I want you to visualize what is one of the most iconic knockouts in the history of Kickboxing. Visualize Andy Hug landing that spinning back kick on Mike Bernardo’s knee in the K-1 World Grand Prix 1996 Finals and the gravity that came from that kick. It was a tremendous story; Andy Hug, the undersized fighter who had lost to Bernardo twice before had finally overcome the odds when everything was on the line. It was hard to not feel something from that knockout.
The concept of sport at its best and most effective is when there is an emotional bond between the athlete and the spectator. Without a doubt there is a magical spark that happens when an athlete achieves a lifelong dream while a spectator, one that is emotionally invested in the athlete, watches on and cheers. In part it is due to living out a fantasy vicariously through the athlete; being able to see someone achieve their dream, to, if even for just a brief moment, be able to see someone reach those great heights that always seem out of reach.
In combat sports, which are about the individual and not a team, the ultimate goal is usually to win a World Championship. It’s a story that writes itself, a story about climbing to the top of the mountain and becoming the best, then defending that title and continuing to be the best. When the fans have an emotional investment in the fighter it is just amplified and the journey is all-the-more satisfying.
It’s these things that make combat sports the most fulfilling ones to spectate in the world, but it is also what makes them so inherently frustrating to be a fan of. Conventional wisdom points towards acquiring the most talent, to toss them into the ring against each other and hope that not only a World Champion emerges, but that a star will be born as well. The problem with this is that the more names that are involved, the more individuals with their own stories, personalities, strengths and weaknesses are in play and after a while they begin to get lost in the shuffle.
Right now if you look at the UFC’s roster you’ll see upwards of 500 fighters under contract. That isn’t a typo or an exaggeration. Around 500. That is complete and utter insanity. Every week you’ll read someone new prognosticating as to why there aren’t big stars left in MMA and the UFC, the only real conclusion that there can be is that there is simply too much. Too much of even a good thing is still absolutely too much, which is why the UFC is suffering right now. The cream may rise to the top and they may have the best fighters in the world of MMA under contract, but who cares? In team sports the lure has always been the fans’ connection with regional teams, while the star athletes, coaches and personalities being a revolving door.
Sure, some athletes will rise up and become a brand themselves, but it is still the team that is the real star attraction. Combat sports doesn’t have this luxury. The emotional investment isn’t for the team, it is for the individual. If a promotion has too much talent to display, even with lots of television time at their disposal, there will still be issues with getting the talent in front of fans and being able to sell them to the fans. There will be issues in creating that bond that makes the fans want to see their rise to the top.
I’ve seen some be critical of Lion Fight for having a solid stable of fighters that they try to involve in just about every show, but it makes a lot of sense. In a way it reminds me a lot of the days of regional professional wrestling in the United States. Sure, some are already scoffing and ripping their hair out at this thought; professional wrestling is fake and combat sports are real. But this isn’t about real or fake, this is about fans being emotionally invested, in caring about the athletes.
If you watch Lion Fight you are going to probably see Kevin Ross, Tiffany Van Soest and a few others, maybe not all on the same show, but usually you’ll get at least one or two of Lion Fight’s “stars” per show. They also fight often and are always discussed on the programming. You know what that does? It builds stars, it gives fans something to latch onto. It just feels natural.
To continue with the regional professional wrestling talk, look no further than the marvelous and historic feud between the Fabulous Freebirds and the Von Erichs. If you are unaware of this, let me break it down as briefly as I can. World Class Championship Wrestling ran out of Dallas, Texas, promoted by the Von Erich family, with Kerry Von Erich being the star son of the bunch. Michael “PS” Hayes had been working the region for a while, but also working with Terry Gordy, Buddy Roberts and Jimmy Garvin elsewhere as the Fabulous Freebirds group. So when it came time for the NWA World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair to make his stop in Texas in a match against Kerry Von Erich it seemed almost natural for the popular Michael Hayes to serve as an equalizer in their steel cage match.
Why? Because the fans knew him and he was a character that they cared about, they believed that he wanted what was best for the Von Erich family and they believed that him bringing Terry Gordy into the fold was only to help Kerry in the match. Much to the horror of the local, rabidly pro-Von Erich crowd, Michael Hayes lost control in the match and Kerry refused to take what he considered a “tainted” win thanks to Hayes punching Flair. Kerry crawled to the cage door in an attempt to escape and win the match that way, only for Terry Gordy on the outside to slam the cage door shut -- much to the horror of the crowd -- onto the head of Von Erich. The referee was forced to stop the match due to blood loss and Flair’s time in the territory was up, him moving onto the next stop, leaving the territory to have some of the best crowds for the hottest wrestling angle of the time -- the Von Erichs vs. the Freebirds. For the next few years the two sides would face each other night-in and night-out throughout the region, often times to the same groups of fans.
