THURSDAY, November 13th, 2003 AT 1:00 AM

Making Sense Of The K-1
By Alex MacDonald - Japan

Some kickboxing fans will wag their tails and pant with pleasure no matter what happens in the ring. Others will compare today's quality with yesterday's and give a thumbs up or thumbs down. Many long time fans of the K-1 have found the most recent product completely abysmal. They long for the "good old days". As we near the 11th Grand Prix tournament, we need to look at the first 10 years and see if they were really far superior to what we now have.

In 1993, Kazuyoshi Ishii put 8 of the top heavyweight kickboxers in the ring for the first K-1 Grand Prix tournament. Veteran kickboxer Branko Cicatic of Croatia knocked out all three of his opponents to seize the first Grand Prix title. At age 38, Cikatic set the record for the oldest fighter to ever win the title. As 4 time champion Ernesto Hoost nears the age, the kickboxing world wonders if anyone can break such a record. In an interview with Man Magazine, Hoost stated that the he has no interest in breaking Cikatic's record. He may not have a choice unless he is planning to retire.

That same evening, a 22 year old Peter Aerts lost to Ernesto Hoost by decision. Although Cikatic took home the $100,000 prize, these two Dutchmen would claim 7 of the next nine tournaments.

In 1994, Peter Aerts set the record for the youngest Grand prix Champion, 23 years 217 days. Like Cikatic's record this one appears impossible to break. A few precocious youngsters have come along but none have done what Aerts did that day.

The most notable absence in the 1994 tournament was Ernesto Hoost. K-1 Producer, Kazuyoshi Ishii had already planned to expand and the direction he took was other weight classes. Hoost therefore entered and won the long forgotten K-2 tournament.

Meeting Aerts in the final was Masaaki Satake. Since the tournament was first conceived, Ishii dreamed of having a Japanese fighter win the Grand Prix. Unfortunately, this was the closest a homegrown fighter would ever get.

In 1995, the Grand Prix attracted more fighters. To select the best 8 for the tournament, the 16 fighters met on one day to decide in the ring who would fight in the Grand Prix. Most of these fighters deserved a shot at the title but there was one major exception. Masaaki Satake fought an ex-drug addict named Kimo who incidentally fought his second kickboxing match in 2003 against Bob Sapp. Kimo claims that he didn't even know the rules of the match and that it was the first time he had ever worn boxing gloves.

One surprise of the night was that power puncher Jerome Lebanner fought 5 rounds against a 160lb Thai and couldn't knock him out. Another was that a South African boxer named Mike Bernardo stopped karate superstar Andy Hug in the third round.

At the Grand Prix, Peter Aerts got revenge against Ernesto Hoost in the semifinal before knocking out LeBanner to take his second Grand Prix Championship in a row.

In 1996, the qualifier had some skilled fighters competing for a place in the Grand Prix. Like the year before, the Japanese fighter (this time Musashi) got the worst of the lot. Kit "The White Dragon" Lytkins, claiming to be an IKF champion, (But had never even fought for the IKF) took 2 kicks to the thigh and then did somersaults around the ring for the count of 10. Don't bother looking at the IKF past champions page. You won't find him. It was another organization that used the same letters.

The biggest surprise was the elimination of the 1995 finalist, Jerome LeBanner, at the hands of a kid named Mirko Tigar (aka. Mirko Filipovic, aka. Mirko Crocop).

The big day in Tokyo was one of the best. Mike Bernardo dropped Peter Aerts in the third round to stop the reigning champ from taking three in a row. To this day, no champion has ever won three titles in a row. Bernardo then defeated Musashi by decision to move into the final.

Karate fighter Andy Hug, after 2 disastrous years, finally made it to the final round of the tournament after defeating Ernesto Hoost in the semi. Bernardo's legs became a quick and easy target and Andy Hug would become the only fighter with a karate background to win the big title.

In 1997, the qualifier had a few very intense matchups. Rick Roufus nearly qualified for the Grand Prix but Jerome LeBanner's low kicks took effect before the end of the fight. Kyokushin superstar Francisco Filho (who had knocked out Andy Hug with one punch months earlier) defeated a 7 foot giant named Vander Marve.

