How One Man Overcame A Life Changing Injury to Become World Champion

How One Man Overcame A Life Changing Injury to Become World Champion

Your life can change in fractions of a second. 

On December 2018 Master Jon Powell was on an airplane getting situated. Holding a cup of coffee while trying to put his luggage in the bin. Not paying enough attention. Excited about the trip. Not knowing where his life would go due to a second of inattention. 

And in fractions of a second, everything changed when he hit his head and sustained a life changing concussion. Suddenly he couldn’t do the martial arts he lived for without being nauseous and barely able to stand afterwards. 

What he couldn’t know is one of the toughest times of his life would prepare him to become a global martial arts champion at the age of 37 and to  score a historic triumph  at the first ever 2020 Armor Combine. 

But again that would come down to fractions of a second. In fact, the difference between victory and a defeat would be 1 thousands of a millisecond. But this story doesn’t start at a martial arts moment as memorable as the Karate Kid’s Crane Kick. 

No, we have to begin when Master Jon Powell was in the worst pain in his life. We’ll follow him through his long journey to recovery as he begins to train at home with 2020 Armor. To the moment he was shocked to discover he’d made the Top 8 in the first ever 2020 Armor Combine and that two of his students had made it as well. All the way to his stunning victory.  

“I didn’t think I’d ever compete again after my head injury,” says Master Powell. “I thought that part of my life was done forever.” 

For contest the 2020 Armor Combine was the first ever Data Driven Tournament where athletes from all across the globe competed remotely for the Title of World’s Fastest reflexes using 2020 Armor’s patented technology. Over 300 athletes entered from 20 countries for a chance to win a $1,000 Scholarship and a one-of-a-kind golden Champion Chestguard. The entrants included several world Champions and Olympians. 

No one thought Jon Powell would make martial arts history on September 12th at the World’s First Data Driven Tournament,  especially not Jon. In this article you’ll learn how he surmounted almost impossible obstacles and became a hero, not only to his students but to the entire martial arts world.

A Long and Ugly Journey to Recovery

Striking his head on the airplane in December 2018 impacted his balance, his functional vision, cognitive processing and his central nervous system. Master Powell worried it would make it necessary for him to give up martial arts altogether. But this wasn’t even the worst case scenario. 

“Dealing with a brain injury that doesn’t get better after a week is probably one of the most frightening things in the world,” says Master Powell.  “It’s your sense of control. When you ask, “Can I walk?” That’s not normal. You shouldn’t have to ask that. Can I do the things I did? When things don’t get better right away there is a lot of anxiety. There was a real question of “Will I ever be the same person I was before?” 

Faced with the anxiety and intense physical symptoms Jon went looking for solutions to his life changing problem 

To get back his functional vision Powell did exhaustive vision therapy with doctors located in his home town of Jacksonville, Florida. The next step was finding a concussion doctor who could help him deal with his physical symptoms and become comfortable with jolts to his balance system. 

“Our balance systems are wired with our emotional paths,” says Powell. “You’ll actually feel anxiety around your balance. That anxiety makes you not want to move. The best concussion doctor in the world who treated Dale Earnhart Junior wrote a whole book about it. I was lucky to have him as a doctor.  That second half of the year was working through the plan he set for me. It was painful: Massive headaches and constant nausea but it was all part of that plan” 

How 2020 Armor Got Me Back on the Mats 

The problem for Jon was that any form of impact on his body would trigger intense symptoms. Even running would produce symptoms that would linger for days afterwards. His doctor–knowing Powell was a martial artist–recommended that he hit something to gradually become more comfortable with the impacts on his body. So that his body could get used to it and stop reacting so intensely. 

Master Powell had already been training with 2020 Armor and knew that it allowed him to record the power of his strikes on the vest itself. What interested him was the potential of the 2020 Armor mobile app to measure impact on a level more granular than ever before. Down to the kilojoule and hundredths of a millisecond. So he could slowly ratchet up the power of his strikes and minimize potential blowback.  But what got him truly excited was the Live Training Mode. 

