in his hometown. That alone was going to land him in the Jackson’s Five no matter what, but I was not going to say “underrated no more” until Team Paul Mitchell made their big splash this week. Hopper became part of the aforementioned 4-fighter acquisition including Darren Payne, Ki’Tana Everett, and the return of Kameren Ali-Dawson. If you are wearing black and white, in my opinion, you can no longer be underrated. Earning the opportunity to wear that uniform is a testament to years of hard work and achievement. There is a target on the back of every athlete wearing a Paul Mitchell uniform, and Hopper has earned the right to be considered among the best.
1. Carrying the Torch
Photo Courtesy: Jackson Rudolph
Last year, the final theme on my Jackson’s Five countdown for the U.S. Open was titled “Passing the Torch”. I wrote about my longtime synchronized partner Jake Presley, and how him winning the 2022 ISKA weapons title was a transition to a new era as I stepped away from competition to focus on commentating and coaching. This year, although I write about these boys a lot, I have to show my respect to Esteban Tremblay and Ben Jones for what they are doing to continue carrying that torch and moving competitive bo, and the sport as a whole, forward. I’ll begin with synchronized weapons, a title that Team Paul Mitchell has now held eight consecutive times. Kyle Montagna and I won the title to begin the streak in 2015. The next year I teamed up with Jake Presley and we proceeded to have an unbelievable run in which we won a record five straight titles from 2016-2021 (one year missing due to the pandemic). Now Ben and Esteban, who I have trained since they were each about eight years old, have won back-to-back titles to extend the streak. Clearly there is a strong personal bias behind what this means to me, but all emotions aside this is a truly historic feat. We haven’t even gotten to the actual men’s weapons division yet…
My discussion of men’s weapons will focus less on the implications for my bo lineage that dates back to Mike Bernardo which Jake, Ben, and Esteban are all a part of. Instead I want to focus on what this division means to Team Paul Mitchell. JPM has won a ridiculous 13 of the last 15 ISKA men’s weapons world championships. Here is the breakdown:
- 2008 Kalman Csoka
- 2009 Kalman Csoka
- 2010 Kalman Csoka
- 2011 Kalman Csoka
- 2012 Matt Emig
- 2013 Sen Gao (ASG)
- 2014 Tyler Weaver
- 2015 Reid Presley (AmeriKick)
- 2016 Reid Presley (JPM)
- 2017 Jackson Rudolph
- 2018 Jackson Rudolph
- 2019 Jackson Rudolph
- 2020 Event Canceled
- 2021 Jackson Rudolph
- 2022 Jake Presley
- 2023 Esteban Tremblay
Esteban taking home the 2023 title is a 7th consecutive for JPM and the reason that I am emphasizing this so much is because of what it means to these athletes. It feels different when you are competing for something bigger than yourself. Let’s not forget the fact that in Esteban’s winning effort, his teammates Dawson Holt and Ben Jones also put in the work to ensure that JPM continued this run and Ben even pulled a couple of 10s from the judges. I also have to pause to show some respect to Rashad Eugene, who battled alongside these men although himself not a part of the JPM narrative, as he has been a formidable opponent and always puts on a great show. All this being said, I want to close this countdown by just saying how grateful I am that the next generation of champions is passionate about protecting what my generation and all those who came before built. This is why it is so important to preserve the history of our sport, because it means something special to so many.