Verhoeven and Holzken: the New Generation of Dutch Dominance

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International Kickboxer Magazine, March/April 2016

Glory 26 was held on December the fourth of last year in Amsterdam, the unofficial capital of European kickboxing. The two biggest draw-cards of the event were respective world champions at both welterweight and superheavyweight; Nieky Holzken and Rico Verhoeven.

Both fighters carry the torch of Dutch ascendancy on the world stage for a new generation. Both Verhoeven and Holzken spoke to JARROD BOYLE about world champion status, Glory and all the things that make the Dutch great.

Rico Verhoeven holds five Glory world titles at the age of twenty-six. Standing at six-foot-five inches tall and weighing one-hundred-and-fourteen kilograms, he is as gifted a physical specimen as any successful super-heavyweight must.

He also embodies the proverb that you have to ‘train until your idols become your rivals’. In Rico’s case, the climb to heavyweight gold has come over one of the most auspicious champions in the sport.

“I decided [to be a professional fighter] when I was eight or nine,” says Rico. “I saw Peter Aerts become K1 world champ in ‘98 for the second time.”

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Peter Aerts’ 1998 K1 win was one of the fastest paths to victory in the history of the organization: he defeated three separate opponents for a total fight time of six minutes and forty-three seconds.

“I thought, ‘This is amazing; I want this.’ That was the goal. As a kid you have a dream, but you have to see what happens.”

The dream became reality in 2013 when Rico met his former hero in center ring.

“It was a really big honour.” That said, Rico didn’t allow Aerts’ reputation to dazzle him. “When there’s an opponent in front of me, he is in the way of me providing for my family, so he needed to take one step to the side.”

The young Rico had plenty of support where it counted. His father, Jos, had been a Kyokushin karateka most of his life and introduced his son to karate at the tender age of six. Verhoeven senior had taken up boxing after suffering a knee injury and, when asked by friends if he would train them, opened his own gym.

“I was about six; from that moment he bought me to the gym. That’s when it started.”

Shortly after, Rico had his first fight.

“I had my first demo fight at seven. It might be a demo, but you’re a kid. You know, you can’t hold back.”

Rico was big for his age and had no option but to fight grown men at the age of sixteen.

“I had to fight adults,” he says: “there’s not a lot of sixteen year olds that weigh over one-hundred kilos.”

It was a blessing and a curse.

“There were two sides to it. On one hand, it was really cool to be knocking guys out that were twice my age. On the other side, [the promoter] said my opponent would be twenty-two or twenty-three. Then, he’s twenty-five.

“Then, he’s twenty-eight. ‘Wait a minute – this is a grown man!’ I’d think to myself. But you know, you focus, do what you need to do, and I KOed him in the second round.”

That fight was a turning point in Rico’s professional career.

“I did my second adult fight on the ‘It’s Showtime!’ promotion and they showed interest and signed me. They saw some talent, [and I thought] ‘Maybe my dream isn’t that crazy.”

After a series of outstanding performances, Rico found himself on the threshold of making his dream into a reality; a superfight in Hawaii for the prestigious K1 organization.

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“I didn’t really have too much experience at that time, but it went really good. My first dream was to become a K1 fighter. That dream came true at eighteen in Hawaii. Gokhan Saki won the tournament itself.”

Rico had a brief showing in the K1, mainly because the Japanese run-and-owned promotion was running out of steam. When it finally hit the skids, a large number of highly skilled, professional stand-up fighters were left without a stage on which to play.

Into that void came Glory Promotions International, an organization that aimed to present kickboxing at its best. They began by securing a roster that included the best fighters in the world.

The young Verhoeven was signed and soon began to make his way up the rankings, growing into a heavyweight champion as Glory grew into the world’s pre-eminent kickboxing competition.

Rico won his first Heavyweight title at the tender age of twenty-four when he defeated both Gokhan Saki and Daniel Ghita in the Heavyweight World Championship Tournament in 2013. In addition to the distinction, there was a lot of bad blood to come out of it. Saki was most upset by the decision; the normally calm and collected fighter took to social media to make his displeasure known.

