2004 Champion - Ben Cunningham


Fellow lightweight Ben Cunningham, also 22, was equally impressive in his division, first winning the NAS NSW State Title in point-sparring just weeks after having his appendix removed. In December, he again let fly with his quick hands to win the National Lightweight Title, then to defeat his heavyweight opponent in the Champion of Champions title bout at the NAS Nationals.

When and why did you first take up karate?

Pania: I began karate in 1987 at the age of five. You could say it was my destiny. My father, Shihan James Casey, was my instructor, and my mother, sister and two brothers all did karate too — it was in my blood.

Ben: I started karate in 1995. One of the main reasons was, my parents pushed me and my brother in to it, just to learn discipline and respect for each other and life, as well as getting some more exercise.

What made you choose the style you're in, and have you ever tried any other styles?

Pania: There was no decision to be made — as I mentioned earlier my instructor is my father, which meant their was no reason to look any further.

Ben: The one thing that hooked me to stay in Go Kan Ryu karate was the structure of the class format. You can work on mastering all aspects of the art — kihon (basics), kata, kumite, as well as working on your fitness and strength. I've tried two other styles for a couple of weeks before, but will remain with GKR.

How and why did you first get involved in NAS?

pania-ben2Pania: In 1995 my father/instructor took on the directorship of NAS Queensland, so that year I began my great journey with NAS.

Ben: At the end of 2001, I started on the NSW Go Kan Ryu state team, which allowed me to start the NAS tournaments. I wanted to test my skills and ability against the best in other styles, as well as strengthen my own ability in the martial arts.

Why should others want to get involved in NAS?

Pania: NAS tournaments are great. Every year we have competitors from all over Australia, and with them they bring comradeship, respect, friendship and good competition. In saying this, NAS is not only a great tournament for the competitors but also their families and friends — the spectators. NAS has given me the opportunity to appreciate and compete against all styles, which is great for growth and learning towards defending oneself.

Ben: I recommend NAS, because as an individual you can test your own ability against other styles in a non-contact environment. And you can pick up some valuable tips and techniques through the year, either things your good at, or things you can work on.

What were your most exciting victories?

Pania: I won the 1996 WKO World Titles, Canada (Points, Forms, Junior Champion of Champions); WASO First senior female Black-belt sparring and forms champion; WASO World Champion, Forms, World Champion Continuous Sparring.

In NAS, the Champion of Champions; Lightweight Point-sparring Champion; Forms champion; and State Team Forms champion.

Ben: I have a couple. One was in 2002, when I won the 16–20-year-old Colts (Brown-belt and above) Kumite at the GKR Australian Titles. Then in 2003 I went to Birmingham, England for the GKR World Cup, where I came first in the same division, and second for the kata. In 2004, NAS round one, I took first in forms and kumite (the double) for the Men's Open Black-belt.

I won the 2004 NAS NSW State Title in Men's Open Kumite after getting my appendix out just three weeks prior. Winning the Lightweight division at the Nationals in Point-sparring, and winning the Champion of Champions was just as memorable — and probably the best so far.

And your most memorable loss?

pania1Pania: My most memorable loss was at the 2000 nationals in Melbourne. I made the finals against Erin Forest [twice NAS Champion of Champions] but I lost, four points to five. Erin is a great champion and I enjoyed competing against her. She was the one to beat then — she was always winning, so to come so close made it memorable.

Ben: All losses are memorable because you learn form them and then go forward. In 2002 at the GKR Australasian Titles, in the Open Kumite finals I came up against Glen Hutchinson. The fight was neck-and-neck but it wasn't my time to win; I ended up third in the opens that year.

The lesson I learned was to never give up; always believe in my own ability and keep persisting until I've got my goal, or smashed it, and just keep working on my weakness until I'm happy with them.

What life-lessons have you learned through karate and NAS competition?

Pania: Karate has taught me to have good leadership skills, confidence in myself, respect for others and it's taught me that failure is not bad, as we learn from our mistakes. Now, as a mother of two, it has taught me how to teach my children good morals, respect and honour.

Ben: One of the biggest life lessons I've learned is belief, and inner courage. My inner courage through karate has improved heaps; I've also carried it through to my work as a security guard. But the one thing that made the difference this year was my belief, in that I started believing in my own techniques and ability. I began telling myself I'm the fastest and strongest person and I can win every time, against any opponent. Just thinking that helps.

How much do you use your NAS performance as an overall gauge of your martial arts development?

ben1Pania: I don't really use my NAS performance to gauge my martial arts development because karate is a way of life for me and has been since I was born.

Ben: I take every tournament, NAS and GKR, (and karate lessons) as a personal performance gauge, in that it's where I find out my weakness, and then go back to training and work on them over and over again until the technique is strong, fast, and I am happy with it.

Which elements of your art does NAS test and develop most, and are there any areas that aren't fully developed or tested through NAS comp?

Pania: My style is KenshinKan Karate, meaning Bare-Fist Spirit Karate. We don't train for competition, as we are a traditional, full-contact school. NAS doesn't really test any particular element of my art, as we are taught it all, but if any it would have to be my control. Although we are taught that control is very important, that would be the element NAS tests for me.

Ben: The NAS tests and develops every aspect of any martial artist; we train to get the best kata (forms) and kumite, and when we compete in the NAS it tests our knowledge and application of that kata and our techniques in kumite. It helps fine-tune techniques and focus, simply because you want to win the tournament.

What was the biggest obstacle you overcame to become NAS Champion of Champions?

pania-benPania: Definitely trying to juggle two babies while trying to focus on my events was my biggest obstacle, but I think having two babies pushes me even harder to achieve what I want out of life. I'm sure most mothers can agree with me, that after having children we can do anything. Having a young family and training and competing is never boring — sometimes a little hectic — but I love my family and my sport and would not change anything for the world.

My training and competing would not be possible if it wasn't for my mother watching the babies while I'm training, and our close-knit karate school — they are all like family, aunties and uncles to our babies and help watch them while I'm competing. I would like to thank them all very much.

Ben: The biggest obstacle was self-belief, which before was perhaps lacking. I visualised every opponent and every technique to win, every day, for two months prior to the tournament. I had to overcome the negative thoughts of not believing I could win, and the usual butterflies.