2009 K1 Grand Prix Final

International Kickboxer, Vol.18, No.1

If the press conference was anything to go by, the event itself was going to be a blockbuster: the atmosphere was thick with feuds, rivalries, interlopers, predictions and challenges. The conference room of the ANA Intercontinental Hotel in Ginza, Tokyo, contained every GP champion since the sport’s inception, save Mark Hunt. Ernesto Hoost cut a familiar figure, now trainer for the much-hyped-but-yet-to-deliver-in-K1 Tyrone Spong. Branko Cicatic, the winner of the first K1 GP was also present, attending as trainer and consultant to Peter Aerts. 

In the draw itself were two former GP champions – Semmy Schilt and Remy Bonjasky – and Aerts, himself a three-time winner, was slated for a reserve fight against Dutch wunderkind Gokhan Saki. Young-guns Errol Zimmerman and Ewerton Texiera were returning after successful sophomore years on the circuit. Also in attendance was provocative first-timer, Alistair Overeem. Overeem had earned a spot after KOing Badr Hari in less than a minute and a subsequent narrow loss to Bonjasky, a loss which some would describe as unlucky. Pundits had Overeem pegged as the next-most-likely, after Schilt, to take the 2009 belt. Clearly, this made the other combatants nervous and this nervous electricity hung like a storm cloud over the stage. The only man who looked relaxed was Semmy Schilt. Notably absent was Jerome Le Banner.

The Press Conference gained momentum as it went on. Bonjasky and Zimmerman met for a stare-down that went for longer than Errol actually addressed the press, Overeem told everyone how good he was in no uncertain terms and Hari promised the assembly that he would knock Alistair out in the first round of their contest, should he make it through his first fight against Texeria.

Hoost, never far from the action, took the stage and was asked for his predictions. He said that while Sem and Remy were seasoned tournament fighters and had experience on their side, Hari, ‘if he could concentrate,’ was also a prospect to be reckoned with. Zimmerman, ever the joker, asked where he would figure. The laughter, from the other participants on stage at least, was uneven. Gone were the days of the shadow of Schilt’s indomitable superiority looming over the draw. 2009 had showed that Hari could beat Schilt, and Overeem could beat Hari. It looked like anybody’s contest, there for the taking.  

The reserve fights on the day sparked little interest. Jan Sokup and Singh ‘Heart’ Jaideep both put in credible performances, justifing their presence by winning their respective fights. The first fight of the tournament proper was the reserve match between Gokhan Saki and Peter Aerts. Aerts looked strong and capable but Saki made it an even contest, courtesy of his fly-in-the-ointment style. Peter found the lapse in Saki’s defence however, and dropped him with a crushing right hand in the second. Saki beat the count, however barely, still blinking and shaking off the knockdown when action resumed. He quickly regained his momentum and the fight proceeded through an otherwise close contest, Aerts bearing down with his powerful combinations and Saki responding with his trademark unorthodox counters. When the bell rang, however, Peter took the win. 

Hari versus Karaev was a disappointment for everyone, probably Karaev most of all. He had been preparing in Holland as part of the Golden Glory team, who, incidentally, were responsible for half the draw. They went at each other from the bell like cats in a barrel. Hari landed the first solid shot and had stopped Karaev via punches inside forty seconds. Karaev lifted his glove in salute and left the ring.

Slightly longer was Overeem vs Texiera. Texiera came into last year’s tourney against Errol Zimmerman very much the underdog and turned in a performance that more than confirmed him as a fighter to watch. He started this fight against Overeem with an extended left arm, perhaps to deny Alistair the close proximity he had used to KO Badr Hari. It was to little avail, however. Once Alistair got inside, he seized Texeria and delivered two lightning-fast knees. One found Texiera’s chin and resulted in a sickening KO. Texeira was almost carried from the ring by his corner.

Schilt and Le Banner, while an exciting prospect on paper, failed to deliver. People were questioning Le Banner’s seriousness about anything other than his pay-check, given that he arrived in Japan on a European body-clock approximately 24 hours before he was scheduled to fight. Nonetheless, he looked serious once the bell had gone. None of this made a scintilla of difference, however; Schilt had downed him with a succession of push kicks to end the fight at 1 minute 27 seconds. Le Banner received an ovation from the crowd, but after a performance of that calibre, it gives cause to wonder how many GP appearances he has left in him.

