Participation in the martial arts increases annually with over 6 million people in the United States attending at least one class a year. An important part of training is martial arts tournaments where martial artists from different backgrounds and schools can test their skills and training. Tournaments also provide a unique platform for social interaction for people from all walks of life sharing a healthy common denominator – the martial arts.

Understanding the sport and the AKA Warrior Cup

One branch of martial arts tournaments are open martial arts competitions. These events are open to all styles of martial arts and build on traditional martial arts techniques by offering blanket rules that all participants can follow. Competitors can compete in traditional divisions, light contact or “point” sparring and performance divisions. The performance divisions allow competitors to be innovative while still maintaining the underlying traditional moves found in their style.

The open martial arts season starts annually with the AKA Warrior Cup event in Chicago, Illinois in January. The 2024 event was held the weekend of January 12-13, 2024, at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Chicago. Despite concerning weather reports, the event ran as planned with competitors showing true dedication by rescheduling flights to make sure they could attend. Being the first event of the year, it is where competitors move to new divisions, show off their new routines and set their goals for the year. Infused throughout the event was a sense of growth and advancement that embodies the tenants of martial arts and gives a glimpse of the new era that this sport is entering.

Behind the scenes, the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), the league that certifies the AKA Warrior Cup, introduced a new official certification program and training. The purpose of the new program is to create a more professional and consistent experience for all NASKA competitors. Promoters Mark Russo and David Bossinotte led the training session for a large and enthusiastic group of NASKA referees which contributed to the success of the weekend.

In addition to the NASKA sanction for the AKA Warrior Cup, in 2024, the event was also sanctioned by the Professional Martial Arts Conference (ProMac). Hollie Hamm and Joey Perry, the President and Vice-President of ProMac were on the floor coordinating the under black belt divisions and Mini-Warrior cup grand championships for the under black belts for a smoothly executed event.

Sport martial arts tournaments like the AKA Warrior Cup are a rich source of talent for show business as many of the top competitors go on to perform in stunts and shows, act and choreograph for television and movies and other events. Yet even with the glamour and glory of Hollywood calling, many still want to achieve the highest honors in martial arts competition. The AKA Warrior Cup is one of those pinnacles. Only six are awarded each year to the top adult fighters and the top adult and youth open hand kata (forms) and weapons competitors.

Friends Find Success Together at AKA Warrior Cup

Every martial arts tournament is a series of individual stories woven into one big event. An event where everyone is seemingly focused on one overall goal – winning in martial arts competition.  But there is so much more to events – like meeting up with some great friends. Team Juan Kan is a prime example of this. Cameron Klos lives in Pennsylvania, Amber Rutherford in New Jersey and Jenna Grochow in Minnesota. They met through martial arts competition and now they train together, visit each other, compete together and are now the new reigning champions for synchronized forms at the AKA Warrior Cup.

A Way of Life for Family

Sometimes marital arts is a family affair and the Presley family demonstrates how martial arts can become a way of life for an entire household. This year at the AKA Warrior Cup, older brother Reid Presley – himself a multiple Warrior Cup winner – was the MC for the finals show. At the same time, his little brother Jake competed for the adult weapons cup and sister Averi competed for the youth weapons cup. Both triumphed and brought the family total to 11 cups combined over the years.

New Blood Wins the Adult Sparring Warrior Cups

New school competitors was the theme in the adult fighting warrior cup divisions. Katarina Herman of Canada won the women’s open weight division at the AKA Warrior Cup which means she advanced to the finals for women’s fighting. She faced Jimena Janeiro of Mexico for the cup. Herman was the defending champion as she defeated arguably the best female fighter of her time, Morgan Plowden, in 2023 to win her first Warrior Cup. Janeiro was the overall women’s sparring champion from the daytime eliminations. However, Janeiro was not able to get past Herman’s legs in the final match up and it was Herman with the win and her second Warrior Cup in as many years.

For the men, the remaining competing Plowden – Avery – faced off against Bailey Murphy. Plowden has plenty of Warrior Cups under his belt and was the defending champion this evening. Murphy has been looking to win his first Warrior Cup for years. Initially, he was unable to attend the event due to college obligations but once that ended, he was stopped by Plowden in 2023 from a cup. 2024 was different and Bailey finally got his win in overtime and took home the 70-pound beast of a cup home proudly.

The Mini-Warrior Cup Competition

The future and growth potential of the sport was seen clearly in the Mini-Warrior Cup competition that took place earlier in the day. The Mini-Warrior Cups are the size of a small child and weigh at least as much. The seven Mini-Warrior Cups are awarded to the top competitors in an overall championship competition. The champions received their cups on stage but the story behind each competitor was amazing. For instance, Channing Geer was brought to tears when he won, not only because he was happy but because he had defeated one of his best friends to win and he really wanted his friend to succeed. Matias Godoy, the smallest of the champions, was unable to lift the hefty cup and needed help carrying it off the stage. He later posted a Facebook photo of his Cup strapped into its own seat on the plane on the way home.

A Demonstration of Sportsmanship

The youth forms Warrior Cup competition was prefaced by the 14-17 boys forms grand championship featuring Jonah Meshell and Matthew Gruitia. Meshell spent the weekend cleaning up with wins during the eliminations and a whole fan club excited to see him performance in the finals. It looked like he was set to take his first Warrior Cup by the end of the weekend. He opened the finals with a HUGE technique but landed wrong with devastating injury that ended his performance. Gruitia who had already performed an amazing traditional performance saw Meshell’s fall and immediately came to the stage to try and assist. In the end Gruitia was the champion but demonstrated the true character of a martial artist and athlete by giving his overall trophy to Meshell. Gruitia then moved on to the Warrior Cup round and won to take home his first Warrior Cup.

Martial Arts = Respect

Salef Celiz returned to competition for the sole purpose of trying to win his first Warrior Cup. Celiz, a Sharkey Karate prodigy, is currently residing in Los Angeles, California, starting his career in stunts and following in the footsteps of other Sharkey’s Karate students like Craig Henningsen, Micah Karns, Matt Mullins and Mike Chat to name just a few. Salef first had to win his division – he did. Then he had to win the men’s CMX forms grand championship – which he did. He then had to go on stage and compete for the Warrior Cup – and he did it in style, facing down prior Warrior Cup winner Mason Stowell as well as Team Paul Mitchell’s Haley Glass, and executive representative Kevin Kowalczik in the process. A tearful Celiz hugged his beloved instructor John Sharkey as he was announced and awarded the adult forms Warrior Cup for 2024. A textbook demonstration of respect as the instructor was able to watch his student’s incredible success while the student acknowledges the source of his success is what martial arts is all about.

As the AKA Warrior Cup ended, it was obvious that if this weekend is any indication of what to expect from the 2024 tournament season, it is going to be a year to remember. We look forward to experiencing the growth of the sport with you.