Okay, so I promised to leave a note on this a while ago already, but life being life, I simply haven’t gotten around to it yet – so now I will. Back on Saturday the 1st of August, Ryan pitched up at my doorstop bright and early and off we travelled to Somerset House, a private primary school in the heart of Somerset West where Funakoshi Karate was hosting its annual karate championships. Dojos from the Boland, Western Cape and Kwazulu-Natal were all in attendance and come 09:00 all contestants were neatly registered and ready for the day’s events.

The morning kicked off with what I assume is a traditional march-in, basically where all the contestants line-up outside according their respective regions, before marching in, bowing to all the judges and then being addressed by the discipline’s chief instructor, shihan Sanette Smit. Following that, the karateka and spectators were then entertained by some high spirited (and rather deafening) taiko drumming courtesy of probably S.A.’s only taiko-practicing three-women team. (Amusingly enough though, their performance was cut a little shorter than what they had expected when Sanette mistook a pause in their performance as the end of the drumming proceedings and stopped them right there and then, even as they were busy wheeling out their third big drum! Everyone but Sanette seemed to notice, but I guess the karateka were just eager to get the show on the road, so no one complained and the show simply went on from there.)

The floorspace that we had to work with was pretty expansive, with the hall being neatly broken up and marked into three separate floors, with the center floor being the only one to sport one of those nifty sponge interlocking fighting mats that I’ve become accustomed to with my time spent over at the more commercially-driven (in other words with money available for equipment) Kyokushin discipline. Each floor had its own judges’ table and each judges’ table was suitably adorned with a nice electronic scoreboard, making it easy for the crowd across the hall to keep tabs on just how any particular fight was currently being scored.

As per usual, the lack of judges was a problem that needed to be overcome in an inventive manner, which explains the host of imported judges and the decision to hold both the senior black belt kata and kumite rounds right at the start of the morning in order to free up those senior karateka so that they could quickly changes hats and swap a gi for a suit and tie. As such we were treated to some excellent performances in both the kata and kumite sections, particularly from our very own sempai Gert (sensei Birgitt’s husband) who went on to take gold in his section after a thrilling encounter that saw it go right down to the whistle.

From there the day was split into first the kata and then the kumite sections, meaning that the day was pretty much jam-packed with activities right up until 17:00, meaning that if you had indeed entered for both the kata and kumite disciplines, you were guaranteed a long day in the trenches.

Despite my prior misgivings, I had eventually entered into both the kata and kumite divisions and was quite surprised to see that on the day in the senior mens category for both kata and kumite, I was the youngest senior male contestant by 9 years – and this is at 29 years of age to boot! Needless to say, this is still rather puzzling to me and I can only assume that perhaps there is more of an attraction to full contact disciplines like Kyokushin for men of my age perhaps?

In any event, eventually it was time for senior mens kata, yellow to blue belt division to take center stage and if I remember correctly I was one of the first lot out of the eight contestants to go up. You go up in pairs, each one assigned to either a red or a blue belt, with two rear corner judges and one front center judge to officiate the match-up. You are given free reign over which kata you may choose to perform, but seeing that at yellow belt level we’ve only been taught one kata, I didn’t exactly have a hard choice to make! Anyway, once you have announced your kata and the main judge has given the go ahead, it’s you and you alone as time stops and the world goes still as you work your way through your routine, painstakingly reproducing all the steps that you have practiced countless times before, hoping to perform them with the crisp skill and conviction that the judges want to see – and that make them choose you over your rival.

I must admit, that my first run didn’t start off all that well as right off the bat I started day-dreaming, thinking about some or other mundane household task I was still meant to do when I got back home later the day, but after snapping back halfway through my routine I managed to pull it together enough to at least win over the center judge to my cause, but unfortunately not so the other two judges, meaning my first appearance started off with a loss – but at least this was to a blue belt I could tell myself, the same blue belt practitioner that just happened to go on and win our division if I remember correctly. Annoyed at my own lack of discipline to have drifted off to dreamland like that, I was more than eager to redeem myself in my next round and redeem myself I did. My kata was fluid, sharp and passionate, and despite the fact that I finished miles before my competitor finished his routine (usually a very bad sign in a kata duel because the one ending last always seems to win!), I managed to easily secure the necessary votes to walk off with a win over my higher-ranked rival, and thus ended up with a nice shiny, bronze medal for my troubles. (Which out of eight competitors in total isn’t such a bad thing for a change)

And then it was wait time, for a good couple of hours at least, as the competition continued its run through the various age and belt categories until at last it was time for the senior mens yellow to orange belt kumite section. This further reduction in belt category from the kata’s yellow to blue draw reduced the pool of fighters to only four from the original eight, meaning that unfortunately you were only going to get one shot, and because three out of the four came from your own dojo, chances were pretty good that you were going to spar off against one of your own training partners, something that is almost impossible to do right, no matter how mean and focused you want to try and be.

