March 25, 2001 11:00 pm

By C.J. Gish

Observer Staff Writer

Theres nothing worse than traveling 500 miles to have your dreams crushed in the first round of a martial arts tournament.

Ken Johnson felt the same way, and he decided change was in order. The instructor/owner of Grande Ronde Karate and Kung Fu School created the Northwest All Martial Arts Challenge seven years ago and introduced his own tournament sparring style: the round robin.

Sifu Johnson is the one who originated it. Someone else started doing it, but they stopped. (Johnson) adopted it and refined it, and it helped get him into the (National Martial Arts) Hall of Fame, said Brandon Boltz of La Grande, a student of Johnson.

You can go 200, 300 miles and get beat in the first round (of a tournament) and be done, Boltz said. Its a pretty bad feeling, especially for little kids. They come happy and then someone thumps them.

Johnson agreed. The longtime martial arts instructor used some of his job skills to put together a sparring format that leaves all competitors happy.

Im an electronic engineer by trade, so I think mathematically, Johnson said on how he set up the round robin.

Its receiving national recognition. I went into the hall of fame because of this, and my fighting. But this (tournament format) made me stick out in the voters minds.

What his format does is let every sparring tag team and/or individual a chance to fight at least three opponents. There are no one-round-and-outs for anyone.

It gives you a chance to fight everyone in your division, said Dallas Voss of Summerville, a former student of Johnsons who now teaches, too.

I like (the format) a lot. Its good for my kids. It gives you experience. If you get put out right away (at another tournament), you might not get to fight a good fighter.

The round robin is starting to catch on at tournaments, including two in Boise.

Theres probably 2,000 (martial arts) tournaments a year, Johnson said. I see in five to six years 100 to 200 doing round robins. Its gaining more interest back East in Baltimore, Georgia, Maine, Missouri.

The proof is in the pudding. Every year, Johnsons tournament has drawn competitors from all over the west side of the United States. Saturday drew more than 170 competitors and 230 spectators to La Grande High Schools gymnasium.

Lets face it, La Grande is in the middle of nowhere, but we have a variety of arts from Korean to Chinese to Japanese here, said Johnson, who credits the round robin format for the popularity.

Its better for the kids and parents. Some people drive or fly almost 1,000 miles to be here and pay all that money for travel, food and motels.

With the usual format of sparring, half those competitors would be eliminated in the first round.

I know half the kids and half the parents would be upset (after the first round). I guarantee everyone will have three fights, Johnson said. Because of that (round robin), we draw them.

And no one has to go home unhappy.