K-1: Past and Future
or Japan and the greats
In the 1990s, my Japanese friends at the dojo pestered me with questions about “Iron” Mike Tyson and his various returns from the penal system. Could Tyson have beaten a top Ali? No, I would say … have you ever seen Roy Jones fight? Floyd Mayweather? Invariably, his eyes searched the premises as if searching for lost keys or a joke. Can they beat Tyson?
By the new millennium, my Japanese acquaintances had turned their attention to Bob Sapp and his strange foray into the fight against K-1 and Pride. Can anyone beat Sapp, they wondered? Will he eventually crush the perfect Ernesto Hoost, the greatest K-1 fighter of all time? Yes, I scoffed at the former, and hell not the latter, stunned and baffled by the Eastern obsession with great Westerners. I thought it was a phenomenon not unlike my boxing fan friend who is unduly impressed by the flashy high kick, or karate fighters marveling at the arm bar. Wow. Watch that guy do what I can’t. Look, that guy is bigger than everyone in my career. Wow.
Kazuyoshi Ishii had been a karateka in the (then) fearsome Kyokushin system, before breaking away and forming the Seidokaikan fighting system. When Mr. Ishii created the K-1 fighting format in 1993, he was essentially taking the Kyokushin open weight tournament format that he was raised in and modifying it with reality-based kickboxing techniques. In Kyokushin, blows to the face were fouls leading to disqualification. Relatively smaller Japanese fighters had been able to maintain a tenuous superiority over larger foreigners through vigorous training, rules favoring smaller fighters in close-decision fights, and questionable judgments. Strong, skillful and relatively small Japanese men like Kenji Midori and Shokei Matsui were able to win world tournament championships. In K-1, however, we found that weight discrepancies have more, uh, weight, when the punches are aimed at the head, and that the judges’ decisions carry less weight when one fighter is more unconscious than the other.
Facts: There is a fundamental difference between a chin and a breast. The Dutch are considerably larger than the Japanese. It is much more exciting to see two half-naked men (be they Dutch or Japanese) aiming to hit each other with punches to the head, than two guys in gi hitting each other in the chest at a kiai festival.
K-1 was a hit in Japan, and the great Europeans named Branco, Ernesto, and Aerts became fan favorites. Most popular of all was Andy Hug, a passionate Swede who had grown up in Kyokushinkaikan (before wisely complementing his extraordinary kicking skills with a healthy dose of Muay Thai kickboxing); and also spoke Japanese. Other great Kyokushin karateka, such as Fihlo, Feitosa, and Pettas, tried their hand at the punch-to-the-face party, as did some Japanese Don Quixotes, such as Sataake and Musashi. K-1 spread across the world, with wrestlers and tournaments popping up in Australia, Africa, various European outposts, and finally America. It was “salad days.”
o Trouble in paradise
Boxing experts like Teddy Atlas and Emanuel Steward lament the current state of the heavyweight division, noting that the current shortage of big men is due in large part to marketing. Big boys (who often grow up to be big men) are raised on television, and television is more likely to show big men, big rich men, dribbling basketballs or catching soccer balls than hitting (and being beaten by) other men. The same applies to the current state of other fighting arts: the greats prefer balls to brutality.
Although the K-1 tournaments had become global events, the same fighters always seemed to make it to the final Grand Prix tournaments that take place in Japan towards the end of each year. There were the champions (Hoost, Aerts, Hug), the near-champions (Le Banner, Bernardo, Sefo, Fihlo), and they were always fighting each other. Then in 2001 a fat boor from Australia called Mark Hunt and won the world tournament, and K-1 was evolving (new blood) or completely random (fat man won it all). And Bob Sapp arrived. Random seemed to take the lead.
Any sport looking to market its product needs a superstar, and Ernesto Hoost was K-1’s man. A tall, graceful Dutchman of Surinamese descent, his terrible shins and consistent technique had earned him the nickname “Mr. Perfect.” He seemed quite distant, and his style could be too cautious at times, but it was undeniable that he was the best K-1 fighter, the toughest guy in the neighborhood, the man who could be behind Mr. Ishii as he told others. Large Martial Arts Wigs: “This is my bodyguard.” And Bob Sapp arrived.