This year also had a few challengers who had no business being in the ring. Andy Hug met taekwondo competitor Pierre Guenette and scored an easy KO in 2 minutes. The other disappointment was Jean Rivere who not surprisingly traded blows with the Japanese representative, Masaaki Satake. This fight shockingly went into double overtime and Riviere's karate gi was so soaked with sweat that he could barely move.

At the Grand Prix, Ernesto Hoost beat Filho and reigning champ Andy Hug on points to take the title. Hug himself beat Peter Aerts to make to the final round of the tournament.

The only dark cloud on this event was the quick stoppages. Both Greco and LeBanner took early knockdowns but were not given counts. The organization at the time wanted lots of knockouts. That was the selling point back then and as a result some fights were prematurely stopped. If one were to compare those two knockdowns to the one Bob Sapp suffered at the hands of Kimo, he or she would clearly see that the official policy is extremely flexible.

In 1998, the first K-1 USA took place as a qualifier for the qualifier in Osaka. Rick Roufus won by forfeit when his opponent Curtis Schuster couldn't clear the medical exam. In Osaka, he met Francisco Filho, a master low kicker. This would be the last time Roufus would get this close to the Grand Prix.

The Osaka event didn't feature any tomato cans for Masaaki Satake to get a guarantee to the Grand Prix. The best (or worst) they could do was Glaube Feitosa. It was obvious that the organization was hoping that Feitosa's lack of boxing skill would make him an easy target for the more experienced Satake. Although he was a poor boxer, his kicking skills had him in complete control of the fight. No matter, the judges gave the decision to Satake.

At the Grand Prix, Satake met Peter Aerts in the first round and lost in the first round. In fact, after 2 years empty-handed, Aerts was better than ever. He knocked out all three opponents in the first round. He and Branko Cikatic are the only two champions to win all three matches by KO. Aerts, however, is the only one to do it in the first round of each bout.

As sensational as Aerts was that night, word must be given to his opponent in the final, Andy Hug. No fighter before or after Hug has ever made it to the final of the 8-man tournament three times in a row.

In 1999, the K-1 organization held three tournaments to handle the number of heavyweights wanting to enter the Osaka eliminator. The finalists of each event were then matched against the K-1 superstars. They were: Musashi and Nobu Hayashi (K-1 Japan), Xavit Bajrami and Lloyd Van Dams (K-1 Braves), and Stefan Leko and Samir Benazzouzz (K-1 Dream).

In Osaka, the match makers had a bit of a problem. How on Earth would they be able to get Satake to enter the Grand prix? He was fat, lazy and a year older than when Aerts mauled him in one round. In fact, he hadn't won a Grand Prix match since 1994. The answer was Musashi. If Satake won or lost, the Grand Prix would have a Japanese fighter. The veteran managed to score a knockdown but the judges gave the decision to the younger Musashi. Satake left the K-1 never to return.

There were a few surprises as there always are. Jerome LeBanner, Andy Hug and Mirko Filipovic finished off there opponents very quickly. The most surprising was how quickly Mike Bernardo was eliminated at the hands and feet of young Mirko.

The black eye of the event was without a doubt the Sam Greco vs. Stefan Leko fight. Leko's low kicks repeatedly hit Greco square in the crotch. As the fight couldn't continue after 3 rounds of low blows, the judges scorecards were used to reach a technical decision.

At the Grand Prix, reigning champion Peter Aerts scored a knockdown against Jerome LeBanner. LeBanner struggled to his feet and tried to shake off the cobwebs. Still groggy, he landed a brain-jarring strike of his own and won by KO in the first round.

Hoost kept Hug from making it to the final a 4th year in a row by decision. In the semi, he picked up where Aerts left off and scored a knockout against LeBanner. In the final, he met Mirko Filipovic who had bullied Musashi and Greco relatively easily. Body punches from Mr. Perfect would stop the young Croat and crown Hoost Grand Prix champion for the second time in his career.

In 2000, the K-1 organization went tournament crazy. Now, rather than the previous year's best 8 meeting 8 new challengers for a place in kickboxing's richest tournament, everyone had to vie for a place in one of 3 tournaments: Block A, B and C. Moreover, there were eight world tournaments in various countries to earn spots in the 3 Blocks. The Grand Prix tournament had exploded in size in a very short time.

