Iconic Martial Arts Event Was a Family Affair — and One for the Record Books!
T his year marked the 50th iteration of the Battle of Atlanta karate tournament. From its first winner — superstar and
Black Belt Hall of Famer Joe Lewis — to its present-day champions, the BoA has showcased a who’s who of karate competitors and hosted a treasure trove of historical fights and kata performances. This year’s tournament was bigger and better than ever — and decidedly family focused.
The 50th BoA took place June 14-16, 2018, at the Renaissance Atlanta Waverly Hotel and Cobb Galleria Centre in Georgia. The turnout confirmed that it’s still the go-to event for karateka from across the United States and abroad.
RECALLING THE HISTORY
Although the 2018 BoA catered to kids of all ages, it also honored the elders — specifically by inducting a few martial artists into the select group of people who have received the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award. However, the event’s tag line was “Where Legends Are Made,” and to that end, plenty of current stars were on hand to display their talents to the amazement of onlookers.
To fully understand the homecoming that was the 50th Battle, you need to know how it started and how it became the tournament that everyone who was anyone had to attend. To do that, we must look at Joe Corley.
Five decades ago, in a scene like something from an old movie, Atlanta-based Corley decided to rent a gym and put on a show — the first BoA. Half a century later, those grainy black-and-white memories have faded, and they’ve been replaced by full-color, high-definition images of what a technically advanced, modern karate tournament should look like.
Corley’s motivation for creating the BoA was to bring fairness back to competition. “Battle co-founder Chris McLoughlin and I traveled the country, competing in tournaments from Arizona to D.C. and from Miami to New York,” Corley said. “The main thing that we saw and experienced was how much regional bias existed around the country. The bias included favoritism not only to the regional favorites but also to the fighters and team members of that same organization.
“Our initial mission was simple: to create an environment where anyone from anywhere could win on any given tournament day. The mandate for our officials was to exercise the kind of fair and impartial judging that one would expect at a martial arts event, where honor and dignity should be paramount. We drew many of the top fighters in the country to Atlanta, the first time that had happened in the Southeast.”
Over the years since its launch, the BoA has seen numerous innovations in tournament karate. Protective gear for sparring was made mandatory here. Jhoon Rhee’s martial ballet debuted here, laying the groundwork for what’s now called musical forms. During its reign as the premier tourney in America, the Battle attracted such action icons as Chuck Norris, Burt Reynolds and Wesley Snipes. In the 1980s, the BoA’s full-contact fights were featured on ESPN, NBC, ABC, CNN and TNT.
You might say that the rich history of the Battle of Atlanta set the standard, and when you look at those who walked away with medals and trophies this year, you can see how they met the challenge. However, it was the friends made, the legends met and the fellowship enjoyed that attendees will remember forever.
HONORING THE ELDERS
Part of understanding where you are is knowing who paved the way for you to get there. Everyone at the Battle does this by honoring their elders. For me, it began when I chatted with Gary Lee, head honcho of the Sport Karate Museum in Sugar Land, Texas. Lee had a display of martial arts memorabilia, including a photo of Bruce Lee and Jhoon Rhee sparring on the beach. He regaled me with stories of competing “back in the day” and even recounted a meeting he had with a new Black Belt assistant editor named Robert Young (now the editor-in-chief of the magazine).
The homage to our ancestors continued with the Joe Lewis Award ceremony. I asked Corley to explain. “We worked closely with Joe Lewis [Fighting] Systems in implementing the Joe Lewis Eternal Warrior Award at the Battle of Atlanta [in] 2013 following grandmaster Lewis’ passing,” he said. “The premise was to bestow his namesake award on the kinds of fighters he respected, and he set an incredibly high bar. Needless to say, these recipients have reached the heights of competitive intensity.”
The ceremony was a treat for all karate fans. I was transported back to my teen years, when champions like John Natividad, Keith Vitali and Jeff Smith graced the cover of Black Belt. Martial arts icons who were recognized in 2018 included Linda Denley, a tang soo do practitioner who’s won a plethora of championships; Stephen K. Hayes, the face of ninjutsu in America for decades; and Dr. Maung Gyi, the man who introduced bando to America.
I was fortunate to have a chance to interact with another elder of the martial arts, a man named J. Pat Burleson. I asked him if he saw any differences
between competitors in 2018 and competitors 50 years ago. “The fighters are better technically now — but a little light on balls,” he quipped.
When you’ve been in karate for six decades, much of it during the bloodand-guts era of competition when protective equipment didn’t exist, you can get a pass on a comment like that, I figured.
RECRUITING THE STAFF
Several years ago, Corley handed off the running of the Battle of Atlanta to a family of top-notch tournament promoters. “I had two other projects that were — and still are — major draws on my attention, and Greg Ruth and his family had stepped up and helped me in the hosting of the live events,” Corley said. “He asked one night how I would feel if they took over the Battle. I instinctively knew it would be in the best hands with him, and we transitioned the handoff over several years.
“I sleep well, knowing our work for so many years is in caring, capable, competent hands. It was easy to see Greg’s passion for presenting the sport in its best light. It was especially rewarding to see him making decisions for the right things for the right reasons and with the right principles. He always came down on the side of what was good and fair for the competitors.”
Greg Ruth’s passion started in 1998 when he attended his first BoA with his son Brian. It was 11-year-old Brian’s second national tournament, and he won first place in fighting that day.
