Press Release by Monty DiPietro, photo by K-1
LAS VEGAS, August 12, 2006 — German fighter Stefan Leko, who remarked afterward the result was “never in doubt,” powered his way to victory today at K-1 World GP ’06 in Las Vegas II tournament at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino. In Superfight action on the card, Ray Sefo brutalized Azem Maksutaj.

The event continues the last-chance repechage format that has become a summer tradition for K-1 in Sin City. The year’s tournament runners-up, along with regional tournament winners and other impact fighters competed in a classic eight-man elimination tournament for the chance advance to Osaka and the 16-man Final Elimination this September.

The first tournament bout featured Alexey Ignashov of Belarus and boxer Imani Lee of the U.S.

Ignashov is K-1 superstar-in-waiting, a muay thai stylist who won the Europe WGP ’03 in Paris, but has been dogged by untimely injuries and irregular performances since. Today, the Bellagio odds board had Iggy at 8/5, making him the favorite to win the tournament.

Ignashov started with low kicks, but Lee was good on the counters, punching hard and reddening the Belorussian’s right eye with a tight left hook. A cautious second had neither fighter appearing willing to commit, Lee surprising Ignashov with a couple of kicks, Iggy answering in kind. Ignashov was listless again in the third, this eliciting scattered jeers from the crowd. Finally Ignashov’s low kicks came in succession, and now Lee’s leg was hurting. Still, Ignashov did not go in for the kill, the only decisive strike he attempted was a high kick that sailed over Lee’s head. To his credit Lee stepped in with punches throughout.

An unusual tally — 30-27 on the first judge’s first card for Ignashov , 30-27 on the second for Lee. The third card had it 29-28, Ignashov advancing on the narrowest of split decisions.

The second quarterfinal pitted perennial contender Michael McDonald of Canada against Ariel Mastov of Israel.

A popular fighter in Vegas, McDonald had already won three K-1 tournaments here, while fellow muay thai stylist Mastov was added as a late substitute.

A thrilling first round, McDonald’s focus and positioning excellent, the Canadian firing in the right straight punches, mixing it up well and scoring a down with a left hook. Mastov had some razzle-dazzle here, spinning in several back kicks, but McDonald was good with his blocking and evasions.

McDonald started the second with a high kick, and while Mastov showed finesse with Kyokushin-style legwork, McDonald remained in control, and got the hard right in again and again — only Mastov’s good chin keeping him standing.

Further creative kicking attacks from the Israeli in the third, but these did not make contact. For his part, McDonald put the right when he saw the chance but was mostly content to ride it out and advance on points. This he did by unanimous decision to get to the semifinals.

Starting the second tournament bracket it was Stefan “Blitz” Leko of Germany and American Scott Lighty.

A veteran kickboxer, Leko is the complete K-1 fighter — technical, fast and powerful. He won the Vegas GP in 2001, defeating Peter Aerts in the finals with a right straight punch KO that has been replayed numerous times on ESPN highlight reels. Leko was the second favorite here at 5/2. Lighty, meanwhile, has emerged as K-1 USA’s great white hope. The no-nonsense muay thai fighter came into the last Vegas event as a 22/1 longshot but used a good all-round set of skills to make it to the finals. Lighty was ranked significantly better at 8/1 this time.

A fast and spirited first, both in with hard low kicks, Lighty circling, just missing with a couple of high kicks, stepping forward aggressively with the fists — Leko also punching late in the round. In the second Leko took the initiative, firing low kicks and straight punches, stepping in to put the American on the ropes and work the body blows.

Leko kept the pressure on in the third, scoring an early down with a left hook, chasing Lighty with a flurry of fists after resumption, easily dropping him with the right for a second down and the KO win.

The last quarterfinal set Gary Goodridge of Canada by way of Trinidad and Tobago, against Carter Williams of the U.S.

Goodridge is a brawler and proud of it. Williams, meanwhile, is the street-kid-turned K-1 powerhouse who won the USA GP in 2003.

Williams did everything right in the first — he was loose, quick, and mixed it up with low and high kicks, power punches and knees. But the American could not drop Goodridge. In the second Williams stepped in and pumped in body blows, fired in the low kicks and tight hooks and brought up the knees, but still could not drop Goodridge.

