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Naomi Ali: 100-man Fighter

Written by Boon Mark Souphanh

The 100-man kumite holds a special place in the world of Kyokushin karate. The act of fighting full-contact for 100 straight rounds against fresh opponents and with no protective gear is enough to deter even the toughest, most well-traveled martial artists. Many of the men who have completed the astonishing mental and physical test have gone on to receive global praise and legendary status in their respective styles. Enter Naomi Ali. In 2004, at AKKA’s Honbu in Bondi Junction, the former Japan Open winner, and multiple-time world champion became the first-ever woman to complete the epic feat. In the 10th anniversary year of Ali’s ultimate challenge, Blitz caught up with the mother and full-time nurse to reminisce about the day she calls “the toughest of my life”.

Sensei Naomi Ali (nee Woods)

Soft-spoken and petite-framed, Naomi Ali is in fact a giant in the eyes of her AKKA teammates in Sydney. Understandably hard to comprehend to those unfamiliar with the pocket dynamo, behind her sweet disposition lies one of the toughest female fighters to ever come out of the country.

Growing up among the golden guitars in Tamworth, New South Wales, Sensei Ali first struck a chord with Kyokushin karate in 1995 when she began training with Sensei Mark Tyson before moving to Sydney as a Blue-belt to train at AKKA Honbu in Sydney’s Bondi Junction. It was there that she would meet Hanshi John Taylor, the figure who oversaw her journey to Black-belt as well as her battles in both the 50- and 100-man Kumite.

“It was obvious from the very first day that Naomi had a very disciplined attitude to training and she soon proved herself to be a very strong fighter. Of course, no one could have envisaged the greatness that she would achieve,” says Hanshi Taylor. “Naomi’s regimen would put an Olympic athlete to shame…”

Training seven days a week, her intense regimen combined strength and conditioning as well as hardened traditional Kyokushin training methods. Dividing her time between the gym, running, and the dojo, Sensei Ali describes her karate bag work as the toughest aspect of her training and one of the keys to her preparation for the 100-man kumite.

“At least twice a week I would step it up and do 100 rounds on the bag,” says Sensei Ali.

“I’d do three-minute rounds, so this would take me over three-and-a-half hours to do… The training I did was geared very heavily towards endurance and strength as the challenge was expected to last for many hours fighting very physically strong opponents.”

This training regimen was the framework for her stellar competitive career. Hanshi Taylor took Ali, then a young up-and-comer and relative unknown, to Japan in 1997, where she became the first non-Japanese female to win the coveted All Japan Open Kyokushin Female Full Contact Championships run by the IKO-Matsushima organization. This victory laid the foundation for her three Kyokushin World Full Contact titles, six Australian Kyokushin Full Contact titles, and five International Ring Karate titles, a competition résumé yet to be matched.

Knowing that he had a special talent under his wing, Hanshi Taylor oversaw Sensei Ali’s successful completion of the 50-man kumite in 2000 and dabbled with the thought of Ali perhaps being the first female to ever attempt the famed 100-man variety. He recalls Sensei Ali’s reaction after he had proposed the idea.

“She told me she wanted to fight only Black-belts and males!” says Hanshi Taylor.

Despite the daunting nature of the task ahead, Sensei Ali believes that the decision to attempt the 100-man kumite was a natural progression in her career, and one that she would regard as the greatest achievement in her already dazzling karate resume.

“I wanted to do something that would challenge me both mentally and physically,” says Sensei Ali.

“I am also very competitive, so the idea of being the first female to complete the ultimate challenge in karate was very appealing to me… Hanshi Taylor really motivated me along the way.”

Aware of the task ahead, Sensei Ali knew it was time to step up her training even further. Asking for the kumite to be conducted under the proper circumstances, Sensei Ali would fight only Black-belt males, without a protective chest guard, and for the full one-and-a-half-minute rounds. Because of this, she felt she needed work to improve both her endurance and physical strength.

“Along with my 100 rounds of bag work, I conducted long-distance runs and short-interval runs. As I was to fight male Black-belts who considerably outweighed me, I increased my weight training to prepare for this,” says Sensei Ali.

“Three times weekly, I lifted weights consisting of heavy compound lifts and karate-specific movements. This training was additional to regular karate classes and kumite three times weekly.”

