2013 Champion - Khai Tran

Khai Tran 2013 champion

At the end of every year, Black-belt martial artists from across the country duke it out on the battleground known as the National All Styles Australian Championships, vying for the coveted title of NAS Champion of Champions — aka the best open-weight point-fighter Down Under. The men’s contest had been dominated by talented Queenslander Delio Senatore for the previous two years, but in 2013 the reigning champ was outdone by training partner Khai Tran, who made it a hat trick for their club, Seishin Ryu Karate. Now looking to make it four in a row in 2014, Tran recently chatted to Blitz about his inspirations, his training methods and the secret behind Sensei Ettore Senatore’s knack for producing top sport-karate fighters.

khai-tranKhai, how did you get started in martial arts?

I always loved watching martial arts movies…I had a strong desire to be like the lead actors. Coincidence, you may call it, but one day a man knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to do karate. It was a bit of a twist of fate and without thinking I said no. As the man turned to walk away, I realised that this was the moment that I was waiting for and yelled out, ‘Yes! I do.’ He came back in and signed me up, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

What inspired you to change your mind?

My main inspiration came from the burning desire within me to be the best I can be.

Fortunately my sensei at that time recognised this in me and began to encourage and nurture me. This was the opportunity that I had been waiting for! At that moment, I made a commitment that I was never going to be average. 

Winning my first competition was all the encouragement I needed to know that one day I was going to win the World Championship and the Australian National Championship. I managed to achieve both one year later.

I understand you were promoted to yondan (4th Dan) in 2013; what was that like?

‘Nervousness’ can aptly describe how I felt. I had two very high-ranking masters from different organisations testing me along with my instructor, Sensei Ettore Senatore. I had been preparing for months and felt very confident with what I had to do; however, there were elements of the grading that I did not expect, and had to use my knowledge and experience to work my way around those problems.

What is it like having Sensei Senatore as your main instructor?

I am extremely blessed to have Sensei Ettore as my instructor. He is not just my sensei; he is a lot more to me. I love him like I love my dad. That is because he has been a father figure to me both in and out of the dojo and in his own home. He, like my dad, has taught me so much more than karate. He reinforced in me how to be a respectful person, how to work hard for what you want, how to believe in myself and how to appreciate life. His philosophy of martial art begins and ends with respect. In training, he will push you to the limits and beyond to make you the best you can be.  However, he’s always instilling in his students that if you don’t have respect, you are not a true martial artist. 

In 2002, I actually decided to give up karate. Sensei Ettore phoned me and he said ‘Hey mate, you better come back to train or else I am going to kick your behind.’ So, I got back into training. I believe to this day that it was fate, and without him I would not be doing karate anymore…and I wouldn’t be answering these questions for Blitz!

I hear you’ve trained with other masters around the world. Could you please share where you’ve been and how they all compare? 

As a person and a karateka, I always strive to learn more. I have trained with various masters both in Australia and Okinawa, Japan. Each style has its own advantages and can be adapted to what I do, making me a better martial artist with respect for all styles. Working with different masters is a very humbling and gratifying experience.

Ettore’s son Delio has won the Champion of Champions title at NAS two years in a row. How much has his success motivated you and what is your training relationship like?

Some people say we’re like two peas in a pod. Delio and I complement each other in training. Training with him means training at 110 per cent and nothing less — that is why he is a champion.

Yes, his winning two years in a row certainly increased my motivation. Equally, I wanted to win the title for the club three years in a row. That desire and determination to win that I had acquired from my early years stirred in me once again. During our training sessions, Delio and I would often push ourselves to the point of being nauseous and light headed. This is when we knew that we had given everything we had. Both Delio and I follow Sensei Ettore’s teachings — we both work hard for what we want and believe in ourselves. 

Seishin Ryu Karate-do Australia seems to be producing some of the top competition fighters in the country. Why do you think that is?

Commitment, perseverance, determination, endurance, willpower and the strength of mind to go the extra mile are some of the main contributing factors that are responsible for this. What role do I, as a senior instructor, play in all this? I teach my students what Sensei Ettore taught me, and that is if you want to be good at karate, you need to train more often and train at 110 per cent all the time. Just as we know each student by name, we also know each student’s strengths and weaknesses, therefore training is personalised. I share all my knowledge with my students, which includes how I think, how I train, and my appreciation of hard training. 

Can you outline your weekly training schedule leading up to the competition? Does your training structure change for tournaments?

Our tournament training is held once a week. Three weeks prior to the tournament, training is undertaken twice a week. During our tournament training sessions, we do a lot of intensive work focusing on both kata and kumite [sparring]. To go with this, we also do a lot of work on our speed and agility.

How would you describe your own personal style of fighting? What are your main strengths? 

I don’t have a particular style of fighting. A good fighter should be able to adapt and read their opponent well. All fighters are different and if you are limited in what you do, then your style of fighting may not work with all fighters. I believe my strengths are the results of the challenges and experiences I’ve gained over the year. 

Talk us through the tournament finals. Who were the toughest opponents and were there any particular moments that stood out? 

When you reach the Champion of Champions stage, all of your opponents are tough. They have all trained long and hard — anyone could have been a winner. Every one of them has my highest respect.

I remembered the massive adrenaline rush I had, but I also experienced a sense of calm and was very relaxed. This is my way of having a clear vision on what I needed to do. It is very important to stay alert and composed.

Without giving too much away, do you have any tips for new competitors in NAS and how they can succeed?

I believe that watching your own performances in a tournament are the best ways to analyse yourself and improve. You cannot expect to do the same things and achieve a better result at the next tournament — always look for areas where you can improve. It might have been your balance or explosiveness that let your kata down, or it could have been your guard that was too low. It is best to address these before your next competition outing.

Is there anyone you’d like to thank in helping achieve this?

I would like to thank my entire club for being behind me and for their encouragement leading up to the tournament. I would like to thank Sensei Ettore and Sensei Delio for all their help with preparing me mentally and physically. Also, a very special thank you to my wonderful wife for her support and understanding. We have a beautiful little boy who was 12 months old at the time and I know it was very hard for her having me away four nights a week and once on the weekend training for many months leading up to the tournament.

Khai Tran with belt & trophyWhat do you hope to achieve in martial arts in the future?

I have my sight on the Champion of Champions title for 2014. My passion is to share my knowledge and experience with my students and to see them achieve their goals in the future. Aside from Seishin Ryu and my students, another one of my goals this year is to share my knowledge and experience with anyone from White-belt to Black-belt who is interested in competition or is currently competing. When it comes to martial arts, there is never an end to learning.

Delio and I will be running training sessions during this year and invite anyone who would be interested in attending these camps to contact me. These sessions will be specifically on kumite and it will include how we train for a tournament, what techniques and combinations to use and when, how we think in the ring (ring craft), mental preparation, and how to read and control your opponent. We just want to spread the knowledge! 

The Fighter’s Tips

Khai Tran on the best drills to help improve footwork for karate competition: 

We do a lot of high-intensity plyometric training and explosive exercises, because speed and agility are keys to succeeding in competition. I believe these exercises work best, and make me feel quicker and light on my feet. 

On how to settle the pre-competition nerves:

Leading up to a tournament, I spend a lot of time visualising. At the NAS [Australian Championships], I went to bed very early both on Friday and Saturday night — this worked for me then, but for some people getting to sleep might be an issue. [On the day] maybe get together with your team and fire each other up.