by Monti DiPietro/ Photo K1
LAS VEGAS, August 13, 2005 — You can’t spell ‘Mirage’ without ‘rage’ — and that is exactly what 22 year-old Russian kickboxer Ruslan Karaev brought to the ring at the Mirage Casino and Hotel tonight, brutalizing three challengers en route to victory in the K-1 World Grand Prix 2005 in Las Vegas II.

The 14-bout event featured an eight-man elimination tournament comprised of fighters from seven countries, along with a couple of Superfights. All matches were fought under regular K-1 Rules (3Min x 3R w/1R tiebreaker):

In the first of the tournament quarterfinals, Canadian fighter Michael McDonald took on Azem Maksutaj of Switzerland. At 40, McDonald was the senior fighter in the tournament, but clean living and a strict training regimen have allowed the three-time K-1 Champion to cheat age. The Mirage Sports Book had McDonald as the favorite to win the tournament at 7/5, while Maksutaj also ranked high (7/2) on the odds board. McDonald and Maksutaj fought a tough contest in Sweden earlier this year, with McDonald winning by extra-round decision, and so this promised to be a first-class rematch.

McDonald was in first fast with a hard low kick, and Maksutaj soon answered with the same. Both men also got good combinations going here. Midway through the first, Maksutaj fired a leg up and caught McDonald on the nose with a knee. When the Canadian turned away and hung his head over the ropes, the referee responded by stepping in and calling a break. Maksutaj won the round on all cards.

The second again saw Maksutaj taking the fight to McDonald, good with high kicks and working the hook on counters and the knees from in close. By midway through the round Maksutaj had taken control.

A desperate McDonald tried valiantly to rally in the third — he was fast and precise and won the round on two cards. But Maksutaj had the better stuff overall, and went through with a unanimous decision.

Freddy Kemayo of France met Ruslan Karaev in the second bout. Also young at just 23 years of age, Kemayo’s technical yet highly aggressive style earned him a third-place finish at the World GP in Paris this May.

But Karaev came out with an explosive start, laying into the Frenchman with a vicious barrage of punches and kicks. Kemayo closed up and remained cool, and seemed to have weathered the storm, but Karaev remained determined to overwhelm his opponent, throwing high kicks and stepping through Kemayo’s low kicks to continue delivering punishment. After testing Kemayo with body blows, Karaev stepped away some before suddenly unleashing a spinning back kick which caught Kemayo in the midsection. It took a second for Kemayo to realize what had hit him, but then he fell to the canvas, curled up in pain. The referee stepped in with a count that Kemayo could not beat, and Karaev was through to the semis with a KO victory.

Yet another youngster, 23 year-old Hiraku Hori of Japan, stepped in against German fighter Chalid “Die Faust” Arrab in the third quarterfinal. Arrab trains at the prestigious Golden Glory Gym in Holland, home to elite fighters such as Stephan Leko and Semmy Schilt. Vegas betters liked the German, as the odds on “Die Faust” went from 18/1 to 9/5 in just three days, making him the second favorite to win the tournament.

The tallest fighter in the tournament at 198cm/6’6″, Hori brought a 20cm/8″ height advantage to the ring against Arrab, the shortest of the eight combatants. But size isn’t everything, as Hori was to discover.

This was another fast start, as Die Faust charged in with the fists. Hori the southpaw soon got his kicks working, and was able to control the distance well. The Japanese stepped in often with the left, and while Arrab was always there with overhands, Hori looked to be talking control here, winning the first on all three cards. The second saw a slower pace, Hori working kicks to the midsection, Die Faust repeatedly putting his head down and moving forward with the fists. Midway through, Hori turned away from the fight protesting a head butt even as the referee called a standing eight count. The pair mixed it up plenty in the third, Hori tossing the jab and playing a hit-and-run attack, Die Faust again merciless with the punches. Here again there was head-to-head contact, which opened a cut over Hori’s eye and resulted in a break. Soon after resumption with the two center ring, Die Faust pounded in a one-two punch combination that put Hori on the canvas. Hori beat the count but the fight was already over, and “Die Faust” Arrab was through with a unanimous decision.

Japanese fighter Tatsufumi Tomihira took on tournament longshot Scott Lighty (22/1) of the United States in the last of the quarterfinals. There was also a good amount of action on the scrappy Tomihira — his opening line was 18/1 at the Mirage Sports Book, but this improved to 9/2 by fight night.

