Peter Graham


Blitz Magazine, December 2012

The day I talked to Peter, he was managing multiple tasks and unsure I’d be able to get any sense out of him.

“I’ve just come from ten rounds of sparring!”

At 106 kilograms, he’s slimmed down considerably from his near-120 kilograms of days previous. When asked why, he gives a simple answer – Paul Slowinski.

“Being beaten by Paul Slowinski, anyway. He did what he had to do [to improve after our last contest]; he did all the things he could do, and he was the better man on the day.” Accordingly, Peter has chosen to take a leaf out of Slowinski’s book. “I never paid too much attention to my diet; now I’m careful about what I eat. I’m the fittest I’ve ever been.”

In the twelve months since the most anticipated Australian heavyweight clash since Greco and Longinidis, Peter has been a very busy man. Some might say that at thirty-six, a fighter is moving toward the end of his or her career. This may well be the case, but you’d best not say it to Peter. Peter has a professional boxing word-title fight coming up, still competes as a kickboxer, is extending his reach as a mixed martial artist and has even undertaken a new style of karate. “Once you stop learning and developing as a martial artist, you stop moving forward,” he says.

Peter began is career in the martial arts when he first entered a Kyokushin karate school near his home on the north shore of Sydney. He had played a bit of Rugby league at school, but was yet to really test himself as an athlete.

“I used to walk past it [the karate school] all the time,” he says. “One day, I decided to go in and give it a shot. I wanted to make something of my life; I wanted to do something with myself.” It worked; Peter won his first tournament, the under-yellow belt division of the New South Wales Full Contact Karate championships.

At that time, Kyokushin was an international amateur organisation that was presided over by its founder; the Korean-born Masutatsu Oyama. Peter says that ‘Mas’ Oyama, possibly the most famous martial artist since Bruce Lee, was the prototypical MMA fighter.

“Oyama travelled the world, fighting all kinds of people; boxers, whoever, to find out who was the best and to truly test out the style he had developed.” This willingness to risk his reputation and the style he had invented defined Mas Oyama as a “man’s man”; the kind of figure Peter sought to emulate. Oyama died in 1994 and Kyokushin was soon divided by politics. These issues would come to affect and define the careers of many martial artists, Peter among them.

As Peter’s success continued, opportunity followed. He won the Australian Open-Weight Full Contact Karate championship in 1999 and shortly after, became the South Pacific champion. He then moved to Ikebukuro in Tokyo, Japan, to undertake the ultimate challenge for any karateka, the Uchi Deshi program. ‘Uchi deshi’, literally ‘inside student’, live in the dojo and are subjected to as much karate as they can take, and then some.

“We trained three times a day,” remembers Peter. “The first session was at about 6, then we would eat and rest, and then have a second session at about midday. After that, we had another meal and another rest and at night, we’d train again, with everyone in the normal class. About the only thing we did, other than train, was sleep. We were just too exhausted to do anything else.” Unfortunately, Peter only completed three months of his time at Kyokushin’s Honbu headquarters before having to return to Australia due of the death of his brother, Matthew.Regardless, Peter earned his black belt in the space of five years. A Kyokushin black belt is not a common thing, and is earned with great difficulty. By this time, Peter was well-known in the upper echelons of Kyokushin, and had developed relationships with many of its stars, including Nicholas Pettas, who he had trained with at the Honbu dojo. Around this tine, a new challenge appeared on the horizon.

The ‘K’ in K1 stands for ‘Kakutogi’, a Japanese word which, loosely defined, refers to any fighting style which is ‘stand-up’. Its founder, Mr Ishii, intended to create a competition with standardised rules under which all stand-up martial artists – Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Kickboxing, Muay Thai – could compete to discover which style was the strongest. The idea captured the imaginations of fight fans around the world; it was an extension of Oyama’s quest of years previous. “Some of the top Kyokushin guys, like Filho, Pettas and Feitosa were looking at K1 and they were talking about going. So it was definitely at the forefront of my mind.”

