Recently the NAS national titles in Queensland lead to Kancho Jim Casey, Shihan Vincent Busuttil and myself reminiscing about a nationals held there back in 1997, 21 years ago. Although this was a long time ago for a number of reasons this is one of the most memorable tournaments I’ve attended to this day.
This had been a huge year for me in competition, I’d got my black belt in May of 1997 and set the goal to qualify as a black belt for the NAS Australian titles. Back then the NAS was at it’s peak with competition circuits in every state and Victoria had many of the nations best competitors so this wasn’t going to be any easy feat. It was in the first round that I was competing as a black belt that I placed, qualifying for the Nationals. I had been training super hard but was still surprised at just how well I’d done against some of the countries best competitors. So right then I decided I’s aiming to place at the Nationals. The next 8 months I trained 30 – 40 hours a week and by the time it came to travel up to the Gold Coast I was as fit and sharp as I could possibly be.
So it was that I packed the kids into an old Mazda, camping gear in the roof racks and headed off to Queensland with the plan to spend a week camping after the tournament. This wasn’t just the NAS Australian titles though, it was also the first World All Styles WASO World title. These two events had been combined into a 3 day event with around 700 competitors, so everyone was pumped.
Before the event I remember going to the Victorian team briefing at one of the hotels. There were around 200 Victorians, lots of kids and the coaches got up and one after another gave inspiring speeches… we all felt inspired, being reminded of the honour to not only represent our state but also our clubs. Then the last of the Victorian coaches, Kyoshi Abbott got up to say a few words “There are a lot of great competitors here from the other states, so make sure if your in the continuous sparring to use your warnings, hit them hard, let them know you mean business… “ it was around this point the other coaches were drowning Abbott out telling him he couldn’t say that, reminding him there are a lot of kids present.
There was a lot of this type of attitude in the NAS back then. The rules talked about controlled contact but on the mats no one held anything back. It was more you didn’t need to hit the person hard to win but that didn’t mean you couldn’t, today you can’t. If someone was dropped to the floor winded back then people would laugh and tell them to do some sit ups. Today this would be considered un-sportsman like behavior and they would be asked to leave the tournament.
Come the first day of the tournament I’m in lots of events, I’ve entered every fighting event I can. In the black belt light weight division I win my first couple of fights. Then I come up against one of the best point fighters I’ve known to this day, Des Murphy. I’ve never beaten Des. I go into the fight determine but he’s a great counter fighter and the first time I attack he scores, it’s pretty much all over from that point he waits and keeps countering and I never get close to taking the lead from him.
The next day I have lots of events but the one I remember most is the event I really want to do well in the black belt open point sparring, this is open to all black belts from all weight divisions. So not only do I need to beat those from the under 70kg light weight but also all the other black belts, there are over 60 entries. I win my first couple of matches, then find myself coming up against Des again. I rethink my strategy and decide no matter what I can’t attack first his counter fighting is just too good, if I attack I will loose, I am also a good counter fighter and my kicks are lighting quick, so I’ll use them to counter. My plan is to beat the best counter fighter I’ve ever seen at his own game.
The black belt matches are 3 minutes so I tell myself I have time just wait for him. My side kicks are deadly and I plan to land one soon as he attacks. The match starts and immediately he does exactly what I expected moving around faking but not committing to attack, I do the same. For at least a minute and a half we both fake and move, evading and moving around the ring keeping each other under constant pressure. It’s perhaps the most intense 90 seconds I’ve ever fought yet no one has actually thrown a single technique. Then I sense the moment as he fakes that he’s momentarily in range and with every ounce of power I can find I fire a front leg side kick full force directly at him, totally committed to the attack. He is without question the best evasive fighter I’ve ever known, which is how he set’s up his counters. As my foot fires out I know without question anyone else would have been nailed by the kick, probably knocked off their feet but not Des. His body lurches quickly to the side while he simultaneously moves back. My foot brushes against his body barely touching it. Even as I kia I feel the disappointment of having missed this shot as it barely touches him… but then I hear the scream of the whistles in the next instant and see both judges flags up.
After a full 90 seconds of no one throwing a technique it wasn’t only us but also the judges intensely looking for something… and so it was in that moment my kick was enough to score. This changes everything, Des knows he must attack, he knows I will now just wait and I do. But not for long, Des attacks, I counter and am 2 points up, then 3, then he gets one back, then another for me and so it goes until I win. I’m not certain but think it was around 6 to 4 in the end. It really was that first point though that was all that mattered, if he scored it I would have lost, we had many battles like that over the years.
Now I hadn’t mentioned the weather but Queensland was in the middle of a heatwave and Carrara stadium was brutal. It was around 35 high humidity and the stadium was really just a huge tin shed. The heat was making the competition even harder, as the day was going on the level of contact seemed to be going up even higher than normal.
Next was a guy from South Australia who I didn’t know at all, I came to know him over the years but can’t recall his name now. Before the fight Shihan Vince, Sensei then, came up to me and told me this guy is really good, really quick attacks, be careful. So I decided to counter fight again. Now he was quick, I got a side kick in first but then he managed to block my kick as he moved in and score. I decided to go over his hands as he tried to block my next kick. Sure enough I saw his hands drop as he went to move forward and launched, unfortunately the kick caught him in the eye and he dropped to the mats. At that moment the stadium erupted with cheers “way to go mal”, “what a kick”… Now today I would have been instantly disqualified but back then that just never happened.
So I turned around to face one of the coaches, Sensei Tom Curtis, a martial artist who I have a huge amount of respect for and one of the greatest kata exponents I’ve ever known. Tom said to me, “how do you feel about what happened.”. “he ducked into it.” I confidently replied. “your going to get a warning he told me”, wanting to make sure I was mentally prepared for that. “Osu”, was all I needed to say. “Be ready, you’ve got this”, he reassured me.
