This was the first year since 2007 that I have not been at the AKA Warrior Cup. I am currently training in Hawaii for medical school and was unable to make the flight to and from Chicago in a timely manner to fulfill my requirements at the hospital. I look forward to attending other NASKA world tour events this year, returning to the broadcast booth and coaching Team Paul Mitchell and Team Competitive Edge with all my heart. Anyway, my Jackson's Five countdown for the Warrior Cup will be limited to what I saw on the stream of the finals courtesy of SportMartialArts.com.
5. Michael Molina is Fearless
Photo Courtesy: Priscilla Molina via Facebook
I published an article here on Black Belt Magazine recently in which I discussed the importance of risk-taking as a competitive martial artist, how sometimes you simply need to go big or go home. I don't know if he read the article or not, but 10-year-old Michael Molina certainly embodied that advice on Saturday night. After winning the 13 & under weapons overall grand championship, he advanced to the Junior Warrior Cup Finals to compete against three skilled traditionalists, two of which much older than he. He was nailing a great form during the Warrior Cup round and paused before his last trick to count to four on his fingers. I sat in front of my computer in disbelief as he counted past his usual three and held up four fingers. He brazenly tossed his bo into the air, spun four times, and caught the bo with a not-so-planned power slide on both knees to become the first person to ever land that trick in a Warrior Cup Final. The desperation of the catch likely cost him some points on the judges' score cards, but I could not do this countdown without giving him props for being brave enough to throw a trick that big in that particular moment.
I should not mention the junior weapons warrior cup without giving proper congratulations to the eventual champion, Shane Billow. I've gone on the record many times speaking about how much he has improved over the past few seasons, getting better every time I would see him on the night show stage. He is the perfect example of a competitor who has put in the work to create opportunities for himself, and now he reaps the benefits as a Warrior Cup champion. His high-speed traditional bo kata was deserving of the win.
4. One More...
Photo Courtesy: SportMartialArts.com
Jake Presley won his first Warrior Cup in 2014, resulting in the above picture as I helped him carry the trophy that was twice his size off the stage. Fast forward to 2023, and Wild Card just won his 6th career Warrior Cup. This places him in historic company of competitors to have won more than five cups. Within our own bo lineage, the great Mike Bernardo has five of the coveted titles (which I believe includes some for forms and fighting). I was fortunate to amass seven of them in my career, the all-time mark for weapons. Then there's the juggernaut that is Ross Levine and his ridiculous nine Warrior Cups. Jake using his electrifying traditional bo form, while going first in a division of very dangerous competitors, to secure a sixth Warrior Cup is a remarkable achievement. To make the story even better, my former synchronized weapons partner texted me immediately after coming off stage. It was a GIF that read... "one more". Congratulations Jake, you're a special competitor and I hope the sport karate world appreciates you before we lose you to a successful career in Hollywood.
3. Traditional Triumphs
Anyone who watches The Jackson Rudolph Podcast or reads my articles here on Black Belt Magazine knows that I am often critical of the overall grands format that pits traditionalists against the creative/musical/extreme competitors. It compares apples to oranges and often times gives a significant advantage to the CMX competitor simply because it is easier for the average judge to appreciate the difficulty of an extreme form compared to a traditional one. However, there were a number of traditional competitors in head-to-head matchups in the finals that were able to come out on top, and I wanted to take this opportunity to recognize them. In the adult division, there was the aforementioned Jake Presley and Haley Glass both winning titles with their traditional weapons forms (in Haley's case the women's weapons overall grand). In adult forms, Gabrielle Rudolph competed against several CMX competitors and came away with the overall grand championship. Diego Rodriguez Florez won the men's traditional forms overall grand championship, and deserves a shout-out (although the division being separated doesn't fit my traditional-versus-CMX narrative). Samuel Diaz III rose above CMX competitors to claim the 30+ weapons grand championship and get a ticket to the Warrior Cup finals.
The trend continued in the kids' divisions as well. Adelynn Lau won 13 & under girls' weapons with a traditional double sword form. Angel Perez scored a very impressive win in the 13 & under boys' forms championship with his traditional kata. Amanda Duarte also used her traditional kata to win a 13 & under title on the girls' side. Sofia Rodriguez Florez won BOTH the traditional and CMX divisional grand championships with her traditional bo form, resulting in an automatic overall grand championship title. Last, but certainly not least, was Shane Billow who won an overall grand with his traditional bo en route to the Warrior Cup.
2. By Any Means Necessary
Photo Courtesy: Karate Sport Action via Facebook
Esteban Tremblay and Averi Presley are each most well-known for their bo work. They have both been successful in the forms division before, but the majority of their titles are from the weapons division as they are both phenomenal with the bo. However, these Paul Mitchell teammates each won their first career Warrior Cups for forms! They each had to overcome unique obstacles to finally take home one of sport karate's most coveted awards.
Esteban, a student of mine since he was eight years old, had the best statistical season of his career in 2022. He wowed crowds across the NASKA world tour with bo forms that had unbelievable levels of difficulty combined with some speed and his signature swagger. At many of those tournaments, he was also (somewhat quietly) winning grand championships with forms as well. The average sport karate fan would have thought his Warrior Cup dreams would have to wait another year when weapons didn't go his way... but Air Canada had other plans. He took the stage with confidence and emphatically took the Warrior Cup with a high-flying extreme form.
Averi also had a stellar statistical season in 2022, winning almost every weapons overall grand championship on the NASKA world tour. Her signature no-look release at the end of her form made her seem nearly unstoppable. Much like with Tremblay, much of the focus was on the weapons division. Averi had a particularly unfortunate end to her weapons run in Chicago. In the divisional grand championship to advance to the finals, she stepped on a weakened part of the stage resulting in a bad error on her tricking pass that took her out of the running. Her chances at a cup were looking slim. However, she won the forms overall grand championship on stage and propelled herself to the Warrior Cup round. When the dust settled she had another historic win for the evening, becoming the first female competitor to win a junior Warrior Cup in a rather long time. The last female that I can remember winning the title was Micayla Johnson with her kama form back in 2011.
1. Megafights Chapter 2
Photo Courtesy: Richard Avery Plowden via Facebook
The first Jackson's Five article that I ever wrote followed the 2021 Diamond Nationals, in which the number one spot on the countdown was about a "Megafight" between Bailey Murphy and Avery Plowden that took place as the Virtual Fight Tour's Last Man Standing. Murphy came out on top in that match via an overtime thriller, but the stage was set in Chicago for another megafight as Plowden got an opportunity for redemption. In a battle between the point fighters who many would consider to be the best heavyweight and lightweight in America, Plowden used his stellar defense and well-timed offensive attacks to get the best of Murphy this time and secure a one-point victory. The win brings the Plowden family their eleventh Warrior Cup, including those won by his sister Morgan and father Richard.