Breaking can sometimes be looked down on by some martial artists. It is sometimes seen as a gimmick and not a real test of the overall physical and mental skills martial artists develop.
But try telling that to 39-year old American John Kanabay. This summer, he was crowned ISKA World Martial Arts world champion board breaker; the first lightweight ever to win the title. He also became just the sixth person to be awarded the title of Ultimate Breaker.
For those not already familiar, breaking is when a martial artist uses a striking surface, usually their hand, but sometimes also their foot, to break an object. Wooden boards are the most common object used, but bricks and cinder blocks are also regularly used. The discipline of breaking is usually found in those martial arts which specialise in hitting, such as karate, taekwondo and pencak silat, a common form of Indonesian martial arts.
At the ISKA World Championship, the breaking event consists of four rounds, with different materials featuring. The rounds are power concrete arm, power concrete sidekick, creative breaking and three-directional wood breaking. The individual with the most combined points from the four rounds is the winner.
As a lightweight competitor, Kanabay had to keep his weight below the 199 pounds (90kg). Needless to say, this put him at a disadvantage when up against much bigger contestants, so it is a truly remarkable feat to win the title.
“Being the first lightweight Ultimate Breaker, I didn’t even think this was possible, Kanabay told NJ.com with a laugh afterwards. “You kind of develop a way of getting yourself excited about what you’re about to do, and it kicks on an adrenaline rush, so really I don’t feel anything, and sometimes I don’t even remember it.”
While he may not remember, those in attendance certainly will. That is because part of the reason for Kanabay’s success is his unique style. Unlike other competitors, John Kanabay likes to jump into the boards. This is perfectly legal, but as competitors only have about 5 seconds to break the boards, not easy to pull off effectively.
“My method is a little unorthodox, and everybody was kind of making fun of me in the years before,” Kanabay admitted. But it has certainly paid off, as he now a world champion. And he may also be a world record holder too. In three-directional wood breaking round, Kanabay broke 23 boards, which if verified, will be the most ever achieved.
The story of how John Kanabay has come to revolutionise the discipline of breaking is one of passion, dedication, and hard work. He began practising martial arts as a 9-year old, inspired by the martial artists he would see performing breaking feats on TV.
He readily admits that as a kid, his dream was just to be involved in some way, perhaps holding the boards for a breaking champion. But as he grew up and trained as a martial artist, his interest remained, despite not actively participating in breaking himself.
Then, just three years ago, he was invited to compete for the USA as a breaker. He had to go through a detailed vetting process and qualification rounds just to get the championship. It was a daunting process to go through and one made even harder when you examine how a breaker trains.
Breaking is not something you can do day-in, day-out at the gym. Kanabay says he will only actually break boards or bricks every 6 weeks to 2 months. This is because he has to allow his arms time to recover. This means that competitions are also very spaced out over the year.
He has therefore resorted to practising his techniques on soft targets and padded bricks. This is great in theory, but there will always be an element of doubt going into a competition. Unless that is you are one of the best.
And John Kanabay is undoubtedly one of the best. In every sport and martial arts discipline, a participant comes along every so often and revolutionises it. It is no overstatement to say that is what John Kanabay has done to breaking. His unique technique may well have changed breaking forever. And with world titles and world records to his name, few would dispute that John Kanabay really is King of the Breakers.