For many competitors and spectators, the U.S. Open Martial Arts Championships started with a ride from the Orlando airport on Disney’s Magical Express to the tournament hotel and ended with a return on the same bus. However, each of the thousands who participated in the event had a different experience, held July 13-14, 2012 at Disney’s Coronado Springs resort in Florida.
For many, the US Open was a trip of a lifetime and it became a family vacation. The weather was dazzling for most days with a smattering of rain on some afternoons to cool down the 80 degree average temperature. Special ticket pricing to Disney theme parks allowed event participants to spend some of their days exploring the Magic Kingdom or traveling to Epcot. The tournament drew over 2500 competitors from more than 50 countries – so just sitting in the tournament arena gave many a close-up opportunity to experience different languages and new people from around the world.
The US Open was an opportunity for some to show off new affiliations like 14-15 youth competitor Jackson Rudolph who was sporting a brand new Team Paul Mitchell uniform after getting the call to join the longest-running sponsored team in sport karate. We remember Rudolph from years ago at the US Open, just placing as a finalist in his divisions as he began his career. He’s now one of the top youth weapons and forms competitors on the circuit. Despite all his success so far, when he received the call to join his new team and achieve a dream, he was so overcome with emotion that he cried.
Old friends always show up at the US Open and 2012 was no exception. While video taping at the event, a young man appeared and said “hi”. After a brief moment of startle, we realized it was none other than Ryan Redfoot. Redfoot was a great youth competitor from K.I.C.K. Team who was a fantastic traditional youth performer in both forms and weapons. He wasn’t too bad in creative weapons with flying kamas as well. Redfoot has gone on to become an Army Ranger and has been on active duty in Afghanistan a number of times already. He’s using his martial arts values and skills to protect our country (and he also said he had our backs if anyone gave us the evil eye at the event!)
Opportunities to train with some of the best competitors on the circuit were available at the US Open with pre-tournament camps. Raymond Daniels was scheduled to teach a sparring camp on Thursday prior to the event but a painful achilles tendon tear put him under the surgery knife a month ago and also in a wheelchair at the US Open. Daniels still taught from his wheely throne but other members of his Team All Stars stepped in to provide additional instruction. Parents were thrilled as their children were able to receive instruction from Robbie Lavoie, Jack Felton, Carlos Tearney, Regina Thompson and Chris Walker. In another room, NASKA’s legendary Mike Chat worked with campers to perfect their performance skills and extreme techniques with help from top competitors like Micah Karns.
The structure of the divisions at the US Open offered opportunities for new and local competitors as well as the traveling, NASKA-rated competitors with a two-tiered structure for many of the kids divisions. A new division, called Clash sparring, provided a hybrid between the rough and tumble continuous sparring divisions and the low-contact point sparring divisions. Clash sparring participation consisted of about a third of the point sparring participant levels which was a good start for a brand new division.
The US Open is almost two tournaments in one with all of the eliminations and grand championships for all divisions, including black belt divisions, being held during the day on Friday and Saturday with the Saturday evening Night of Champions being pre-staged and competitors pre-selected. During the day time eliminations, the huge motivator for the NASKA divisions was the opportunity for a forms or weapons wild card spot in the NIght of Champions. This pushed a lot of people to try new things and take big risks in their performances.
The US Open is clearly an event that pushes for exposure for forms and weapons competitors with point, clash and continuous fighting receiving far-less spotlight. However, the fighters that come to the event provide great exposure and competition. Men’s team sparring drew nine teams with Team Full Circle and Team All Stars each sporting two separate teams. Full Circle had a disappointing event with both of their teams being eliminated by the two All Stars teams. The final match was between Team All Stars and Team Paul Mitchell. WIth Raymond Daniels wheelchair bound, it was up to All Stars’ Jack Felton, Carlos Tearney and Robbie Lavoie to lead the team. Paul Mitchell’s Greg Betlach, Elias Lemon and DeAndre Walker were the opponents.
