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Kickboxing Metagame: Are we in the post-Dutch era?

Kiria

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.

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Remy Bonjasky Deserves Better

Bonjasky

Remy Bonjasky deserves better. He deserves better from the fans, he deserves better from his fellow fighters and he deserves better from GLORY.

Last night at GLORY 14 Zagreb we saw Remy Bonjasky’s career end in a fashion that would have made Harmonica from “Once Upon a Time in the West” feel uneasy. Remy Bonjasky’s career has cemented him as one of the all-time greats in Heavyweight Kickboxing, with three K-1 World Grand Prix victories under his belt. That puts him in the same category as fighters like Peter Aerts and Ernesto Hoost and Sem Schilt, as multi-time K-1 World Grand Prix champions who have nothing left to prove to the world. He belongs in the same breath as those fighters, yet it feels like he’s not taken as seriously by many.

Peter Aerts had a huge retirement ceremony at GLORY 13, with lots of fanfare and respect thrown his way, while Remy Bonjasky’s retirement was far more subdued, with Remy standing in the ring after his fight with Cro Cop being assailed by boos from the Zagreb crowd. There was no ceremony, no balloons, no post-fight interview on the broadcast, and there was no confetti, just a chorus of boos both in the arena and around the world from fans of Mirko Cro Cop who felt that Cro Cop was robbed. All of this while a three-time K-1 World Grand Prix Champion stood in the ring for the last time with tears in his eyes.

This wouldn’t be the first time in Remy Bonjasky’s career that things wouldn’t go his way, in fact, it would be one of many incidents where things went horribly wrong for the Flying Dutchman. This is the same Remy Bonjasky that Saduharu Tanikawa, Stefan Leko and Badr Hari had dubbed as an “actor” in the ring. In the fight with Leko in 2007 there were multiple low blows delivered to Remy Bonjasky, who then took time to recover, leading to Leko and Tanikawa believing that he was faking his injury in the ring and that he wasn’t good for K-1. Then came 2008 where Badr Hari became frustrated in the K-1 World Grand Prix Finals, pushed Bonjasky over and stomped him on the head, leading to a disqualification in the biggest fight of the year.

Bonjasky would never live that moment down, which sounds ridiculous, Bonjasky had done nothing wrong. He was an actor for taking that DQ win, he was a fraud and he was afraid of Badr Hari. His family received multiple death threats after the incident in K-1 from both fans and alleged friends of Badr Hari. After running into Semmy Schilt in the K-1 World Grand Prix 2009 Bonjasky was forced into retirement by a recurring eye injury, a detached retina, that left his vision in question. With limited peripheral vision it would be difficult for Bonjasky to be able to participate in such a tough sport as Kickboxing, making it hard to see strikes coming at him, but he still came back. He still fought with limited vision.

For years he had discussed wanting to have a retirement fight, one last fight to go out on, but with Kickboxing in the state that it was, no one was willing to give Bonjasky a big payday for his retirement, as they felt his retirement was simply not worth the attention or the budget, that fans wouldn’t care. Things started to turn around when GLORY started booking events and that they wanted the Flying Gentleman to help bolster their Heavyweight division, seeing the addition of Bonjasky as instant-credibility. Things were alright for Bonjasky in the beginning, but it was clear that things had changed in those years off.

After last night’s win over Mirko Cro Cop Remy Bonjasky will walk away from GLORY with a record of 3-3, his storied career ending with a whimper, not a bang. Regardless of who you thought won between Cro Cop and Bonjasky, isn’t it safe to say that it is unfair to Bonjasky to boo him out of the arena for his last fight? This was known to be Bonjasky’s retirement fight for a while, why was it kept under wraps like that? Where was the big ceremony for Bonjasky? Why did he have to fight Mirko in his last fight in Mirko’s home town?

Remy Bonjasky has worked hard to earn the respect of the Kickboxing world, but it seems like it never came, even in his last fight. I hope that the years remember Remy Bonjasky for what he was; a dynamic fighter with great defenses, better kicks and the ability to feel a fighter out and to catch them off guard with a flying knee or kick from out of nowhere. He was one of the few men who would not only win the K-1 World Grand Prix once, but to win it multiple times and he has wins over some of the toughest Heavyweight Kickboxers to ever walk this earth. Last night felt like the Cro Cop show when it didn’t need to be just about Cro Cop.

