Before each match in the No Gi division of jiu-jitsu, Ka’eo Punzal takes a deep breath. Then, he thinks about what he’s supposed to do.
And then, he does it.
That approach helped the 9-year-old go undefeated in more than 20 fights in the No Gi division in the Hawaii triple crown of jiu-jitsu tournaments over the past year and earn the massive championship belt he proudly displays.
“He is shortest and lightest in every competition, but he’s also the spunkiest,” said his dad, Jacob “Smilie” Punzal.
No Gi is like mixed-marital arts, but without the punching. It’s grappling and jiu-jitsu, mano a mano.
At a little more than 50 pounds, Ka’eo often goes up against bigger, heavier keiki. Still, relying on speed, strength, agility and heart, he generally scored quick victories, often by submission.
“Since there is no one really in his division, they move him up,” Smilie Punzal said. “But he still beats the bigger kids.”
Ka’eo Punzal and older brother, Po’okela Punzal, 11, only started jiu-jitsu in October 2017. Both, like their father, are athletic and into physical fitness.
Their dad is the owner of Au‘Rai Fitness in Lihue and a strength and conditioning coach, so they train together. The boys are often by their dad’s side, sweating and smiling during workouts.
As Po’okela is taller and heavier, Ka’eo learned early he had scrap hard keep up. And big brother only took it a little easy on little brother.
As well, when Ka‘eo was born, he had a heart condition and had to fight for his life.
Today, that heart is strong and courageous.
“Ever since he was a kid, he was always a natural-born fighter,” Smilie said. “It’s in his blood.”
The brothers train almost daily at Esaki Jiu Jitsui in Lihue and both won medals in the Gi division in the Hawaii triple crown of jiu-jitsu tournaments
Ka‘eo enjoys training that includes push-ups, squats and running. He’s not one to avoid hard work. He’s knows that to excel requires determination.
Asked if he was ever scared before a match with a larger opponent, Ka’eo shook his head. Not at all. Never
“No,” he said, laughing.
“He has a lot of fun,” his dad added.
Ka‘eo’s other strengths are being technically sound, having sharp focus and displaying sportsmanship.
On the mat, he’s all business.
“His signature move is his takedown move,” Punzal said.
Off it, he’s all smiles and handshakes and hugs. He tends to be a humble champion.
“At the end, he makes friends with the people that he beat,” Smilie said. “On every island he has friends, so when we travel, people recognize him and he makes new friends.”
In his perfect season, there was only one close call, when he had to rally from four points down.
“He had to dig deep,” his dad said, “but he knew he could do it.”
Ka‘eo nodded in agreement.
Next up is the kids world jiu-jitsu tournament in February in California, where the best of the best will compete.
Smilie said local businesses and family have donated money to help with travel costs.
“Without all the help from the community, we wouldn’t be able to go on these trips,” he said.