From the seasoned teens down to the mixed-sex Tiny Tots category, the WTKA Welsh Kickboxing Championships offered a fascinating and sometimes unsettling insight into the tough formative years of a martial arts expert.
Caerau’s Western Leisure Centre hosted roughly 400 entrants from across England and Wales on Sunday, and was heaving with fiercely proud parents. Even in this relatively minor competition, the ringside support was every bit as impassioned during schoolgirl scuffles as it was for clashes between six-foot bruisers.
The crowd's fervour was usually understandable; kickboxing can be a thrilling sport to watch.
But where inexperienced fighters were involved, hot tempers often marred the action.
In the final match of a long day, composure was what won Caie Copp, 19, the title of Grand Champion. Christopher Whitney, a rangy 18-year-old from Ebbw Vale, fought more aggressively but ultimately conceded the belt in a 6-3 loss to the Barry contender. When the judges called time, Whitney was gracious in defeat and his opponent never gloated.
At the younger, more volatile end of the tournament’s age range, such sportsmanship was rare. The day’s first trophies went to five-year-old Bristolian twins Harrison and Ellie Bains-Doyle, who each put in remarkably skilled performances. Their mother Emma, 32, was delighted, having watched her children train since they were just three.
But this was semi-contact kickboxing, the tactical, points-based form in which the action pauses after each clear strike. The twins' mother said the more punishing light-contact events were another matter: "I won’t let the little ones do the continuous fights. They’re not old enough to make their own decisions.”
Meanwhile, a girl no older than eight faced a boy of the same age in a light-contact bout. A cagey start looked promising, but as the first blow connected, all discipline evaporated. Their heads went down, their arms began to windmill. Soon, the boy had tears streaming down his face. It was essentially a playground scrap, but the grown spectators encircling the mat bellowed as if it were a Las Vegas prizefight.
When the same girl stepped up for her next fixture she was distraught, pleading with a frustrated coach: “I don’t want to, I don’t want to." She was eventually led away by her apologetic mother.
Tournament organiser Jason Griffiths, who coaches the WTKA Wales teams in Barry and Caerau, said he does not believe there should be a cut-off age for continuous bouts. His students, including his own sons, often attempt light-contact just six months into training.
"They have to start off somewhere,” he said.
For some, the sight of young children struggling through continuous bouts was hard to stomach. Though the youngsters fought fully padded, those on the losing end were plainly distressed.
One mother, watching a light-contact fight through the tears in her eyes, muttered: “It’s just disgusting. How old is that little girl?”
Her son did not compete on Sunday, but because he trains with one of the clubs she did not want to reveal her name. Outside, she said she had no problem with kickboxing itself, but insisted the continuous form was a step too far for younger children.
“It doesn’t show respect for the child or for the name of sport,” she said. “I’m just really surprised at the parents. They’re shouting out. It’s like a dog fight in there."
Advocates of youth kickboxing – coaches, parents and fighters – all offered the same defence, hailing the confidence, discipline and commitment the sport encourages. Griffiths' colleague Bernard Harvey said most of the WTKA Wales students found it had helped them with problems with bullying.
"It gives people from a bad background a good future," said Sunday's champion Copp. But while the solution is found through fists and feet, some people will probably never feel at ease with tournaments like this.