From the bell, Lighty came in briskly with the fists, and Tomihira countered with low kicks and straight punches. And then something incredible happened — at the midway point of the first, both men threw rear-leg high kicks at precisely the same instant. Lighty’s foot landed first, on Tomihira’s head, and the smack of bone on bone could be heard in the back row of the hall as Tomihira went down in a heap. Tomihira is a never-say-die guy, and defied the pain to struggle to his feet, but clearly he was out of it. The referee wisely stopped the bout, Lighty went to the semifinal, and Tomihira went to the hospital.

The first of the semifinals, between Ruslan Karaev and Azem Maksutaj was a spectacular affair. From the bell Karaev came in like a loaded gun, firing everything he had at Maksutaj. There were virtually no pauses in the action here, Karaev throwing wildly creative combinations; Maksutaj having limited success warding him off with kicks.

Throughout this war Karaev mounted an awesome variety of attacks. Frequently the Russian stepped in with the jab and then threw it again, stepping forward again to back his opponent onto the ropes, following this up with a volley of punches to the head. Karaev also threatened with kicks, and eschewed the clinch to thrust the knee and pump in body blows when the distance closed.

In the second round, Karaev spun the same back kick that had earlier downed Kemayo, and reaped the same result — another down. But Maksutaj slowly and deliberately rose to his feet to beat the count, then escalated a battle which several ringside fight writers would later describe as the best they’d ever seen.

Maksutaj did more than ride out the second round — fighting from pure instinct, he launched a fierce and determined counterattack that included straight punches, hooks, knees and of course kicks. And he connected with many of these, cocking Karaev’s head back more than once. Momentum brought Maksutaj’s knee in on a slipping Karaev and this cost the Swiss a penalty point, otherwise he might have evened things out in this round.

A bloodied but not beaten Maksutaj again threatened in the third, seizing the initiative and connecting with a high kick and great left hook. These Karaev answered with quick and precise counters — when he wasn’t launching more attacks of his own. Again, the action was non-stop. Late in the round, Karaev got a knee up to score a second down, and while Maksutaj again beat the count, now he was trailing on the cards by an insurmountable margin.

But that didn’t matter one bit. This was an astounding display of K-1 at its best. When the final bell sounded the crowd leapt en masse to their feet to deliver a deafening standing ovation in appreciation.

Scott Lighty gave Chalid Arrab a good fight in the second of the semis, tossing high kicks up and proving able on defense through the first round. The German had the harder stuff here, but Lighty was always moving forward. In the second round, Lighty again stepped in with rights and high kicks, and showed good lateral movement to stay out of harm’s way. Die Faust again drove the fists home hard, but had difficulty containing the mobile Lighty. In the third, although he wasn’t really hurting his opponent, Lighty kept on coming while Die Faust picked his spots, and had the power to rattle the American on a couple of occasions, notably at the final clapper. A close one, and by the narrowest of unanimous decisions it went to Lighty.

The longshot gamblers had to be feeling pretty good about this time, as two of the highest-yielding bets in the tournament — Karaev at 17/2 and Lighty at 22/1, were now the improbable finalists.

The crowd gave each of the fighters a tremendous reception, and the first was surprisingly even — Lighty good with the low kicks, a couple of which appeared to sting Karaev. The Russian appeared more fatigued here, his start was more cautious than in his previous two bouts. He did work the one-two well, and although right punch got through Lighty’s blocking and evasions were generally good. In the second Karaev popped a right in on Lighty, and this prompted the American to run away round the perimeter of the ring. Karaev gave chase, and now began to revisit his earlier, aggressive style, tossing in kicks and throwing up knees.

Karaev threw the spinning back kick again here, twice in a row, and notched the strike of the match with a flying knee which, again, put Lighty into turn and run mode.

The third saw Lighty looking tired, his kicks were slower now and easily blocked. Karaev stepped into a number of good and varied attacks — straight punches, body blows, low, mid and high kicks and knees. Again we saw the spinning back kick, and the crowd by now had given up their “USA!” chants and were whooping at the artistry of Karaev. At the bell, with Karaev clearly the better fighter in this one, the Russian showed class when, instead of pumping his arm in celebration, he stepped forward to respectfully embrace and thank Lighty. When a unanimous decision confirmed Karaev’s supremacy, there was another standing ovation from the crowd.

