BY ALANNA OLIVE-SMITH – The 2016 World Kickboxing Association (WKA) Nationals were enough to bring grown men, competitors who spend their free time slamming shin bones together, to tears – but not for the obvious reasons.
The event, held at Queensborough Community College in Bayside, NY, suffered misfires from the get-go.
Sophia Baratta, a Baltimore school teacher and Crazy 88 competitor, arrived promptly at 9 AM for the first scheduled weigh-ins of the day. She wasn’t weighed in until over 30 minutes later. I can testify that the delays only got longer from there. I weighed in an hour and a half after I arrived.
Hordes of shambling zombies, filled the lobby of LaGuardia. All shared the same glassy eyes, parched lips and caved-in look. The accessory of the hour was liter jugs of liquid, usually Pedialyte or Gatorade.
The process of making weight involves weeks, or even months of strict diet and exercise. The final loss of water weight is spurred on by a sauna, or some other means of dehydration. Unfortunately, if you don’t want to be outweighed by 20lbs or more, there’s little else to do but cut weight. This was the first striking competition and I still cut a whopping 15% of my bodyweight, losing 25lbs. I have no doubt that those more experienced than I (a list too long to bother with) cut even more.
Despite this initial wrinkle the Crazy 88 team, an impressively large group of 10 competitors, all made weight. There was nothing to do now but rehydrate, rest, and get ready to rumble. Unfortunately, getting to the “the rumble” was the area where the WKAs fell short.
This was the WKAs first year in NY, and it showed. The doors didn’t open on time, competitors barely had any room to lay their things down, and from what I am told, there were fewer rings than usual. Seeing more than one ring in use at a time was quite uncommon. The acoustics in the gymnasium were so abysmal that it was pure chance whether you could hear your name being called. “Organizers” had no idea when certain competitors/brackets would be called, and were unable to give so much as a 4 hour window. The WKA brackets displayed competitors who had withdrawn months ago as well as those who hadn’t shown up for weigh-ins.
It was not uncommon for someone to face an opponent who had not yet fought, while he had fought several fights in a row. Numerous fighters climbed into the ring only to have their hands raised without a fight.
Competitors would sit around all day, not eating and running to the bathroom, for fear of having their lunch kicked up, or missing their call.
Hopefully, the WKA will learn from grappling organizations like the IBJJF and invest in computer screens, audio equipment, and better organization of its competitors.
On this first day, Crazy 88 did have one fighter compete: Cam Collins. Collins entered the ring with the kind of fluid movement and impressive cardio one would expect from the gymnast. Nerves didn’t seem to be a factor at all. I was particularly impressed because as a first-time competitor myself, I had to pee constantly, something of an inconvenience when your legs are getting smashed to jelly and you have to walk down 4 flights of stairs to get anywhere with toilet paper.
Despite a prickly first round working around the reach of his taller opponent, Collins came back, utilizing his kicks to secure a KO victory. True to his gymnast roots the fighter celebrated his win with a backflip so nice he did it twice. (Although the second time was at the request of a photographer: http://bauzen.smugmug.com/2016/WKA-Nationals-Day-1-52216/i-ZNDHVb9/A ). Collins would go on to secure the gold medal in his division with a record of 4 wins and zero losses, breaking one opponent’s nose along the way.
The second day saw more of the same disorganization. The announcer pinned a disclaimer to the back of his chair that stated, “Don’t Ask What Time Something Is. We Don’t Know.”
However, 88 continued to put forth its best. Sophia Baratta put forth a dominant performance, checking and returning her opponent’s leg kicks. Unfortunately, the match went to her opponent when it came time for the judge’s decision. This was the first of a slew of questionable calls.
Despite the setback, Baratta showed good sportsmanship. She exhibited the kind of decorum one would expect from a school that churns out as many champions as Crazy 88. Actually, every single competitor I encountered demonstrated admirable sportsmanship, all bound by their shared passion for this combat sport.
Mikey Puiefoy, a middle school student and 88’s youngest competitor, had an impressive debut. The young competitor was up against an opponent from the nation of Georgia in his first match, but wasn’t at all perturbed by the distance his opponent had traveled. Utilizing low kicks and heavy hands, Puiefoy won his first match in Full Rules Muay Thai (a division in which elbows, kicks, knees, and punches are permitted).
Avoiding Mikey’s hands, Puiefoy’s 2nd opponent eagerly sought after the clinch,a position too close for punches or kicks, but that allows for knees, elbows and trips. Puiefoy’s opponent’s active clinch work secured him the win, but Mikey’s performance secured him some new fans. One FC contender, Aung La “The Burmese Python” Nsang, commented that the fight would be something to look back on in 10 years. As someone who has gotten a black eye and a severe Charlie horse from Puiefoy, I have to agree.
My first match in Full Rules Muay Thai also happened on this second day. While my opponent came from California rather than the Caucasus region, she was still exotic enough to give me pause.
The fight was a violent introduction to the world of combat sports. My competitor landed teeps (a forward push kick designed to push an opponent back and take the breath and rhythm away), impressive body kicks (at one point I tasted breakfast), and threw me out of the ring once.
Fortunately, following this unplanned exit, I was able to come back and win via UD (unanimous decision). I will confess that, not trusting the judges, I checked in with Coach Jomal, to see if I had really won. While the match was close, he did end up seconding the judge’s decision and reassuring me of my win.
The competition steadily ramped up, with many of the 88 fighters finally getting to compete. Donnie “Old Man” Nickerson put on quite a show. His movement improved noticeably from one match to the next. His opponent even commented on how difficult he was to kick. Nickerson ended the event having won himself 2 belts in the Open class.
Josh Turner and Tafon Nchukwi, fought competitive bouts but ended up on the wrong side of the scorecards. Two fighters from 88’s Owings Mills branch, Khalil Smith and Manuel Aguilera, each put forth a valiant effort but ended up losing as well.
Despite all the nerves that came with this being my first full contact martial arts competition, I managed to end the night on a high note for the team.
Winning all 4 of my fights in the tournament, I received the gold medal in two divisions: Glory Rules (which only allows for brief, 5 second clinches and does not permit elbows), and Full Rules Muay Thai. In spite of the late hour, and the long trip back home, the team stayed to cheer me on, for which I am immeasurably grateful.
NOTE: This last fight only happened due to Coach Aung getting the announcer to call for my fight before my opponent left. Had things stuck to the WKA “schedule” my opponent would have left before I had the chance to face her.
The WKAs were plagued with problems from the start, but the same cannot be said of the Crazy 88 team. Even in this individual sport, you still have your team. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the camaraderie displayed by the 88 crew – from the expert advice of Coaches Jomal and Aung, to the support of more seasoned competitors, like WKA 2015 Champion, Ricardo Mixco, to the cheers from other teammates.
Maybe next year we can try for the IKF in Florida instead. They are said to be far more organized and hey, even if they aren’t there’s always Disney World.
Footage from the event can be found on the Crazy 88 Mixed Martial Arts Instagram account.