Return of the king
Black Belt|August/September 2021
COVID Might Have Won Last Year, But THE U.S. OPEN — the World’s Biggest Martial Arts Tournament — Is Back in Action!
Mark Jacobs

Mike Reeves paused for a few moments before bringing the calloused edge of his hand down on the stack of concrete in front of him. There hadn’t been time to properly adjust the height of the slabs because the television crew was signaling that it had a schedule to keep, and he needed to go quickly. So Reeves just lined up his shot and let it fly.

It was 1998, and breaking was still a relatively new event at the U.S. Open — that’s back when the Open was just a karate tournament and hadn’t yet become the extravaganza that martial arts devotees flock to every year like Marvel fanboys on a pilgrimage to ComicCon. It wasn’t yet the U.S. Open, but it was the first year that ESPN had deigned to cover the hitherto little-seen, little-cared-about world of tournament karate.

Originally, the network had the idea of reviving the anthology series Wide World of Sports and thought televising a few guys in karate uniforms smashing bricks and boards would make a neat little segment to include. Reps had attended the U.S. Open in the past, though mainly to televise the ISKA kickboxing shows that promoter Mike Sawyer staged in conjunction with the tournament. So they contacted Sawyer and asked if his next event would have some sort of breaking competition that they could air. Although the Open had held a breaking contest for a few years, it was little more than an afterthought. But never one to miss out on an opportunity, Sawyer told ESPN that of course he had just the sort of world-class breaking competition they were looking for.

“Then I got off the phone and said, ‘OK, now we better make up some stuff fast,’” Sawyer recalled. “I spent the weekend with my partners Mike [McCoy] and Cory [Schafer], brainstorming ideas, and we made a world championship for them.”

Reeves had won the event the previous few years, so to add some drama, Bruce Haynes, an Australian who’d captured numerous breaking titles around the world, was invited to compete in 1998. But as the tournament drew near, ESPN execs decided they weren’t going to revive Wide World of Sports after all.

Not wanting to lose the chance to get a karate tournament on national television, Sawyer convinced the broadcaster to cover the competition as a stand-alone event, arguing that instead of just televising the breaking, they should include the entire spectrum of sport karate from fighting to forms to weapons. ESPN agreed as long as the whole show was “client supplied,” meaning Sawyer had to find the sponsors himself. When hair-care giant John Paul Mitchell Systems, which already sponsored the world’s premier karate team, came on board, Sawyer had his TV show. None of which might have meant much if not for Reeves’ performance. …

After Haynes had broken seven pieces of concrete, Reeves had the luxury of deciding how many of the 2-inch slabs he’d attempt.

“I felt I could do 11 or 12,” he recalled. “I’d broken 10 in the past. I was training five to six hours a day for this [with] two hours of makiwara practice every day, so I knew I was good for at least 10.”

But deciding to play things safe with the title at stake, Reeves took several slabs away from the pile, leaving just eight. Unfortunately, with the TV people pushing him, he didn’t have time to add any supports to make the stack higher.

Confident it wouldn’t make a difference, he focused for a moment, then brought his hand down on the 16 inches of concrete, slashing through them like a warm katana through butter. It was an easy break, perhaps too easy. With the lower trajectory, Reeves went through the pile with such force that his shoulder popped out of its socket.

ESPN’s cameras were there to capture the karateka doubling over in obvious agony. After a moment, he managed to collect himself and stand up. Biting back the pain, he calmly stood before the judges to receive their final approval and announcement of his victory. That’s when the broadcast took a turn toward the kind of bizarre-but-memorable TV that launches individuals and events to notoriety: The center judge stepped forward and seized Reeves’ bad shoulder.

Yanking on the arm, he popped the shoulder back into place as Reeves stoically stood there, barely showing any reaction.

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