The K1 Affair: Rise and Fall of a Fighting Juggernaut

The merits of various martial codes and their true point of origin will always be up for debate, but as far as codifying stand-up fighting and putting it on the international stage, K1 takes the honours. The glory has not been without incident, however; K1 is now fighting not only for pre-eminence, but also for its survival. JARROD BOYLE examines the history of one of fighting sports’ most sacred, hallowed codes.

Since martial artists first lined up in dojos, the argument ‘which martial art is the strongest?’ has possessed the minds of most. Martial arts are about self-defence, and when it comes down to fighting for survival, everyone wants assurance that they have invested their time and effort in the best way possible.

 
Kazuyoshi Ishii, a one-time Kyokushin Karate practitioner, broke away from that organisation to found Seidokaikan Karate in 1980. Kyokushin, to that time, had been the world’s largest full-contact organisation. It was also avowedly amateur and soon to be riven by politics. Recognising an audience for the search for dominance, Ishii first founded his own style which would allow professional participation, and then set about luring the world’s strongest martial arts talent towards it. Established stars like Kyokushin’s Sam Greco and Andy Hug were swift to make the move.

 
To both its credit and downfall, K1 has always had marketability uppermost in their minds. The rules were crucial to this. The ‘K’ in K1 stands for kakutogi, which is a Japanese word to describe any form of stand-up, striking martial art. Ishii formulated a set of rules under which all stand-up martial artists could come together to test their skill. While K1 bears the closest resemblance to Thai boxing, grappling and elbows were eliminated. This was to ensure the contest would flow better from a spectator’s point of view, as well as removing promoter’s nightmares connected to heavyweights fighting with elbows. K1 soon proved was how strong international interest was with competitors emerging from a range of nations.

 
The first GP final in 1993 was won by Croatian Branko Cikatic in the Yoyogi National Gymnasium in front of a modest audience of 12,000. He won each of the three tournament legs, victorious over three opponents by knockout wins in each bout. The first round of competition also introduced the world to the competitions’ two most dominant and successful fighters, Ernesto Hoost and Peter Aerts (Hoost defeated Aerts in the first round by decision). The Dutch would soon become the sport’s ascendant superpower; Dutch fighters have gone on to capture the GP title a total of fifteen times. In fact, the only non-Dutch champions have been Cikatic, Andy Hug and Mark Hunt.

 
Rather than a single-bout structure like a boxing card, Ishii opted for a knockout tournament, Kyokushin-style. This not only allowed for a broader showcase of fighters, but also introduced a greater degree of luck for the outcome, as well as requiring a considerable degree of fortitude from the contestants. The winner would have to fight three times in the course of the competition, putting up with sometimes long delays and the onset of injury in between bouts.

 
In 1995, the international structure was properly implemented. Ishii set up a Grand-Prix format with a qualifier in every part of the world, to effectively draw on the disparate but potent pockets of international fighting culture. The organisation went from strength to strength, growing its audience numbers as its roster of fighters increased. As far as popularity and audience numbers were concerned, K1 peaked around 2002, the time that Bob Sapp appeared.

 
Sapp, a journeyman NFL player, appeared in K1 on the basis of his extraordinary size; standing around six feet four and weighing in at an astonishing 150 kilos, Sapp successfully tapped in to the Japanese fascination with freaks. Coupling his extraordinary stature with two astonishing wins over Ernesto Hoost, Sapp developed a strong relationship with the box office. Unfortunately for K1, this did a great deal to further undermine the organisation’s credibility. Fighters like Aerts, Hoost, Greco and Filipovic were regularly delivering stunning performances, proving that kickboxing was as sophisticated and legitimate a sport as any other. Sapp, who had almost no skill whatsoever other than his theatrical appeal, did a great deal to undermine that.

 
The Japanese judging also drew the sport into disrepute. Much like Kyokushin karate, in which no non-Japanese has ever won the world tournament, K1 showed a blind preference for Japanese fighters. Musashi, who suffered more grotesque hidings than any other fighter in the competition, was often propped up or promoted by spurious decisions. Even Peter Aerts, three-time GP winner, publicly criticised the organisation. Possibly the most famous incident of spurious judging took place at the Amsterdam leg of the K1 World GP in 2006. Remy Bonjasky was awarded the decision over Frenchman Jerome Le Banner, who had torn Bonjasky from one side of the ring to the other like a dog with a rag. The decision was later reversed, but the damage had been done.

 
Mixed Martial Arts had always been showing K1 solid competition, and for whatever reason, audiences seemed to show a preference for no-rules fighting. While MMA had temporarily suffered a set-back in America when it was banned from cable television broadcast, Pride in Japan provided a competition ground for Americans such as Chuck Liddell and Rampage Jackson, as well as luring K1 favourites such as Mirko Filipovic. Once the UFC had been bought out by its current owners, the rules codified and its reality television show, The Ultimate Fighter implemented as a platform for reaching – and educating – the US mass-market, K1 appeared to have been well and truly eclipsed.

 
K1 and its parent organisation, FEG (Fighting Entertainment Group), continued to produce events, both as K1 and under the Dream label, its mixed martial arts promotion. Earlier this year Simon Rutz, promoter behind the ‘It’s Showtime’ events in The Netherlands, announced that many fighters from the previous year’s GP were yet to be paid. Shortly after, K1 announced that it needed to halt production for a while in order to ‘restructure’. To make matters worse, the recent Tsunami, which precipitated the nuclear crisis, had a profoundly negative effect on both the country and its economy.

 
Added to K1’s woes is its most dominant yet controversial champion, Semmy Schilt. Schilt probably fits into the freak category, standing six foot ten and weighing in somewhere around the 130kg mark. He is, however, a vastly different fighter to the likes of Sapp; he is highly skilled, very fit and has the ability to fight strategically. Unfortunately, such skills don’t quite balance his charisma. Famously asked by an interviewer seeking to lighten his public persona, “Tell us, Semmy, what makes you laugh?” Schilt replied deadpan, “Jokes.”

 
In recent times, the brand appears to have bounced back; the Under 63 kilogram division K1 Max was staged at the sport’s initial venue, the Yoyogi National Gymnasium. How K1 survives in the current sports marketplace, however, is anyone’s guess. Its number one commentator, Michael Schiavello, had this to say;

 
“I think it will be a major blow for the stand up combative arts if K-1 dies. K-1 is a name, a brand, an institution; it has the prestige, the history, the pride. It has, for 18 years, been the pinnacle of stand up striking to which every heavyweight kickboxer aspires and for the last 9 years to which every middleweight also aspires. If K-1 dies, there will be other promotions who will pick up the slack, most notably ‘Its Showtime’, but it would be a long time before another organisation builds the prestige and brand name of K-1”.

 

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