The Warrior Cup has long been a hallmark of professionalism and excellence for the Sport Karate world. This year’s event was no exception. Held at the Hyatt Regency in the heart of Chicago and hosted by John Sharkey and Hunter Lyon, the AKA Warrior Cup does double duty, closing the book on the previous year’s competition with the NASKA banquet and opening a new chapter on the upcoming year.
Friday and Saturday Eliminations had high energy and large divisions with more than a few NASKA Top Ten Belts awarded the previous night making their debut performance on the mats. Scheduling was done exceedingly well, with Friday divisions having staggered start times. Friday’s Team Sparring and Traditional Challenge began at 1:00 PM with other sets of divisions starting at 2:00, 4:00, and 5:00. This schedule helped ensure judges were available, an issue that plagues many big events. Saturday eliminations were set up along the same lines, with 30+ divisions starting at 8:00 AM and then other divisions staggering out throughout the day. There weren’t occasional hiccoughs and delays, but they were minimal and the event ran smoothly and consistently.
A big draw of the Warrior Cup is the Mini-Cup. With more of a focus being made on the younger, less experienced competitors, the Warrior Cup delivers a great experience for underbelt competitors. Here, all the division winners of the underbelt eliminations throughout the day get a chance to step on stage and be in the spotlight in their battle for the Mini-Cup. It’s always a great division to watch and this year was no exception, with kids, teens, and adults alike showing their best skills and getting great support from the crowd.
As cool and positive as the Mini-Cup is, the real magic of this year’s Warrior Cup was during the Nighttime Finals. With commentary by Mike Chat, the Finals started with the release of the 2019 AKA Warrior Cup Promo video and then slid right into a whimsical, and brilliantly executed, Naruto themed skit by Sideswipe. The Warrior Cup Finals are a little more theatrical than many, and that was an aspect that seemed especially apparent this year. Everything is focused on the competitors, but there is also an element of showmanship that goes into it and gives everything a sense of polish. It wasn’t just a place for a bunch of martial artists to show their best stuff, it was something a little more. The direction and purpose of the night show spotlighted these athletes, and that spotlight created something special for each competitor present, regardless if they were on stage or not.
However, it was no stranger to technical difficulties. Throughout the evening there were delays in scoring and score compiling that created a somewhat longer show than expected. Mike Chat compensated brilliantly by filling time with plenty of humorous personal anecdotes and stories, but near the end even he was looking a little strapped for content.
Small issues aside, where the Warrior Cup really shined was its competition. For the first event of the year, there was a different spread of competitors on the stage than we usually see in the nighttime finals. Zach Tomas, Melany Villavicenio, Alex Miller, Jordan Boneberger, Kodi Molina and Shane Billow all made first-time appearances on the 6A NASKA event stage and collectively brought the house down with their performances.
Sammy Smith kicked off the evening by taking the overall grand championship for Women’s Weapons with some dynamic double chucks. She also made another appearance in Women’s Form but was defeated by Mary Amato. Amato was making her debut performance in the Adult competition and showcased a great form that secured her overall Grands and gave her a shot at the Warrior Cup while asserting her skill and ability in a new arena. And what an arena it was! The Women’s 18+ Overall Grands division was stacked with talent. Gabrielle Dunn, Mary Amato, Sammy Smith, and Jewelianna Ramos all put on incredible performances and showcased everything from traditional to extreme martial arts with a style, skill, and panache that was inspiring to see.
For the under 18 divisions, Haley Glass, Mason Bumba, Averi and Jake Presley all won the Overall Weapons Grands for their divisions and battled for the Warrior Cup. Jake Presley took it with his traditional bo, edging out past the other competitors by the barest margins and taking home the Junior Weapons Warrior Cup.
Zach Thomas and Isabella Nocoli won their respective boy and girls 13 and Under Overall Grands, while Caio DaSilva and Haley Glass won their respective 14-17 boys and girls Overall Grands, creating a truly phenomenal division for the Warrior Cup. Caio DaSilva won the Junior Forms Warrior Cup with his traditional form, but it was a tight race and each competitor gave it their all.