And then all hell broke loose. Goodridge planted a right atop Williams’ head, then snuck a tight left hook in for a down. Seconds after resumption, Williams closed the distance and put a right hook in to down Goodridge and equalize. The crowd went wild. Williams kept the pressure up through the balance of the second, driving three unanswered knees up, and in the third again the American was more aggressive, connecting with knees, low kicks and a right upper to stay in control.

A great fight for Williams, who smiled repeatedly during the action, looking to have overcome the nervousness that had hamstrung him in the past. A unanimous decision putting Carter into the semis.

It was announced that Alexey Ignashov had sustained an injury and could not continue, and so under K-1 tournament rules Imani Lee took his place against Michael McDonald in the first of the semis.

A slow first round brought boos from the crowd before the pair closed and mixed it up at the clapper, Lee smacking McDonald with a right hook to the side of the head to score a down. Unfortunately for Lee, he put an extra punch in on his prone opponent, and this cost him a one-point penalty.

McDonald circled, intent on staying outside in the second, but Lee cut off the ring well, forcing McDonald into the corner then unleashing a barrage of punches. McDonald escaped this time, and finally found success with low kicks, stinging Lee bad. McDonald finished with some power punches and knees but could not fell Lee.

McDonald eschewed the low kicks through most of the third round before he got to Lee late, rattling him with a right hook. This one went the distance and was close, Lee had to curse his foul in the first, for McDonald got the narrow but unanimous decision to advance.

It was Leko and Williams in the second semifinal. The contest started tight, both fighters focused and intense. Leko missed with a spinning back kick, and Williams made him pay by answering with a spirited punch and knee attack that left the German’s nose bloodied. Both had their chances here but it was Leko who capitalized, spinning another back kick in just past the midway point in the round. The kick connected hard with Williams’ right side, lower ribcage, dropping the American to the canvas in a heap of pain. Williams could not recover, so Leko had the KO win and a date with McDonald in the finals.

Leko and McDonald were tentative through the first, McDonald circling, testing with the jab, Leko with his guard high and close, snapping in the occasional low kick, but really neither fighter had good chances here. The second, unfortunately, was not any more exciting. Leko was determined to press here, and McDonald’s response was to close up and take the punches. Leko finished each attack with a low kick, scoring points here while McDonald was looking increasingly out of it. Then, suddenly McDonald responded to a Leko attack by waving his hands in front of his face, shaking his head, and turning away. There were gasps and boos from the crowd even as Leko raised his hand in victory. That was that, the referee stopped it as McDonald could not continue — Leko had won.

McDonald would explain later that he had aggravated an injury to his right hand in the first fight, and the hand had got worse as the night went on. “When I punched Mastov, I felt the pain shoot up to my elbow,” he said. “I want to apologize to all my fans, this was not a Michael McDonald performance.”

“It was not a good way to win,” said Leko in his post-event interview, but I came here knowing there was no chance I would lose today. I’m happy to be back in K-1, and I know this year my place is in the final eight!”

With his tournament victory Leko advances to the K-1 Final Elimination tournament in Osaka next month. If he wins his single-elimination bout there, he will get his wish, going to the Tokyo Dome as one of the WGP ’07 final eight.

In Super Fights:

K-1 veteran slugger Sefo has power, a great chin, and an uncanny ability to both read and unnerve his opponents. The Kiwi recently bought a $2.6 million dollar home in Las Vegas, and said pre-event he hoped to make a good impression on his new neighbors. His opponent here was another KO-oriented fighter, Azem Maksutaj of Switzerland.

The two traded low kicks to test from the start, then got down to business. Sefo’s early spinning back kick got through to Maksutaj’s midsection, but the Swiss fighter shook it off. This was the beginning of what would become a pattern — Sefo punishing, Maksutaj persevering. Sefo scored his first down countering a Maksutaj low kick, smashing a right hook in on his opponent’s jaw. Maksutaj had combinations going, but Sefo’s blocking was sound, and the Kiwi charged in with a right straight punch late in the first to score a second down. Maksutaj, of course, got up — although his face was badly bruised. It would get worse.

