It had been six years since Kenneth Banks had participated in a full-scale karate tournament, so when the Baltimore County resident qualified for an international competition that was held in Japan last month, his expectations were not too high.
"I wanted to come out of it feeling I did the best," Banks said. "My [instructor] is from Japan, and he wanted his students to do well. If they didn't do well, it's an embarrassment to him."
Banks saw to it that his instructor, Masakazu Takahashi, would not be embarrassed. Fighting on a sprained ankle and in a country where karate was developed and mastered, Banks won six bouts to win the fighting title of the open division of the Kenku Juku Shotokan Association tournament that was held on July 20-21 in Hachoji, Japan.
"I'm not surprised that Kenny won," said Minoru Horie, an instructor under Takahashi who made the trip. "He has a lot of spirit, and he used his brain to fight."
It sounds like a story straight out of a "Karate Kid" movie, but at 39, Banks is no youngster. Fighting the final match of the tournament before more than 1,000 people, Banks -- one of the tournament's oldest competitors -- defeated a 22-year-old native Japan to win the title of the single-elimination tournament.
Banks was the only American winner for 1991.
"It was a great feeling," said Banks, who is president of the Baltimore-based Banks Contracting Company, a commercial construction firm. "During the tournament most of the guys were 22 to 28 years old, and as I watched them get their noses and ribs broken I said, 'I'm a little too old for this.' So it was a good feeling to go in there and win against some younger, well-trained athletes."
It was the 50th anniversary of the tournament, which showcases the Shotokan discipline of karate and attracts hundreds of competitors each year. Banks, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., who now lives in the Sudbrook section of Baltimore County, was one of four men and two women selected from the New York area to compete in Japan after a qualifying competition held in early July at a karate school he's affiliated with in Amityville, N.Y.
On short notice, Banks flew to Japan on July 15. He was one of 70 participants in the open fighting division -- which has no weight or height limitations -- of the tournament during which scores are achieved with kicks or punches between the neck and belt area. The first fighter with four points wins.
"I was pretty nervous going in because, even though I felt I was in pretty good shape, I had been away from competition and I had heard a lot about how good the Japanese were," said Banks, a former track standout at Adelphi University in Garden ++ City, N.Y. "After I took my first hit, that woke me up."
After winning that first match, 4-2, his confidence soared.
"I felt better and better as the competition went on," he said. "The closest match was the one right before the championship. It was 3-3, and I was feeling so good that I ran after him and caught him with a good shot to the chest. It knocked the wind out of him."
That set up the dramatic championship bout. Banks squared off against a Japanese fighter backed by the partisan crowd.
"When he scored, about 1,000 spectators and the other Japanese fighters cheered," Banks said. "When I scored, maybe eight people clapped."
But the small U.S. delegation got to clap more often. Banks won the match, 4-2, sending him into a temporary frenzy.
"I jumped up, put my hands in the air and ran over and hugged some people," he said. "But I looked around, and the Japanese are a very reserved people. So I walked back to the ring and bowed."
Afterward, the Japanese people who were reserved in their interaction with the American group before the tournament treated Banks like royalty.
"I was carrying my bags, and a guy took them away from me, pointed at me and said, 'Champion, champion, you can't carry,' " Banks said. "They gave us glasses for drinks, and every time I drank a little, someone was there to fill it up. The treatment was fantastic."
The championship made Banks' 13-hour flight back from Tokyo that much sweeter. Now, nearly three weeks later, the victory still is a little hard to believe for Banks. But he only needs to pull out his medals and certificates to remind himself of his biggest athletic achievement.
"Honestly, I didn't expect to win," Banks said, shrugging.. "I don't like to lose. But I just wanted to do well and not have any fears. Winning was unbelievable and a great feeling."