Said Karaev from the winner’s circle: “My plan throughout was to use my punches and work counters, and it worked well for me. I wish I could have got some KOs, so I will have to throw punches harder next time, but after all it is all about winning, and I feel great that I won!”

With his tournament victory Karaev advances to the K-1 World GP Final Elimination in Osaka this September and a chance to qualify for the World GP 05 Championships at the Tokyo Dome.

There were two Superfights on the card:

The first, in the K-1 World Max weight class (70kg/154lbs) pitted 2002 K-1 World Max North American Champion Duane “Bang Bang” Ludwig of the United States against fellow Muay Thai fighter Remy Bonnel of France.

Ludwig’s former boy-next-door look was replaced here by a goatee, mohawk and tattoos, and the American’s fighting style was also more edgy here. Throughout the bout Ludwig stepped in with smart combinations, but the lanky Bonnel was perfect on defense. This was a good technical fight, both fighters always in motion with textbook attacks — actually both seemed to have read the same textbook, as their attacks were virtual mirror images of the one another’s.

With neither fighter able to take the upper hand the fight settled into a pattern — The punch-punch-kick combinations were a pleasure to watch, as were the hard-worked knees from the clinch. The pair traded combinations through most of this fight, similar styles keeping things relatively even. The difference came in the third, when a Bonnel high kick caught Ludwig on the face for a down and a doctor check. Ludwig rode the round out but came up shy on points, and Bonnel took the decision.

In the Main Event, American slugger and Battle at the Bellagio 2004 Champion Mighty Mo took on Francois “The White Buffalo” Botha of South Africa. These are a couple of guys who use their fists well, both are already qualified for this year’s World GP Final Elimination at Osaka.

This scheduled three-rounder was over in a Mighty Moment as the American fighter totally dominated and ended it quickly. From the bell Botha threw an uncharacteristic low kick. That was the first strike, and it was basically Botha’s last. Mo answered with a right hook which put Botha down. The South African beat the count, but seconds later, after tossing in a feeble left kick, Mo went back to basics and flattened Botha with a right straight punch. Again Botha got up, and, seconds later, again, Mo put the right in, an overhand this time, and that finished it. An impressive win for Mo, who may have the hardest punch of any fighter in Osaka next month.

Mo said afterwards that his dearth of kicks was not by design but due circumstance: “I know I need kicks in K-1 so I really wanted to show them tonight, but my best weapon is my right, and the way Francois Botha fought he left himself open to it, so that’s what I went with. I will definitely keep working on my kicks because I might need them in Osaka, maybe not to win the fight, but to set up my punches.”

The tournament Reserve Fight involved a couple of Giants, literally. Heavyweight boxer Imani “The Giant” Lee of the United States (134kg/295lbs; 196cm/6’5″)) lumbered in against K-1 veteran Jan “The Giant” Nortje of South Africa (143kg/316lbs; 83cm/6’5″).

Nortje the southpaw showed good movement here, light on his feet, tossing in the jab and low kicks in the early going. But Lee was also quick with his fists, and was not afraid to throw some kicks of his own in his K-1 debut. The second round saw Nortje again leading well with the jab, pressing forward, landing a good left and stinging his opponent with low kicks. But again Lee was tough, and countered well with the fists from inside. Lee put Nortje on the ropes in the third and laid in with haymakers, but the South African’s blocking was sound, and again Nortje was good coming back with the low kicks.

Lee is American, yet a scattering of boos resulted when judges gave him the win. A cheer went to the flabbergasted Nortje when he politely bowed to the crowd.

In undercard action, Rick Cheek stopped Mike Sheppard by 2R KO; Gina Carano won over Elaina Maxwell by unanimous decision; LaTasha Marzolla beat Jane Estioko by unanimous decision; and Patrick Barry dispatched Mark Selbee with a 1R KO.

Before the fighters entered for the opening ceremonies, there was a solemn ten-bell tribute to the popular Las Vegas-based kickboxer Tommy Glanville, who passed away early on Wednesday, August 10.

The K-1 World Grand Prix 2005 in Las Vegas II attracted a crowd of 3,504 to the Mirage Grand Ballroom. As always, Scott Coker and his K-1 USA team put together a slick, first-class production. The event was broadcast in Japan on Fuji TV network. For delayed broadcast in other regions check with your local providers. The official results can be found on the K-1 Official Website (www.k-1.co.jp)