After months of preparation and while Independence Day fireworks would be setting the sky alight on the other side of the globe, the Castellorizian Club in Sydney would provide the setting for an afternoon of fireworks on the tatami as Sensei Ali battled it out for 100 rounds against 20 other Black-belts. Among those in attendance were Shihancho Gary Viccars, who had traveled from Victoria to adjudicate the event, as well as 8th Dan Shihan John Taylor, 3rd Dan Sensei Jim Sklavos, and 3rd Dan Sensei Robert Lauretti.

The clock struck one; the fights were ready to begin. From the outset, the bouts possessed a fast pace and Sensei Ali was tested with some good shots. Shihancho Viccars stood and watched intently as Sensei Ali gutted her way through the first 50 bouts, lifting the crowd as she progressed.

“The crowd started to come to life from 30 fights in and the shouts and screams of encouragement were becoming more frequent and higher on the decibel scale,” recalls Shihancho Viccars.

Sensei Ali believes her experience doing the 50-man kumite assisted her during the first half of the event.

“The first 50 fights were as I expected. They were hard, bruising, and fast fights,”says Sensei Ali.

“Leading up to the 100-man kumite, I had previously completed the 50-man Kumite. So I knew what to expect up to that stage.”

Past the halfway point and the next stage of the Kumite was what the Sensei describes as the most ‘difficult’ as the realization of injuries worked to deter her from the task at hand. Depleted and showing signs of injury, even Shihancho Viccars had doubts as to whether Sensei Ali could in fact complete the full 100 rounds.

“For the next 10 fights (after the 50th bout), Naomi seemed a bit flat and was pushed very hard. Some of us had doubts about whether she could go the distance,” says Shihancho Viccars.

The fighter herself also recalls feeling the pinch at this point of the event with fatigue and the effects of being battered with strikes starting to show signs.

“The next 25 fights (after the halfway point) were extremely difficult as the pace and effort had expended all my energy. I had difficulty drinking fluids due to the blows to my abdomen and dryness in my mouth,” she recalls.

“I had also torn the skin under my feet at this point and movement was becoming very difficult. Later I found out that I had also broken my sternum, my hand, and some toes. This part of the challenge is really just a blur.”

As the Kumite neared the end, the blur would dissipate and turn into a sharpened realization of impending accomplishment. Knowing she was just a handful of bouts away from immortalizing herself among her teammates and a fellow karateka, the cheers of the crowd worked to carry her through to the end of the 100th round.

“As I neared the last 10 fights, all I could do was just remain standing to defend myself. Physically, there was nothing left; my body had given all it could and I was still asking more of it to finish the challenge.

“It was at this point that the crowd, my family, and friends were cheering harder than ever to get me to pull through and finish. It was with this support and the pain that the fighters were inflicting that my spirit was revived and I fought with all my might to finish as strong and proud as I could.”

With the crowd cheering harder than they had all day, up stepped her own master and perhaps her biggest influence throughout the journey to the 100th bout — Shihan Taylor. Fighting on nothing but pure heart and riding on the cheers of the crowd, Sensei Ali would even connect with some solid shots before Shihancho Viccars called an end to the Kumite just on three hours after it began.

“The feeling at the time was of immense relief and satisfaction at completing the challenge. As I was physically spent, I had to be carried out of the venue straight to the hospital to investigate internal bleeding,” recalls Sensei Ali.

Shihancho Viccars describes the scenes following the 100th round as one he’ll never forget and one that he thinks will never be matched in his lifetime.

“The noise level was just indescribable. I looked around and there were all the big, tough Black-belts with tears in their eyes. Naomi was almost unconscious on her feet; she could hardly talk and was severely disoriented.”

The injury list in the days to follow grew longer. Sensei Ali had sustained kidney damage, a fractured sternum, broken toes, and a broken finger to go along with the countless cuts and bruises. Unable to walk in the days following the kumite, she recalls being spurred on by the influx of support messages from the karate community. Despite the odd hater or two, the sensei hopes her achievements work to inspire karateka all over the world, especially aspiring female fighters.

“Overwhelmingly, the messages came in to congratulate me. There was universal support and praise of my achievement. I heard from sources later that there were small murmurs of doubt questioning how a woman of my weight and size would be able to fight men, but the whole event was filmed and documented so there is nothing for me to prove. That is a question for the close-minded with little imagination or spirit,” she says.