However, observant fans were quick to notice that the Japanese champion, Musashi, didn't have to enter this newer more challenging system of elimination. Winning the K-1 Japan was enough to win a place in the tournament. He did just that.

The Block A tournament ended with Jerome LeBanner the winner. Ernesto Hoost was injured in his previous match with Lloyd Van Dams and threw in the towel after the first round against the Frenchman. Both LeBanner and Hoost qualified for the Grand Prix. The Block B tournament saw a brash young French kid named Cyril Abidi stop Peter Aerts and Ray Sefo before losing to Francisco Filho in the final. Both Filho and Abidi qualified for the Grand Prix. The Block C tournament was a very sad affair. Fans were still mourning the death of former champion Andy Hug who was supposed to enter this tournament. The quality of the tournament itself was poor. Stefan Leko injured his hand knocking out Andrew Thompson and his victim, Thompson, then met teammate Mike Bernardo in the semifinal. Bernardo reopened Thompson's cuts and dropped his comrade with a low kick to an already raw thigh. Bernardo next fought Mirko Filipovic who should have entered the ring with crutches rather than hobble on his injured ankle.

The three qualifying tournaments decided 6 Grand Prix fighters: LeBanner, Hoost, Abidi, Filho, Bernardo and Filipovic. The K-1 Japan decided the 7th, Musashi. The 8th place was selected by K-1 Producer Kazuyoshi Ishii, Peter Aerts. Unfortunately, within two weeks of the tournament, a dark cloud appeared. The champions of the Block A and C tournaments, LeBanner and Bernardo, weren't coming. Both had injuries. Their replacements were Ray Sefo and Stefan Leko. In retrospect, Sefo and Leko were good replacements, but the qualifying system was rendered moot.

The Grand Prix itself had only one ugly disappointment, Cyril Abidi. His head butting massacre of Peter Aerts failed to get him the win but it did get him into the semi final and earned him a $20,000 bonus check.

Ernesto Hoost fought a total of 10 rounds against Filipovic, Filho and Sefo to take his third title, tying the record set by Peter Aerts.

In 2001, the K-1 organization continued to expand. Instead of 8 world tournaments there were now 9. Instead of 3 qualifying tournaments there were now 4 plus 2 repechage tournaments. They had also learned a lesson from the year before. If both the champion and the finalist qualify for the Grand Prix, fighters will set their sights on making it to the final match not winning the tournament. To avoid matches like LeBanner-Hoost and Bernardo-Filipovic, it was now decided that only the winner would qualify for the tournament and the finalist would qualify for one of the repechage tournaments.

The first tournament was the Osaka GP which saw Jerome LeBanner earn a trip to the Grand Prix and Adam Watt a chance in the repechage tournament in Fukuoka. Grand Prix 2000 finalist Ray Sefo came to the tournament with a back injury and although he won his opening match, he was in no condition to continue in for the crown. The next tournament, the Melbourne GP, crowned Ernesto Hoost champ and sent IKF champion Matt Skelton to Fukuoka. The most talked about match however is the McDonald-Filipovic bout where Mike McDonald stunned the world with a 1st round TKO over superstar Crocop. The third tournament, the Nagoya GP, sent Alexei Ignashov to the Grand Prix and Lloyd Van Dams to Fukuoka. Fans were stunned when unheralded Andrew Thompson scored a 1st round TKO over Cyril Abidi and were in complete awe as the judges gave a decision to Mike Bernardo over Lloyd Van Dams. From a wheelchair, Mike Bernardo told the spectators that he was in no condition to continue and gave his berth to the final round to Van Dams. The last of the four major tournaments was the K-1 Las Vegas. The final match saw Stefan Leko drop Peter Aerts like a sack of potatoes. Francisco Filho disappointed the fans and himself by letting a speedy Sergei Ivanovich collect points and an overtime win. The Fukuoka GP, two 4-man repechage tournaments, raised the hands of Mark Hunt and Francisco Filho. These two fighters would later reach the final of the Grand Prix.

