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November 13, 2009

By Eric Haycraft

It was a restless flight back to the USA from Spain. Our bus left the hotel at 3 a.m. to get us to Sevilla to fly to Madrid. Once on board the international flight I had hoped to sleep most of the trip but my mind was racing with thoughts of the week's fights and what it all really meant. For the past seventeen years or so I have dedicated myself to the sports of Kickboxing and Muay Thai. When I started my ill-advised amateur career there was far less opportunity and my dreams never led me to an international tournament. Now many years later it was very special for me to watch my fighters competing in the 2009 WKA World Amateur Championships. This had been a very busy year for our team, competing in every major amateur Kickboxing tournament in the USA, along the way qualifying to represent the United States on the WKA US NATIONAL TEAM.

This was my second time attending the WKA World Championships with fighter Lindsay Scheer. In 2007 we attended the tournament in Germany. That year we were the sole representatives of the USA. While it was invaluable experience, it was not until this year that I realized how much better an experience it would be with a team of USA fighters and coaches, headed by the WKA USA representative, Brian Crenshaw. TEAM USA departed the US from various airports and converged on our destination in Spain, a resort area known as Punta Umbria. When we arrived we were debriefed, assigned our rooms, and given the gear given to the team and coaches by our various sponsors. Fighter’s Inc. had generously supplied the US TEAM with TOP TEN track suits and gym bags, KING Thai shorts, hand wraps, and anklets. CLINCH GEAR supplied US TEAM hoodies and board shorts, and KOBC had made custom USA t-shirts for the fighters and coaches. Right away this year was already feeling different.

The next day we had a chance to meet the rest of the team which comprised eleven fighters, 4 coaches and a camera man. Over the week we had a chance to get to know these guys and gals better. The team was a mix of Muay Thai fighters and MMA fighters, and this was the inaugural year of MMA in the WKA World Championships.

To qualify for the World Championships, fighters had to place first or second at the WKA North American Championships in the Open Class division. Qualifying this year for Muay Thai were: Chris Kwiatkowski from Church Street Boxing in New York City, the most experienced of the amateur fighters; Lindsay Scheer, from Team Haycraft/Real Fighters in Louisville, KY; Scott Sawade also from Team Haycraft/Real Fighters in Louisville, KY; Lindsey MacMhaolain of Combat Sports Center in Richmond, VA; Aisha Thomas from Team Lloyd Irvin in Maryland; and, representing Evolve Academy in Maryland and the final member of the team for Muay Thai was Steven Dang.

The other half of the team, competing in MMA, had perhaps the most to gain as well as the most to lose coming to a tournament like this. Winning their respective brackets would crown them the first ever WKA World Amateur MMA Champion as well as set the standard for future World Tournaments. However, as with many first time endeavors, there was an inherent risk versus reward. The risk for these fighters was to see just how many of the European teams would show up and bring MMA fighters. Even more, how many would back out once they learned that they had to fight against a US MMA fighter? MMA is still much more popular and established in the United States. Accepting the challenge in spite of the odds were Michael Goodman of Combat Sports Center in Virginia, Eric Heegaard of Shidokan Atlanta, Chris Lujan of Evolve Academy in Maryland, Gary LaBreck of Evolve Academy in Maryland and also Shotokan Academy in Massachusetts, and Jeffrey Blachly of Team Lloyd Irvin in Maryland.

Standing by their team were coaches Brian Crenshaw of Combat Sports Center and head of the WKA in the USA, Frank Camacho (Pro MMA fighter) of Team Lloyd Irvin and Eric Haycraft of Team Haycraft/Real Fighters Gym.

I am very fortunate that in my work, I traveled to some of the biggest shows in the world but it is always these amateur shows with young fighters with big dreams that remind me why I love this sport. Watching these guys and gals train over the week and seeing how proud they were to represent their country made me very proud to be a part of this entire process. It made me want to come home and encourage more coaches and fighters to challenge themselves on this international stage, driving up the level of all US fighters. Each day the team would meet to train and the coaches would run the team through basic workouts, splitting up into groups to work padwork, light sparring, takedowns and grappling in order to stay sharp until their turn to climb into the ring. It was impressive to see such an array of skills in such a young team.

The tournament itself ran relatively smoothly, all things considered. From day to day there were drop outs and knock outs that would change the brackets. There were schedule changes and time changes. But by the end, the bouts ticked off one by one and the fighters that remained were some of the best from each of the participating countries. As predicted, several of the MMA fighters did not get to fight. As one can imagine, it was devastating for them. The sport requires guys like these to make it work in the future, to make this grow. With their fighting spirit, however, I am confident that they will return, and I am sure that future tournaments will have more and more MMA fighters as Europe steps up and more teams learn that the WKA is a destination for champions.

In the end the US fighters collected 5 gold medals, one silver and three bronze medals. More importantly these fighters had a chance to compete on an international stage against the best amateur fighters from across the globe. Win or lose, that experience travels back to the USA with the team and then disperses in each respective gym. The more times we can make that happen the better the chances we have as coaches and fighters of producing more and more international champions both on the amateur and the professional level.

With 2009 in the books, sights are set on 2010 and the build up to next year’s WKA Amateur North American Combat Sports Championships. Brian Crenshaw is dedicated to making 2010 bigger than ever and in that spirit has already started collaborating with international teams to begin a dialogue on how we can all bring more and more fighters to next year's tournament. Back home in the USA I want to challenge each coach to build a team and bring them to test their mettle at these large and prestigious competitions! Make sure the WKA North American Championships are on your calendar for next summer—your wins could qualify you to make the amazing trip that I and my team just returned from. There is no reason why we cannot take a fighter—one of the best in the country—in each weight class for both Muay Thai and MMA to the World Championships in 2010.


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