Fight life: Taking on Goliath

Written by Blitz

Punching well above his weight in the recent Arnold Classic Kyokushin Karate Championships, Ben Lyon took home both the 80kg bareknuckle title and the big one — the Open-weight Grand Championship, in which he bested national and international champion Mohammad Rezaie. Here, Lyon lets us in on a full-contact karate champ’s secrets.

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Lyon accepts the Grand Champion trophy from Shihan Eddie Emin.

Ben, how did you start in martial arts?

I started training in Kyokushin karate in 1998 with Sensei Antoinette Gibilisco-Eames at Keilor Primary School in the after-school program. The popular martial arts movies featuring Jackie Chan that were around at the time sparked my interest in martial arts.

Who have you trained with since then and who has been the biggest influence in your martial arts life?

The biggest influence in my martial arts life isn’t one single person but the combination of Sensei Antionette Eames, Sensei Peter Rich and Sensei Maria Rich, who together have trained and guided me through Kyokushin and life for the last 18 years.

I have had the chance to train with a variety of gifted Kyokushin fighters and teachers at various camps and training seminars…too many to name them all, but some include Sensei Steve Hardy, Shihan Judd Reid, Shihan George Kolovos, Shihan Jim Phillips, Shihan Cameron Quinn, Hanshi John Taylor and those at the Fighting Arts Fitness Centre: Sempai Jason Eames, Sempai Josie Gibilisco, Sempai Gloria Cara and Sempai David Avola.

You won the Arnold Classic Kyokushin tournament title in the 80-to-90-kg heavyweight division. Tell us about that battle and your passage through the tournament…

It was a battle of the mind. I have fought in the middleweight division, 70-to-80 kg, for the last eight years but this year I stepped up a divison to fight in the heavyweights. Going in, I was sitting in the middle of the division weight-wise and had lost the reach and height advantages that I had in the middleweight division, so I had absolutely no idea how my previous fighting style of stand-and-receive would translate to the heavier opponents. 

I fought with a ‘one step at a time’ mentality; the first fight was just testing the waters and was my hardest fight of the division, because I had to adjust my fighting style continually throughout the bout and I didn’t feel comfortable until towards the end, when I began to settle in and get a rhythm.

The finals were another mental challenge. I have known [silver medallist] Patrick Pinto for years and I knew that he was a solid, world-class fighter. I went into that fight with the idea that if I didn’t win the fight, I would win his respect. 

You then went on to face national super-heavyweight Kyokushin champion Mohammad Rezaie in the semi-final of the Grand Championship, beating him in two overtimes. How was it facing an opponent of his international pedigree and size?

It was daunting — I had been worried about fighting in the heavyweight division and now I had to fight the super-heavyweight champion! My nerves were beginning to stretch. In the beginning, I went out with the idea of moving around to avoid wearing any heavy hits and then, when the opportunity arose, [I planned] to go for a knockout kick. However, Mohammad is an exceptional fighter with fantastic timing and he countered those kicks by removing my standing leg, so in the end I just had to be light on my feet and keep moving and sticking. It wasn’t a winning tactic, but I was aiming at finishing the fight on the bell and not being taken out early. In the end, it came down to endurance; I just kept moving and sticking, trying to keep my work rate up.

After a gruelling seven minutes, you were called upon again to fight against a lighter opponent, Guy Thrupp, in the final. After the preliminary round, the fight went on through all three extension rounds before you were awarded the victory. How did you cope endurance-wise after copping so many hits?

It was difficult, and another mental battle. I have fought Guy in the past and I know he is an excellent fighter, world class, and he was coming into the fight fresh, with the lightweight division champion having declined to fight on in the Grand Championship. I was able to stand toe-to-toe with Guy but I was exhausted and unable to throw many kicks, having worn a few too many thigh kicks from Mohammad. What, in the end, got me through and kept me moving through the fight was the crowd — having all those spectators, supporters, fighters and coaches cheering on the sidelines. I didn’t know who was cheering for who, but it was the first time I have seen such a large crowd engrossed in a single fight and the atmosphere was electric. It was that energy I drew on each time the flags went to [signal] an extension.

How did you approach fighters in different weight classes at the Arnold tactically?  

Tactically I had to become more of a fluid fighter, lighter on my feet. Moving into a heavier division, I couldn’t rely on reach and power anymore, so I had to choose my targets more carefully, keeping a tighter guard to avoid wearing too many hits.

There is an old saying in sport that offence is the best type of defence — is that how you approach a Kyokushin fight?

To a certain extent, yes. You cannot fight purely defensively and hope to win the fight; however, fighting smart and avoiding wearing the heavy hits will definitely put you at an advantage, and hitting first is a good way to stop those hits from coming.

You’re now established as one of the best Kyokushin fighters in Australia. Do you have a desire to compete internationally?

Yes, definitely. That desire has always been there, even before the Arnold Classic. The chance to travel abroad and test my skills against other competitors has always been something that I have done, having once already represented Australia at the Matsushima World Cup in 2010. In that tournament, I lost in the second round against one of the Iranian representatives, who went on to place second. Fighting at that level and witnessing the skill of the competitors from around the world motivated me to come home and train and improve, so that one day I could return to that world stage, hopefully with better results.

Having said all that, I believe that the fighters we have here in Australia are of international class already and I enjoy travelling around nationally to fight those here. There is always someone new to fight and some of the fighters coming onto the scene now are some of the best I’ve seen.

How was the level of competition at the Arnold Classic compared to other Kyokushin events you’ve fought in?

There is definitely a huge concentration of talent at the Arnold Classic. I believe that the name and the event brings out the best of the best both nationally and internationally. As I mentioned before, I have fought internationally at the Spain World Cup, and the level of talent I saw at the Arnold Classic is reminiscent of the fighters that I fought and watched there. This was only the second year and the event has already gained strong support and fighters, and I believe that the Arnold Classic will only continue to grow in the coming years.

What was it like competing at a festival with so much diversity in terms of martial arts?

It was exciting to see as well as to showcase what it is that Kyokushin is all about. You really got a great sense of community from all the styles of martial arts that were present at the Arnold Classic.

In terms of promoting Kyokushin, what does it mean to have the martial art in a festival that encompasses lifestyle and fitness?

I believe it promoted the Kyokushin  really well as a lifestyle that encompasses not only fitness but endurance, conditioning, mental strength and the fighting spirit. All the fighters and supporters present at the event had a great attitude and portrayed the very best aspects of Kyokushin, including respect, self-control and discipline. Any spectators who watched the events would have walked away with a better understanding of what karate and Kyokushin are, which is not just flashy moves and showy kicks, but the whole body being harnessed to perform powerful techniques, and the mind being pushed to its limits of endurance and conditioning during the fights.

Will you be returning to the Arnold Classic in 2017?

Definitely, not even a question.

Would you ever consider shifting away from Kyokushin into another combat sport?

Not entirely. I will always train in Kyokushin and have something to do with Kyokushin — that is a constant — but I also believe that there are things to be learned and gained from other martial arts. As it stands, I train in Kyokushin, kickboxing and BJJ; however, I don’t see myself competing in another form of combat sport in the near future.

What is next for Ben Lyon?

Excellent question…I’m open to any suggestions! I just take things one step at a time and at the moment I am still trying to figure out where that next big step is.

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