In an interesting twist to the K-1 Japan, Nicholas Pettas was allowed to enter the tournament. Taking advantage of the two knockdown rule in his opening fight and an injured opponent in the second, the Dane entered the final round of the tournament with two first round knock outs. His opponent Musashi, however, in the first two fights, fought 6 full rounds and, in the third, a 4th round knockdown gave Pettas the berth to Tokyo Dome representing Japan.

On the same event, the K-1 launched a new marketing strategy, K-1 vs. PRIDE (a mixed martial arts promotion). Mirko Filipovic who was eliminated from the Grand Prix by McDonald in Melbourne was given the opportunity to fight a Japanese pro-wrestler under modified PRIDE rules. The fight ended before it got stared due to a deep cut to Fujimoto and Mirko has since become a dual athlete. For kickboxing fans this means the absence of one of the best kickboxers in the world from both the K-1 Grand Prix 2002 and K-1 Grand Prix 2003.

When anyone looks back at the 2001 Grand Prix they undoubtedly remember the Hunt-LeBanner fight. Many thought LeBanner had an easy run for the elusive title. Many were proven wrong as Mark Hunt scored a knock out en route to winning the crown. The disappointments were when both Peter Aerts and Ernesto Hoost injured bones in their feet. Aerts hurt his foot during his match with Filho and Ernesto also discovered a swollen instep after he defeated Leko. Fans know that accidents are part of the game but when both 3-time champions withdraw for the same reason, hearts sink.

In 2002, the K-1 organization made a major change to the qualification formant. After two years of major stars not qualifying for the Grand Prix, it was time to return to the Osaka single matches. One exception was that the K-1 Japan tournament would still send its champion directly to the Grand Prix. It was obvious that someone in the K-1 office remembered the matchmaking headaches they endured trying to find an opponent for Satake. Another exception was that these matches were 3 rounds instead of five. Perhaps this was to appease the television network or perhaps it was because of the Satake-Riviere overtime match in 1998.

The K-1 kept the regional tournaments and planned to have an elimination round in Las Vegas. A few weeks before the Las Vegas GP they changed their minds. Instead of 7 fighters from the event qualifying for the Osaka GP, a tournament was held. K-1 USA champion McDonald won the tournament. The other six spots went to handpicked opponents such as Bob Sapp, Gary Goodridge and Glaube Feitosa.

The Osaka GP will be remembered for one fight in particular, Ernesto Hoost vs. Bob Sapp. Sapp had been on the scene for a few months by the time this fight took place. He lost his first fight by disqualification and as a result became an instant star. Most fans were in shock. A loss by DQ would at any other time be an article footnote but Sapp was the cover story. In his next fight, Sapp had K-1 Producer Ishii act as referee. The 170kg (374 lb.) giant then hammer punched and rabbit punched his way to a TKO victory. The referee-for-the-day actually called knockdowns for Sapp rather than fouls against him. Against Hoost in Osaka, it appeared that the K-1 Organization was going to throw Sapp to the lions. That plan backfired. Sapp won the fight when the doctor said Hoost was too badly cut to continue. Sapp had qualified for the Grand Prix.

The K-1 Grand Prix 2002, was ugly before it even began. Sem Schilt signed to fight the PRIDE champion a week before the tournament. He lost by triangle strangle and was luckily uninjured. However, he suddenly withdrew from the Grand Prix stating that he had injured his shoulder while bowling. Ernesto Hoost took his place in the tournament and would face Bob Sapp once again.

In the opening match, Peter Aerts threw 194 strikes to Ray Sefo's 113. Despite an average of 27 strikes per round greater than his opponent, Aerts still lost a split decision. Hoost gave Sapp a lesson in pain and Sapp gave Hoost a lesson in over-confidence. Near the end of the second round, Sapp pushed Hoost into a corner and missed with every punch. Referee Kakuta stopped the fight anyway. Although the winner, Sapp withdrew from the tournament with a swollen right hand and his victim, Hoost, met Sefo in the semi final. A well-placed check on an injured ankle gave Hoost the KO win. In the final, Hoost collected 3 knockdowns against Jerome LeBanner to win a 4th Grand Prix title.

The TV ratings for the Grand Prix were huge. The previous year's 20% record was completely shattered by the 35% rating. It was now official, Bob Sapp put bums in seats. He was here to stay.

