Far more than most of her kickboxing competitors, Adi Grano finds a way to dance around the ring – a statement of fact that makes a great deal of sense after spending some 45 minutes or so chatting comfortably with the highly engaging 20 year-old Sudbury native.
Not only did the younger of two sisters in the family partake in dance training from the age of two until nine, literally following in the footsteps of an older sister who is immersed in the field, but her physical stature within the 70 kg+ division in which she competes kind of dictates, pretty much by necessity, a style where fast footwork is key.
It’s all added up to a pair of national titles at the WAKO Canada (World Association of Kickboxing Organizations) National Championships in Niagara Falls at the end of March (2023) – and a chance to represent her country at the upcoming World Championships in Aibufeira (Portugal) this week.
“I like to move a lot, so there’s a lot of focus on my footwork,” said Grano. “Most of the girls in my division like to press forward and I like to counter that style. Instead of getting into a brawl, I am going to counter that and figure out how to move around you. Instead of going in there and trying to break faces, I like to be technical and move.”
At times, Grano makes it sound so easy. And more often than not, she makes it look the same way.
“My footwork is very clean,” said the two-time medal winner at the 2020 Ontario Winter Games (OWG), her very first full contact tournament. “Nobody is really doing that right now, at least not that I have seen so far. I hit you and I’m gone – and it’s hard for someone to hit a moving target.”
“Once I hit them, they try and hit me back and I’m not there – or hopefully not there,” Grano laughed.
Whether moving to avoid strikes or positioning herself to deliver them, the graduate of Lasalle Secondary School constantly calls upon her time in the studio as a youth. “I always had things from dance that helped me in martial arts: strong legs, kicking and movement.”
Kickboxing was not her first entry point to MMA; that would be karate.
“The karate we do is more of a Japanese style which is very forms-based, one movement at a time,” said Grano. “But my personality is go, go, go, go. What attracted me to kickboxing was the speed, the precision of striking – and the continuous movement.”
Making the sport her own was a lesson that predated any kind of actual combat bout experience she would amass. “You might have combos and things you should try and do, but it’s very individualized, very creative. You let your brain go to where you see an opening, where you see a strike.”
“That’s what I love about it. I can be myself.”
After her dipping her toes into the competitive environment early on – “I did my first tournament when I was ten; I got smashed – it was not even close” – Grano did not venture that was again until the 2020 OWG in Barrie. “I won and there were coaches, judges, athletes telling me I had done really, really well,” she recalled.
“So I figured maybe I was pretty good at this.”
Three days after her return to Sudbury, the entire world shut down.
“I would say I disengaged slightly – but once the gyms opened up, I was right back in. I couldn’t wait to go back.”
Working with coach John Cole almost from the start, the tandem realized quickly the benefits of playing to her strength – especially given the physical matchups that Grano typically faces. “So far, I have always been the smaller athlete (in my bouts),” she said. “I’ve fought people that are 20, 30, 40 pounds heavier.”
“It’s not my favourite thing, obviously, but you do what you’ve got to do – and it’s worked out for me so far.”
As for what comes next, especially considering this excursion is basically self-funded (thank goodness for the sponsorship of DMC Mining and a Go Fund Me effort), Grano is trying to keep her options open.
“I am interested in MMA, but I would have to do a lot more grappling work,” she said. “I am interested in trying it, but my passion is kickboxing. I would rather get to the world level of kickboxing than do an amateur MMA fight.”
For the dancer turned kickboxer, that just seems to jive.