Karate Fight3As it was, I pulled the short straw and drew my training partner Ian, a same level (in other words novice) points-scoring fighter as what I am but with an unmistakable height advantage that is almost impossible to get around in this rapid-fire form of the sport. Sigh, it somehow reminds me of my first ever fight against Dave (image to the right), though that said, this time I only lose in the height department and most definitely not the weight department! :)

To cut the story short, disappointingly Ian won easily on points at the end of our round, with me managing to tally but a handful for my own side of the scoreboard. Thankfully I do at least have the consolation of knowing that I did land more than a few telling blows to his arms and body – and a particularly vicious kick that left his elbow nice and crunchy – but when you remember that this is meant to be sport karate which is semi-contact and points-based, that isn’t all that much of a consolation prize. Guess my time as a full-contact Kyokushin fighter really did get the better of me after all once again.

But that just means hats off to Ian then. Because while I wasn’t remembering to draw back on any of my techniques and thus make it look like a score, he did, and he more than deservedly beat me at the points game and then went on to face the eventual winner of our small division, being absolutely whitewashed in the final fight and leaving the floor all battered and blue, but at least walking away smug with the fact that he had taught his rival that one should always keep their guard up – courtesy of two solid knock-down punches to the nose (for who heaven knows why he wasn’t disqualified for just by the way!)

After that, there were a few more divisions to work themselves through and once the final, rather thrilling fight had passed, the karateka were all called up front and center once again where we ran through a rather lengthy medal hand-out ceremony, which I must admit to having enjoyed thanks to the two bronze medals I collected, thanks in part to Funakoshi’s policy of having two bronze medals for each event – which means in a division of four you are already guaranteed at least some metalwork for your trouble of pitching! :)

But with everything said and done, I walk away from the Funakoshi Karate S.A. Championships 2009 with mixed feelings. Firstly, I am extremely happy with my performance in the kata section of the competition and look forward to competing in this division next time around, especially when hopefully by then I’ll have more than just one kata to showcase and prove to myself that I know what I’m doing and that the effort I put into my training really does prove itself worth the while. Secondly, although I didn’t push it in the kumite section and it did show, at least my knee held up and I didn’t go down like a sack of potatoes for a change, which naturally is always a good thing.

However, the other side of the coin is that disillusionment I feel at walking away from the kumite section of the competition and still not understanding properly how this semi-contact “shoot firing” style of competition scores, not even after watching countless of bouts of fighters across the gender, belt and age spectrum, because almost each and every fight I observed was scored differently, inconsistently and seemingly almost completely at random. The full contact fighting that I am used was far more simple to understand, far more simple to score and far more simple to win or lose. There is far less reliance on a judge’s subjectivity or even objectivity if you must, and this new style of fighting to me just doesn’t seem to have that simplicity attached to it, but rather a far greater reliance on luck than perhaps actual skill at times.

That said, it does however heavily highlight the fact of just how much there is for me still to learn, practice and master before the next time I step into that ring ready for one of these points-based fights and hopefully when that next time comes, I would have practiced and learned a bit more in order to be a bit more ready for what to expect when the referee gives the signal to begin. I’m angry at myself for not trying harder to win, but I know that there is a lot that I need to learn and I simply need to be patient – my time will eventually come. Speed, control and probably more importantly, showmanship is now required more than anything else, and my old mentality on focusing on actual power needs to be set aside for me to progress here under the Funakoshi banner.

That said, I’m more than looking forward to the challenge! Osu! :)

P.S. Apologies for there not being any accompanying video for this tournament, and thus no funny music video clips like normal. Unfortunately for a change, Ryan forgot to bring his video camera with (truthfully I forgot to remind him), but next time I promise we’ll do better and staple the thing to his arm! :P

Related link: http://www.funakoshi.co.za