NYC Sunnyside Gardens 1975 – all Isshinryu
Things change so rapidly perhaps it would be interesting to remember what the Open Karate Tournaments I attended in my beginning from 1975 to 1984 were like. While I attended several all Isshinryu tournaments, most were out of the region where I lived.
I attended a few of the tournaments in the old Region 10. Most in Pennsylvania and Maryland, but some in Virginia, Delaware, occasionally in New Jersey and in Binghampton New York.
Among the tournament presenters were, Karl Hovey, Tom Lewis, Franco Conde, Ron Collins, George Iberl, Al Smith, Tristan Sutrisno, Jon Bonner and Hidy Ochiai among many others. (I cannot remember all of them). I even had 3 youth tournaments from 1982-1984.
There was no consistency to the rules. Everyone of them seemed to have different standards. I remember one tournament where Fusie Kise was in attendance and women black belts were informed that their division could not be seen independent of the tournament like the men’s black belt division. Rather they had to have their division held in the midst of all the other divisions, we were informed that was what Kise Sensei required. Very different times.
The time period covered the new safety-gear of Jhoon Rhee. Prior to that tournaments were bare knuckle affairs, There was a transition period (there were even tournaments where it was mandatory that no protection outside of mouth pieces was worn) but eventually everyone was using some sort of safety gear.
Of course it is questionable if it really promoted safety. I have seen far worse hits with the gear that I saw in the days of bare knuckles.
For myself I was trained to adjust to the gear. But personally it never really felt right, and even in my early years as an instructor I did not have the kids families spend money on the gear, they went bare knuckle (and safely). Then at that time I promoted open youth tournaments I made the safety-gear optional, as my students didn’t use it.
[Later a surgeon made me change my opinion. Life changes do happen. But by that time I was moving away from tournaments.]
Then there were the sparring rules. Every tournament had somewhat different rules. But as the fighting progressed those officiating interpreted what was happening much the same way every time. The same folks often were the judges and the manner in which they judged remained most constant.
In the kata/kobudo divisions, some of the best people in the country were in that area.
Competing against them was moving into pretty rarefied air.
Now today, many would not deem what those systems were doing as traditional karate. This was the pre-internet area. No doubt some of those systems would today be looked down on. But at the time they could do ‘hard’ forms with anyone, and fight intently hard too. It was a very different time.
For one thing many things were not commonly seen, such as many of the advanced Goju forms. (For example I later around1987 bought the first Panther VHS tape of Hiagonna Supreimpe kata, just because I had read about the kata, but wanted to see it myself.) But there were ‘Shorin systems’ that did Super Empei’ which was a variation on the Shotokan Empei kata. Probably would turn noses up today, but back then it was a credible kata.
Then there were plenty of other systems that would not pass todays sniff tests, but ran strong forms. Students of Manny Agrella, SL Martin and others come to mind. At that time their forms could give anyone a run for their money.
The divisions were very open. For example Cindy Rothrock competed in forms and weapons with her Chinese forms, and she was not the only one.
John Chung might show up with Jhoon Rhee forms from his taekwondo. There were often serious iaido competitors in the weapons divisions.
You might even see gymnastics incorporated into forms. Hidy Ochiai did this (not his students however), and I know of schools that had their students train in gymnastics to develop those abilities (this was the forerunner of what was to come).
And it was wide open. Of course there were schools that often had less worthy form efforts too. But less frequent than you would expect, because of the class of competitors out there.
No one ever mentioned forms having ‘bunkai’. That was not a topic of conversation. Around the mid 1980s that started to change.
But those tournaments had other divisions, ones often not seen today I bet.
For one thing there were demonstration competitions. Those wishing to enter them were often less known, and some of them got pretty strange.
Another division which might be there were breaking divisions. Often people tried to do intense breaks, which worked in the less stressful dojo, but most often failed when done in public. I remember one time a young man attempted to break 5 cindercaps with his head, and when they would not break, kept trying. Finally judges had to pull him away, him with a bloody forehead.
Often tournaments had their main competition during the day, then the finals were held in an evening show (with the paying public invited). So going to those tournaments was a day long affair, from morning into the night.
The tournaments could be in small locations such as firehouses or elementary schools.
Often in high school gyms. To the very large ones in college gyms or field houses.
There were even tournaments that even had 20 or more judges for Black Belt forms. Only total score was used. No ties possible.
Eventually moving to another area of the country I also moved away from tournaments over the years.
I once went back to visit and attend one of those annual tournaments. It was held in a small town, I saw a flyer for an upcoming local tournament in that area. It listed dozens of masters from that area who would be attending. Now this was just a decade later, and I knew of none of them.
Later during that tournament I was just sitting in the stands. My friend had brought his kung fu students across the state, just to see what a karate tournament was. They were sitting around us. As the day progressed, they kept asking me what the forms they were seeing were. I kept repeating the same answer, after 20 years of karate, I had no idea what most of those forms were. It had become a different time.
My goals for my program evolved in a different direction, but the paradigm that those tournaments I had attended formed a part of karate as I understood it.