The 49th AKA Grand Nationals could only be described with one word – MORE. More competitors, more hospitality, more divisions, more effort and a bit more snow! Held in Chicago, Illinois the weekend of January 31 – February 1, 2014, the event opened with the NASKA awards banquet the evening of Thursday, January 30th. A bit of a winter blast delayed a few flights but eventually, most competitors made it to the venue. And the tournament venue was great it was attached to an indoor mall with modernized facilities and all-night shops for late-night wandering and hanging out with friends.

This event was also the kick-off to the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA) World Tour. As the first event on the tour – it was a chance to see the new juniors who moved up into adult divisions, new team changes as well as determine if any competitors will be trying something new for the season. The AKA Grand Nationals is also home to the Warrior Cup. The Warrior Cup is a behemoth award that weighs 75 pounds and stands five feet tall. Six Warrior Cups are handed out at each AKA Grand Nationals for the overall winners in youth forms and weapons, adult forms and weapons and men’s and women’s point sparring. Past Warrior Cup winners include some of the most prolific competitors in sport karate. Winning a cup is the highlight of many a competitor’s career.

On Friday night, the men’s divisions were bulked up with some of last year’s 16-17 division as Ross Kohnstam, Cole Eckert, Alexandre Goyette and Reid Presley all moved up to the adult competition. The new comers did well with Cole Eckert winning two forms divisions and advancing to the finals in forms. Reid Presley won in men’s extreme weapons and moved to the stage to compete for the Warrior Cup in adult weapons.

The women’s divisions were dominated by familiar faces with Jennifer Espina, Becca Ross and Stephannie Figueroa taking wins in a variety of divisions. However, new adult Dayna Huor managed to clean up on Friday night in the extreme and musical forms divisions.

In team fighting, the elements outside didn’t stop Miami’s Team WKF from working hard inside. WKF fought through some tough fights to end up against a tough Team Impex in the final round. With Impex’s Avery Plowden home sick with the flu, Impex was able to debut new member Jason Grenier of Canada. In round one of the final fights, Josh Horwege of WKF faced Troy Binns of Impex. It was a close fight but Binns got the best shot in as he knocked Horwege’s mouth guard out with a blow. The match ended with Binns up 9-8. Ross Levine and Ryan George repeated their face-off from the 2013 Pan Americans. This fight ended with Levine adding 5 more points to the Impex lead. In the final match, Pablo Moreno duked it out with Jason Grenier. Moreno was able to score more points but not enough to give his team the win and Impex was declared the men’s team fighting champions.

Impex doubled its wins on the back of Morgan Plowden and new member Verona Soliman as the women defeated Team Straight Up’s Raelynn Perkins and Ashley Dahlquist in women’s team sparring. Tony Homsani’s Venezuelans were the champions in the executive men’s team sparring competition.

The Saturday fighting eliminations and run offs whittled down the competition to reveal some new talent that advanced to the finals for a chance at a coveted Warrior Cup. With the event running smoothly, adult fighting was starting right around 11:30 a.m. with the women. With good numbers in the super light fighting, the women’s battles were fast and furious. Gina Thornton had a great showing and Ashley Dahlquist did well in her first event as an adult but in the end, it was Morgan Plowden and Raelynn Perkins headed to the stage for a final show down for the women’s Warrior Cup.

In 2014, NASKA changed some of the rules for fighting by eliminating the berth for the 30 and over grand champion into the finals to fight for the overall grand championships. Instead, two additional weight classes were added to the 18+ divisions and competitors of any age can fight in the 18+ divisions. The result was that many of the competitors who normally fought in 30+ divisions decided to fight down to get a chance at the grand championships and Warrior Cup. In addition, the new rules make the overall grand championship matches a 2 round match and the winner has to win by at least two points.

Ross Levine lost some weight and dropped down to a slim middleweight. He fought through some good fighters with Nathan Thorn and Lawrence ‘Kodaq’ Wray in his division. He got on stage with a nice fight against Josh Horwege, the light middleweight winner, and Levine included a huge sidekick to Horwege’s ribs. Victor Suarez is back in the ring and making some waves as he got to the stage as the lightweight representative. Team Impex sealed the remaining spots as Troy Binns, the welterweight champion, and Jason Grenier, the heavyweight representative, advanced.

