South Surrey kickboxer Joseph Piccolo got tired of picking on people his own size – so at the biggest competition of his young career, he went up a weight class or two instead.
And despite the age and size disadvantage, the results couldn’t have been better for the 17-year-old Elgin Park Secondary student , who won gold in the men’s category – as opposed to the junior division – at the 2017 International Kickboxing Federation World Classic Championship last month in Orlando, Fla.
Both Piccolo’s fights were against older, far more experienced competitors – his first opponent was a 26-year-old, and the second, 34.
“It was definitely the most challenging competition I’ve ever faced. There were people from Chicago, Asia, Russia – from everywhere. And the calibre of fighters… was like nothing I’d ever seen before,” he told Peace Arch News Tuesday.
“It just kind of sunk in last night that’d I’d won. I looked at the trophy and I saw that it said ‘International World Champion.’ I looked at my mom and was like, ‘Wow,’” he said. “That’s when it hit me.”
Though he first tried kickboxing as an eight year old, Piccolo – who trains under Mostafa Sabeti at South Surry’s Golden Glory Martial Arts – gave up the sport after a few months to focus on soccer and rugby. However, a chance encounter with Sabeti just over a year ago drew him back into the sport, which has been his sole athletic focus for the last 15 months.
At the time, he was sidelined from rugby due to a broken finger.
“I’d gone with my mom to run some errands and ran into him, and he said, ‘Come by the dojo and we’ll get you started on some basic kicks,’” Piccolo explained. “I went… and had my first competition in October. It just lit a fire in me – I love it.”
Prior to travelling to Orlando for worlds, Piccolo had focused on training, while competing in a number of local competitions. In May, he won all three of his fights – and the championship belt as best overall junior male fighter – and Can-Am International Championships in Richmond. Last October, he placed first in the 170-pound weight division at Western Canadian Martial Arts Championships, which were held at BCIT’s Burnaby campus.
And while many people take up kickboxing – or any martial art – as way to get in shape or learn self-defence techniques, Piccolo said it’s the competitive aspect of the sport that drives him. Since getting his first taste of competition last year, he told PAN he has trained between one and two hours a day, five and often six days a week.
“Being able to test myself against others, that’s what drew me in. Just learning kickboxing is great, but for me, I want to go against other people,” he said.
“It’s a great feeling when you win, and I hate losing and had not succeeding at something, so I just went full-in. That’s just my mentality.”
His resolve was tested in the early days of his return to the sport, he admitted, but eventually, after enough practice, he started seeing results.
“When I first started, I’d be sparring with people and it was discouraging because I couldn’t land shots on anybody,” he said. “But it was a good motivator for me, so I kept practising, and then one day you start landing some punches. Maybe one day, you land two, then the next time you land five.”
His all-in focus certainly served him well in Orlando, especially in his second fight, against a man, Tyrone Hemmingway, Jr., who was double his age.
In the opening moments of the three-round bout, the veteran fighter “came out swinging” according to Piccolo. But a pair of voices from outside the ring – Sabeti’s, from the corner, and Piccolo’s mother, from the audience – spurred him on.
“The first 20, 30 seconds, I was just trying to block all his shots. When you’re punching full force, it’s draining, so I just let him come at me – I just danced around, and made him chase me to tire him out,” he explained.
“When he punched, I could definitely feel it – it’s the first fight I had where I got black eyes – but it all comes down to mental strength. I heard (Sabeti) yell, ‘fight back!” and then I heard my mom yell, ‘Joseph!’ because she saw me just getting pounded.
“I just thought, ‘You trained so hard for this, you don’t want it to end this way,’ and that just sparked something for me, and I stopped feeling (the punches) anymore. I picked up my game and in the second round I knocked him down twice, and then they stopped the fight in the first 30 seconds of the third round because he’d stopped fighting back.”
Now, with a kickboxing world championship under his belt, Piccolo is focusing on a boxing career. He’s expected to fight a few times this fall, he said, and plans to compete at provincial boxing championships next February.
“My big goal is to make the 2020 Olympics in boxing,” he said. “I have a title in kickboxing now, so I want to see if I can get one in boxing, too. I just want to keep challenging myself.”