When I turn around I see his eye is really swollen and he was angry. Emotion is the enemy of the fighter, soon as your angry you stop responding effectively. This made the rest of the fight relatively easy as I scored a couple of quick points and he let emotion get the better of him, taking a couple of illegal shots that he got warned for. Since then I’ve see the video of that fight and well, yes I deserved a warning. It was never my intention to hurt him but it was certainly a dangerous uncontrolled technique.
There were several other fights none of which were easy but non as hard as beating Des, then came the semi final. I was up against a guy from NSW who I’d never fought before and never seen fight. It was a tough match, he was at least a foot taller than me and I was struggling to get past his reach. He had got off to at early lead, which I hated as it meant I couldn’t counter fight but had to go on the offensive. I was within one point and noticed he was looking quite tired, the heat was getting to everyone. He was taking his time to come back to the line anytime the fight stopped, catching his breath. So one point down I rush back ready for the judge to say start. He slowly comes back hands down, I do the same so not to give up my plan. I look relaxed but inside my heart is pumping and every fiber on muscle is ready to explode, the instant the judge says start I leap the 2 meter gap landing a head punch before he can even get his hands up. I’ll never forget the look of absolute disbelief on his face as the Victorian team went wild and the flags went up. He protested ‘I wasn’t ready’, almost bewildered by what had happened.
Now I knew I had him, I could now wait and counter. I also knew he would come and come quickly, he was thrown by what had just happened and would react out of emotion. I now knew how he fought and was ready. Sure enough he was on the offensive determine to regain the lead. Evade, evade and then soon as he was in rage my side kick landed direct on target and I was in front, before the point was even awarded time was signaled and it was over. It’s impossible to describe the feeling in those moments when it all comes together and then finally victory is yours, the mix of adrenaline, excitement, achievement and pride. Winning that fight meant I was in the final and at worst had second, I had achieved my goal. Now my focus turned to winning that one fight left to go… but for that I had to wait till day 3 when all the finals were.
So Day 3 came and again it was brutally hot. Now we had the World All Styles events. I came up against one of the Uzbekistan fighters in my second match of the day. The first technique he landed was a full force punch to my head. The judges scored a point. I look at the center ref, with a questioning but respectful look… he knows exactly what I’m thinking and replies “they don’t understand”. So I knew it was going to be full contact points. On his next attack I fired my roundhouse as he tried to move in, collecting the side of his jaw, dropping him to the mats. He picked himself up bowed “Osu” as I was awarded a point. Possibly the most brutal point fighting match I have ever fought, every technique either of us threw were full force. I won in a very close fight. He got a photo with me after and despite the language barrier, neither of us understood a single word the other one had to say, the message was one of clear mutual respect. From memory I was eliminated in the fight after this, I may have won that fight but it had taken a lot out of me.
In the stadium it was still brutally hot, people were sprawled out on the floor in just their Gi pants between fights trying to cool down. I recall on of the continuous sparring divisions I hit the wall in my 3rd fight, my body just couldn’t move. To be honest the fights, the heat, it was all starting to take a toll. I remember my brain was telling my arms and legs to move and they just wouldn’t. My arms and legs just felt like heavy lumps of meat that I had almost no control over. To this day I’ve never felt this state again during a fight.
But that didn’t stop me stepping up to be part of the Victorian team in the teams event. In the final we had to fight NSW and I was to be the 4th fighter, this was an amazing team and we won the first 3 fights so when it was time for my fight we already had the match, NSW couldn’t win. I remember Sensei Tom asking me, “Whats your plan”, “I’ll just have some fun I told him”. I’s up against a 18 year old brown belt from GKR, Alex. I’d never fought him before but felt confident I’d win. In the first seconds of the match I fly forward and land a front hand back fist. This is a clear point and I drop my hands and turn to move back after the ref calls stop. In that moment I feel a shooting pain across the side of my jaw. Alex has delivered a full force ridge hand strike to my jaw as I turned away. This drops me to the mats. At first I’m a bit confused, perhaps slightly concussed by the blow. Then my mouth guard doesn’t seem to fit, my first thought is it must have damaged one of my teeth.
I stand and turn to Sensei Tom. He asks me if I can continue, I explain I’m not sure what has happened with my teeth but can if he want’s me to. He then reminds me I’m in the final for the black belt open so best I withdraw and see first aid. I go back bow and tell the ref I’m going to withdraw. I bow and go to shake Alex’s hand, he turns and walks away, obviously upset I’m not finishing the match.
I stay for the end of the event, the photo at the top of this post is the only one I have from this tournament. In it are from let to right, Shihan Vince, Robert Ferinzarnous, unsure, me, Noel McBride, Des Murphy, unsure, Tony Jefferies and Abbott at the bottom.
After that I go see first aid, by this time I suspect my jaw is broken, they confirm this is probably the case. I have someone drive me to the hospital… When I left my plan was to come back in time for the final, I never made it back as my jaw was broken and I had to drive to Brisbane to see a surgeon to have it wired up. That is another long story but I ended up with 3rd place as I couldn’t compete in the final the third place competitor fought off for 1st.
In the dojo there are a couple of dozen trophies, there were hundreds of trophies I won while competing, the ones in the dojo each have a story behind them that. This is the story behind just one of them. I recall in the days after my jaw was broken feeling it was all worth it. There was no regret, no wishing I hadn’t competed, some disappointment that I never got to fight that final and see if I could take 1st but that was the only regret. It is the challenge, the adventure, the risk that makes some of life’s greatest moments. looking for the safe, easy way is never what I have done.
Osu Shihan Malcolm.