by Monty DiPietro of K-1; Photos by K-1
Europeans Excellent at K-1 WGP Final Elimination
OSAKA, September 30, 2006 — Fighters from Australia, New Zealand, Trinidad, Japan and Korea all fell by the way, and, but for a lone Brazilian, it was all about European power tonight at the K-1 World Grand Prix ’06 Final Elimination Tournament in Osaka.
While nothing compares with the drama of the eight-men-in-one-man-out K-1 World GP Final, the annual Elimination event has an energy all its own. Here, fighters need not pace themselves for a long night or speculate about potential second and third contest opponents. With just a single bout involved, fighters can undertake differential preparation and focus all their energy on the one man that stands between them and a place at fightsports’ most prestigious event, the K-1 Tokyo Dome Final.
The ’06 K-1 regional tournament winners and exceptional fighters joined the finalists from the ’05 WGP and got down to business tonight at the Osaka Jo Hall. The evening comprised eight one-match bouts (fought under regular K-1 Rules, 3min x 3R), with the eight victors advancing to the Tokyo Dome. The 16 participants had excellence in common, otherwise they were diverse — a variety of styles, veterans and up-and-comers, finesse fighters and brawlers alike.
The card’s first matchup was a battle of newcomers, as the explosive Russian kickboxer Ruslan Karaev, 23, stepped in against Badr Hari of Holland, a 21 year-old muay thai stylist who has countered his enfant terrible image with the improbable sobriquet “Golden Boy.” Wearing a Los Angeles Lakers’ jersey, Hari lip-synched to Compton gangsta rap during his protracted ring entrance. Karaev counterpointed with a friendly, touch-the-fans-hands stroll to the squared circle, and finally it was time for this much-anticipated showdown.
The fight,, unfortunately, lasted only a fraction of the time the entrances had. Hari made a good start of it, firing in hard low kicks that seemed to sting Karaev. But during a quick exchange, Karaev stepped forward with a left and then a right hook that left Hari slumping against the corner post. Karaev fired in another punch, then a kick before the referee, who was positioned behind the action, stepped forth to call a down. Hari did not stand or assume a fighting pose, and so the fight was called.
Hari and his seconds then closed in on Karaev’s corner, protesting vehemently, even as big-screen replays had fans speculating about elbow contact and late strikes. But the bout had been called and the bell had been rung, and that was that. Karaev collected his trophy and left, but a defiant Hari stayed on, and had to be talked out of the ring by K-1 officials. “I stop fighting!” bellowed the infuriated Hari as he marched away, “I tell you now, I stop fighting!” It is a safe bet that we will be hearing more from Hari and his Show Time Team about this — and a safe bet that the wunderkind will, in fact, fight again.
Gary Goodridge of Trinidad and Tobago by way of Canada was a late substitute here. In the second bout, he took on two-time WGP Champion Remy Bonjasky of the Netherlands.
Bonjasky is terrific with his legwork, while Goodridge brings a power-punch game and is known for fast starts. Goodridge was uncharacteristically cautious in the early going, and that cost him. Bonjasky took the initiative, coming in with a perfect flying knee to score a down midway through the first. Goodridge only barely beat the count, and but for a brief barrage of body blows, never really threatened. The second was similar, Bonjasky controlling the distance, picking his spots and firing in the kicks, blocking well when Goodridge got inside. By the third Bonjasky was completely in control, and put a punishing flying knee up to the face, followed by a couple of punches and a high kick, to lay his opponent out and pick up a ticket to the Tokyo Dome.
The dedicated and technical Kyokushin fighter Glaube Feitosa of Brazil has charted a rapid improvement curve that took him to the final bout at the Tokyo Dome last year. In tonight’s third matchup he put his panache up against the power of Oceania GP Champion Paul Slowinski of Australia.
Feitosa was in fine form, rattling Slowinski early on with a right straight punch and laying in the kicks with terrific timing. Slowinski showed his technique with a number of strong punch and kick combinations, and to his credit kept coming in right to the final bell. But where Slowinski was an able craftsman, Feitosa was the consummate artist, deftly snapping in the low kicks, threading through the fists, firing up the preternatural Kyokushin high kicks — fighting with a poise and rhythm that the increasingly frustrated Slowinski simply could not match. A well-deserved unanimous decision for the Brazilian.
