The news about Badr Hari, Gokhan Saki and Tyrone Spong’s imminent departures from the sport of Kickboxing behind to pursue other interests in the combat sports world has had the world talking about Heavyweight Kickboxing, but most of the discussion has not been complimentary, instead it has been gloom and doom. It is understandable to be upset over three big stars departing the world of Kickboxing; Saki and Hari for Boxing and Spong for MMA, because over the past few years they have been the golden standard of “young fighters” and shown a strong future for the sport. Yet the talk is that the well has gone dry, that there is no money in Kickboxing because of K-1’s financial distress and that elite talent will no longer look to Kickboxing as a viable career.
This is incredibly inaccurate and echoes a lot of the same sentiments that were heard about Boxing when MMA began to rise into prominence. Many were quick to declare Boxing as a dead sport or at least on a steady enough decline to where within a matter of years Mixed Martial Arts would completely over take it and no more young talent would turn to Boxing. Instead we’ve seen Boxing continue to march forward, new stars being developed and dominant fighters like Manny Pacquiao, Floyd Mayweather, the Klitschko brothers and more steal headlines and attract more and more fans. MMA enthusiasts will argue that there are so few big Boxing PPVs that of course the big fights drawing in the million buys or more range makes sense, that UFC’s business model is to get consistent buys for lesser fights. Boxing fans would note that no UFC fighter outside of Brock Lesnar has the ability to draw mainstream interest or PPV buys like a Floyd Mayweather or a Manny Pacquiao can.
The truth is somewhere in the middle, where both sports are entirely different sports and can easily co-exist with there still being a wealth of talent in each sport. For Kickboxing the same is true. There is no doubt that as MMA grows it will attract some talented fighters who could have otherwise made a successful career in Kickboxing, Boxing or Muay Thai, but that does not mean that any sport will be run out of business or talent because of it. Each sport is distinctly different and some fighters find their calling and stick with it. Not every fighter has a passion for grappling like they do for stand up fighting, why would they jump to a sport like MMA where in the United States traditional wrestling dominates a lot of where the fights take place and how they are paced?
In Europe and Asia there is still strong support for Kickboxing and Muay Thai, with it built into the culture much like in the Midwestern United States strong wrestling programs are built into the culture and in urban areas of the United States youth Boxing programs are there. Children grow up learning how to Kickbox in the Netherlands, UK, Australia and many other countries, it is hard to imagine a sport like Kickboxing simply dying off because of a predominantly American sport like MMA is finally starting to create “millionaires” as Dana White has gone on record stating.
The cases for Badr Hari, Gokhan Saki and Tyrone Spong leaving the Kickboxing world are indeed a sad loss, but are not anywhere near fatal. The fighter who had the longest, most successful run in K-1 was Badr Hari, who has made it to the K-1 World Grand Prix Finals twice, and both times choked under the pressure and never captured the championship. Badr Hari’s splash on the K-1 scene came in 2005 when he KO’d Stefan Leko with the “Leko Buster.” It took Badr until 2008 before he qualified for a K-1 World Grand Prix and saw any success, before having a few breakdowns which led to suspensions and trouble with the law. In a way, losing a fighter like Badr Hari benefits Kickboxing as his ties to organized crime and his actions in the ring do not put a positive light on the sport.
Tyrone Spong began his career ten years ago, at age 16, fighting at -66kg (145lbs) before making his professional debut at age 18 fighting at Middleweight, -72kg (158lbs). Spong continued moving up in weight until he hit around -86kg (189lbs), which seemed like his natural weight for his frame. Even when competing at -95kg (209lbs) he seemed extremely small compared to the rest of his competition, but he kept winning so he kept fighting. His transition into being a Heavyweight in K-1 was extremely rough, with 2009 being his first real shot at K-1 where Gokhan Saki was able to put an end to his growth temporarily, but he continued to put on weight and move towards a career as a K-1 Heavyweight. Spong now weighs 103.5kg (228lbs) and 2010 was his first World Grand Prix where he saw any actual success. Spong illustrates the problems of K-1 only having two dominant weight classes and why organizations like It’s Showtime having multiple weight classes with tough competition is good for fighters like Spong to help them develop into natural weight classes without feeling like they are missing out on real competition.
Gokhan Saki is yet another fighter like Spong who was newly crowned as part of the “Elite” of the Heavyweight world. Saki made his advance on K-1 in 2006, but never became a part of the discussion as a top level Heavyweight until he won the 2008 Hawaii GP. Then a win over Ray Sefo in the Final 16 and Ruslan Karaev in the Final 8 was his coming out party. 2008 was a big year for K-1 and fans in the United States, as it was the first year that HDnet aired the K-1 World Grand Prix and where a new generation of fans were introduced to a very accessible K-1. In the presentation, fighters like Badr Hari and Gokhan Saki were seen immediately as the best Kickboxers in the world, when the reality was that was Badr Hari’s first WGP and it was Saki’s first WGP. This has been both a blessing and a plight, as many fans have latched onto them and pinned hopes for the future onto their backs, possibly unfairly, when they’ve yet to show the staying power of a Peter Aerts, Ernesto Hoost, Semmy Schilt or Remy Bonjasky.
Before 2008 Hair and Saki were brought up as prospects, but they were not yet a part of the K-1 elite. In just three years time we’ve seen the “brand” value of Badr Hari and Gokhan Saki skyrocket, with Tyrone Spong’s gutsy performance against Alistair Overeem in 2010 raising his stock as well, to where newer fans are seeing them as indispensable parts of the Kickboxing world, while they were just fighters who were coming into their own and had not yet reached the level of true “greats.”
Things can happen fast in Kickboxing, especially with K-1 as the “hub” for what is considered greatness. If you only follow K-1 you’ll only see what fits their agenda. Fighters like Singh Jaideep won a regional tournament with a weak field to be introduced into K-1. This helps with “political” moves by being a fighter from India who trains in Japan and gives K-1 more of an international feel to World Grand Prix events without running their usual regional qualifiers. The inclusion of a fighter like Jaideep does not speak for the depth of Kickboxing talent as much as it does how K-1 does business. The same goes for Brazil’s Ewerton Teixeira who won the 2008 WGP in Fukuoka Qualifying Tournament and has since then served as the “Brazil” representative.
Daniel Ghita has quickly moved up the international rankings and become one of the top fighters in the Heavyweight Kickboxing world, much like Saki, Spong and Hari. Ghita made his K-1 debut in 2009 by winning the Final 16 Qualifying GP when no one had predicted his win. He was eliminated in the Final 16 but made a good showing in Super Fights for K-1 which helped him be invited back in 2010. Ghita is seen as one of the younger fighters who will be a mainstay and possibly even win the K-1 World Grand Prix after some more polish and he has only been on the K-1 scene for two years now. A lot can happen in a short amount of time, the right eyes just have to be watching.
To help LiverKick.com’s fans out, LiverKick.com will start taking a look at Heavyweight Kickboxers that they might not be familiar with due to not fighting in K-1 yet to help illustrate that Heavyweight Kickboxing is in no real danger, nor will it be for a very long time.
Dave Walsh has been covering MMA and Kickboxing since 2007 before changing his focus solely to Kickboxing in 2009, launching what was the only English-language site dedicated to giving Kickboxing similar coverage to what MMA receives. He was the co-founder of HeadKickLegend and now LiverKick. He resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico where he works as a writer of all trades.
His second novel, Terminus Cycle, launches on March 24th.