“I fell in love with the new Live Modes on the app,” says Powell. “They made it fun and addictive to train at home. Sometimes I wouldn’t feel good as I was training. Then I would watch the Live Mode video and I’d be able to see how well I’d actually done. Because sometimes you feel like you are doing terrible but you aren’t.  Being able to see it made a real difference and kept me motivated.” 

Training on Live Mode turned his recovery into a game. And that game helped him get closer to a 100%. So he played it obsessively, posting online to keep himself accountable. Jon found his reaction time was rapidly improving on Reflex. Only for Jon it didn’t matter that he was getting faster, it was that he was feeling better. 

“I’d focus on the stats and that would get me through the symptoms,” says Powell.  “Next thing you know in July I’m not feeling anything when I’m hitting things. Now I am taking the hits and can see how far my symptoms are relative to where they were. Once you have a plan in place, once you go down that road. it’s indescribable. All the pain you have is adding up to something. I wasn’t thinking about the competition. I was thinking about feeling better. I’m feeling better now. That’s amazing. What happened next with the Combine..well that was something I’d never have imagined possible. But being able to get back on the mats and do what I love that felt like a miracle.” 

One School with Three Contestants in the Top 8

Master Powell has been running a free drop in martial arts program at FACM Taekwondo in Jacksonville Florida for the last 12 years. 

“Everyone loves Master Jon,” says his student 17 year old Darian Morales. “Master Jon is a humble teacher. When he teaches he likes to demonstrate and even he messes up. It’s a good feeling that not even he’s perfect and we all make mistakes. He’s a great guy.” 

The program caters to the local Filipino community and helps immigrants adjust to their new home by perfecting their skills in martial arts.  Since the program is free, Powell used to have a problem with retention as monthly payments don’t hold students accountable for attendance. He had to rely on keeping their attention. 

Since introducing 2020 Armor his retention has skyrocketed because the instant feedback gives students measurable goals they can strive to reach every class. 

He passed on his obsession with 2020 Armor’s mobile app to his students. He also invited them to watch 2020 Armor’s weekly classes focusing on Reaction Time with Master Yvette Yong and 2020 Armor CEO Ali Ghafour

During the weekly clinics the students learned how to cut unnecessary steps out of their kicks to score faster. They trained hard to improve so they can do well at the first ever 2020 Armor Combine.  

This might explain why two of his students also made it into the Top 8 for World’s Fastest Reaction time in 2020 Armor’s first ever Combine.

Darian Morales was the only colorbelt to make the final 8 and Rochelle Cabanas,  16, was the only female and the youngest person to make the top 8. 

“I was nervous and so happy,” says Cabanas of her experience qualifying for the Combine, her voice shaking. “It was my first time competing on such a big stage. I am about to cry just talking about what it was like finding out. Nothing like that had ever happened to me.  I was really happy. That I got into the top 8. I didn’t expect it. It’s thanks to Master Jon!” 

Injured at Exactly the Wrong Moment 

When Powell was alerted that he and his students had made the top 8  he was thrilled. They were then informed that they each had to create two more videos in case they reached the semi finals and the finals. This created a dilemma for Jon since he had recently injured his leg while training.

Master Powell knew he could train hard and do better but he wasn’t willing to risk permanently injuring himself. So he needed to rely on videos he had recorded in the 24 hours before the initial submission. 

“I was so proud of Darian and Rochelle for making it,” says Powell. “I was really more excited for them than I was for myself. So I put the time in to get them ready and hoped that the times I’d already recorded would be enough. But I figured I didn’t have a chance. Not when I learned that an Olympian would be competing. I just wanted to make sure that the day of the Broadcast everyone had a great time.” 

The Last Day of the First Ever 2020 Armor Combine 

On September 12th, 2020 they all gathered together at FACM Taekwondo. Jon and his wife made snacks and set up the Combine to play on the big screen. Despite being nervous about the results Jon was focused on making sure the experience was the best it could be for the kids who participated. 

The first round started. Jon leaned in to watch his battle against 22 year old Jarin Tchicaya of Choi’s Taekwondo. Tied at 20 seconds left. Then Jarin pulled ahead and was in the lead. 