The last fight of the quarter finals was Bonjasky versus Zimmerman. This was a match-up Errol had requested by stepping into the opposing slot at the draw. Errol has suffered losses to both Badr Hari at last year’s final and Peter Aerts in a close extension round decision in recent times, and Bonjasky looked like a case of biting off more than he could chew. While this may have seemed the case when Remy caught him with a straight punch, dropping him for an eight count, Errol rose and gave the crowd what K1 is known for; tooth-and-nail excitement. Remy fended off the onslaught with his famous defence, but Errol made him pay; one of his body rips knocking Remy back onto his heels. By the decision, Errol had cemented his growing reputation as an all-or-nothing fighter, and a very battered Remy Bonjasky made his appointment with Schilt in the semis.

MMA versus kickboxing has become the recent flavour of K1, and the first super fight pitted Romanian rising star Daniel Ghita against Golden Glory MMA fighter Sergei Kharitonov. Ghita wowed the world with his performance in the WGP 2009 Tokyo Qualifier but was unlucky enough to meet a newly-inspired Semmy Schilt in the Final 16. That night, it looked like Schilt had scared Ghita’s form out of him – gone was the blistering array of leg kicks he used to carve his way into the ranks of K1’s elite. While they had returned for this fight, little of his technical brilliance had followed, so we had a fairly dull dynamic of Ghita kicking Kharitionov’s legs, who stood and absorbed it, occasionally countering with a sweep. The most remarkable aspect of the contest was Kharitonov’s ability to remain standing. By the third round, Kharitonov had gone horizontal and the referee awarded the win to Ghita.

Semi-final one saw Badr Hari fighting Alistair Overeem for a place in the finals. This fight was loaded with expectation, given the way Alistair had swiftly dispatched Hari at their first meeting. Hari had also put the pressure on himself by promising to eliminate Alistair in less than a round. Nerves played more than a small part in what followed next; Hari came out blazing as he had in his first match, catching Alistair with a straight punch. Alistair kissed the canvas, and hadn’t made it far past the eight count before Badr struck again, scoring with a high kick. The ropes caught Alistair and the referee intervened. The fight was over, and Hari had made it to the finals in record time.

Schilt versus Bonjasky started off promising enough when Remy finding Semmy’s jaw with a looping hook that floored the three-time champion. It was not to last, however, as Zimmerman’s damage quickly made itself apparent; Remy had won that battle but was losing the war. The script seemed the same as it had for Semmy’s first fight, courtesy of a well-timed low kick. Remy’s campaign for his fourth title had concluded, and Schilt had set the stage for his.

The second super-fight saw Japanese heavyweight title holder Kyotaro facing off against Tyrone Spong. Spong was proclaimed the next big thing in 2009, and as is often the way with grand pronouncements, was soon beaten by Nathan Corbett and then Gokhan Saki. Kyotaro has been saddled with a similar curse, so both men met under the shadow of Kyotaro’s recent K1 heavyweight title. Even ‘creative’ refereeing couldn’t save him, however, and Spong’s skill and experience soon won over Kyotaro’s unconventional style and skilful, edge-of-the-seat evasions.

The final fight took place on the back of a lot of genuine hype. For so long, Schilt had been the unbeatable monster. Badr Hari is the talent-to-burn rising star, and at their first meeting in Amsterdam 6 months’ ago, Hari had found the weakness in Schilt’s armour. The question was, had a new era found its way into K1, or would Schilt reassert his exceptional grasp?

As per his first two fights, Hari came out swinging. Schilt leaned back out of the way and found his mark with a solid jab that sent Badr to the canvas for his first down. Badr rose, obviously dazed, and rather than collecting himself, rushed straight back in and was dropped again with a push kick to the jaw. The outcome was a foregone conclusion by this time, but given that three downs are allowed in the final match, everyone except for Badr waited for the last. Semmy utilised the kick which had dispatched Le Banner and became a four-time GP winner, shaving a full minute off Peter Aerts’ 1998 record. He had disposed of all three opponents in 5 minutes 13 seconds.                      

Part of the attraction of heavyweight kickboxing is the sudden-death aspect; it makes for edge-of-the-seat, high-stakes action. The only problem is, when the KO ratio is so high, it makes for a lightning-fast tournament where you don’t see a lot of actual fighting and are left with a high proportion of ‘what if’ questions. The only question I felt was answered this year was any remaining shreds of doubt about the dominance of Semmy Schilt. On goes the dominance of both the Dutch behemoth and K1’s greatest marketing nightmare.

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