Last year before the bracket-centric “March Madness” basketball tournament, Alex Dingmann and Jeff Doss talked through a bracket on their Inside Scoop podcast courtesy of the Martial Arts InterNetwork that featured all the best “things” at sport karate tournaments to see what would come out on top.
With the famous basketball tournament just around the corner and my beloved Kentucky Wildcats fighting for a chance to dance, this episode of their show came to mind.
The last few opinion articles I have written for BBM have focused on more serious topics like ways to improve the sport as a whole and tips for competitors to step up their game, so I feel it is time for a feel-good article in which I countdown what I feel are the best “things” at a given sport karate tournament.
Although I am writing this list from my perspective, I will not be including the obvious “good stuff” like winning an overall grand or landing a difficult trick. These are all aspects of tournaments that don’t hinge on my personal achievements as a competitor.
5. Making an Entrance I feel this one sets the tone for the rest of the countdown: it’s really all about the little things. There are three instances that I feel “making an entrance” applies, and I thoroughly enjoyed every single time this happened at a tournament.
The first is that moment when you step out of the Uber from the airport, walk into the lobby, and see at least two or three of your sport karate family members that you catch up with while waiting to check in. It doesn’t matter if it has been weeks or years since you saw these people, as soon as you are at a karate tournament you can talk as if you’ve spoken every day. The second is the walk to the tournament venue itself. One of the many reasons I have always loved the U.S. Open is that the walk to the tournament site from the hotel room is especially long because of the size of Coronado Springs.
Every single time for over a decade, I walked the exact same path from Casitas to the back of the convention center where one of the world’s largest events would take place. The same staircases, the same sidewalks, looking at the same fountains… Every. Single. Time.
That walk to the tournament is a time of reflection, in which you feel the nostalgia from making that same walk in years passed. It is a time to get in the zone, your favorite hype playlist acting as the soundtrack to your walk, preparing to do what you love more than anything else. Those walks were the best walks. The third and final instance is if you have the opportunity to take the stage.
There’s simply nothing like stomping your way up those notoriously shaky stairs next to any night show stage as you puff your chest and lift your chin while the crowd cheers in response to Dennis Brown saying your name. The battle cry you can let out to tell the audience how bad you want it, the little wink you give to a stage-side coach to say I’ve got this, there’s so much fun to be had in those 15-30 seconds before it’s showtime. In all of those ways, making an entrance is one of the best parts of any karate tournament.
4. Daytime Grands This mostly refers to junior runoffs (sport karate’s version of a semifinals to determine who goes on stage), but also accounts for the few times that the adult men ran their runoffs during the day instead of going straight to stage. I would also say this also includes those divisions that weren’t necessarily grands, but the caliber of talent and importance of the moment certainly made it feel like a grand championship.
I am also not necessarily just talking about competing in the grands or an important division, that’s obviously a good time. I’m referring to the energy that is felt during these divisions. Unlike a night show in which the audience is hidden in the relative darkness on the other side of the stage lights, the crowd envelops the ring for daytime grands. Eager sport karate fans stand on chairs to see over those lucky enough to get front row seats, and a crowd of maybe 300 starts to feel like 3,000 because of how close they are to the action and the energy they bring. If there’s a daytime stage, the stage-side slaps from friends or teammates rattle the platform and might as well send vibrations directly to your heart. It just feels different from just about any other competitive atmosphere. Let’s not forget the added hype when someone’s music is an absolute banger in these kinds of divisions.
There is not a broadcast or organized livestream for these divisions, so competitors are still allowed to use any music they want regardless of copyright. There’s nothing like when a song gets the entire crowd clapping as the competitor walks into the ring.
The best examples are when you can see other competitors dancing in the background of the YouTube video, that is the kind of music I’m talking about. My favorite example is when my good friend and competitive rival Reid Presley used to walk out to “X Gon’ Give It to Ya” by DMX. I always joke that it was the worst song choice he ever made. Not because it wasn’t a great song, but because if I was going after him all it did was hype me up to do a form 10x better than what I would have done if I hadn’t been listening to THAT song while I was on deck.
