When it comes to martial arts, there may be no name larger or more influential than Chuck Norris.
For a group of passionate martial arts students from Niagara Falls, it’s hard to imagine higher praise than a compliment from Norris, a world famous television actor and movie star who’s even more renowned for his work as a professional fighter and instructor.
So when Team Fierce, a Chun Kuk Do demonstration team out of the Presti Karate and Fitness Center in Niagara Falls, placed second at the United Fighting Arts Federation’s International Training Conference and World Championships last year in Las Vegas, they may as well have won the entire competition.
Norris, founder and chairman of the UFAF and creator of Chun Kuk Do, a hybrid martial arts style, was so impressed with the team’s routine that he requested they perform during the opening ceremonies for the fighting competition the following day — an honor traditionally reserved for the first place finishers.
The recognition from Norris was just as good as placing first, said John Presti, founder and owner of the Presti Karate Centers, who also serves as a UFAF board member and organizer of the event.
“That was huge for him to honor the kids like that, I know it meant a lot to them,” Presti said. “They pick the music, they put it all together, they put in all the hard work and extra time. I just sit in the background and clap.”
As Team Fierce enters its fourth year of existence it has yet to take top honors during the UFAF championships, which draws nearly 300 competitors annually from nations like Mexico, Norway, Uzbekistan, among others. In its first year of competition in 2009, the team placed third before finishing as runner-up the following two years.
This year, as Team Fierce prepares its return to Las Vegas for the 2012 installment of the three-day competition and seminar which is set to begin July 20 at the South Point Hotel and Casino, they’ve got their sights set on one thing — first place.
This time, nothing else will do.
“We’ve been working really hard,” team co-captain Greg Bullock said. “The whole team has dedicated a bunch of time. We all know we have to do really well so we can represent Presti Karate well. I really think that we can take first this year.”
Led by Bullock, a third-degree black belt, and fellow co-captain Shannon Myers, also a third-degree black belt, Team Fierce spends countless hours per week — meeting on their own time often in between school and jobs — together perfecting their routine, which at times requires all 12 members to remain flawlessly in sync with one another without missing a beat.
“It’s so dynamic. It’s so exciting,” Presti said. “The technique these kids use and they way they do it, it excites the whole audience.”
The demonstration competition consists of a dozen or so teams of six or more members. Each team creates, choreographs and executes a six-minute routine combining the fundamentals of Chun Kuk Do with a twist of entertainment using “tricking” moves and weapons to the rhythm of music.
Compared to other teams, Team Fierce is a bit larger, comprised of 12 members whose ages range from 11 to 25, each hailing from one of Presti’s three Western New York schools.
While the team’s size or age disparity might seem to hinder any group’s rhythm or ability to compete with smaller, older, teams, it has little affect on Team Fierce. Each member of the team has high capabilities, carrying at least a first-degree black belt ranking.
Presti’s daughter, Carly, is the youngest of the group.
“Carly’s been coming to Vegas since she was a newborn,” Presti said. “She basically has 11 years of experience.”
Both Bullock and Myers claimed this is the most skilled demo team they’ve been a part of in four years of competition, confirming that age is, in fact, just a number for Team Fierce.
If nothing else, the wide range of age provides the team with a sense of family for each member, who probably sees one another more than their actual brothers and sisters.
“Honestly these kids at Presti Karate are my family,” Myers said. “I have a sense of family when I’m there. We all work so well together. ... I’m not afraid to fail because I know I have people behind me who will be there to pick me back up.”
“I can’t tell you how many birthday parties we have to go to,” Presti said. “It’s definitely an extended family.”
At one point, it was in question whether or not the team would make the trip to Vegas this year. With each member required to raise their own funds for the trip, some were unsure whether they could manage. But Myers said everyone loves it so much that they couldn’t pass up a shot at first place.
Like her teammates, Myers will also compete in individual events throughout the weekend. Although many are expected to come away individual champions, Myers said it’s competing on the demo team that has them most excited.
“I don’t care if I get last place individually because I want our team to do well so bad,” Myers said. “I’ve been slacking in my own personal training just to be able to put more effort into this team.
“This year we want that first place,” she continued. “We’re ready for it. After two years in a row finishing second we’re ready to take first this time. We’re just hoping all our hard work pays off.”