Shortly after the Grand Prix, K-1 Producer Ishii made the papers in Japan for negative reasons, tax evasion. MAN Magazine stood behind Ishii saying that tax evasion was merely a game and the K-1 USA went as far as to say that there was no scandal; Ishii's name and face were not news in Japan. Tax evasion is a serious crime and the allegations were real enough to force the K-1 to cancel the annual K-1 Rising event.

In 2003, Tanikawa, Kakuta and none other than Bob Sapp became the new producers of the K-1. The first order of business was to get the most out of the new winning formula, toughman style fights. The two K-1 Beast events were horribly disappointing to both the fans and K-1 management. The Sapp-Filipovic fight was a disaster as Mirko Crocop won easily despite Kakuta's presence as the referee.

Outside the 3 ring circus, the K-1 staged the usual qualifying tournaments and 4 major tournaments to qualify for Osaka. Like the 2001 system, a repechage tournament was staged, this time in Las Vegas. This event was also the first appearance of Bob Sapp in his homeland. Sapp with a little help from colleague Kakuta managed to beat the same Kimo who lost to Satake in 1995. Following the fight was the famous Mike Tyson appearance. Despite the absurdity of the whole affair, the K-1 Las Vegas could be considered an overall marketing success. Sapp appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, and Tyson's participation seized a lot of the boxing press.

Shortly afterward, Tyson signed some promotional rights over to the K-1. Whether or not that will translate into a fight is anyone's guess but the signing alone was good for publicity. Given the failure of the Beast events and the success with the boxing press, the K-1 started to target boxers. The first was Butterbean, then Frans Botha and in the near future we should see Shannon Briggs. Former sumo grand champion Akebono also looks to try his hand at the K-1 and the media in Japan are loving it.

The Osaka GP featured fewer stars than hoped. Jerome LeBanner and Mark Hunt were out with injuries, Ernesto Hoost with a recurring skin disease and Mirko Filipovic with a better offer elsewhere. Of the seven fights, 2 ended in disqualifications, 1 ended in a technical decision and 1 had a retired fighter jump in the ring on a whim only to lose. Of the remaining three fights, Peter Aerts took a narrow victory over Jerrol Vennetiaan and two fighters who came within one match of becoming Grand Prix champions themselves, Filho and Bernardo, lost to young lions hungry for a title of their own, Leko and Iganshov.

As we near the 2003 K-1 Grand Prix, rumors are beginning to surface. Fans have come to expect sudden changes to the line up because of either injuries like 2000 or corruption like 2002. The most recent rumors were that Ray Sefo and Alexei Ignashov were not participating. Both have denied the claims as nothing but gossip.

So how bad is the K-1 these days?

In hindsight, we can see they have always had less than desirable aspects haunting their promotions. They discontinued the K-2 and K-3 tournaments. They stopped fights prematurely to tamper with the KO rate. They could never produce a world class Japanese heavyweight, so we got stuck with Satake and Musashi and the sad opponents chosen to fight them. They all but stopped promoting 5 round matches since 2000. They introduced Mirko Filipovic to MMA and lost him to a rival company. They pulled strings to remove Sem Schilt from 2002 tournament. They have most recently increased sales via freak show marketing. However, looking toward the future, we can see that what is new and surprising today will become trite tomorrow. The K-1 is very capable of making sudden changes and will do so when the masses lose interest in the organization's current product.

Tanikawa, Kakuta and Sapp have their backs against a wall. A return to a mere 20% TV rating (considered astonishing 2 years ago) from last year's 35% would be nothing less than a complete failure, a 43% drop in viewers. Unfortunately, this year's Grand Prix looks unlikely to match last year's 35% rating due to Bob Sapp's failure to qualify for the tournament and the absence of 4 superstars.

The good news is that the K-1 is not going to disappear anytime soon. They will give us high quality match ups. The bad news is that the buffoonery will continue a little longer, through 2004 at least. We can only hope that the fans will scream louder for Bonjasky, Williams and Ignashov than for Sapp, Akebono and Tyson. In the meantime, we'll have to wait for newer fans and the tail waggers to become a little more sophisticated. I believe they will.

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