The All Stars and Paul Mitchell rivalry is legendary. Despite anchor Raymond Daniels on the sidelines, All Stars showed that all of its members are to be reckoned with. In the first match, Betlach and Lavoie ended with a tie, increasing the crowd excitement level. Carlos Tearney and the much lighter DeAndre Walker battled it out with Tearney giving his team a lead. In the final fight, Jack Felton was able to hold off Elias Lemon to secure an All Stars victory.
The Night of Champions offered an opportunity for the final men’s point sparring grand championship fight to take place on the stage in front of the crowd. In the women’s competition, Canada’s Claire Cocozza assured everyone that her Quebec Open win was not location-related. She upended top competitors like Regina Thompson, Chelsey Nash and Nicole Pelland to take the title.
In men’s sparring, despite a lot of the distinctive bright green of Team All Stars and gold of Team Full Circle, the final two competitors heading to the
stage hailed from neither team. Alex Lane of Team Paul Mitchell fought through tough competition including Robbie Lavoie and Jack Felton to move to the finals. In the heavier weight bracket, Ross Levine of the new Team Impex eliminated all competition to move to the finals. Levine had missed a tournament due to his appendix being removed but was back and feeling healthy as he held off all challengers.
The fight for the wild card spots in forms and weapons led to some inspirational stories and great elimination performances. Micah Karns did not make the pre-select cut for men’s forms or weapons but knew the if he beat the seeded line-up, he might get a shot. He ended up providing Matt Emig, the favorite of the event, with his real competition in forms with clean and smooth performances. Emig still ended up on top but Karns was able to garner higher scores than the other pre-selected men’s competitors – Austin Jorgenson and Mickey Lee. Ultimately, Karns made the cut and got the wild card spot.
For men’s weapons, Vincent Scarduzio won the men’s creative weapons competition and then moved into the men’s creative/extreme/musical weapons grand championships and run-offs where he faced Matt Emig. Scarduzio was on and his performance was amazing which ended with his actually handing Emig a rare defeat as Scarduzio won. However, in the overall grand championship competition, Sarduzio dropped his bo which caused concerns about whether he would get the wild card spot. Eventually he received his reward for his win over Emig and got the call to go to stage.
In the youth divisions, 9-year-old Jake Presley was feeling ill prior to his youth run-off competition on Saturday. He was called up first to the stage in the 13 & under boys creative/extreme/musical weapons competition and it went from sick to in the zone. He put on a stunning performance that made the judges take notice and gave him the win. He eventually also performed himself right onto the stage with a wild card berth for youth weapons. Tyler Weaver is pretty intense and always tries new and difficult tricks with his kamas. Unfortunately, he also often goes too far and drops a kama on his crazy tricks. At the US Open, Weaver threw caution to the wind and demonstrated some new kama moves that had the crowd gasping in awe. It worked for him as he won his run offs and the overall daytime grands and was pushed right into the Night of Champions for 14-17 weapons.
When it comes down to it, the experience that is most impressive about the US Open is the Night of Champions. Held in front of thousands, perfectly timed and staged and partially broadcasted live on ESPN3 and later produced and broadcast on ESPN, the Night of Champions is the goal and dream of many competitors and the grand finale for spectators. Winners in the Night of Champions earn ISKA World titles, the chance to be on ESPN and pride.
The children’s ISKA world titles were shared among four young men who represent the future of forms and weapons in the sport. An inspired Danny Etkin won the 13 & Under forms world championships as he said good-bye to Team 100% Performance, which is dismantling after the event. Shahin Jahan-vash’s father nearly had to be restrained as his joy and pride overtook him when his son was announced as the winner of the 14-17 forms competition. The musical bo routine of Dallas Liu took this youngster to a new height as he received his first title after exploding onto the circuit less than two years ago. And a team change was not enough for Jackson Rudolph as he also won the 14-17 ISKA weapons title with this bo routine to make the weekend perfect for the kid.
In men’s sparring, Alex Lane and Ross Levine met for a match that was not as close as it probably could have been. The finals ring was huge and Lane made good use of it, staying away from Levine and attacking when he could. The two spent nearly the first minute eyeing each other and clashing. Finally, Lane scored a point and then two while Levine could only score one and did not put enough pressure on Lane. As time ran out, the final score was Lane up 3-1, winning the ISKA Men’s Point Sparring title.