The Adult Men’s Sparring Final was something a little different than the normal rounds. Kam Dawson was on fire and beat out Enrique Letona 3-2 and met Yoskar Gamez in the final round for the Warrior Cup. Dawson, whose father, Gerald “Awesome” Dawson had passed away early in December, was wearing his father’s gear, uniform, and belt and had a mission.
The fight between Kam Dawson and Gamez started out pretty close. It was a two-round fight and at the end of round 1, the score was 4-2, Dawson. However, when he stepped out onto the mat for round two, something special happened. He started moving faster, he starting throwing combinations that made people pay attention. He caught Gamez with a double ridge hand that surprised everyone, judges and spectators alike. In the seats, there were whispers of the change in demeanor, of how he was fighting like his Dad. Dawson pushed harder and started scoring point after point. When the buzzer went off, the crowd exploded. He had finished the fight with a score of 10-4. Four of those points we scored in the last 20 seconds of round 2. Dawson shook Gamez’s hand, as well as every judge and coach, and then carefully removed his father’s gear, piling it in the center of the ring before walking off the stage. That monument to his father and to the sport he loved brought tears to the eyes of many. It was a tribute beautifully and artfully done.
But Kam Dawson wasn’t done for the evening, he came back to the stage as a part of Team Dojo Elite, battling with Team Impex for the Warrior Cup. Team Dojo Elite fought with a focus and fire that just couldn’t be stopped. They ended the rounds 10-8 over Team Impex. Showing the world what they can do, and starting out their first year strong.
Team Infinity gave an exhibition of their winning Demo Team Performance and electrified the crowd. With their customary class and a little bit of good-natured fun, Team Infinity dominated the stage and electrified the crowd with some new twists and a few old tricks, redefining what a demo team can do and making it look effortless.
Team Paul Mitchell comprising of Jackson Rudolph and Jake Presley took the Grands with their fantastic bo form. It’s always a crowd favorite, and it was executed exceptionally well.
Morgan Plowden and Ki’tana Everett put on a phenomenal show for the Women’s Sparring Warrior Cup. Everett started out strong, and blindingly fast, scoring repeatedly and managing to stay out of range of Plowden for most of the first round, ending with a score of 5-1, Everett. For round two, Plowden starting chipping away at that lead, chasing Everett down managing to tie it up at 6-6 at the end of round 2. For the next minute of overtime, both women kept going back and forth, trying to work the angles and waiting for any opening. Finally, Plowden found it and ended the round 8-6. It was an amazing example of grit and calm in the face of overwhelming pressure. With this win, Plowden secured her 4th Warrior Cup.
Adult Weapons showcased Rosario’s Succarotte’s flash and energy paired with Shahin Jahanvash’s sword work and Jordan Bonenberger’s first-time appearance on stage all working together to create an amazing division. But Jackson Rudolph stepped onto the stage with a goal in mind, and gave a clinic in fantastic bo work, securing his win, and another Warrior Cup.
Adult Form was the last event of the evening. Reid Presley opened the division with an incredible extreme form and Will Nevitt lit the crowd on fire with his routine. Rosario Succarotte brought an element of theatre that couldn’t be matched and Joey Castro brought traditional karate. His form acted as a counterpoint to all the others. Everyone in the division was amazing, they all competed with passion, energy, and absolute conviction, but Castro brought something else with his Suparinpei, beauty. With the crowd roaring, Joey Castro took home his first Warrior Cup.
The Warrior Cup has long been a place where traditions are redefined. New awards, new ideas, and new execution all working towards creating a better experience, and a better type of tournament. There are inevitable bumps along the road. But the community built by this, and all NASKA events, is something truly special. AKA Warrior Cup has set a high standard for the year, both for promoters and competitors, and now it’s time to channel some of that passion and energy into making 2019 the best year yet.
Check out the official AKA Warrior Cup Weekend Recap Video: