K-1 hits the spot

Ultimate fighters pack a punch

by John Maylam

Blood spurts from his nose. Another crunching blow to the head. His lights go out as he drops to the floor unconscious. Thousands of dollars go down with him.

A back-street mugging? No. Try a typical day at the office for a professional K-1 fighter.

If you thought “Fight Club” stuff just happened in the movies, you’ve obviously not seen the real deal, the high-octane, made-for-TV drama that is K-1.

The sport’s aim couldn’t be more clear, or brutal, as it is simply to unleash the world’s best fighters, free of almost all rules, to try and finish each other off in three or five three-minute rounds, depending on the tournament. As its name suggests — being derived from kakutogi, the Japanese collective noun for the combat techniques of karate, kung fu and kickboxing — this is about fighting, not boxing’s gentlemanly rules.

Further setting it apart, the “1″ in K-1 represents the number of weight divisions, and also indicates that the champion is truly No. 1.

For this new dimension of spectator sports, the world can thank the jaded Japanese public of the early 1990s. Back then, along with their economic bubble bursting they were also getting bored with the entertaining but fake atmosphere of professional wrestling. Boxing was at least real, but for many, apart from die-hard fans, bouts often seemed to last too long, without enough action to keep the paying public satisfied. What was needed was some form of fighting that was explosive, dramatic, even truly fearful as it dished out action by the bucketload. That’s when K-1 formed in the mind of the “Master,” Kazuyoshi Ishii.

The founder of Seidokaikan, an Osaka-based Japanese karate school that later attracted the tagline “the undefeatable karate group” — and which now has dojo (training gyms) all over Japan as well as in Switzerland, Poland, Germany and America — Ishii started from the simple premise that his boys were the best fighters anywhere, no matter what the fighting discipline.

To prove his point, in 1993 he organized the first K-1 Grand Prix at the Yoyogi Dai-Ichi Stadium in Tokyo, with $100,000 prize money at stake. The event was held in a regulation-size boxing ring under his K-1 rules, which allowed for a range of punches and kicks to accommodate kickboxing, Thai boxing and karate techniques. A sellout crowd of 10,000 saw Belgian Branco Citatic upset Dutchman Ernesto Hoost with a cracking right to win the first K-1 Championship. Later the same year, two more K-1 events were held, won by Hoost and Masaaki Satake. From those beginnings, in less than a decade K-1 has become the biggest professional stand-up fighting sport in the world after boxing. And now, as then, Ishii is at the helm.

“K-1 determines who is the best fighter in the world regardless of karate politics, or of style affiliation,” the “Master” proudly insists. “This is the idea of letting the fighters themselves decide who is best under fair and standardized rules. This is progress. This is the rationale of the K-1 Grand Prix, and it is the basic idea of Seidokaikan.”

As K-1 bouts are limited to a maximum of five rounds, fighters are encouraged to go all out for glory rather than conserve energy for the 15 rounds that some professional boxers face. The resulting combined artillery of punches and kicks makes for more knockdowns — the essential spectator ingredient for any successful fight — and many bouts that don’t go the distance.

However, if there is no KO, fights are won on points, with the judges awarding marks for accurate kicks or punches to the head and body; the amount of damage inflicted; the number of downs gained; and a fighter’s aggressiveness.

In their efforts to win, fighters often combine a variety of straight punches, hooks, uppercuts and backspin blows with a multitude of kicking techniques. Although they often have favored combinations, the common denominator is the emphasis on power.

Though K-1 resembles Thai boxing in that use of the knee is allowed — though the groin is off-limits to all blows — it differs from kickboxing as fighters have no padding on their feet. So far, in what is an intense rivalry between fighters from kickboxing or karate backgrounds, it is the kickboxers who’ve held sway.

With such compelling ingredients, it’s perhaps not surprising that Ishii’s plan for K-1 took off like a rocket in Japan. Tickets often sold out within an hour of going on sale, while television rights were sold for millions and stars were born. In 1993, Fuji TV became the first broadcaster in Japan to spot the potential, and ever since it has regularly captured 25 percent of viewers for the big tournaments, all of which it televises. Such high ratings naturally caught the attention of other TV stations, and NTV (Nippon TV) began screening K-1 tournaments in 1998, while TBS has plans to follow suit next year.

With such high TV ratings, the sport’s organizers — led by Ishii — have been able to throw massive amounts of money at the top fighters. In boxing, even the loser gets a decent-sized purse, but K-1 is different. Currently, the difference in prize money between first and second place at the World Championships is $340,000 ($400,000 for first place, $60,000 for second). This hugely disproportionate split is another, deliberate reflection of K-1′s all-or-nothing spirit. The winners of the four quarter-finals and the semi-finals, however, are rewarded with prizes to augment their basic appearance money. On this new stage, fighters like the late Andy Hug, Peter Aerts from Holland and Japan’s Satake became instant celebrities. Others from around the world soon followed.

Satake, from Osaka, quickly gathered a devoted following after becoming Japan Champion in 1997 and ’98. A fighter for 23 years, after wanting to be a TV hero first attracted him to combat sports, he unexpectedly left the sport in 1999, citing unspecified “political reasons.”