“For me, it was a clear fight, says Rico. “The eight-count wasn’t fair, but the ref calls it, and that’s what happened. Even without it, he would have lost.”

His opponent in the final, Daniel Ghita, was a former training partner. Verhoeven took the win, but the relationship between the two has since dissolved.

“I don’t like that guy, man. If you can say so many bad things about someone you trained with, you’re just a bad person. He talked a lot of shit. ‘Rico doesn’t knock people out; he’s the princess of kickboxing.”

Regardless, Verhoeven has followed up that win with three successful title defenses and retains the title – and status – today. In the range of his experience, he nominates his toughest opponent as the man who has cast the largest shadow over the heavyweight division, both literally and figuratively.

“I fought Semmy Schilt in 2012. He was a big guy! His strongest hand is his jab, and he punches down. Sometimes, you say, ‘I’ll take one punch and I’ll step in,’ but with this man, it isn’t possible.

“His fucking annoying push kick straight to my liver felt like he was kicking my liver out of my body. I learned a lot mentally from that [fight]. ‘If he doesn’t KO me, who will?’ I thought. I started my win streak after that.”

Rico has recently made a much-publicised shift into mixed martial arts, winning his first contest in Romania by way of knock out in the first round.

“I’m just trying it out [at the moment]: I’m on the experimental route. I’ll see where it takes me. I’ve had one pro fight, and it was fun. Let’s see what the second fight brings. Glory can only give me three fights a year, and I wanted to stay active, so that was the agreement we made.”

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Rico found the transition from kickboxing to MMA one thing in the gym, and an entirely different matter once he was in the cage.

“In training it was ok, but in the ring, it’s a lot different. This guy started to attack me, and I’m thinking, ‘What do I want to do with this guy? Should I give him a chance of hitting me? What should I do?”

The first-round knockout indicated that Rico resolved the question easily enough.

“I’m training at Kops Gym, which is known as the best wrestling gym in Amsterdam,” he says, “I’m sparring with Gegard Mousasi. [I’m] trying to focus more on wrestling and grappling and staying out of submissions.”

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Nieky Holzken, Glory welterweight world champion, is sticking to the more traditional route.

“I like to watch MMA and I follow it, but my heart remains with kickboxing. If they give me really good money, then I’ll think about it a little further.”

Nieky began kickboxing at the age of ten. He had wanted to start earlier, inspired by the usual sources: martial arts movies.

“I was watching Van Damme and Rocky and I knew it was what I wanted to do. In the Netherlands, though, you can’t start until ten [years of age], so it was off to play soccer.”

Once Nieky began training as a kickboxer, he didn’t look back. The Netherlands has a strong kickboxing culture, the strongest in the world outside of Thailand, and the competition is structured into ‘Newling’, ‘C’, ‘B’ and ‘A’ classes so fighters can get the appropriate level of experience to progress through the rankings.

By 2006, Nieky was ready for the K1 and already had amassed more than fifty professional fights by the age of twenty-two. His first event was the K1 World Max Northern European Qualification Tournament.

“It was. I won three fights with three KOs; that was my ticket to Japan.”

Unfortunately for Nieky, the most difficult opponent at the final was the weight cut.

“I had to go lose ten kilograms in six weeks. I walk around at eighty-two. I fought Buakaw [for my] last fight [at the Max final]. I made weight, but felt bad. I went back to the hotel with my wife; I was dizzy and I fell down. I lost [the fight] on points. That was key for me to stop fighting at that weight. I returned to seventy-six.”

Notwithstanding problems with the weight cut, K1 was a positive experience.

“I had to fight with less power, but I made a name there. From that name, I built my career.”

Although K1 dissolved shortly after, with the advent of Glory, Nieky swiftly found himself back in a job. Holland’s pre-eminent kickboxing team, Golden Glory, became the basis of the Glory roster. Cor Hemmers, long the trainer for and step-father of Ramon Dekkers, became ‘Head of Talent Operations’ and naturally, Nieky was well-described as talent.

