Brian Irr comes across as a laid back, easygoing personality. But Irr, 32, recently named to represent the United States in karate at the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics, is a different person inside the ring.
“Anytime I meet people, they’re like, ‘I never would have guessed that you’re an international fighter based on your personality,’” Irr said. “It’s the attitude that you have in the ring stays in the ring. You’re in the competition and you’re fighting against somebody.
“The nature of karate is of respect. Respecting your opponent outside and inside of the ring,” he continued. “Each match starts with bowing to your opponent, showing respect, bowing to the referee, showing respect, finishing the same way. Then afterwards maybe you gave someone a bloody nose or a busted lipb, shaking their hand, giving them hugs. Having that mutual camaraderie outside the ring is something special.”
Since 2017, Irr has trained at the Academy of Classical Karate in Plano under Brody Burns, the Kumite (fighting) head coach for USA Karate. Dallas native Thomas Scott, who will also join Irr in Tokyo, trains at the same dojo.
Irr spent much of his life in upstate New York. Born in Newfane, which is near Buffalo, he was first exposed to karate by his younger brother at age 8 in nearby Lockport.
“My little brother wanted to take karate lessons. Signed up with my little brother and trained at the dojo in Lockport together, got our black belts together,” he said. “Eventually he ended up phasing out of karate and focusing on collegiate athletics.
“I stuck with karate and made the junior national team for the first time when I was 15. I competed on the US junior team at the Pan American Games and Junior World Championships up until 20 when I transitioned into the senior categories and the senior national team pool. Just progressed one step at a time.”
In 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) proposed making karate an Olympic sport for the first time and it was later officially added to the Summer Games.
Irr and Scott will compete in Kumite while fellow Team USA members will compete in kata (forms), Olympic debuts which have been delayed since the Tokyo Games, originally scheduled for last summer, were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a long process. Trained in Lockport, New York for almost 20 years before moving here to Texas,” Irr said. “Once it was announced that karate was going to be an Olympic sport, that was when I made the big push to really pursue this full-time. It’s been a two-year qualification process.”
After his dojo back home closed, he began considering where to move to continue his training in the hopes of reaching Tokyo.
In the end, he chose Plano for several reasons.
“I needed to move somewhere where I have people to train with and coaches that can get me on a strength and conditioning program,” Irr said. “I ultimately landed here [in DFW] knowing the infrastructure of some of the dojos here, knowing the coach here and some of my training partners here through some national team events.”
Not only has he trained in Plano, but he also teaches the children’s classes at his dojo and occasionally assists with the adult classes.
Irr also worked as a substitute teacher for Plano ISD, further proof of his passion to teach.
“I love teaching. If I’m playing a board game with somebody [playing it] for the first time, I love teaching how to play the game,” he said. “That’s always been something I’ve enjoyed, teaching people. Whether it’s about my experiences overseas as I travel, different things about languages I’ve picked up along the way, culturally, just sharing my knowledge with people is something I’m passionate about.”
The only downside to qualifying for the Tokyo Games is that due to pandemic-related protocols, the Japanese government is not allowing any spectators from other nations to attend the games.
However, any negative about not having friends and family in the stands cheering him and his teammates on is tempered by the fact he’s making history as one of the first Americans to compete in karate in the Olympics.
A bonus is returning to Nippon Budokan, a facility built to host judo at the 1964 Summer Games, also held in Tokyo. Not only has that venue hosted countless competitions, but it also was home to The Beatles for several concerts in 1966.
But this won’t be Irr’s first visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.
“Yes [been to Japan before], always for karate. The venue is one we’ve competed at before, so it’ll be a little bit familiar,” he said.
Irr’s first day of competition will be Aug. 7 with Scott competing first the day before.