On the surface, Brian Irr appears to be the typical 17-year-old who might be seen shooting hoops on a playground or carrying a backpack full of books home from Newfane High School.
But he's not.
Despite his slim build and calm demeanor, Irr is a karate champion who dominates his weight class -- the 60-Kilo Division -- in the United States and just took second place in the Pan-American Games in Uruguay two weeks ago. Having won a place on the U.S. National Junior Men's Karate Team for the last three years, he was just edged out of the Western Hemisphere championship as time expired by the Puerto Rican champ by a 2-1 decision.
Irr has won 11 national titles, according to longtime trainer Eric Hill of the Seishin Kan School of Karate in Lockport. That includes three consecutive national titles, which placed him on the national team for each of the last three years and qualified him to compete in the Pan-American Games. He finished first last year at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Championships in Columbus, Ohio. He also has won the Amateur Athletic Union's All-American Award. The list goes on.
"Last year, he won the bronze medal at the U.S. Open, which is an international event. He's a good kid, a high honors student and has a good work ethic. He'll only get better," Hill said.
How did you get involved in karate?
It was my little brother Adam [now in ninth grade] who got me into it. He wanted to do it when he was 5, and I decided to sign up, too. I was 8. I stuck with it, but he got his black belt and then decided to do soccer instead.
Besides your brother, were there any outside influences that got you interested, like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan movies?
No. We never really thought about beating up people or anything like that. But we were into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and stuff.
Why do you like karate?
It's fun, and there are so many different aspects to it, like the forms [floor routines] and the sparring, which I like best. Every match is different. It's not the same thing all the time over and over again. It's always changing. Different opponents have different fighting styles, and you have to learn how to adapt to each. It makes you think, and it's always a challenge.
How has it helped improve your life?
It has taught me to focus. I do well in school. I'm a straight-A student. I think karate, because it teaches you how to concentrate on one specific thing, has helped me do well in school.
How much work does it take to get to your level and remain there?
I practice [karate] three hours a day, six days a week. But it doesn't seem so bad because I've been doing it for a few years. It's just part of my daily schedule.
Can you break boards and bricks in half?
We do it sometimes, just goofing around, but it's not part of our routine. It's more for show. It catches people's attention. But it has nothing to do with the sparring I do in competitions.
Does it hurt your hand when you do that?
If you do it right you're not going to hurt yourself. I've done it with bricks and boards. It's all focus and knowing you can do it. If you're afraid, you'll probably hold back a little, and it won't work.
Have you even been hurt in a match?
I had the worst injury I've ever got at the Pan-Am Games this month. I dislocated the small toe on my right foot when I went to kick and caught his elbow.
How many belts can you earn in karate?
There are seven. It goes white, yellow, orange, green, blue, brown and black.
What do they signify?
They represent benchmarks as you run through and learn all the basics. A lot of people think the black belt is the end of learning karate, but it's really just the begining. It takes two years to go from brown belt to black belt. Then that's when the fun begins. That's when you've got all the easy beginners stuff out of the way and start working on the more difficult techniques, different versions of techniques and, even later . . . combinations.
Do you have your black belt?
I'm a first-degree black belt. That's just the first level. It goes up to eighth-degree.
What's your favorite karate move?
That's a tough question. One of them is the roundhouse kick, because it's the most practical and it scores the most points [in a match].
Do you hit as hard as you can in matches?
You can hit the body as hard as you want, but if you hit a guy in the head and it snaps back, you'll get penalized. If you get enough penalties, you can be disqualified. You can score points to the head, but the object is to show the referee that you could take your opponent's head off if you wanted to. So if you throw a punch to his face, your arm can't be locked straight. It has to be bent so the strike is close to the head to show you can do it and that you have control. The point is not to hurt anyone, but to show what you can do in self-defense. . . . It's strictly a defensive thing, more for sport and fun.
How has your family reacted to your karate recognition?
My parents think it's great that I've made it to such a high level. My brother Adam made it to black belt and placed second in the nationals. But then he gave it up and decided to switch to soccer. He never got on the national team. My youngest brother, Nick, never got into it that much. He took it for only a couple of months.
What do you plan to do after high school?
I want to go to college. I plan on doing something in sports or something heath-related in sports, like athletic training, personal training, sports medicine. There are a lot of options.