If you’ve been a kickboxing fan long enough, you must know when a show has that “Dutch” feel to it. There’s pounding trance music, corners frantically yelling at the top of their lungs one second and chanting “Heyyy!!” (along with the crowd) the next, the VIP tables which the Dutch inexplicably prefer to stadium seating, Joop Ubeda snapping at everyone he possibly can, Mike Passenier drinking more of his fighters’ water than they actually do--the list goes on. One of my favorite conceits, however, has always been the advertised nationality of the fighters featured on these shows. At face value, the fighters on an It’s Showtime or old school Golden Glory card hailed from all over the world, from Suriname to Morocco, despite either being born in the Netherlands or having spent most of their life there (It’s Showtime took this conceit to more ludicrous extremes--playing NBC’s Olympic anthems throughout its fights and intermissions). These not-so-foreign fighters also competed with a similar fighting style, employing the Dutch systems practiced in powerhouse gyms like Chakuriki, Mike’s Gym, Golden Glory, Vos, and Meijiro and popularized by the late great Ramon Dekkers. This Dutch style would dominate kickboxing for nearly three decades, from its Muay Thai success in the 80s to its near ubiquity in the pantheon of K-1 champions.
But by 2011, things began to change. The fall of K-1 saw the kickboxing landscape largely shift to the Dutch scene with It’s Showtime and its roster of local prospects leading the way. The stylistic metagame subsequently coalesced around the same Dutch fighting system and the various particularities of its standout fight camps--devolving from an era of diversity which saw the likes of Andy Hug, Mike Bernardo, Glaube Feitosa, Ray Sefo, Masato, and Buakaw fight for the top position of their weight classes. The Chakuriki fighters liked to fight technical, the Mike’s Gym fighters liked to bash each others’ brains in, and everybody liked liver shots and some variation of punching combinations followed by low kicks. In short, the fights got boring, with fighters performing the same old moves on each other with little variation and more importantly, no innovation.
And then there was Giorgio Petrosyan. A petite Armenian with lots of decisions and few KOs to his name, Petrosyan unravelled the Dutch style of kickboxing. He read its tempo, he anticipated its combinations, he internalized its rhythm--and using his exquisite technique he defeated every major Dutch stylist in recent memory, from Albert Kraus to Andy Souwer to the Dutch system’s latest standout, Robin van Roosmalen. Petrosyan’s rising success was soon accompanied by increasing disarray in the Dutch ranks. There was anger, frustration, exasperated remarks of Petrosyan being overrated and boring--a point fighter rather than a fight finisher. And yet no one acknowledged the increasingly apparent reality: that Dutch Kickboxing was becoming increasingly predictable and exploitable.
Meanwhile, Andy Ristie ravaged It’s Showtime’s entry and mid-level ranks with his “unorthodox” fighting style that combines KO power and clever technique with his tall, lanky frame. While never flawless, Ristie’s style seemed to pose a darkhorse threat to the top, a threat which was finally realized when Ristie sent Petrosyan and van Roosmalen thundering to the canvas. In both fights, Ristie broke his opponents’ rhythm and form, slipping curving punches through the guard which found their mark. In one fell swoop, Andy Ristie turned the lightweight division upside down and singlehandedly breathed more life into kickboxing than it had since the Masato-Buakaw era.
The end result is a revitalized metagame that is being defined by innovation and the unravelling of kickboxing orthodoxy. The era of Ramon Dekkers is over. The future will see the arrival of more Petrosyans and Andy Risties--fighters whose diverse abilities take the game to new heights while upsetting the norm. It’s also not insignificant that both Cor Hemmers and Thom Harinck have retired at this time, opening the field for new coaching talent from around the world to make their names. Davit Kiria vs. Andy Ristie is only a taste of the type of fight to come: cerebral, intellectual, suspenseful, with glimmering strokes of artistry and sweet science rather than the concussive, brain rattling thunder of Meat Day. This is kickboxing at its best, and if you’re a fan, then you should welcome the evolution of the sport into the more fully realized competition of striking arts that it always promised to be.