A Hollywood producer couldn't have scripted Brandon Malone's latest international fight any better.
To set the scene in the sports-meets-coming-of-age tale, the Mount Prospect native was 14 when he walked away from the Youth Pan-American Karate Championships in Montreal a somewhat dejected silver medalist. A Venezuelan opponent's last-second kick to the face eliminated Brandon's 2-0 overtime lead and sent him to a second-place finish.
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Brandon Alexander MaloneAge: 16
Hometown: Mount Prospect
School: Prospect High School
Who inspires you? Anyone with talent/skills in the sport of karate.
What's on your iPod? Various genres like alternative, rap and rock. Fave artists include Kings of Leon, Rage Against the Machine and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
What book are you reading? "The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The three words that best describe you? Determined, Humble, Considerate
So a sense of déjà vu set in this past August when Brandon again found himself in the finals of the same tournament in Cancun. This time, the Prospect High School junior was on the losing side of an identical 2-0 score against an Ecuadorean fighter with just four seconds to go.
Cue the dramatic music and slow motion shots.
"I thought I had lost because I heard the ref say 'yame' (stop! in Japanese), so I felt myself getting upset, but only one of the refs ruled (my opponent) got a point," Brandon recalls. "So I heard 'hajime' (begin!), faked one way and threw a kick to his face."
The arena's U.S. section erupted in cheers with the realization that the same three-point skill that Brandon fell victim to a couple years ago had this time secured him a 3-2 win, along with his first Pan-American gold medal.
The 16-year-old, a 2nd-degree black belt who trains at park districts and the Illinois Shotokan Karate Clubs dojo in Palatine, dreams cinema-worthy scenes such as these will be a regular thing as his karate career speeds along.
A lot of chips would have to fall into place, but the climax of Brandon's movie would be competing in the 2020 Summer Olympics -- wherever they may be. A five-time national team member, he'll be 24 years old in 2020, considered a prime age for adult competition.
The International Olympic Committee first must approve karate joining the current pool of events. Golf and rugby narrowly beat out the sport to make the cut for 2016.
Some say karate faces an uphill battle since the Olympics already features the martial arts judo and taekwondo. But others believe it has a decent shot, both because of its popularity and because Tokyo -- not far from the birthplace of karate -- is one of three finalists to host the 2020 games. Supporters have launched a campaign, "The K is on the Way," to try to secure karate's bid.
Sensei Brian Mertel, a U.S. team coach and instructor, said Brandon could make the Olympic team if given the opportunity.
"We basically have three kinds of fighters: emotional, body/technical and brain," Mertel said. "Brandon is definitely a brain fighter who does the right things at the right time. It's those intangibles that absolutely without a doubt give him the potential to be on the team."
Brandon's intelligence might be his greatest asset, according to his instructors, but he certainly brings other skills to a fight.
He's "lightning fast" and, perhaps more importantly, has been building confidence with every opponent he faces.
Sensei Julio Egoavil, a Peruvian 4th-degree black belt who's taken a Mr. Miyagi kind of role in Brandon's training, said his student's mental game is improving.
"Always I try to do more than train, to work out," Egoavil said. "Everyone train hard. Everyone try their best. The difference is when he competes. He has to think, 'I am the best. I want to win.' He has to visualize, step by step, winning."
Brandon studies and trains year round to compete in both the kata (forms and sequences) and kumite (sparring) styles of karate, currently in the -55 kilos or open weight divisions. When school is out, he may train up to five hours a day, five to six days a week.
By placing first or second in his division nationally, Brandon got to represent the United States in five Pan-American Championships, earning a gold, silver and bronze medal in kumite. He also won his division last year to represent the U.S. at the Junior World Championships in Malaysia.
"I love being able to travel and having friends all over the world," Brandon said. "In El Salvador, we were locked in the hotel because they said it was unsafe to go out, but usually we get to venture around some and it's pretty fun."
Brandon, who's competed in Chile and Brazil as well, also manages to take Advanced Placement and honors classes at Prospect and teach karate 10 hours a week at various park districts.
Georgia Malone said her son's success in karate has carried through to every aspect of his life, giving him confidence in himself and the ability to focus. She said he's modest and discreet when it comes to his accomplishments.
Malone has been amazed to watch Brandon form bonds with fighters worldwide despite not speaking a common language. And in what they assume is a nod to the way he moves, competitors recently started calling him "Spider," a nickname that's catching on globally.
"It's just amazing to think that kids in other parts of the world are emulating him," Malone said. "He's gaining respect."