ts symbolism is priceless.
But for all of the honor and tradition it represents, one of the most prestigious awards to come out of the 45th annual National Japan Wado-Ryu Invitational Martial Arts championships arrived home unceremoniously sandwiched between two make-shift cardboard boxes.
Now the Top Male Competitor certificate from the championships is safely hanging on the wall of Nico Luna’s Ahwatukee Foothills bedroom.
For the former St. John Bosco student and Phoenix Brophy Prep sophomore it is the equivalent of being named the Most Valuable Player from among 1,300 martial arts practitioners from 15 countries.
The award goes to one male and one female from among all of the competitors.
In 2002 Mountain Pointe and U.S. Air Force Academy graduate Lydia Bigelow brought the same award back to the Mountainside Martial Arts Center operated by Rick Savagian, the owner and Sensei, or instructor, at the school.
“I was shocked,” Luna said after his arrival back home.
He had completed his competition and was watching other Americans fighting when he was called aside by Savagian.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Luna recalled with a grin.
Savagian overcame his own period of speechlessness to explain what the award represented.
“Some of those competitors were amazing,” Luna said. “I was surprised at how quick and fast they were and they showed me what level I still need to get to.”
The exposure to the international competition gave Luna an idea of what the Masters were looking for in making the award.
“I knew the award was like an MVP award, but that usually goes to someone on a winning team and this is an individual competition,” Luna continued. “I thought, ‘This is amazing. What did I do to deserve such an honor from the Masters who have been doing this for years?’ And I still don’t know.”
Savagian said it was the way he fought.
“He came out the blocks fired up,” Savagian said, “and I think that’s what they saw. It was clean, hard fighting. The harder the competition the more he pushed himself and that’s what you want to see.”
The 11-inch-by-14-inch certificate, written in Japanese and English, was packed between two large pieces of cardboard Nico and his father, Paul, found at the exhibition hall.
“We didn’t know how we were going to get it back on the plane without it getting wrinkled,” Paul said. “Then we found some cardboard boxes left over from when they were selling T-shirts.”
Luna put the award on the wall of his bedroom that also displays a picture of four other students he earned his black belt with, as well as his other belts.
Luna has been schooled in tradition and martial arts etiquette since he first put on a uniform or karategi, commonly called a Gi, as a 6-year-old, but being on karate’s home turf was a new experience.
“I was the American who didn’t know what he was doing and didn’t speak Japanese,” he said. “But when I was in the semis I needed to borrow a certain kind of gloves that I didn’t have.
“The kid who eventually beat me loaned me his,” Luna continued, “and said, ‘You’re an American. Good luck. Do well.’ There was a mutual respect even though we were going to beat each other up in the ring.”
While Luna was growing up he played soccer and baseball. One summer he got involved with karate.
“We figured it would last a summer or maybe a year,” Paul Luna said. “Instead he caught the bug and it quickly became his priority.”
Luna’s dedication was strong enough for him to turn down tickets on the floor of a Phoenix Suns game, in favor of a karate clinic.
Growing up Luna also watched those acrobatic kung fu movies.
“I had seen karate on TV and wanted to do all that kicking and springing around,” he said. “We didn’t do any jumping and kicking when I was younger, but it still appealed to me even though we weren’t doing what I had seen on TV.”
Luna has become an instructor at the school, or dojo.
“It takes a lot of patience, especially with the younger kids, but as they understand and advance where you can push them it’s so rewarding to watch them get better.”
His next opportunity to get an invitation to an overseas international tournament won’t come for another two years.
“I have to start working my butt off now because it isn’t that far off,” he said. “But I wouldn’t have gotten this far without the other students, including other black belts pushing me. They’re my friends and I would trust them with my life.”
Luna’s training now could be valuable in the future.
He is hoping to get an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and eventually become a Navy SEAL.
“That’s why, even more than karate,” Luna said, “academics have always been my first priority.”