With a melon head larger than most men’s torsos, sitting on a more muscular torso than a comic book hero, carried by legs that seemed too heavy to lift (much less kicking), Sapp was a character. strangely fearsome. But he had no fighting pedigree. Sapp, a failed soccer player, had just brought his more than 350 pounds to the kickboxing gym to train. Although he looked pretty silly when fighting, the smaller men often neglected to step aside when Sapp charged, thus winning some trivial matches. Japanese fans loved the appearance and personality of his cartoon character. But putting Sapp with Hoost was crazy; it was Primo Carnera against Joe Louis.
For the first few minutes of the fight, Hoost gave the fan a perfect beating. Who would have thought that Mr. Perfect wouldn’t move his head or feet when a wounded, scared, and enraged Sapp cornered him? That Sapp would knock out the best fighter in K-1? Twice! Kickboxers don’t know how to move their feet and head? It was as if Michael Jordan had become a professional baseball player AND gave Randy Johnson a new jerk. Tonya Harding had put on her boxing gloves AND knocked out Lucia Riijker (twice!). No, this was even dumber. The best kickboxer in the world had been knocked out – twice! – by a mediocre soccer player. How tough was Mr. Ishii’s neighborhood, when the toughest guy couldn’t beat a fan? The implications were bigger than Sapp’s melon head: How seriously can you take a sport built on such a precarious foundation?
o Paradise reimagined
Here’s a strange contradiction in American sports culture: in practice, martial arts tend to attract middle- and upper-class practitioners, while boxing attracts fighters primarily from the ghetto, but decidedly class media. High-media covering boxing reluctantly have completely avoided competition. martial arts (UFC, K-1, Pride) for reasons of excessive brutality. Most boxing fans and the media are drawn to boxers of blood and guts who sacrifice their well-being through aggressive and reckless fights (think of the recent Gatti-Ward trilogy). But somehow K-1 with its shocking head kicks, and MMA with its relatively bizarre running game, beats up many of these same Americans for being brutal in a bad way (“human cockfighting”). To appeal to a broader (i.e. American) audience, K-1 needs to market a product that is not only action-packed, but also ingenious in a way that is not too subtle for an inexperienced audience. Elegant butcher shop.
Maybe it’s time for K-1 to turn to the smaller men, rather than relying so heavily on the smaller talent pool of the greats. There are many men in Japan and elsewhere who are not 6’5 ‘tall, but possess the athletic ability and heart to compete in a sport that does not require monstrous size. These men are not only more abundant in quantity, but they are often more agreeable in quality. After all, the most popular boxer of the last decade has been Oscar De La Hoya, fighting with weights ranging from 130-160 pounds. K-1 could do worse than increase exposure to their World Max tournaments (70kg and under), with some special heavyweight bouts added to the card to satisfy our fascination with the greats. Perhaps the diminutive Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto could be some kind of dwarf Golden Boy. Does “Kid” speak English? Do you sing ballads and talk about your dead mother? Is she dead? Think of the possibilities! “Kid” Yamamoto at the Grammys, singing Japanese love ballads …
This brings us to the second phase of K-1’s evolution: the MMA fighting rules. Although it would be nice to expand the K-1 fan base, there are a lot of die-hard fans of full contact martial arts, and we need to be looked after and excited from time to time. K-1 has recently made inroads into the world of MMA with the addition of Hero’s to their shows. Following the recent lead of Pride and the UFC, K-1 Hero’s features MMA competition in various weight classes. They are cultivating a crop of smaller, more exciting Japanese fighters (Yamamoto, Tokoro, and Sudo), recruiting old MMA stalwarts (the Gracies and, what a blow! Sakaraba), and providing a training ground for standing fighters that are wet feet. in the full contact group (Aerts, Le Banner and Sefo). This ladder group indicates the attraction of full contact MMA in the martial arts world. K-1 fighters, whether out of boredom with the same old opponents or a desire to prove themselves in a more challenging format, are diversifying. One can only hope that K-1’s foray into MMA will be long-lasting, foster competition and cooperation among the top three organizations (UFC, Pride, K-1), develop more fighters of varying stature, and eventually help translate the excitement. of MMA in the lexicon of the American fight fan. Or maybe we should throw Yamamoto with Sapp and let them foolishly punch each other in the chest.