In a bout between karate giants, Defending WGP Champion Semmy Schilt of Holland faced this year’s K-1 Europe Tournament winner, Bjorn Bregy of Switzerland. At 202cm/6’8″, Bregy is accustomed to out-heighting his opponents. But today he had to look up to Schilt, who at 212cm/6’11 is a veritable tower of power. Bregy also experienced three unwelcome occasions to gaze up at Schilt from the canvas.
The Swiss fighter commenced bravely, but midway through the first, just as he was putting in a left, Schilt countered coolly with a left of his own, outreaching him to score a down. Bregy was obviously hurt quite badly on this exchange, and while he beat the count and continued, he was forced to turn away in pain after taking another punch to the face. This resulted in a standing count, and after resumption Schilt did what he had to do, planting another punch on Bregy’s brutalized mug to record a third down and take the KO win. With the way he has been fighting, Schilt has an excellent chance to repeat as champion this year.
Regarded as one of the best K-1 fighters never to win the WGP, the incomparable Ray Sefo of New Zealand faced another veteran, K-1 Repechage tournament winner Stefan “Blitz” Leko of Germany, in the next fight. In a bout in Osaka four years ago, it was Sefo who emerged victorious. Leko was looking to even the score tonight.
These two are friends outside the ring, and the fight frequently suggested this — as technical exchanges were evidenced more than killer instinct. There were moments to be sure — Sefo, mostly planted, stepping in with the hard right; Leko always in motion, penetrating with his jabs and straight punches. Both had the low kicks and one-two combinations here and there, but neither could follow up when they might take an advantage. The fellows launched a number of creative attacks, spinning back kicks and punches, side kicks — but neither could do any damage with these either. Judges couldn’t make a call after three, and sent the fight to an extra and deciding round. Here it was more spirited, but, again, very close — the pair trading low kicks, Sefo dropping his guard to challenge, Leko testing repeatedly with the left and placing low kicks. Judges decided Leko deserved it more, and he was put through to the Tokyo Dome.
“Yes I was careful,” said Leko in his post-fight interview, “I used to be more aggressive but now that I’m older I can fight more cleverly. But don’t underestimate me, I’m 32 and this is my time, this is my year to win the Grand Prix!”
K-1’s only four-time Champion, the 41 year-old Dutch kickboxer Ernesto “Mr. Perfect” Hoost, came out of semi-retirement to fight here. “There is for me no other option,” said Hoost beforehand, “than to take the chance, give 100%, and try to make a very good ending to a very good career.” In his incredible drive for five WGP titles, Hoost’s first hurdle was this year’s Asia GP Champion, karate stylist Yusuke Fujimoto of Japan.
Fujimoto did not appear intimidated by his storied opponent, and used his right effectively through the first. Hoost sent in the occasional low kick but otherwise looked tentative. In the second, again, Fujimoto was there with the fists, pumping in a series of unanswered body blows. Hoost started the third with some spark, firing three low kicks, and just missed with the follow-up punches. Late in the round, as Fujimoto came in with a left punch, Hoost quickly blocked and countered. With both fighters off-balance, Hoost caught Fujimoto on the top of the leg with a low kick. The two men tumbled to the mat, and it was the wincing Fujimoto who did not get up. The Japanese fighter couldn’t beat the count, and finally limped out of the ring only as Hoost hoisted a trophy in celebration of his qualification for the Final.
Next up, Japanese Seidokaikan stylist Musashi, who was fighting in front of his hometown Osaka crowd, took on Chalid “Die Faust” of Germany, who won the USA GP in Las Vegas this April.