“I think the stir it caused was positive and hopefully inspired and continues to inspire many more people, especially women, to try karate or succeed in whatever they want to accomplish.”

As Muhammad Ali said, “I’m not the greatest; I’m the double greatest. Not only do I knock ‘em out, but I also pick the round.” Sensei Naomi Ali may not claim to be the greatest, but for one of Australia’s most successful female martial artists ever, completing the 100-man kumite will ensure she’ll be remembered in karate circles for years to come. Hell, Cassius Clay never even went 100 rounds…

Naomi Ali née (Woods) (4th July, 2004)

The first woman to ever perform the 100-man kumite. Not only that, she was also the first woman to do the 50-man kumite! Here are the details in the words of Shihan Gary Viccars, as reported in the August 2004 edition of the AKKA Newsletter SHIN:

The big day arrived (July 4th, Castellozorian Club, Anzac Parade, Kingsford, Sydney) and from the moment you walked in the air was just electric. Consider the quality of the fighters present: Shihan John Taylor, 8th Dan, Sensei Ritchie Saunders, 4th Dan, Sensei Glenn Gibbons, 4th Dan, Sensei Jim Sklavos 3rd Dan and Sensei Robert Lauretti, 3rd Dan as well as 15 other black belts. Naomi weighs just 60kg and 17 of the 20 fighters weighed much more than that. After I arrived I was honored to be asked to be the official adjudicator and my job description was to

-ensure that all fighters were conducted under I.K.O. rules
-that the rounds were 1 and ½ minutes each
-that the fighting was spirited
-that there were no undue or excessive breaks from fighting
-that the next fighter was ready and waiting and
-that Naomi had an adequate opportunity for hydration.

1.02 pm and the fighting commenced. From the outset, it was obvious that this was going to be a very hard day at the office for Naomi. Initially, the crowd was not vocal and for about the first 30 fights things were fairly quiet. Naomi was giving a good account of her and was continually pushed to the edge by her opponents.

The crowd started to come to life from 30 fights in and the shouts and screams of encouragement were becoming more frequent and higher on the decibel scale. Naomi reached the 50 marks and I gave her 2 minutes to change her gi. She had previously completed the 50 man kumite so this position was not new to her. However, as I announced to the crowd, whatever happened from this point forward was a new frontier where no woman had gone before.

For the next 10 fights, Naomi seemed a bit flat and was pushed very hard and some of us had doubts about whether she could go the distance. However, all of a sudden she seemed to get her second wind and she went into the “zone”. Those of us who have been in the zone will no what I am talking about. It is that place where you are on your own and you know in your heart you can do it because everything bad has already happened to you and you can take it and get through it. You become unaware of your surrounding, even of the people supporting you and your opponent. You just know all you want to do is keep fighting.

All of a sudden we were at fight number 80 and it seemed that there came upon the crown and everyone present a realization that she was going to get there. The emotion started to come out, the noise level went up considerably and all the black belts were there urging her on. It reminded me of Kieren Perkins famous swim in Mexico where everyone knew they were witnessing something special and even the supporters of the other swimmers were cheering for Perkins.

Naomi was off in a World of her own and every time she hit someone (yes she was still hitting hard) the crowd screamed for more. And then we were at 90 fights and everything lifted. The tempo of the fights, Naomi’s attacks, the noise level of the crowd.

She was injured and hurting severely (later it was confirmed she had broken fingers and toes) but she was not going to be denied. And then all of a sudden Shihan Taylor was standing in front of her for the 100 fight. He gave her the rounds of the dojo but she continued to attack and actually hit him with a couple of good shots.

At 4.10 pm it was over and pandemonium broke loose. The noise level was just indescribable. I looked around and here were all the big, tough black belts with tears in their eyes. Naomi was almost unconscious on her feet; she could hardly talk and was severely disoriented. Apart from the broken bones, she was passing blood (however, it was later confirmed that everything was OK).

Everyone I spoke to that day (after the event) was just so proud to have seen it and been a part of it. July 4, 2004, the day Naomi Ali became immortal (everlasting, not able to fall into oblivion). It is doubtful we will ever see anyone else attempt this in our lifetimes and anyone who does will be following the path that Naomi blazed.

What a day, what an event, and what a fighter. We truly saw the best at her best and we were privileged to be there.

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