Valley set to host karate championship event
Frank Caliguri recalls the martial arts boom of the early 1970s with ease and clarity.
"Bruce Lee just made it big. He was live on the screen for everyone to see," the 62-year-old Lower Burrell resident said.
Though multiplexes were taking advantage of this new niche in cinema, the local competitive martial arts scene still was relatively barren. In the boom, however, Caliguri saw an opportunity for innovation.
The result was two of the largest tournaments in the region, the Pittsburgh Karate Championships and the Pennsylvania Karate Championships. While the former ran for the final time in 2010, the 39th installment of the latter — now an annual, autumnal competition — will be Saturday at Valley High School.
The competition begins at 10 a.m. and is expected to finish by early evening.
"I still get the same excitement out of (running) it and helping the sport go on," said Caliguri, a ninth-degree black belt. "There's not a lot of good, big tournaments in the Pittsburgh area anymore."
At first, Caliguri ran a number of small, inter-dojo competitions through his Academy of Martial Arts in Lower Burrell to evaluate kind of local interest.
"One of the first tournaments we ran was at the New Kensington YMCA," he said. "No black belts were allowed, but we still had such a turnout that we couldn't fit them all in."
From there, Caliguri ran his first open tournament, the Pittsburgh Karate Championships.
"Frank's tournament was huge," said John Barton, a ninth-degree black belt and founder of Erie's King Cobra Karate.
Barton helped Caliguri with his first tournaments and has assisted him in a similar capacity since.
"I coordinated while Frank called the shots," he said.
They called in a promoter from Chicago to help them run the competitions at first. Soon, they learned the ropes of tournament organization and even found ways to improve upon the inefficiencies of others.
"We were able to run it on our own, and eventually, that lead to us opening more tournaments," Barton said.
Caliguri ran his two tournaments while he dabbled in a number of other fields, including organizing the United States' first sanctioned Mixed Martial Arts tournament in 1979.
Barton, meanwhile, started his own tournament, the King Cobra Karate Open. The tournament is now, according to Caliguri and Barton, the largest tournament in the region. Others soon followed suit and started their own competitions.
Mike Murray, a Kiski Area graduate and student of Caliguri, helps with public relations and merchandise for the Pennsylvania Karate Championships. He said a large number of tournaments began to dot the landscape by the 1980s.
"Back then, you could be within driving distance of 20 tournaments a year," he said. "Now• Maybe seven or eight."
Much like the business world, competitive martial arts took a hit from recent economic instability.
"You're not getting as many out-of-towners," Caliguri said. "As that happened, a lot of promoters pulled out because they weren't getting enough attendance."
Added Barton: "There's a lot of risk in doing a tournament, and you don't want to lose a lot of money. You put your head on the chopping block, and if you break even, you're happy."
Last year, Caliguri, discontinued the Pittsburgh Karate Championships, citing it as too time consuming. Still, Caliguri said — with the help of his wife, Nancy, and daughter, Kelli — the Pennsylvania Karate Championships has continued to thrive, while high-quality tournaments have replaced the previously high quantity.
"You now have better promoters running better tournaments," he said.
Barton believes that Caliguri's sterling reputation, as a martial artist and organizer, has allowed his tournament to continue.
"They know the tournament is going to go well because of how we run it," he said.