As the seconds ticked down the match shifted quickly. It was like watching Basketball in the NBA finals as you moved to the last second and realized everything could change. This was a  whole new way of participating in martial arts tournaments that put your heart in your throat. And Jon was on the verge of losing. 

“I was pretty nervous,” says Powell.

Then the last two kicks pushed him ahead. Winning by 3 milliseconds. Scoring an average reaction time of 589 MS to Jarin’s 592 MS. 

“I knew from then on that it was going to be super close,” says Powell. 

Jon moved onto the Semifinals. Now he had to just watch his students and hope they made it through. 

Rochelle fell to her opponent, the fan favorite Ranphy Félix, from famed Puerto Rican martial arts school Guayama TKD, in a fight to the finish that came down to a 6 millisecond difference in time. 

“I was so proud of Rochelle,” says 2020 Armor Combine Host and World Ranked#1 Yvette Yong. “Rochelle showed so much heart! I can’t wait to see her come back for the next Combine.” 

It Felt Like My Dreams Could Come True 

Darian Morales faced off against Irish Olympian Jack Woolley. A match Darian couldn’t imagine he could win. Despite being ahead for a few seconds. 

“To be honest when I was watching it.  My heart was racing,” says Darian. “I couldn’t process it at the moment. I was super nervous. I wasn’t worried about losing. I was just excited to compete against someone of that level. It was a crazy experience. Going against an Olympian of all things. I think I made a friend in Jack Woolley. We talked on Instagram after. He was really encouraging and said maybe next Combine I might beat him. It gave me a feeling of confidence hearing someone like him say that, someone I admire so much. I’m going to be rooting for him in the Tokyo Olympics when that comes.”

This moment didn’t just give Darian confidence. It showed his parents what their truly remarkable son was capable of. 

His parents Carlos and Ivy Morales posted movingly on Instagram about how proud they were of their son for being the number one color belt in the world after just two years of martial arts practice. 

“Training with 2020 Armor with Master Jon made all the difference,” says Morales. “It really pushed me to get better.”  

2020 Armor Combine: The Semi Finals Against Jack Woolley

Before we go any further, we need to talk about Jack Woolley.

Jack qualified for the Olympics for Ireland, he won the silver medal at the European Championships and he joined the Combine because he loves competing and has the courage to try something new. His fighting style is exciting and exactly the style we love at 2020 Armor. 

Most high level athletes wouldn’t risk their reputation by entering a competition like this. Jack Wooley proved why he’s known as a fearless competitor and pushed himself to compete to motivate students at his school South Dublin TKD to participate in the Combine. Jack is the type of athlete who goes out of his way to inspire even his opponent. 

“I’ve seen this guy fight,” says Jon. “He’s unbelievable. And he’s much younger than me. I couldn’t imagine beating him. I was really on the edge of my seat the entire match.” 

The match was close. Just a few milliseconds difference between the two. Both athletes gave it their all.  Back and forth into the last 20 seconds. Then Jack pulled ahead. Then they were tied in the last 15 seconds. Tied again with five seconds. Then Master Powell pulled ahead in the last few seconds shocking the commentators, pulling off the biggest upset in the tournament. 

“I fell out of my seat,” says Master Powell. “That’s never happened to me. But I literally fell out of my seat.” 

2020 Armor Combine: The Finals Against Mokwondo

Master Powell would face off against Moseh Cho aka Mokwondo in the finals. 

Mokwondo had distinguished himself with his incredibly relaxed style, winning tough matches against fan favorite Ranphy Felix and Australian martial arts phenomenon Timothy Parkes from Australian’s famed Eclipse Taekwondo. 

Jon couldn’t imagine that his kicks with their hip rotation could possibly be faster than Mokwondo’s whip fast relaxed style.  Jon’s had more movement, more hip rotation, more possibility for slowing down and he was almost ten years older. 

“I promised myself that I’d enter this competition and I would use a technique that would make my master proud,” says Powell. “That was more important to me than winning.”

