I got a bit of a late start in the karate competition game. My first competition wasn’t until I was 18 years old and a 2nd degree black belt. It was another year and half and 3rd degree on my black belt before I ever won anything. However, once I started having some success, I wanted more. Looking back, this comes as no surprise as I am a competitive person by nature.
From 1999-2004 I participated in around 35 competitions, most of which were located in the metro Detroit area where I lived. While I was certainly not the guy to beat, it was rare if I didn’t place in the top 3 in every tournament. I did win a few grand championships during that 5-year span but that was not the norm.
I was fortunate to live in metro Detroit growing up since there were so many Korean martial arts studios and organizations around, specifically Tang Soo Do, which I trained in. Even though there were different styles, studios, and organizations, many of the tournaments I attended consisted of the same core group. Over the years, I got to know many of them well and enjoyed going to their competitions and partaking in competitive karate despite our differences.
In the spring of 2004 I moved to Seattle, WA to start a new career. Being in my early 20s, I still have the karate competition bug and wanted to continue competing. Compared to metro Detroit, Seattle and the state of Washington is much less densely populated. There is also a much more diverse assortment of martial arts in Seattle compared to the Korean martial arts dominant Detroit area. For those reasons, and others I’m sure, karate tournaments were few and far between. In Detroit, I could easily find 1-2 tournaments a month located within an hour from where I lived. In Seattle, there were 2-3 a year and I needed to drive up to 3 hours for them.
In the late summer of 2004, I found a tournament a couple of hours from Seattle and decided to attend. This was my first tournament since moving out west. I still did not know many people and made the trip by myself. What I am about to tell you may sound ridiculous, but I guarantee that they happened.
The tournament started with a judges meeting. Ok, good start. I decided not to judge because I was new to this crew and wanted to watch and observe how they do things before putting myself in a potentially awkward situation of judging without being experienced. Back in Detroit I would always judge as I feel it is a responsibility of all qualified black belts in order to run a smooth and fair competition.
After the meeting, the tournament began. It was an average size tournament, around 150-200 competitors. The host brought everyone out on the floor and had some things to say as well as some presentations. The first presentation was a middle-aged man being presented his 1st degree black belt. He was wearing a black v neck, short sleeve uniform with purple trim. It was an open tournament, so I let that one slide. However, after he was awarded the rank, something happened I would not let slide. After receiving the belt, the host called all black belts on to the floor. He instructed us to make two lines facing each other, essentially making a gauntlet. There were 30-40 of us out there. Several kids were among us. The host told his new black belt to walk through the gauntlet with his hands behind his back and every black belt could punch him in the body as he walked by.
After hearing this, I respectfully bowed, backed away from the group, and took a seat in the stands. I did not want anything to do with this hazing ritual. I was disgusted and almost left completely. However, I drove a long way and paid a lot to be there, so I decided to stick it out. The new black belt walked through the line getting pummeled as everyone smiled and laughed. When he got to the end, his instructor made a big theatrical wind up and gave him a palm heel to the stomach, knocking him backwards to the ground.
Now that the hazing spectacle was over, I thought it would be time to start the competition. Not quite yet. One more presentation. The host called up another middle-aged man, no older than 50. This man was also grossly overweight. Well over 300 lbs., not of muscle. The host proceeded to present him with a promotion…to 12th dan. Never heard of a 12th dan? Me neither. I thought maybe it was a Seattle Seahawks 12th man parody, but no, it was real. The best part? The belt he was awarded was a black belt with a sparkled gold stripe through the center.
With the cluster bleep presentations over, the tournament started. Like many tournaments, black belt divisions happen at the end. So, I had plenty of time to kill. There was a food truck in the parking lot, so I thought I’d see if there was anything good to tide me over. As I walk out the door, who do I see? The gentleman who received his 1st degree black belt was standing only a few feet from the front door, wearing his new black belt with his v-neck purple trimmed uniform, smoking a cigarette. It just keeps getting better.
I am now in this for the long haul. I am determined to see how this day will continue to unfold. The kids and under black belt divisions seem to unfold uneventfully, at least as I remember. Now the black belt divisions are set to begin. I decided to compete in forms and sparring. There were about 6-8 participants in each division. To my surprise, I got 1st place in forms. I then needed to compete against the senior (35 years old and older) 1st place winner for the grand championship. This gentleman was sporting an American flag, stars and stripes uniform. I don’t think his style was Rex Kwon Do, but I could be wrong. He seemed to know all the judges as he was talking and joking with them before the competition.
Captain America won. I guess my traditional black trimmed, white uniform did not have enough flare to win. At least with sparring, I wouldn’t need any gimmicks to win. Or at least that is what I thought.
I managed to win my first 2 fights and get to the finals. I line up across from my opponent who then removes his helmet and mouthguard and tosses them aside. I thought something was wrong, so I relaxed from the fighting stance I was in. The center judge, who was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, looks at me and says, “it’s ok, he doesn’t need to wear them because he is my student.” All the judges then chuckle. I couldn’t tell you how the match exactly went other than I lost, getting 2nd place. I know I didn’t get my butt kicked; I seem to remember it being at least competitive. I was just so dumbfounded that the match is a blur.
Now that I write this all out, I can see how you may question the authenticity of this story. I even had to second guess myself, wondering if it was all a dream or a scene from a movie that I mistook for actually happening. But no, I assure you this actually happened.
I will say that this was an isolated tournament. I went to other tournaments in the Seattle area since and did not encounter anything remotely close to the farce I encountered in this story. Some of those tournaments were good, some were bad, but none of them were this bad. Hence the title, “Worst Tournament Ever”.