Karate Kata Gold Medal Hope Kiyuna Builds ‘Destructive Power’

The Yomiuri Shimbun
World champion Ryo Kikuna, the gold medal favorite for the Tokyo Olympics in the men’s karate kata, strikes a pose in Tomigusuku, Okinawa Prefecture, on Dec. 6.

The words from the master cut through the air as Ryo Kiyuna went through an intense training session.

“You have to think that even the slightest opening means death,” implored Tsuguo Sakumoto, head of the Sakumoto Karate Academy that practices the Ryuei-ryu style. “Make your whole body into a weapon.”

In the sport of karate kata, a single competitor expresses the intensity of attack and defense through his movements alone. Because Kiyuna visualizes only the most formidable foes as his opponent, his training never ends.

With an eye on winning the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics with a perfect 30 points, title favorite Kiyuna has made “destructive power” the theme of his preparation.

The 30-year-old Okinawa Prefecture native has won the last three world titles in the individual men’s kata and has accumulated a Guinness-recognized world record of most gold medals won in the Karate 1 Premier League with 19.

Kiyuna has not tasted defeat since finishing second at an international event in February 2018, having since put together a record run of nine straight titles. Among his few recent outings was the All-Japan championships in December 2019, which he won convincingly.

After achieving the record for consecutive titles, Kiyuna contracted the novel coronavirus, but had no complications in making a full recovery.

Two years ago, his training was tailored to prepare for international tournaments held each month and he increased the time spent on his kata performance. But when his environment was curtailed by the pandemic, instead of lamenting the disruption, the world No. 1 used it as an opportunity to expand his training. With international competitions canceled throughout the past year, Kiyuna worked on “honing the impact of his techniques.”

The Olympics were also postponed for a year and he was allowed back in the training hall following a long layoff. Kiyuna was then able to work with a live opponent in front of him. The two clashed in a training drill to hit each other’s arms, and any loss of concentration could result in broken bones, he said.

Kiyuna’s fists bare the scars of being repeatedly thrust into a straw post. He has exchanged full-contact kicks to the thigh with training partners, thrown punches into a mitt and incorporated movements from ancient martial arts.

To borrow Kiyuna’s own words, what he derives from this is “an image of conveying power to the opponent and crushing him.” The purpose is to add swagger to a performance that is already characteristically powerful.

Kiyuna also works on building his physical base. He labels strength training as a “hobby,” and when the gym is closed, he works out with equipment in his home. In the past year, he has added 30 kilograms to his maximum squat, now a potent 190 kilograms. The 170-centimeter-tall Kiyuna has bulked up to 82 kilograms, an increase of three kilograms.

“I feel like I’ve added power,” Kiyuna said.

But he has no intention of allowing himself to stagnate.

“I always have a goal,” he said.

The “destructive power” has not only been ingrained into him physically, but mentally, in a way that can shatter any pressure.