Story by Jessica Robeson
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Sacramento, California, USA

The NBL Super Grands – An Outsider’s Experience
photos by Boice Lydell

The NBL Super Grands – An Outsider’s Experience

As a dyed-in-wool NASKA competitor, I always believed that most large tournaments were pretty much the same, except for some variation in the number of competitors. But the moment I got to Sacramento, California where the NBL Super Grands was being held the day after Christmas, I knew my perspective on large tournaments needed some big adjustments.

Before I even saw the hotel venue, I noticed a giant cold air balloon in the distance and as I stepped out of the cab an enormous two part banner reading “Super Grands” draped across the entrance portico of the hotel greeted me. “Well, that’s different,” I thought to myself. Little did I know what marked differences lay ahead of me for the week.  
Here are some of the things I noticed:

Competitor Focus:
Within five steps of entering the lobby, I noticed a beautiful showcase display of NBL gold rings and championship black belts. How could any competitor not say to themselves, “I want one of those!” As I ambled down the hotel corridor, elegant large canvas posters of circuit competitors in action hung from above. I secretly hoped that next year my face and name would be exhibited alongside the hall of champions. It became obvious to me that this whole hotel was devoted to the competitors of the Super Grands. There weren’t any other conferences going on there involving non-martial artists. The lobby was packed with competitors and their families. Before I even stepped in the ring, I knew that this event was all about the competitor.

Rules, Rules, Rules:
You can’t just waltz right into the Super Grands and start competing. Of course, the tournament is open to everyone, but you would be at a significant disadvantage if you didn’t do your research beforehand. First off, the rules are much more intricate than I expected. My head started to spin when I did spent some time on the NBL website reading up on the rules. Even the Super Grands flyer and the giant lobby clipboards were crammed with such detail that I wanted to run and hide from the information overload. 

But the strength is in the details. Thinking ahead and putting those thoughts into writing helps people get stuff done when management isn’t around to help direct. Efficiency and communication are essential to running an event of this complexity. The other key advantage is fairness. There’s nothing worse than showing up at a tournament and having an official make up rules on the fly. Having rules in writing reduces the amount of politics in competition.

One of the biggest complaints about sport karate is judging. Even if a tournament is run flawlessly, when the competitors are unhappy with the judging, their whole tournament experience is tainted. The directors of the Super Grands take the judging issue very seriously and put a lot of time and resources into improving judging. For example, there are consistently five judges at every ring, which is a pure luxury by any tournament standard. And these judges are not just randomly pulled from the audience. They must attend a lengthy judges instruction class where the rules are reviewed in detail before they are allowed to judge. I loved how the judges were required to wear a suit and tie to the ring. Proper attire adds a level of formality that gives the tournament that final touch of professionalism. Besides, who wants to have a judge that looks like a hobo?

Control of Competition Area
Many large tournaments have dividers that separate the competition rings from the spectators. Even with some level of separation between the competition area and spectators, the average tournament can still look like a zoo to an outsider. The Super Grands takes a different approach. Instead of just having security personnel at the front door, a horde of tough looking guys are stationed throughout the rings and spectator area. This army of security folks constantly usher folks who are not competing or coaching at the moment back behind the netted area.  What normally would be a crowded ringside is kept clear of standing spectators so that the sitting spectators have a clear view of the competition. The downside is that competitors who miscalculate their bathroom breaks before their division starts run the risk of getting fined once they return if they leave the competition.

Not a Weekend, but Week LONG
There is only one open tournament in North America that lasts an entire week – the NBL Super Grands. Most large tournaments last a day and a half. This extended time period calls for extra planning on behalf of NBL management as well as the competitor when it comes to making travel arrangements. All the staff, such as judges, scorekeepers, and coordinators, are planned out months in advance. No one is pulled from the audience and great care is made to ensure that each ring gets judges from different geographic areas to reduce bias. 

The key advantage I experienced with the week-long event is that I didn’t feel rushed in and out of the tournament. Part of the fun of any tournament experience is meeting different martial artists from all over the country. Martial artists tend to be an unusual and interesting group of people, and I was glad to be able to connect with such a large number of cool people without feeling that my time schedule was compressed.

Rockin’ Scoreboards
If there is one thing that stood out as my favorite facet of the NBL Super Grands, it was the electronic scoreboards at every ring. This was truly a luxury that I wish all promoters adopted. When I’m in the ring sparring, I prefer not to talk. So never did I have to articulate the question “How much time is left?” or “What’s the score?”  I just turned my head to the right, and the bright green and red numbers gave me my sparring status – just like a real professional sport. And after my eight fights, there was no arguing from either side about the accuracy of the scorekeeping or timekeeping. I’m convinced that having the scores and time in plain view for everyone eliminated the possibility of honest mistakes since so many people had their eyes on that scoreboard.

A Tournament Stage or Hollywood Set?
On rare occasions, I will go to a tournament that has a theme. NBL Super Grands takes this concept to a new level. This year’s theme was the California Gold Rush, which makes sense given the historical significance of the city of Sacramento.  As a result, the night time finals stage resembled a cartoonish Western town theme. Competitors would enter and exit the stage from different faux building doors such as the Saloon, Bank, Hotel, Jail or Livery (which I still can’t pronounce). Gigantic balloons of different sizes of yellow and black were strewn about the audience seating area in a beautiful ballroom that were all popped by the standing room only audience on the one minute countdown in the dark preceding each of four Grand Finales. No amount of attention to detail was spared with an old western movie playing on the large screen during the entrance and intermission and cowboy hats thrown to the audience in between competitions. And nothing tops seeing the promoter, Boice Lydell, wearing a goofy sheriff’s badge in a dark suit. 
Final Thoughts
There’s no doubt that the months of planning, hard work, and diligent attention to detail paid off and made the 2008 NBL Super Grands one of the highest quality martial arts events that I ever attended. With 10 rings during the daytime, there was hardly any downtime and the events ran like clockwork. The night time stage was beautiful and the unique Western theme added to the experience to the competitor. 

So if someone asks if I would recommend this event to the discerning martial arts competitor, my response would be – Yes, hands down. Am I still a dyed-in-wool NASKA competitor? Well, let’s just say you might spot me sporting my fancy new NBL belt to NASKA tournaments.