Darren Payne
Photo Courtesy: Jessie Wray

The 2022 AKA Warrior Cup marks the beginning of the first full NASKA season since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Formerly known as the AKA Grand Nationals, this event is one of the premier open martial arts tournaments in the world and was the perfect place for sport karate to come roaring back. Competitors from all over North America battled it out to win one of six coveted Warrior Cups.
This was my first time not competing in the tournament since 2006. I had appeared in the last 10 Warrior Cup Finals, winning 7 titles during that span. I set the bo aside to pick up a microphone and commentate the finals alongside point fighting world champion Mallory Woods. Not being on stage was weird, but it allowed me to sit back and be a fan of this beautiful sport. These are the top five things I saw at this year’s Warrior Cup.

5. The Synchro-Maestro

Ben Jones

Photo Courtesy: Jeannie Jones

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge Ben Jones fan. Not only is he a student of mine, but I firmly believe he is one of the most underrated competitors in the sport. His most impressive performance at the Warrior Cup was in the team synchronized division, in which he won BOTH forms and weapons with a different partner for each event. He competed alongside Dawson Holt in the forms category, then took the stage with Esteban Tremblay for weapons. In the finals, these duos had to compete against each other for the overall title. After closing out the forms routine with Holt, Jones pulled a U-turn and came right back on stage with a bo to perform with Tremblay. I have never seen anything like that before, and his versatility deserves a spot in my top five.

4. The Return of The Prodigy

Aidan Kennedy

Photo Courtesy: Michael Dillard

​During the broadcast, I coined the nickname The Prodigy for Aidan Kennedy. The Team AKA member had stepped away from the sport for several years to pursue other dreams, but his itch for the game must have come back during the pandemic and he returned to compete in the forms division. In my opinion, he is one of the most talented young competitors the sport has ever seen when you consider his raw gifts combined with the skills he has worked for countless hours to perfect. He makes a basic tornado kick look like a work of art, and makes shuriken-cutters and other difficult tricks look effortless. He tore his way through the junior forms divisions and took home his first Warrior Cup. Following the victory, Kennedy posted on his Instagram that he came out of retirement to dedicate this performance to Sensei John Sharkey.

3. Mason Domination

Top Ten Team USA

Photo Courtesy: Top Ten Team USA

Top Ten Team USA’s dynamic duo of Mason Bumba and Mason Stowell was back in action on Saturday night. Bumba rocked the house with his difficult extreme bo routine that featured a variety of his signature releases capped off by an unprecedented webster release in which he threw the bo in the air, did a front flip off of one foot, and caught the bo almost flawlessly. This move has been landed before, but this was the first time it was attempted in the finals of a major sport karate tournament. Then, Stowell took the stage with his traditional kata that has been near unbeatable since he made his adult debut at the 2021 Battle of Atlanta. His performances seem to get stronger and more precise every time he graces the stage. The Masons’ impressive routines earned each of them their second Warrior Cup.

2. Like Father, Like Dawson

Gerald and Kameren Dawson

Photo Courtesy: Kameren Dawson

Kameren Dawson is unquestionably one of the best point fighters on the planet. His lead hand is deadly, which makes his expert fakes incredibly effective, and he’s added a swift hook kick to his game that caught a number of his opponents off guard. However, Dawson isn’t being mentioned here for his fighting accomplishments. He is making this list for the role model that he is. Just this past weekend, he bowed out of the open weight division allowing a teammate to move on and then made a Facebook post thanking all of his opponents for helping him improve as a martial artist. Then, on Saturday night, Dawson lost the Warrior Cup final to one of his pupils. He gave a deep bow to the winner, then shared an emotional embrace recognizing how important that moment was for his opponent, someone who looked up to him. It seemed as if Dawson was more proud of his protégé than he was disappointed by his loss. This display of character is a direct reflection of his father, the late, great Gerald “Awesome” Dawson. Kameren, now a father himself, is following in his dad’s footsteps as a class act and one of the best in the game, a role model for all aspiring martial artists.

1. The Future is The Present

Dee Stacks

Photo Courtesy: Tamika Payne

Who was that disciple of Kameren Dawson that won the Warrior Cup? None other than Darren “Dee Stacks” Payne, who became the youngest fighter to ever claim a Warrior Cup at the age of only 17, under the guidance of mastermind coach Jessie Wray. Anytime someone sets a record as the youngest to ever do something, clichés get thrown around about how bright the future is and how they are one of the best young athletes in the sport. Those remarks are not appropriate for Dee Stacks, nor any of the new champions that we have seen rise to prominence in the last few years. Payne’s teammate Tyson Wray, as well as Bailey Murphy, Tyreeke Saint, and Enrique Letona (just to name a few) are all fighters under the age of 21 who are legitimate threats to win major championships this season. Dee Stacks winning the Warrior Cup against one of the best heavyweights of the past decade is the perfect example. These young men are not just the future of the sport, they are the present. They are the champions of today. Appreciate them while we have them, let’s hope they all stick around for long careers full of epic battles and legendary memories.

That will round out Jackson’s 5 for the AKA Warrior Cup. Be sure to share this article on social media and reflect on your favorite moments from the event. Stay tuned for more sport karate news from Black Belt Magazine. Thank you to the entire sport karate community for the support.

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