What was important was that there was a small cast of characters in play and they were featured in a way that the audiences knew as much as they could about all of them. They knew the motivations, they knew the latest happenings, they knew every little in and out of the situation. They were emotionally invested in the feud. They wanted the Von Erichs to be victorious, to thwart the Freebirds and serve up their own brand of justice.
Sure, in the world of professional sports the idea of such a feud would be far-fetched, to say the least. No one is going to be slamming cage doors on anyone else’s head (not without losing their license to fight, at least) and it is unrealistic to ever imagine reality being scripted better than fiction. With that being said, there is something to be learned from professional wrestling history and how to utilize talent in this manner.
Both Kickboxing and Muay Thai are trying to grow in the United States right now and the idea seems to be to have as much talent as possible on the roster and to only present the best in the world at all times. That, in theory, should be a good thing, but the main issue is that fans don’t know who these fighters are. There is limited television time and limited exposure, meaning that every month running a show with a completely new cast of characters leaves very little room for fans to forge these emotional bonds with the fighters.
There are, of course, physical limitations with professional fighters. They are only human and their bodies get worn, injured and they mentally need time in between fights to keep them sane. They don’t have the luxury of working a few nights a week like in professional wrestling without fear of being seriously injured and unable to compete again soon. But, with that being said, there are ways to work around these limitations and to maximize the potential for each star fighter.
Part of the original K-1’s magic was not just the tournament format, the great fighters that emerged that we know today as legends, or even the great fights. No, it was Akira Maeda’s coaching of Kazuyoshi Ishii in the art of promotion, in the art of building and marketing stars. Ishii knew Kyokushin, he knew how to promote fights, but he didn’t know how to create cultural icons. For proof of this, look no further than the early K-1 events. Like a mad scientist in a lab, we saw failures and successes with early K-1 stars before the promotion really found its groove and began creating national heroes, heroes that weren’t even native Japanese, which seemed to go against every bit of conventional wisdom when it came to promoting in Japan. Fans didn’t seem to care about Branko Cikatic or Masaaki Satake no matter how hard they tried, no matter how talented they were or how many wins they had. The magic wasn’t there yet.
A lot of what made that “magic” happen was that these guys were everywhere, they were promoted as stars, they were marketed constantly and were always being sold to fans. When they fought each other it was a big deal, it was sold as an event. It was important, it was huge, it was all that mattered. When you got any mixture of Peter Aerts, Ernesto Hoost, Andy Hug or Mike Bernardo in the ring together in the early days of K-1 you knew that you were going to witness magic, you knew that you were going to witness not only a fight, but a fight with history. That meant that you knew what each fighter had been through to get to this point.
You knew their wins, their losses, their struggles, their triumphs. You felt something. When Andy Hug met Mike Bernardo for the third time, after two losses, the feeling of Hug landing that spinning back kick on Bernardo and finally defeating him felt amazing. Hell, it still feels amazing to this day to watch that fight and to weigh it with the history leading up to it. To watch it without the backstory is to see a cool knockout, sure, but you are missing most of the story behind it. There were lots of stories like that in K-1 and they happened not because of scripting, but instead because of promotional efforts and maximizing the value for every one of their top fighters, so when they stepped into the ring with each other there was always a story to tell, always something to catch the fans and to make them care.
Absolutely no promotion in the world of combat sports has this magic right now, including the Kickboxing world, and I feel like it’s there, staring us right in the face. There is a blueprint there, just waiting to be tapped, one that failed not due to lack of fan interest or talent, but due to corruption. The UFC model is broken, it doesn’t work, it is struggling right now and it is without identity. American fans might scoff at the idea of professional wrestling bleeding into their “real” fighting, but the fact that we as a culture are still obsessed with comic book films and superheroes shows what we’ve always been grasping for. We’ve been grasping for heroes, for something to believe in. Championships only have value when they are held by worthy champions, when that champion has a connection to the fans and give the fans a reason to view the title as valuable. The best vs. the best is simple, it’s too simple and it’s overdone. At this point the best vs. the best is simply fast food in combat sports. It is there, it is easy, you know what it will yield, but there is no magic to it.
Kickboxing was different. Sure, most of the main stars had fought each other about half a dozen times over the years, to the point where many of their careers only involved fighting each other, but that was in part what made it so special. This wasn’t Boxing or MMA where the value was placed on withholding a big fight for years to make fans want it more, it was built around the concept of regional pro wrestling and giving that fight to the fans on occasion to build up that shared history so when they met in the ring, you had something to care about.
This isn’t simply nostalgia for better times, either, because I truly do feel that with the talent that is active right now we could see a very similar golden age, but it will just take some creative promoting to make it all come together. There are many stories to be told still, the fighters just need a nudge in the right direction to make them unfold.
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, is available now via Kindle and Paperback.