2021 U.S. OPEN CHAMPIONS & CONTENDERS
Black Belt|August/September 2021
Ones to Watch at the World’s Most Prestigious Martial Arts Competition
Jackson Rudolph

The International Sport Karate Association’s U.S. Open is one of the largest and most prestigious martial arts tournaments in the world. Competitors travel from around the globe to compete in divisions that include traditional and open forms, weapons, point fighting, self-defense and breaking. Some of those competitors will test their skills against the best of the best during the Night of Champions, while others will be inspired by the performances and train harder for next year so they might secure the crown jewel of sport karate: an ISKA world championship.

This was my story. I attended the Night of Champions for the first time in 2006 when I was just 8 years old. I watched legends light up the stage, then looked at my father and told him that one day I would do the same. Seeing those champions changed my life. Looking back, I realize that I had that experience only because I was fortunate enough to watch the competition in person at Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort in Florida.

That is precisely why I’m writing this article — to give more martial artists an opportunity to get to know the champions of today, as well as the contenders vying for their titles, so they might be inspired. Inspiration is especially important at a time like this, when the sport karate community, like many other communities, is starting to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There was a 17-month period from the 2020 Compete Nationals to the 2021 Battle of Atlanta during which no events sanctioned by the North American Sport Karate Association (NASKA), which co-sanctions the U.S. Open, took place. Only time will tell whether the defending champions are still at the top of their game. New contenders also have arrived. Talented young stars have turned 18 and are ready to test themselves in the adult divisions. Competitors have risen to prominence in regional or national leagues that managed to keep their events running through the pandemic — such as ProMAC and USA Sport Karate — and are prepared to perform. Some top-tier point fighters have sharpened their skills in pay-per-view events promoted by the likes of Pro Point and the Virtual Fight Tour.

In December 2020, Black Belt unveiled its official sport karate rankings inspired by the Karate Illustrated ratings of the 20th century. The defending 2019 U.S. Open world champions were selected to hold the “champion” ranks because of the prestige of the tournament and because most of the major divisions were accounted for by this one event. These rankings will receive their first update after the 2021 U.S. Open. This article will tell you everything you need to know about the champions and top contenders for the adult (18-29) forms, weapons and point fighting divisions.

DEFENDING CHAMPIONS

Jackson Rudolph • Team Paul Mitchell

Let’s begin by addressing the bo-wielding elephant in the room. Not only am I the author of this article, but I am also the defending champion in the men’s weapons division. For readers who don’t know me, I innovated a style of bo performance throughout the 2010s that featured powerful, foundational striking with high-speed releases and manipulations organized into long combinations. I have been blessed throughout my career, and my work has culminated in 14 ISKA U.S. Open weapons titles, the most by any male in history. Nine of these are individual wins, including three consecutive titles that make up my active streak. The other five are from the synchronized weapons division, which I won for the first time alongside the ever-intense Kyle Montagna and went on to win four more in a row with my right-hand man Jake Presley. My success at the U.S. Open, combined with the numerous bo tricks that I’ve innovated and debuted at the event, earned me the nickname “The Magician” from ESPN. These accolades landed me in the Black Belt Hall of Fame in 2018, an honor I am eternally grateful for.

That is all I will say about my accomplishments. Those who know me know that I prefer to let my performances do the talking. Because I’m preparing to attend medical school in the fall, my competitive future remains uncertain. I love sport karate and it would be a thrill to compete again, but I must make the best decision for my career in martial arts and medicine. Will I compete again at this year’s U.S. Open? Well, a good magician never reveals his secrets.

I want to use this space to disclose that this article mentions many of my teammates, friends and even my fiancee. I provide this transparency while noting that everything I write is based on the prior performances of these athletes. My personal relationships and background knowledge of the individuals has not impacted anyone’s inclusion here.

Mackensi Emory • Team Paul Mitchell

Emory won the women’s forms and weapons titles at the 2019 U.S. Open, an impressive feat that earned her a spot in the Black Belt Hall of Fame. She has amassed 14 ISKA titles in the forms, weapons, synchronized and team demonstration divisions. She’s known as one of the best female tricking athletes on the planet, but her technically sound basics are what attract attention from the judges. A disciple of Rudy Reynon, Emory uses a variety of finger rolls and releases with her kama to increase the difficulty and performance value of her routines. Her impressive résumé at the U.S. Open is reflective of the rest of her career. She once won 24 out of 28 possible overall grand championships during a two-year span, nearly an 86-percent win percentage.

Emory has successfully leveraged her sport karate experience and accomplishments into Hollywood work as a stunt performer. Her talents have been featured in a Star Wars video game, the American Horror Story TV series and other projects. Her presence in the film industry exemplifies how sport karate can prepare martial artists to be successful in other careers — but it makes her status at the U.S. Open uncertain. The 2019 event was her most recent performance despite there being several other world-class events between then and the onset of the pandemic.

Reid Presley • Team Paul Mitchell

This defending men’s creative/musical/extreme (CMX) forms champion is a sport karate veteran. The oldest of four siblings (including Cole, Jake and Averi from oldest to youngest) who have won ISKA championships in individual events, synchronized divisions or both, he’s best-known for his use of two staffs at once in the CMX weapons divisions. In the year leading up to the pandemic, Presley shifted his focus to open forms. He used powerful hand combinations and strong aerial kicking techniques to secure back-to-back victories at the Diamond Nationals in 2017 and 2018 and claimed the 2019 U.S. Open title.

Reid and his brother Cole, who would be a strong contender in the men’s weapons division if he is active, work as consultants for Premier Martial Arts, the school franchise owned by Barry Van Over, Black Belt’s 2020 Business Leader of the Year. This, of course, does not rule out the possibility of Reid defending his title in 2021. However, his relative inactivity after the 2019 event provides reason to believe he might not compete.

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