Meanwhile, as part of his marketing strategy, Ishii moved away from the formalities of the puristic code of karate bouts, at which loud applause is discouraged. Instead, like “Gladiators,” he introduced rock music, flashing lights and smoke to his events. His philosophy was simple: to professionalize the sport and present it to the audience in as entertaining a fashion as possible.

In 1998, 63,800 fans duly packed Tokyo Dome to see Aerts win the Tokyo Dome Grand Prix finals. Another sellout is expected for this year’s event on Dec. 8.

With only eight spots available each year for the season’s showpiece tournament, there is little margin for error. To book a berth in this lucrative event, which decides the World Champion, a fighter has to win one of the big tournaments in Osaka, Nagoya, Melbourne or Las Vegas. Two fighters from the tournament in Fukuoka also gain berths, as well as one Japanese fighter (the winner of the Japan K-1 Grand Prix) and one wild card, decided by the promoter (Ishii). This year, preliminary tournaments have been held in 10 different countries, and the wild-card selection is Aerts.

With the beatings some of these guys take, it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. However, one who doesn’t sympathize is Robert Phillips, a longtime kickboxer and follower of K-1 who has trained at the famed “KO” kickboxing gym in London, and as a Thai boxer. At 35, though he is too old for K-1 he trains daily, and is competing in a kickboxing event in Kyushu next month.

It’s when Phillips starts talking about the money swilling around K-1 that the first layers of sympathy peel off.

“K-1 fighters can earn prize money into the millions of dollars, and when you throw in the appearance fees the top guys earn, we are talking about a very comfortable standard of living. K-1 fighters are the only kickboxers who can make this kind of money.”

He cites the example of Kenichi Sujita, who was a top kickboxer in his day, yet ended up making nothing from it before he had to retire due to damaged eyes. Ironically, Sujita is only now starting to make money from his skills — as a cornerman for K-1 fighters such as the crack American, Maurice Smith.

More layers of sympathy are peeled off when Phillips, a Briton who works here in the field of medical research, explains that K-1 fighting is actually far safer than boxing. “In boxing, the danger lies in the repetition of blows to the head which can cause brain damage.”

That he has a point is clear to see in the condition of Parkinsin’s disease sufferer Muhammad Ali, whose speech is barely comprehensible. Of course, many boxers have also died from head injuries sustained in the ring.

Although he did not die from fight-related injuries, the K-1 world was shocked to learn of the sudden death of one of its favorite sons, Andy Hug. The Swiss fighter, who had built a reputation as a courageous fighter having hauled himself off the canvas on numerous occasions to come back and win, died in August last year at the age of 35, five days after entering hospital with a high fever. He was diagnosed with leukemia, and even immediate chemotherapy was unable to save K-1′s 1996 champion and 1997 and 1998 runnerup.

“K-1 is made-for-TV action as it features lots of one-punch knockouts, and fights generally don’t go beyond five rounds,” says Phillips. “There is a gentleman’s agreement that fighters go for broke rather than fighting for points decisions, as is often the case in boxing. As a result, they tend to concentrate more on attack than defense, and thus often leave themselves vulnerable to the big punch.”

So in the end, it all boils down to entertainment fueled by big bucks. The more spectacular a fighter, the more chance of him being invited to events and earning fat pay checks. In the K-1 ring, it doesn’t pay to fight negatively. That way, the fans never lose out either.

So who is the best of them all?

“I am,” said recent Las Vegas tournament champion Stefan Leko, when I spoke to him last week during a break in his fighting schedule. “Break” may not be the right word though, as Leko only competes in two tournaments and four individual fights a year. The rest of his time he’s either training or resting after fights. (A little more sympathy peels off here.) But with a record of 40 wins, 5 losses and one draw, Leko may well be justified in his claim.

Born in Croatia but a long-time resident of Germany, he said he started karate when he was 9, after being inspired watching Bruce Lee videos. As he got older he moved on to amateur boxing, Thai boxing and then finally K-1. Now, aged 27, he trains twice a day for 2-3 hours, five days a week, with a combination of weights, aerobic exercise and sparring. Standing 188 cm tall, and tipping the scales at 100 kg, he is merely an average size for a K-1 fighter.

When it is time to step into the ring, though, Leko said, “We fight purely on adrenaline. That is how we manage to fight three bouts in a tournament within the space of a few hours carrying injuries to our legs, hands and face. It is the adrenaline that takes the pain away.”

If fighting is a massive adrenaline rush, it’s almost as intense for the fans. “Its wild!” says Chieko Moriwake, 31, a designer from Tokyo who is an avid K-1 fan. “There are so many action-packed fights you feel as if you have been given a large dose of adrenaline yourself.”

So where does the sport go from here?

According to Fumi Ozeki, of Ishii’s controlling K-1 Corporation, “The Japan K-1 Grand Prix [which guarantees at least one Japanese a World Championship finals berth in Tokyo] has been a huge success since it started in 1995. So now, K-1 MAX [middleweight, artistic, extreme] is soon to be launched to provide an alternative stage on which the lighter Japanese fighters can perform.

“The growth in TV revenue and K-1′s spread across the globe is a positive indication it is heading in the right direction,” Ozeki adds.

From his corner, the “Master,” Ishii, recently declared: “I want to make K-1 as popular worldwide as F-1.”

Judging by K-1′s meteoric rise, it is difficult to see how he can fail.