He has always been an exciting fighter who has won the majority of his contests, however, his appearance in Glory co-incided with him hitting his straps. He seems to have matured as a fighter in that his style has become fully coherent.

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Much like his mentor Dekkers, Holzken is a skilful technician whose hands are the cornerstone of his approach. So auspicious is his ability that Joe Rogan recently made the comment that Holzken is very possibly the best striker in the world.

“I learned a lot from Ramon; he was one of my favorite fighters. I trained for six years with him and then started with Cor [Hemmers]. We trained a lot. It’s too bad he’s gone. His death came as a big surprise. He was healthy and trained a lot. He died in training.”

Since the death of Ramon and Cor’s ascent into a corporate role within the Glory organization, Nieky has taken his training into his own hands.

“My father-in-law, Sgaf Weber, is training me. He was also training me when Ramon was training me; he is a famous boxer in Holland. We learned a lot from Ramon and started our own gym, ‘Team Holzken.’

Nieky isn’t strictly bound to Glory, and will fight for other organizations when opportunities emerge.

“I’m not exclusively a Glory fighter, but I try to do kickboxing with Glory and boxing with other companies.”

His experience of Glory has been a positive one, but he observes room for improvement.

“There’s a lot of good fighters [but] also there can be a lot of things done better. Promoting events, for instance; I heard in February that [Gokhan] Saki is [scheduled] to fight someone but there are no posters, commercials, or media. So, those things can be better.”

That said, some of the best fights to take place on the Glory canvas have featured Holzken. In recent memory, his two fights against American Wunderkind Raymond Daniels are a standout.

“In our first fight, I was very confident. I had come back from injury, and Glory put me in the [Four Man Elimination] tournament for the [welterweight] title. I did what I had to do; go to him and try to KO him.”

Daniels showed huge promise as a kickboxer and if any part of his game is lacking, it’s in terms of his experience. That said, when the rematch was announced, Holzken went back to the drawing board and put together the necessary blueprint for a repeat performance.

“For our second fight, he was very well-prepared. It was my plan to start slow, because I felt I could win by conditioning. [Daniels] is like a jumping machine; he will fly all around the ring, and that takes energy.

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“My plan was to punch his liver and run him flat. In the third round, he couldn’t run anymore, he gets caught in corner and I gave the flying knee. Daniels was finished, so I stopped the fight myself.”

Holzken’s record is not without blemishes, however. The Moroccan fighter, L’houcine Ouzgni fought Nieky and defeated him not once, but twice.

“Yeah, I’d like to rematch him. The first fight was bad luck; I walked into a punch. I knocked him down with a spinning backfist [in the second fight] and he went down. The referee didn’t count; it was about sixteen seconds.

“A long count. I lost focus. Then in the extra round, I think they want to help him.” The rematch is unlikely, due to the fact that Ouzgni seems to have retired.

“I don’t think he is active at this moment.”

Kickboxing in Holland has been through a difficult period, after the mayor of Amsterdam cracked down on local crime and forced Glory to shift their locus of production to Belgium. Things have improved however, in no small part due to reality television.

“It’s been a difficult time the last three years because of people shot and killed at events. Now, kickboxing is growing again. There are lots of gyms, and it is very popular among the children. Older people do it just to get healthy.

“I have my own reality show on national TV. It shows that kickboxing is not about criminality. [The sport is full of] normal guys like me who has two children and does it for his work. It’s fifty per-cent because of me that the government permitted Glory to have their big event in Amsterdam.

Boxing is the way forward for the thirty-two year old welterweight champ.

“The dream is to stop with kickboxing and go further with boxing. I’ve had nine fights for eight KOs so far. My next fight scheduled for February 20 in Helmond, Holland. Then, on January 17, I go to Las Vegas to train for two weeks with Floyd Mayweather and his team.”

Having begun boxing at the same age he began kickboxing, both skill-sets are a natural fit.

“It’s a different stance, but I’ve always trained, so it’s natural. In kickboxing, the left shoulder is more to the center and the toes of the left foot are off on an angle. When you’re boxing, you’re leaning more behind the shoulder. You have to lower your hand and you can do it better.”

How much better, only time will tell.

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