The second saw Maksutaj once again quick and clean with the combinations, Sefo absorbing it all in style and when he saw the chance, socking Maksutaj with a right hook for another down.

Maksutaj kept on coming, both fighters striking and smiling through the third. Sefo repeatedly dropped his guard here to invite his opponent in. When Maksutaj answered, Sefo floored him with a left hook. In case you are counting, that was the fourth down for Sefo. The fifth came seconds later, via a spinning back kick. Incredibly, Maksutaj still wanted to get up. The referee decided the Swiss fighter had shown more than enough tenacity, and called it at 2:02. A great effort by both fighters, a great win for Sefo in front of his new hometown crowd.

“Azem showed great spirit,” said Sefo afterward, “he is a real warrior. I’m happy to win, and now I’ll be heading to Japan to train for Osaka. I’m looking forward to the event, I’m going to be 100% ready!”

Another Las Vegas resident, Dewey Cooper, made his K-1 debut in Japan seven years ago and is a regular participant in K-1 events in Vegas. Here, the 31 year-old faced a tough challenge in Ruslan Karaev of Russia, a dynamic fighter who won the K-1 in Las Vegas last August.

Karaev was the odds-on favorite to win this bout and did not disappoint, immediately coming out with a low kick, then closing with the fists and tossing up a high kick. He kept pushing through the first and second rounds, while Cooper could only manage occasional pressure with his counters — doing best with a right hook midway through the first and a couple of hooks soon afterward.

Alas, for every strike that Cooper managed to get through, Karaev easily put in two or more. The Russian was solid through the entire three rounds, focused and always quicker and more powerful in close to pick up a well-deserved unanimous decision.

In a K-1 World Max (70kg/154lbs weight class) Superfight, it was Americans Fernando Calleros, a kempo karate fighter; and Duane “Bang” Ludwig, a muay thai stylist.

Early in, Calleros forced Ludwig into the corner and brutalized him with all manner of punches, and Ludwig was barely able to get out of it. Ludwig began throwing in low kicks, but had his high leg strikes blocked well. Midway through, Calleros put a left then right hook in for a down. Ludwig rallied somewhat late in the first and was the more aggressive fighter through the second, throwing low and high kicks and always looking to get the knee up — Calleros shaking his head, “no,” after all contact.

A fast-paced third — Ludwig frequently taking the initiative, going mostly with knee and kick attacks, also pumping in a number of body blows midway through. Calleros had his stuff on as well, but was bleeding badly from the right eye by the end of this one.

An exhilarating contest, scored a unanimous draw on all three cards. Ludwig grabbed the ring announcer’s microphone, asking if the crowd “would like to see us fight another round?” There was a cheer of approval, and a smiling Calleros stepped to center ring to oblige, but the fighters were promptly reminded that it is officials and referees who are in charge of the rules, not fighters.

In a tournament reserve bout, American Steve Steinbeiss defeated compatriot Dustin Hanning by unanimous decision.

In undercard fights, it was Justin Smith over Sean O’Haire by KO; Christine Toledo over Jennifer Nguyen by unanimous decision; and Andreas Sprang beating Jamie Fletcher by majority decision

During the event, famed American fighter Brock Lesnar entered the ring to announce that he had come to an agreement to fight in the first American production of FEG’s popular mixed martial arts “Hero’s” fight series. The bout is expected to take place in February, the venue and Lester’s opponent will be announced when finalized.

The K-1 WGP ’06 in Las Vegas II — Final Elimination Quarterfinals attracted a sellout crowd of 4,526 to the Bellagio Grand Ballroom. All bouts were be contested under regular K-1 Rules.

The event was broadcast live on the Fuji Television Network and Fuji Satellite TV in Japan, and on MBC and MBC/ESPN in South Korea. It will be time-delay broadcast on EuroSport across Europe, ProTV in Romania, inDemand in the United States, Viewers’ Choice in Canada and GroboSat in Brazil. In all, it will be seen in over 100 countries, please check with local broadcasters for scheduling details.