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Glory 14: Why We Need More Five-Round Fights

Ristie/Kiria

The conclusion of Glory 14 saw kickboxing legend Remy Bonjasky hang up his gloves after a hard-fought three round battle with Mirko Cro Cop that featured moments of vintage greatness from both fighters. Remy actively landed his signature kicks and knees while Cro Cop connected with thundering high kicks and powerful punches. Some fans may find fault with the decision, but I feel that it was rendered appropriately as Bonjasky landed more cleanly with his knees in the first two rounds, taking the fight two rounds to one. But did that mean that both fighters were done fighting? Hardly. Cro Cop turned up the pressure in Round 3, cornering Bonjasky and landing hard punches in the pocket. As controversial as fans may see the decision, there is no doubt that a fight of this magnitude should have been a five round fight.

The lack of five rounds is a curiosity in the sport of kickboxing. An ongoing staple of Muay Thai, the kickboxing world has largely spurned the concept, preferring a 3x3min structure originally set in place by K-1. This might be seen as a way to streamline the action, giving fighters a more limited time frame to make their case for the win and preventing fighters who are ahead on the scorecards from coasting through rounds. Indeed, “speeding up the action” is a reason that’s been frequently utilized to justify many of Kickboxing’s more unusual rules, particularly its controversial and often inconsistent clinch rules. While it’s unusual and remarkably savvy for promoters to tailor the rules of the sport to suit their product, the flipside in this particular case are lost opportunities to see great fights live up to their full potential.

Take Andy Ristie vs. Davit Kiria, for example. This was a fight that like Bonjasky vs. Cro Cop, could have ended after three rounds with a clear decision in favor of Ristie, yet like the Bonjasky fight, gave us a glimpse of what was possible in Rounds 4 and 5. Davit Kiria was still in the game after three rounds, turtling up Albert Kraus style and taking heavy punishment from Ristie while returning with counters that were increasingly finding their mark. The pendulum was beginning to swing, and there was a palpable sense that Kiria could gain control of the fight. Ending the fight after Round 3 would have deprived audiences of the best comeback of the year so far.

Kiria, like Remy Bonjasky and Buakaw in the past, is a slow starter whose essential style is not rewarded by current Kickboxing rules. These men typically open with careful, more conservative movements, studying their opponent in the early frames and then intensifying their offensive output in later rounds. This may not satisfy those who would prefer a consistently fast tempo for the fight, but I would argue that this cerebral style of fighting has an appropriate place in the sport, creating intrigue and suspense. A chess match is a great spectacle in and of itself, especially when it involves two elite competitors. Alternatively, a five round fight also allows us to see a knockdown, drag-out brawl like Chahid vs. Mike Zambidis or a tense affair like Artem Levin vs. Joe Schilling come to a more definitive conclusion. While Glory would undoubtedly have to adjust its pacing and structure its fight cards appropriately to accommodate a five round fight, Kiria vs. Ristie has clearly illustrated that the results can be magnificent, title or not.

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Remy Bonjasky Victorious in His Retirement Fight Against Cro Cop

Remy

Tonight in Zagreb, Croatia fans across the world got to say goodbye to the legendary Remy Bonjasky at GLORY 14 Zagreb. It was a tall task for Bonjasky, who was stepping into the ring with local hero Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic with a rather biased crowd. It didn’t matter, though, as Remy Bonjasky has steppe into the ring with the odds against him in the past before. This was a chance for redemption for Remy Bonjasky, a rematch from twelve years ago that saw Mirko Cro Cop walk away victorious.

It was three tense, close rounds fought by both men. Both Mirko Cro Cop and Remy Bonjasky’s styles have changed as they’ve aged and accumulated injuries, with Cro Cop relying on a more punch-heavy style and Bonjasky more on defense with the hands and offense with the legs. This was the story of the fight, as Mirko would swarm with the punches while Bonjasky would defend, then circle away to get distance and lay into Mirko with body kicks.

Many fans are going to be unhappy about the decision in this fight, though. Cro Cop was a bit more aggressive throughout, but the shots weren’t doing a lot of damage and Bonjasky was never in much trouble. Bonjasky was fighting as he tends to do, but his kicks were landing and landing heavy. This made for an incredibly close bout that fans of both fighters will be disputing for years to come, that being said, Remy Bonjasky’s hand was raised at the end of the night.

Remy Bonjasky has had a tremendous career and it is sad to see him go, but the persisting vision problems as well as years of injuries have made it tough for him to compete against the younger, quicker fighters of today. What we can say is that both men are legends and that nothing, no win or loss, can take that away at this point. I’m genuinely saddened that we won’t have another chance to hear “The Man with the Harmonica” again to lead Remy Bonjasky into the ring, but I was happy to see him walk away from the sport with a victory.

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