2005 Champion

Ben Cunningham

2005 Champion

Shodan Karen Stone's and Nidan Ben Cunningham's NAS Titles are not simply testimony to their hard hours of training, they are the fruit of a fervent self-belief and dogged determination. The NAS trophy and title belt may be a new addition to Karen's collection, but for Ben, it's the second title he's won in as many years.

Perhaps Ben wore out his 2004 NAS Men's Champion title belt, because he's fought long and hard for another one. Asked why he won a back-to-back title, "I wanted another one," is Ben's decisive answer. "My coach, Sensei Anthony Ryan, has won the GKR [Go-Kan-Ryu] World Titles three times in a row, and that had never been done in the history of GKR. And [with] him doing that, I've been training with him and talking with him a lot more about how with my mindset and my own belief I could win the double and can win this year as well."

Ben is certainly not one to give up easily. He won't stop until he's either reached his goal or far exceeded it. Ben won the 2004 NSW State Title in Men's Open Kumite just three weeks after abdominal surgery to remove his appendix. Apart from his successes rising through the ranks of NAS, Ben also won in kumite and came second in kata in the Colts division at the 2003 GKR world cup in Birmingham, England. But even when Ben loses, he merely sees it as an opportunity to learn and better himself.

This year, Ben faced even tougher competition, with every opponent seeing it as their personal duty to dethrone the reigning champion. "It was a lot harder this year," Ben says. "But I just knew I had to get a lot faster and I knew that I just had to believe a lot more. I knew it was going to be a lot harder and I just wanted it."

Ben started Go-Kan-Ryu karate in 1995 when his parents decided it would be a good way for Ben and his brother to exercise while learning discipline and respect. Six years later, Ben was on the GKR NSW State Team and he began his journey with NAS. He wanted to take what he'd learnt, test it against the best exponents of other styles and strengthen his skill-base. NAS allowed Ben to pick up valuable tips and techniques throughout the year in an environment of artistic exchange.

To a great degree, Ben attributes both his wins to the enormous swell of support behind him in the GKR NSW State Team. "Being on the NSW state team for the last four years, it's really one big, close-knit family and the support of everybody is unbelievable, it's second to none. I wouldn't change any of it at all. At the Champion of Champions fight, you could hear them cheering."

Ben works five days a week as a health and fitness instructor. In addition to this, he works into the wee hours doing security at a Newcastle nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights. Add to this Ben's five days of karate training, including one session that's a two-and-a-half-hour drive away in Sydney, as well his program of swimming, running and pre-sunrise gym workouts (an hour after he's finished at the club) and it becomes clear how much hard work it takes to become the NAS Champion, two years running. "I also ride to work," he adds. "Soccer season's coming up soon, so I'm going to be playing soccer."

In the last year, Ben has also tried his hand at full-contact karate, fighting alongside GKR buddy Craig Lennox. "I went into the IFKKA Australian Open Championships. It was the first time since 1999 that I've been in a full-contact tournament and I got third place. It opened my eyes," he continues. "Craig was in middleweight and I went in the lightweight [division]. It really tested the ability to get in and score points with people hitting you back. It was full-contact kicks to the head, no punches to the head and full-contact to the body, all the way down to the legs."

This is as distinct to NAS, in which fighters are required to exercise complete control over their techniques, but Ben feels there is a definite crossover. "It helped my ability in point-sparring, just with the different ways the body moves and the ability to throw techniques from every possible position. You might be on the retreat and then boom, set your stance and throw a punch. It's exactly the same as a non-contact tournament."

Now Ben is going for the NAS hat-trick while also focusing on the WASO (World All Styles Organisation) Championship. Ben started training for the WASO as soon as he finished with the NAS titles. "[I was] training in weights, going upstairs and training in karate and footwork drills, also bungee cords for resistance training, as well as swimming and bike riding. Just heaps of cardio stuff."

Although NAS competition often seems to be dominated by karate-trained fighters — the last seven years' champions have all been karate-ka — Ben feels that every opponent he's faced, even those from non-karate-based styles, have been worthy. "They all have their own moves, their own skills, their own pace. The karate-oriented styles are harder to beat, some of the fancy-kicking styles are a little easier." Easier perhaps, but not by any means easy. "NAS really tests every single martial artist," Ben asserts.

Ben attributes the success of the karate-based styles, and his own Go-Kan-Ryu, to a philosophy of drilling basics, over and over, until they're perfected. "Trying to get a hundredth of a second faster on each punch, each block and each kick and in footwork drills," as Ben explains, is often the aim of his karate training.

Another reason for karate's success could be many styles' emphasis on a balance between tried and tested hand and foot strikes, keeping fancy aerial techniques off the mat. This, however, may be about to change. The current balance of power between the competing arts at NAS could shift with the introduction of NAS Extreme rules in 2006. Three points will now be awarded for difficult techniques such as spinning back-kicks and jumping kicks, and two points will be awarded for a takedown and follow-up technique. This new incentive for attempting more complex techniques could encourage arts more familiar with such moves to score in that way. "They're more disciplined and better trained in those areas, but in the normal points-fighting, you see them struggling a little because points are mainly fists; it's normally a small number of points scored with the spinning and jumping kicks. But as long as they pull it off correctly, with the proper technique, they should do well."

However, Ben doesn't feel that the new rules will affect him as a fighter. "I'll still be the same," he confirms. But he may be more inclined to attempt takedowns. "I would look at that, because I'm actually teaching little kids at the gym point-sparring and takedowns and jiujitsu."

Ben's personal skill level and fighting style have come a long way since he last won NAS. "I have a little bit of a new repertoire, but the belief — the inner belief — has become a lot stronger, and my kata, I've been training it. I've been able to calm down, take one point at a time and I've become a lot stronger, faster and healthier." He's shaping up for a third consecutive win — a first in NAS competition — and he has a few words of advice for anyone wishing to follow in his wake: "Find someone who has been a champion, or who is in your eyes, a champion, and learn from them. Try to get faster and faster with your own ability. Just keep training and keep believing."