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.


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.”


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.

Joe Cor­ley

The Bat­tle of At­lanta has al­ways at­tracted mar­tial arts celebri­ties.

Greg Ruth (left) and Joe Cor­ley

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