Marc Canonizado did not compete in the elimination rounds at all this weekend – the first time the Orlando native has not competed at a US Open in over ten years. Instead, he arrived on Saturday afternoon for the sole purpose of performing with team partner and girlfriend Caitlin Dechelle in the Night of Champions for synchronized team forms. His arrival was truly helpful to Dechelle as the pair were able to win both the synchronized weapons competition but also the synchronized forms competition.
The US Open is also known for lots of breaking competition and in the finals, there were a number of world record breaks attempted. First, John
Zurisk tried to break 10 2×4 boards in 10 seconds. He was unable to do it and could only break five. Next, Ralph Bergamo tried something unique, breaking 10 coconuts in 10 seconds. He was only able to accomplish 6 but it was still a world record. Everyone in the audience is certain to look at coconuts with more caution now. Finally, Chip Townsend, one of the top breakers of all time, decided to attempt a break of three baseball bats with one strike. He didn’t just go up, break and sit down – his performance included a whole pre-break show and set up. Finally, with the three bats properly held, he went for it and was successful, although he did leave a nice dent in his shin.
With competitors from so many different countries, the US Open offers divisions so that everyone can have something he or she is familiar with, alongside the standard forms, weapons and point sparring divisions. The Night of Champions offered glimpses in the grappling with Rueben Alvarez, Jr facing DJ Suza on stage. In continuous sparring, Shaqueen Cunningham of Jamaica took it to Anna Serrano of Argentina to bring a title home to Jamaica. In self-defense, James Sang Lee of Orlando was back on stage to defend his multiple titles. He was able to successfully win another, defeating Richard Hayne to do it.
The demonstration team competition at the Night of Champions has quite the legacy behind it. It was dominated for many years by Team Charlie Lee and their well-choreographed and clean group performance. Then K.I.C.K. Team was in the drivers seat. Finally, Team 100 Percent Performance was able to garner some titles. This year, the title went to the midwest as the hard-working kids from Mike Welch’s Team Infinity put on quite the show and defeated K.I.C.K. Team for the title.
Besides two synchronized pair titles, Caitlin Dechelle also walked off the Night of Champions’ stage with an ISKA title in women’s forms. She had already won the women’s weapons overall grand champion title earlier in the day but would still compete for the ISKA title in women’s weapons. The defending champion for the women’s weapons competition was Audrie Donihoo and Donihoo wanted another win badly. She performed spectacularly and received five 10s from the judges to win a second ISKA title from the event.
At age six, Matt Emig started competing, at age 15 he was one of the first junior competitors to get picked up on Team Paul Mitchell. In 2012, at age 25, he has won 14 overall weapons and forms grand championships for the year and is considered the top male performer in both weapons and forms. He entered the stage in men’s forms with his new young nemesis, Micah Karns, as one of his opponents. Karns made a mistake and fell on a trick in his routine. Emig, on the other hand, came out with confidence and a desire to entertain the appreciative crowd. The drunken soft style performance of Austin Jorgenson had received some loud cheers but it was all Emig after his musical routine. The judges felt the same way, giving his five perfect 10s and the ISKA win.
Emig had one more chance to shine on the Night of Champions stage in the men’s weapons championships. Vincent Scarduzio had given him problems during the day and had a wild card spot. Scarduzio was unable to hold onto his magic as he dropped his bo in his performance. Emig capitalized on this with his extreme nunchucks routine that made everyone excited, including the judges who this time gave him six perfect 10s and the win with a perfect score. During his post-performance interview, Emig announced to the crowd that this was likely his final US Open for competition as he plans to focus on his career and coaching of others. If this is true, his final performances will certainly be quite the legacy for any other competitor to follow.
WIth the completion of the men’s weapons competition, the event was over. The crowd filed out of the competition arena to find fun things to do around the resort and pool. Competitors gave final interviews and hugs and the stage crew started the tear down. The lights went down on another successful US Open as the event ended, new talent emerged and future top competitors rode to the airport on the Magical Express, inspired to train and train for the next event.