Across the world, martial arts students all the way from Dublin to Florida leaned in and waited with bated breath for the results. 

In Florida, fans at USTKDI began to cheer Jon’s name. They were amazed that his traditional martial arts technique had landed him in the finals and that his powerful kicks could compete against Mokwondo’s laid back style. 

As the clock ticked down Mokwondo was ahead. The result seemed inevitable. 

Jon’s heart was hammering in his chest. But he didn’t think of himself as the type of person who wins tournaments like this one. He was just glad to make it this far. After all, he’d thought he’d never compete again. But still….could it really happen?  

In the last five seconds Jon pulled ahead. They both did their last kicks. 

And at that moment everything was decided. 

By literally a 1000th of a millisecond difference between himself and his competitor. His score was 570 MS. Mokwondo was 571 MS.  All because of two kicks Jon threw in the last seconds of the match. 

And he was the winner of the first ever 2020 Armor Combine. 

And it happened because of a difference of just fractions of a second. 

Master Jon Powell thought he might never train again. He suffered a brain injury that changed his life after hitting his head on a flight in December 2018. Where he couldn’t trust his vision. Where even jogging made him so nauseous he would have to throw up. Somehow he fought through it all and stood tall on the global stage as Champion. 

But those fractions of a second that changed his life weren’t an accident like bumping his head on a plane in December 2018. 

They were hard won accomplishments earned  with 2020 Armor. Each day he made the choice not to give up. To push through the pain.  Until the jolt of impacts didn’t make him sick. Until the headaches went away. 

His 37 year old body so determined it would do things he could never have done 10 years before. Proving what could be accomplished when you measure your progress each day and set goals you show up to surpass. Until he exceeded every expectation he set for himself and made martial arts history. 

His students rose to their feet, literally screaming they were cheering so loudly as he watched on in disbelief, unable to process a moment like this.

Darian and Rochelle screamed with their classmates, so proud of their Master. Reflecting back on it days later, Master Powell’s voice fills with emotion. 

“It was such a happy ending to such a long and ugly journey,” says Master Powell. “I couldn’t take it in for awhile. It was just too much. There are so many people to thank for helping during this really hard last couple of years. There is this match called the Miracle on Ice in hockey in like 1980 between the Americans and the Soviets. This Soviet team was just incredible and there was like no way the American team were going to be able to beat them. The Soviets were four time defending champions. And the Americans scored a goal at the last possible second.  I looked at Mokwondo’s style and I looked at mine and I couldn’t imagine any way I could beat him. It was my Miracle on Ice.” 

And as one last question loomed after talking to Master Powell before the tournament began. Where he described himself as a person too old to win a tournament like this. Where his goal was just for some of his students to make the top 25. Has this experience changed his view of himself as an athlete and a martial artist?

“"I would say “yes, I guess I’m no imposter after all,” says Master Powell with trademark honesty and courage.  “ At my rank, many of us sort of struggle with imposter syndrome. We convey confidence to our students, and even to ourselves... but deep down many of us doubt it I think. And to an extent that is healthy.. pushing us to try harder, to never stop learning. But there’s a part of that where it gets in the way. It keeps us from being students ourselves around our students. From experimenting, trying, failing. Because we’re afraid of possibly confirming that. And believing we can actually surprise ourselves and others. After going through this, I see myself as a student that can actually play at the levels I always wanted to play at, even at this age. Yes, there is more pain, more recovery. But clearly anything is possible now."

And that’s the story of how one man faced seemingly insurmountable odds and became our first ever 2020 Armor Combine champion. He won a $1,000 Scholarship and a one of a kind championship 2020 Armor Vest  to mark his accomplishments. 

Thanks to all the amazing athletes who participated and the schools who gave their kids something so incredible to look forward during this difficult time. 

The Future of the 2020 Armor Combine 

Want to earn your own place in martial arts history like Master Jon Powell? 

Get ready for our next Combine. The competition will be fiercer. The prizes are going to be bigger. And Master Jon isn’t going to give up his title lightly. You’ll have to train every day at home to have a chance to beat him. More details are coming very soon.