Peter began competing as a kickboxer at twenty-one. To begin with, he says, he “kicked and punched,” rather than kicked and boxed. It seemed to be enough, however; he won the WKBF world amateur kickboxing title with a record of 17-0. He turned pro after that with spectacular success. His winning record remained untainted for another three fights, until the inevitable happened.

“My first loss was to Stan ‘the Man’ Longinidis, on points,” he says.

Undeterred, Peter poured all his energies into becoming the best kickboxer he could be and soon found himself keeping company with the best fighters in the world. His second career loss was to Mark Hunt in the final of the 2001 K1 preliminary tournament in Melbourne. The year finished well for him, however; he was invited to take part in the K1 WGP in Osaka. He had a first round win again the South African Jan Nortje, while losing in the semi-finals to fellow Australian, Adam Watt. While he lost those contests, names like Mark Hunt and Adam Watt adequately illustrate the kind of company Peter’s success had propelled him into.

He continued to make an impression on the international stage while racking up the wins at home. In 2002, however, he met Jason Suttie for the first time.

“Jason’s never an easy fight,” says Peter. “Every time, he looks like he’s come there to kill you.” That fight was awarded a draw and, next time they met, Jason took the win. So began one of the greatest rivalries in Australian Kickboxing. They would fight another three times over the coming years, with two wins each and a draw between them.

Peter came off his end-of-year loss to Jason in 2002 with another seven fights throughout 2003. This was his most visibly successful year; he defeated Sam Greco at Final Elimination and earned his place in the K1 Final 8. It was there he met little-known Dutch fighter, Remy Bonjasky. “I saw him for the first time at the draw; he chose me. My plan was to jump on him early and try to scare him. Make him sloppy.”

The Tokyo Dome was so large that the competitors had to be ferried to the ring in golf buggies. As is often the case in K1, it’s a long and difficult road to the top, where your stay can be brief. Bonjasky introduced Peter to his flying knee, and simultaneously the world was introduced to one of the most spectacular heavyweight fighters ever. Bonjasky went on to win the first of his three K1 championships. “[Bonjasky] is an incredibly skilled athlete. I just wasn’t prepared for his jumping knees and finesse.”

Peter’s consequent appearances in K1 were few. The reasons for this are shrouded in mystery and Peter makes no attempt to explain it. “K1 is a very professional organization,” he says. Whatever the reason, Peter didn’t maintain circulation with the other fighters who had made the Final 16. The majority of his subsequent fights were back in Australia. One of his most significant wins was over Alexei Ignashov in 2005.

“Ignashov said it was his hardest fight ever.” Peter suffered only two losses, one to old rival Jason Suttie and another to Doug Viney, another fighter to go on to big things in the global K1 arena. One of his most famous fights, and arguably one of the most exciting K1 fights ever, was a narrow win over Dutch bad-boy, Badr Hari.

In 2005, Hari had brutally KOed Stefan Leko with a jaw-breaking spinning kick and was becoming as famous for his obnoxious antics as he was for his skills. In 2006, K1 held one leg of its WGP in Auckland and Oceania fighters faced off against some of the biggest names in the sport. Hari was a late inclusion; Graham was pitted against him. Things almost got off to an early start at the weigh-in when Hari told Graham he was too old – and kissed him. Peter took him down, exercising some of his new MMA training and everyone present got involved in prising the two apart. “I’ve never had so many people ask me to kill an opponent before a fight. Normally, people just encourage you to knock them out!”

Come fight day, resentment from the weigh-in had taken root and both fighters bought it to the ring. Peter hammered Hari, who miraculously stood up to the pounding and dished out plenty of his own. It was a close contest that, in its dying seconds, looked like it might go the Dutchman’s way. Until Peter caught Hari on the jaw with his spinning hook kick, ‘Rolling Thunder’ and sent him off to sleep for so long his seconds had to carry him from the ring.

2006 finished when Peter fought the best in the sport, Semmy Schilt, over five rounds at ‘Dynamite!!’ the K1 New Year’s Eve show. Peter bought the contest to a decision. “I took it on two days’ notice,” he says. “If there’s one thing I’d like to do in kickboxing, it’s rematch Schilt with a decent amount of time to prepare.”