The AKA Grand Nationals finals ended up providing some dramatic and touching performances from youth and adults alike. The kids first ran off their NASKA grand championships followed by the Warrior Cup competition. In forms, Jae Sweeny of Miami was the 13 and under overall champion with her traditional performance. She was joined in the Warrior Cup championships by Derek Meegan who’s intense traditional routine surpassed the great performances of Danny Etkin (on stage at his first tournament in the 14-17 divisions), Mackensi Emory and Maia DiDomenico. In the Warrior Cup run off, Meegan’s traditional form was too strong for the littlest Sweeny as Meegan went home with his first Warrior Cup.

In youth weapons, little Jake Presley’s music cut out during his extreme bo routine in the grands but that didn’t stop the little dynamo who kept on going and managed to win the title. It was Jackson Rudolph’s sixteenth birthday and he celebrated in style with the grand championship title for 14-17 weapons. When Presley and Rudolph went head-to-head for the Warrior Cup title, they both put on flawless performances and ended up tied after the score tabulation. When the tie-breaker rules were applied, everyone held their breath and then it was Jake Presley with the win and his first Warrior Cup. Rudolph had been looking for his third Warrior Cup but was just as overjoyed to see his friend and protege take the win. The two worked together to carry the cup that outweighed and towered over Presley off the stage.

Last year’s Warrior Cup champion for men’s forms was Micah Karns but with Karns not in attendance and last year’s runner up Jarrett Leiker out with an injury, the door was open. Becca Ross was the sole female representative and she, along with Shahin Jahanvash and Drew Derrick Bisbee gave it all with strong traditional performances. Sen Gao also saw the opportunity and put on an energetic all-out performance with his soft style routine. Cole Eckert was on stage for his first event as an adult and first time on stage as an adult. But Michael Guthrie also saw his chance. Guthrie has been dreaming of his first grand championship title as well as a Warrior Cup since the age of seven. He turned up the heat and put on the performance of a lifetime which resulted in his very first grand championship title and an enormous Warrior Cup to take home.

Adult weapons was part of a new family trend at the AKA Grand Nationals. Defending champion Sen Gao performed a double whip chain routine with Jennifer Espina’s tricky bo moves wowing the crowd. Kyle Montagna had a bo mishap that took him out of the running and Reid Presley graced the adult stage for the first time with his double bo routine. The scores were incredibly close and it was Presley with the win to take a second Warrior Cup home for the Presley family.

The fighting Warrior Cup competition was also exciting to watch. Ross Levine was looking for his eighth Warrior Cup and made the first move by defeating WKF’s Victor Suarez in his run-off match. Jason Grenier of Canada joined Levine after Grenier routed Troy Binns in the semi-finals with a 7-0 win. In the final fight, being on the same team did not matter. Grenier gave Levine a shot to the face that may have re-broken Levine’s nose but Levine refused to stop. Despite the nose issue, Levine stayed focused and picked great shots, even leaving Grenier with some sore ribs at the end as Levine went on to win his eighth Warrior Cup.

The AKA Grand Nationals discontinued a women’s Warrior Cup for sparring due to poor participation in women’s divisions in approximately 1995. In 2014, the promoter John Sharkey decided to bring the women’s fighting Warrior Cup back. Morgan Pllowden and Raelynn Perkins battled for this honor. With the two round rule in effect, this was anyone’s game. After round one, Plowden had a comfortable lead but Perkins was not giving up. Perkins managed to tie up the match with a nice kick as time was running out. A one-point hand technique at the buzzer put Perkins in the lead but only by one point. Plowden opened up the sudden victory overtime with a quick blitz to tie things up. Then Plowden played it smart, staying away from Perkins’ formidable legs, to quickly rush in with two more blitzes to get the two points needed to win the match and her very own Warrior Cup – just like her proud father watching from the coach’s box. A tearful Plowden graciously accepted her award and her place in history.

The 2014 AKA Grand Nationals was a great beginning to the competition season. The event ran smoothly and the people at the event were described by one new parent as “incredibly friendly”. The six Warrior Cup winners set a high bar for the rest of the season. Jake Presley, Derek Meegan, Reid Presley, Michael Guthrie, Ross Levine and Morgan Plowden – way to start the year!