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 kumites.
“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 organisation. 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 travelled 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 realisation 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 realisation of impending accomplishment. Knowing she was just a handful of bouts away from immortalising herself among her teammates and 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 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, I 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…
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