After a lengthy recovery, Hari returned to the ring and a revenge match was scheduled for the Hong Kong K1 in 2007. Both men fought a cagey fight and the contest failed to generate as much of the risky excitement of its predecessor. Hari took the decision win.

Peter shifted his focus into other quarters from this time. Japanese MMA organisation Sengoku decided to capitalise on Peter’s celebrity and the curiosity of seeing how well a striker could perform under a set of almost ‘anything goes’ rules.

“They asked me how much for me to fight, I thought of a ridiculous number and said, ‘How about this?’ and they agreed!”

In his first MMA contest, Peter found himself opposite Kazuyuki Fujita. Fujita is a MMA fighter with a background in wrestling who had fought most of the significant heavyweights in the competition; Fedor, Mirko Crocop and Mark Kerr among them. Peter made a strong start but seemed at sea under the unfamiliar rules; Fujita won by submission in the first round. He suffered another defeat at the hands of Frenchman Moise Rimbon and then again to Rolles Gracie late in 2009.

“MMA is hard,” Peter says, shaking his head. He has been diligent in his training, however, having moved to Marta Grosa dos Sol in Brazil to earn his blue belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

In recent times, Peter met and married his wife, Sylvia. They now have a baby girl, Nicole. “Getting married is awesome, man. It improved my whole quality of life. If I’d known, I would have done it ten years ago!”

Part of the evolution has been to open a new gym. “It’s called Peter Graham’s IMC – which stands for International Martial Arts Centre. It’s clean, it’s new, and the instructors are champions.” The gym is located in Prospect, which is in the Western suburbs of Sydney. “My family and I live upstairs, with the gym downstairs. I work at Boxing Works in the morning and then IMC at night. My wife, Sylvia, does the desk.

“We’ve got a fantastic Muay Thai coach, Apidech Moekunthod. He’s had about two hundred and fifty fights, with thirty of those being pro boxing. He’s originally from the ISS gym in Pattaya; he was Nick Kara and Daniel Dawson’s coach. Most importantly, he understands the difference between boxing, kickboxing and K1. We’re also working on a BJJ coach; he’s a former training partner of Wanderlei Silva. Currently at IMC we offer kickboxing, Muay Thai, Kempo Karate and combat grappling. BJJ and Boxing are coming.”

Interestingly, Peter has gone full circle and started doing Karate again. “I bought a Kempo Karate school, so I figured I’d better learn it if I’m going to teach it. It’s similar [to Kyokushin], but has a different curriculum and kata.”

Peter has become the image of the international martial artist, having fought and trained around the globe. “I’m working to set up my gym for the moment, so I won’t be going anywhere for a while. I’m always trying to improve my base knowledge when I got to Brazil, with my wife. Sylvia is Brazilian, which helps! Sometimes I’ll go train in Russia, or go train with my friends in the US, at Team Quest. Wherever I’m going, I always try to learn new stuff. I guess you could say I’m a martial arts enthusiast. An aficionado.”

‘International’ is a good way to describe Graham as a fighter. He has a kickboxing fight booked in Japan the weekend after this interview, and will follow it with a pro boxing heavyweight title fight against Hunter Sam at the Croatian Club, in Sydney. “Hunter Sam is a big hitter. He comes from a family of boxers. His father was a champion boxer. He’s not to be taken lightly.”

After that, Peter will be fighting In Russia for the Draka world heavyweight title. “M1 was the name of the MMA competition on one side of Russia; the other side is Draka.” Peter remains philosophical about his opponents. “I’ll fight anyone in front of me. It’s never a personal thing; it’s all about getting me where I want to go.”

Peter’s plans are simply summarized; “I want to be the best combat athlete the country has seen; maybe the first person to hold a world title in all three disciplines; boxing, kickboxing and MMA. Basically, I just want to fight and win and then provide the best things through the gym. Stretch it out as long as I can.”

Fights fans hope so, too.

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