“I began helping with the Battle as coordinator for the black-belt divisions in 2000,” Greg said. “However, it was after 9/11 that my passion for the Battle came full circle. [In 2002], as my granddaughter Mariah held the flag onstage and my son Toby sang Alan Jackson’s Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning, I realized that I wanted to have a much larger role.”
Since then, Greg has developed what he calls a “major family event of synergy.” His twin sons are involved — Toby serves as executive director, and Tommy creates the graphics and designs for the banners and flyers. Meanwhile, Mariah works as marketing director, and her son Jacob is the guy who cheerfully does anything that’s asked of him.
FINDING THE TALENT
Greg Ruth also relies on his friends Eric Rudolph and Ronnie Presley, who serve as tournament directors. Both have sired families of martial artists whose onstage performances rival anything David Copperfield has done in Las Vegas. Case in point: At the Battle Zone finals, the Rudolph and Presley kids combined their martial arts skills with off-the-charts athleticism and showmanship to bring the house down.
Reid, Cole, Jake and Averi Presley are all NASKA champions, and they won grand-championship titles at this year’s Battle of Atlanta. The audience’s collective jaw dropped when Reid performed a backflip while switching the hand he used to hold his bo behind his back. And 10-year-old Averi’s intensity in her kata impressed even the adults in attendance. She won’t be getting her lunch money stolen any time soon.
Speaking of bullies, you may not know the name Jake Presley, but you might remember him from Ben
Affleck’s 2016 actioner The Accoun
tant, in which he played a bully destroyer. His brothers Reid and Cole have roles in the martial arts TV series Into the Badlands.
And then there’s Eric’s son Jackson Rudolph. He’s a 58-time sportkarate champion and a member of the prestigious Team Paul Mitchell Karate. At the Battle of Atlanta, the rising star won in musical weapons, non-bladed creative weapons and traditional non-bladed weapons. A professional athlete for Century Martial Arts, Jackson is founder of the Flow System, which he developed in conjunction with the Martial Arts Industry Association. To top it all off, he’s in the pre-med program at Stanford University and on track to become a neurosurgeon. Not bad for a 20-year-old!
SERVING THE CROWD
To meet the needs of all who enter, the Battle of Atlanta offers a myriad of categories in which people can compete. They’re broken down according to age, as well as activity. If point fighting isn’t your thing, you can opt for semi-contact fighting, sport jiu-jitsu, forms, weapon forms, synchronized team forms, musical forms — and the list goes on.
The drive to deliver something for everyone was explained by Greg Ruth: “There are divisions for all belts, all ages, boys, girls, men and women. We will in a big way this year be highlighting the youth underbelts — the future of our sport — onstage at the Battle. This emphasis on our future leaders is sponsored by Century and has rapidly become a crowd favorite in the Battle Zone finals.
“Let’s not forget one of our most competitive divisions: the men’s 60-plus black-belt division. Last year, it exploded, and it’s expected to be even more competitive for the 50th — chock-full of the sport’s legends who could not and would not shake their competitive fire and allegiance to the Battle.”
That last statement rang true for me (see sidebar) because I competed at the Battle of Atlanta this year. Why? In part because it’s one of the few tournaments in which senior fighters can face off against their peers without being at a potentially huge disadvantage. In other events, an older fighter might have 25 years on his opponent. Or he might find himself facing a much heavier foe because weight divisions had to be combined.
But I can attest that older martial artists like to bang as much as the young bucks, especially when they know they’ll be taking on a peer rather than an opponent who’s decades younger or many pounds heavier.
MEETING THE COMPETITORS
While working out at the gym in the hotel, I met some fighters from Hungary. Despite their limited English and my nonexistent Hungarian, I learned that they’d flown 15 hours from Budapest to get it on in Atlanta. That prompted me to ask Corley what attracts people like that to the Battle.
“The consistent draw is the obvious sense of fairness that was our initial mission,” he said. “Each year, we would see champions from various parts of the country as grand champions, and we truly did not have any vested interest in who won. We also invested in having high-profile,
If point fighting isn’ t your thing, you can opt for semi-contact fighting, sportji u-j itsu, forms, weapon forms, synchronized team forms, musical forms—and the list goes on.
highly respected, highly competent, fair officials. The Tournaments of Champions drew big attention from fighters who aspired to be included and gave them a chance to be in the company of the best competition in the world.”
Another aspect of the BoA that participants love is its commitment to community service and charity work. “We have our annual visit to the children’s hospital — Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite — with Team Paul Mitchell Karate,” Greg Ruth said. “Each year, we visit the kids, and each year, they inspire us. This has truly become the highlight of each Battle of Atlanta.”
JOINING THE FAMILY
Looking back, I regard the 2018 Battle of Atlanta as one of the most enjoyable martial arts events I’ve attended. From the moment I entered the hotel — which had 80 percent of its rooms occupied by martial artists and their families — I was treated like a long-lost relative. “I remember y’all from last year!” said the staffer who checked me in.
The workers at the venue have seen it all — kids swinging swords, teens wielding kama and bo, gi- clad competitors gobbling down food before their next event — but they’re still accommodating, and that warms the heart of even the most hardened martial artist who knows what it takes to compete in an event at this level.
The Battle of Atlanta really is a family affair. In a way, it reminds me of something Bruce Lee once said: “Under the sky, we are but one family — it just so happens we look different!” Perry William Kelly has a fifthdegree black belt in jiu-jitsu and is an instructor in four other martial arts. He’s the former national coordinator for use of force for the Correctional Service of Canada. His website is perrywkelly.com.
The Battle of Atlanta has always attracted martial arts celebrities.
Greg Ruth (left) and Joe Corley