Those who have followed my career know that I personally always try to bring extra hype to my walk-out music whether it was “All I Do is Win” by DJ Khaled back in my 2011 breakout season, some fan-favorite “No Problem” by Chance the Rapper for a couple of years, and some special moments like “Without Me” by Eminem after I hadn’t competed in over a year due to the pandemic. The right song choice can elevate these moments that I am talking about exponentially.
3. Warming Up This one is probably going to throw some people off, but I truly feel one of my favorite parts of the tournament was warming up. You still feel that same one-of-a-kind anticipation that I talked about before, but now it’s amplified by how close the action looms. This is also your time to put some headphones in, focus on the task at hand, and show off some of your best tricks in front of an audience with nothing at stake. Spectators have already gathered around the ring and if you put on a show in warm ups, you’ll get some nice reactions.
Not to mention the fact that landing some of your best tricks in warm ups gives you a psychological advantage over some of your competitors. If they have no idea which tricks you are going to throw, they have to start scrambling to figure out their game plan in response. In some ways, the tournament has begun before a single person has bowed into the ring. After you have gotten your necessary reps in and feel ready to go, having shown your competitors an arsenal of threats and gathered data yourself about what they might be planning, you also have some valuable time for small talk around the ring. Those brief conversations checking in on a competitor/friend you haven’t seen in a while, pausing for a few moments to talk to a fan who has come over for a picture, those are the moments that seem small, but you appreciate them for a while. 2. Midnight on Saturday Night Whereas number three on this countdown was a bit obscure, number two is something that anyone who has ever traveled a tournament circuit can relate to. I’ve alluded to the fact that karate tournaments are often a place where you see friends that you may not have seen in several months, and you don’t necessarily get to enjoy all the time spent together because for the majority of the event you are focused on competing.
However, Saturday night the dust has settled and friend groups across the sport karate community descend on fast food restaurants, hotel lobbies, and shared rooms to talk the night away and make memories that will last a lifetime.
Everyone knows that you typically only get to hang out with these people a dozen or so times per year, so there’s a mutual agreement that everyone will stay up until their eyes can barely open just to maximize the time spent together. It may sound cheesy, and admittedly it is a little, but I couldn’t do this countdown without writing what everyone is thinking. Late Saturday nights are one of the best parts of the sport karate tournament experience.
1. JPM! JPM! JPM! WOO! I have done my best to make most of these points relatable, something that everyone can understand and feel an emotional connection to, but I can’t countdown the best “things” at a karate tournament according to ME without talking about the one thing that gives me chills every time. As a competitor wearing the coveted Black and White, there was nothing better than nailing a form and hearing my Paul Mitchell teammates chant “JPM! JPM! JPM! WOOOO!” while the rest of the crowd goes crazy.
It gets you every time. It is almost just as fulfilling to start the chant for somebody else, when a teammate lands a crazy form or wins a fight in overtime.
There’s something about sharing that prestigious battle cry with 10-15 of the best competitive martial artists in the world to celebrate the accomplishment of a teammate. Not only is it deeply rooted in a rich 36-year history, but it is also pretty rare.
The team always does the chant at the end of a team meeting and following the night show, but to have the chant done in response to an individual performance only happens a handful of times per season. It makes the moment that much more special when it isn’t just a formality of being on the team, it is something that is earned by doing the spectacular.
I understand that far less than 1% of those who participate in sport karate tournaments will ever have the chance to experience that specific chant with Team Paul Mitchell on their backs, but this concept does apply more broadly to everybody at an event.
Whether you are there representing your school or a national team, it is unquestionable that one of the best things about any tournament is the camaraderie shared between teammates.
The team meetings, the dinners shared on Friday nights, the quotes that your coach repeats every time, but they never get old, all of those things that come with having a karate family around you are really what keeps this sport going. If you don’t take anything else from this lighthearted article, just remember that it is really the people around us that keep us coming back to karate tournaments.
We do it in pursuit of personal goals, sure, but the reason we keep doing it is because we love the people around us. The community is what keeps sport karate alive, and that is truly special.