Years ago I was interviewing a fighter who wasn’t much of a mixed martial artist – he had a bad habit of getting taken down and choked out – but he was a stud kickboxer. In fact, he was so good when it came to throwing kicks and punches that he was often overseas, flown in by promoters in the Netherlands to compete against their local boys. “Oh man, you should see it there,” he said to me, his voice colored by a Russian accent. “Thousands of people in stadiums, all crazy. They love kickboxing there. More than anything.”
I was weaned on MMA events of all shapes and sizes, but the striking-only affairs I’d seen were held in casino ballrooms, converted banks and in the cellars of churches. While each invariably boasted world champs and the occasional international talent, it seemed there was a ceiling that kept them – and the sport – from soaring, from reaching the heights of the UFCs and Bellators and everything else I’d covered.
Then came GLORY on June 22 in New York City, and those words that fighter had spoken to me suddenly made sense. If you put the absolute best in the ring, pack a venue with over a thousand screaming fans, and give each fighter entrance enough fanfare to border on the worshipping of false idols, a kickboxing event can be huge – even here in the States.
GLORY, based out of Singapore but with promotional origins in the Land of Tulips and Wooden Shoes, is what K-1 was in its prime. It’s the biggest kickboxing organization in the world, the Nirvana nearly all kickboxers hope to one day attain and the Mecca they get on their knees and pray towards seven times each day. It is, quite simply, huge. But in a combat sports world dominated so thoroughly by MMA, what consumer and media crumbs are left for a sport that was hot shit in the U.S. in the 1980s but long since fizzled out? With New York the self-appointed last bastion of decency against “human cockfighting” and fighting in a cage, and pro kickboxing completely legal, it turns out there are a lot of crumbs to be had.
“Why are you here?” Mike Chiappetta of MMAFighting asked me as we settled into press row, which was one of two balconies overlooking the ring nearby. “You’re an MMA guy,” he said. I said this event was too big to pass up, and he nodded in agreement. GLORY’s shindig at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Midtown Manhattan was too much of an epic affair to ignore, a fact made all the more apparent by the media present – Matt Kaplowitz the Fight Nerd, Mark Jacobs from Black Belt Magazine, a rep from Bleacher Report, a writer from the New York Observer – as well as the cameras for the delayed broadcast on the CBS Sports Network. Maybe only a fraction of us truly followed kickboxing as ardently as we did MMA, but on this Saturday night it didn’t matter. The violence of a knockout delivered by superstars Tyrone Spong and Daniel Ghita transcend all combat sports barriers.
And there was violence a-plenty. On the undercard, a UFC veteran named Nick Pace eked out a decision over Levan Makashvili, while Ray Longo-trained Robby Plotkin put away Casey Greene a minute and 16 seconds into the first round. But the main course was the eight-man tournament that featured Surinamese monster Spong and the scattered superfights, one of which featured Romanian giant Ghita. When Spong – who trains with the Blackzillians and was cornered by UFC star Rashad Evans – was dropped in the opening seconds of his bout against Michael Duut, and returned the favor with a crushing KO at :31 of the round, the crowd exploded. So too when Ghita planted a fist square in the face of the hapless Brice Guidon, sending him crashing to the canvas at the 49-second mark. It was as if that brutality was the sole reason the 1,500+ in attendance had come, and in those moments the night was suddenly justified and worth it.
Is there a place for a high-level kickboxing in the U.S. when the UFC is cramming 12,000 people into arenas and doing monster pay-per-view sales? Can GLORY succeed when K-1 topped out at just under 9,000 for a 2005 event at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and had very little video distribution to speak of? I don’t have the answers to those questions. But what I do know is I caught a glimpse of what the Russian fighter had once told me about.
And it was glorious.