A sprightly start, the two light on their feet, trading punches and kicks alike. Die Faust got the right through a couple of times, while Musashi had plenty of power on his low kicks. In the second round Die Faust stayed with the punches, scoring with a left straight and bringing the right across increasingly well. Musashi threw punches here but could not find his distance or sustain attacks. And so it was up to Musashi to do it in the third — but Die Faust didn’t give him the chance. The German had a high connection percentage with the fists, while Musashi, whose right eye was now swollen shut, tried again and again but couldn’t find the target with his high kicks. Die Faust might have pulled back at this point, but did not relent, punching for the points until the final bell. Two judges scored him ahead, while one saw Musashi as the winner. The majority decision was greeted politely by the crowd, who had to be heartbroken — by both their hometown fighter’s loss and by the sad fact that no Japanese fighter had qualified for the Tokyo Dome Final.
Said Die Faust afterward: “There is no better training team than at my gym [Golden Glory]. The way we train is harder than our fights, the way we spar, everyday there is the possibility of a knockout! Musashi is a very good fighter but I was ready, we trained to damage him, and I was ready to go for five rounds if I had to. I am happy that the judges made the correct judgment after three rounds, and I look forward to the Tokyo Dome!”
The Main Event was a battle of power versus size, as kickboxing tough guy Jerome LeBanner (190cm/6’3″;120kg/265lbs) of France stepped in against the gargantuan former Silium wrestler Hong-Man Choi (218cm/7’2″;163kg/360lbs) of Korea.
There were questions in the days leading up to the event about whether LeBanner would make it to Osaka, and he almost didn’t. The fighter is starring in “Asterix aux Jeux Olympiques,” a movie now in production in France with a cast that also includes Gerard Depardieu and Zinedine Zidane. There were issues regarding contracting and insurance, but LeBanner benefited from an intervention by the influential actor Alain Delon and was permitted to come to Japan. However, Air France flight delays then further conspired to threaten his participation. LeBanner finally arrived in Osaka mere hours before the fight, and was whisked directly from the airport to the venue.
Showing no signs of jet lag, LeBanner fought a smart first, darting in under Choi’s reach to deliver low kicks before rapidly retreating. The speedy sortie strategy was countered by Choi in the second with the distance-creating front kick, but a persistent LeBanner snuck in regardless and valiantly mixed it up with his much larger adversary. Choi pulled the knee up in the third but LeBanner’s evasion saved him. The clashes here were spirited, Choi good with an uppercut, LeBanner deking well, reprising the hit-and-run kicking attacks, leaning in with body blows and smacking in a right hook. At the end of it LeBanner was up on one judge’s card. But there are three judges, and the other two scored a draw — so the bout went to a tiebreaker round.
Again, a thrilling bit of combat, Choi in with a right straight punch but misfiring again with the knee, LeBanner circling, taunting even, good again with low kicks and a right straight punch. Judges scored it unanimously now in favor of the Frenchman.
LeBanner was in a great mood post bout and — this may come as a relief to Monsieur Delon — had not a scratch on him. “Preparing for this fight was hard,” he said, “because I couldn’t find a sparring partner that big in France. He is dangerous, his knees are already almost at the level of my head, he’s not human!” joked LeBanner. “But he’s a good guy and I like him, he’s very tough, maybe the strongest guy in K-1, and he has hard bones — when I kicked him, it hurt my leg! I’m sure with more experience, in two years no one will be able to knock him out!”
With the ’06 K-1 World GP final eight now determined, a draw will be held Monday October 2 at Fuji Television’s studios to determine the Tokyo Dome matchups.
Tonight’s event also featured an emotional retirement ceremony for LeBanner’s old nemesis Mike Bernardo. The South African boxer spent time at the K-1-supported booth of Save the Children — a non-governmental organization active in more than 100 countries and dedicated to improving health and education for needy children. Bernardo later appeared center ring to address his fans: “We have a lot of memories together,” he said, speaking in Japanese, “memories that I will never forget. Thank you, and please, never forget me.”
The K-1 World GP 06 Final Elimination attracted a crowd of 10,387 to the Osaka Jo Hall and was broadcast nationwide in Japan on the Fuji TV Network and on MBC & MBC-ESPN in Korea. It will be delay-broadcast in 116 countries, check with local networks for scheduling information.