Perhaps the thing that caught my eye the most about the early leaks for the inaugural Bellator Kickboxing card was some of the names included. Sure, Melvin Manhoef makes a lot of sense, considering he’s signed to Bellator for MMA already, but it was the names Denise Kielholtz, Raymond Daniels and Kevin Ross that really caught my eye. All three were stars in other promotions before; Kielholtz in Enfusion Live, Daniels in GLORY and Ross in Lion Fight. While Daniels departing GLORY came as a bit of a shock, Kevin Ross signing with Bellator Kickboxing was the real surprise.
Kevin Ross is perhaps the poster boy for muay thai in the United States, to the point where Ross himself is sort of a meme. Seriously, Ross is sort of a meme for this photo of him bowing, fists extended towards the camera with the words “muay thai” scrawled across his knuckles. Chances are that you’ve seen that photo before, even if you aren’t super into kickboxing or muay thai. Regardless, Ross made his name among hardcore fans as a tough-as-nails American nak muay who wasn’t afraid to fly over to Thailand and scrap with the best of them or to sign on to face top level Thais in his home of California. The list of Thai opponents stretches from Coke Chunhawat to Malaipet, Sagetdao and even, yes, one of the greatest of all time in Saenchai.
Win, lose or draw (Ross actually has zero draws to his credit) Ross is always looking to entertain. “I’m there to put on a show for the fans,” he explained to me. “I put everything into my fights, I’m never taking it easy or trying to just hold on, I’m always doing my best even if it means losing.” This is the Kevin Ross that endeared himself to a larger audience thanks to Lion Fight’s television deal with AXS TV that saw Ross as one of Lion Fight’s centerpieces for so long. Much like Ross explained, he entertained in each and every outing with Lion Fight, which is what made the fact that Lion Fight somehow let him go all the more insane. Who let’s a guy like that go?
Bellator’s Scott Coker made a deal that Ross simply couldn’t resist. “What’s important to me is staying active, being able to go anywhere and fight anyone if I have downtime. That’s what they offered me. Of course, Bellator is my home base and takes priority, but part of my deal is that I can take outside fights.” If you’ve never spoken to Kevin before he’s an incredibly nice guy, always easy to talk with. I joked with him about how he had multiple fight offers in China, only for those to fall apart due to his contractual obligations and exclusivity. “Yeah, exactly,” he said. “I can take outside fights now. If you are gonna keep me under lock and key at least keep me active. Fighting once or twice a year just isn’t enough.”
As I mentioned above, Ross is best known for muay thai. In fact, if you talk to Ross he’ll express his love and passion for the sport, but kickboxing has been on his agenda for a while now. Ross has had multiple false starts when it comes to kickboxing, from being booked with K-1 in China to GLORY announcing that they signed Ross only for Lion Fight to impose their will and keep Ross from fighting there. I’ve always seen Ross as sort of a ride-or-die guy for muay thai, but he brushed that off.
“Muay thai is my passion,” he explained, “but I’ve always loved kickboxing as well. I’ve always been a fan of it and it’s a really good fit for me. I can’t throw elbows or anything, but that’s okay.” His style actually adapts incredibly well to kickboxing. Ross has a fluid style that relies a bit heavier on range than your average muay thai fighter. Sure, kickboxing lacks the clinch or the elbows, but that also means we probably won’t have that many more Kevin Ross bloodbaths, which got a laugh out of him. “Yeah, I’m comfortable with kickboxing, for sure. You’ll see the same Kevin Ross that you always see, I’m gonna be fighting my heart out as always.”
And fight he will, because on April 16th he’s schedule against Matteo Taccini, whom we both admitted to not exactly know a ton about. “I know that he’s young, I know that he’s hungry and for me this isn’t anything different. I’m prepared to be myself and to fight like I always do, whatever he brings to the table I’ll be prepared for. It’s gonna be a fun fight.”
The future's looking bright for Ross, who admits that he’s been fighting for over 13 years now. The inevitable question was that now that he’s under contract to Bellator would he consider MMA, something that he had considered for a long time in the past, but was able to avoid. The answer was pretty simple. “If I was going to do it, I would have done it already, you know? For a long time I thought that I was going to, I was getting ready for it. Never say never, I guess? But probably not.” We had agreed that it makes a bigger statement for him to stay where he is, and according to Ross he’s already see the flow move towards kickboxing and muay thai thanks to the popularity of Glory and Lion Fight. “I’m already seeing fighters trying to make their way in kickboxing, choosing it over MMA, I think that you’ll see more of that in the future.”
When I brought up the topic of if MMA and kickboxing needed to be connected closely for kickboxing and muay thai to grow, or if it was detrimental he was optimistic in it finding its own audience as well as appealing to fight fans in general. “It’s a little of both, I think. I don’t think that being closely related to MMA will be a bad thing for it, or that anyone will look down on it. I think that people will realize that it’s different and that it’ll come into its own. I’m just happy that I get to be a part of it and to help move the sport forward still.”
The decision that Ross made to jump to Bellator Kickboxing is a huge one for the sport, with Ross being incredibly upbeat heading into his first fight for the organization and clearly holds Scott Coker and his past accomplishments within kickboxing and MMA in high regards. “I mean, it’s Scott Coker,” he said, “his track record speaks for itself. Nobody has more experience doing what he’s done and how he’s done it, I’m looking forward to seeing how it pans out and I’m honored to be an important part of it. He’s got the right fighters, the right team and the right network in Spike TV in place to help to make this a success.”
Indeed, Scott Coker made his mark on kickboxing a great deal of years ago with his own events before he took the reins of K-1 USA and before Strikeforce transitioned to MMA and took the world by storm. On April 16th (airing on April 22nd on Spike TV) we’ll see the vision start to fall into place with Kevin Ross at the forefront against Matteo Taccini.