YOKOHAMA -- Remy Bonjasky won the K-1 World Grand Prix 2008 Final on Saturday, scoring KOs against two fighters, then taking the Championship Belt when his final opponent, Badr Hari, was disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct. It was the third K-1 World GP title for the 32-year-old Dutch Muay Thai fighter, who also took the honors in 2003 and 2004.
The K-1 World GP Final is the culmination of 12 months of international qualifying and elimination tournaments. It sets the year's top eight fighters clashing in quarterfinal bouts, winners there advance to the semis, from which the top two warriors emerge for the final showdown, the victor earning the K-1 World GP Championship.
Held before a sellout crowd at the Yokohama Arena, this year's WGP Final comprised both proven veterans and newcomers with something to prove. The prize was the planet's most prestigious fightsport title and a purse of US$400,000. All bouts were fought under K-1 Rules, with three rounds of three minutes each and a possible tiebreaker.
In the first quarterfinal it was Dutch kickboxer Peter Aerts and Moroccan Muay Thai fighter Hari.
Aerts, 38, has participated in every K-1 World Grand Prix Final in a career spanning the sport's 16 year history. The "Dutch Lumberjack" has taken the crown three times, and earned his spot here by eliminating 2007 WGP Champion Semmy Schilt in September.
Aerts was the runaway tournament favorite in fan polling on the K-1 Japanese Website, but that did not faze the 23-year-old Hari, as the two-time and defending K-1 Heavyweight Champ brazenly predicted he would KO the legend. And so he did.
Hari dominated in the first, powering past Aerts' guard to score a down with a right hook. Hari had it happening in the first, repeatedly scoring with the fists while showing excellent evasions. Aerts kept closing, but despite landing some late low kicks never really threatened.
Hari's speed and creativity proved the difference in the second, as he deftly followed a flying front kick with a right hook to score another down. Aerts beat the count but was badly rattled, and Hari was now in control. The Moroccan put his opponent on the ropes and laid in with fists to the head and body. Aerts got clear but was stumbling badly, and the referee prudently stepped in to call it for Hari at 1:39.
At 22 years of age, Surinamese-Dutch kickboxer Errol "Bone Crusher" Zimmerman is a rising K-1 star. After making his entrance in a skeleton suit, the hard-hitting Zimmerman stepped in against Brazilian kyokushin karate master Ewerton Teixeira. Coming into the contest, both these fighters had fought five K-1 bouts, and neither had yet to lose.
Zimmerman landed a nice right early, but Teixeira was better on counters through the first, pointing with low kicks and picking his spots well on counters to take the round on all judges' cards
K-1's new open scoring system allows both the crowd and the fighters to see the scorecards after each round. Aware he was trailing, Zimmerman came out swinging in the second. But Teixeira continued to read his opponent well and make good with counters. The boys exchanged a couple of good hard middle kicks here, Zimmerman relaxing his guard to close with uppers; Teixeira scoring with a late left straight punch to maintain his one-point lead heading into the third.
Faced with Teixeira's high close guard, Zimmerman started with roundhouses. Both fighters were tiring by midway through the round, as Teixeira corralled Zimmerman into the corner only the fire fists into his guard. With time running out Zimmerman got a break, landing a right straight then a right upper to down the Brazilian. Zimmerman finished the round in control, with enough points to squeak out a majority decision and earn a date with Hari in the semifinals.
Russian dynamo Ruslan Karaev and intrepid Turk Gokhan Saki are a couple of kickboxers at the vanguard of K-1's new generation. These guys don't pull any punches, and their bout showcased that spirit.
Saki was the aggressor from the opening bell, snapping in kicks while ducking under Karaev's hooks, while smartly closing up to block when the Russian closed. Saki's speed -- particularly with the left on counters -- earned him an edge after the first round. In the second Karaev closed with punches but Saki blocked the blows and did better on counters, the exchanges leaving Karaev fatigued, while Saki's uppercuts and high kicks maintained his advantage.
Saki had a narrow lead going into the third, and started strongly -- surprising Karaev with a spinning back punch to earn a down. Karaev's increasingly desperate attempts to catch up left him vulnerable to counters, and Saki exploited this -- getting lots of good stuff through to finish with a comfortable unanimous decision.
In his first fight of the night, Remy Bonjasky faced French veteran JeromeLeBanner -- widely regarded as the best K-1 fighter never to have won the WGP. Both men had put tough times behind them to enter the tournament as more than a few experts' picks to win.
The pair are a study in contrasts -- Bonjasky cool as a cat, possessed of lightning quick and lethal leaping leg attacks; LeBanner a meat-and-potatoes slugger with fire in his eyes. LeBanner planted himself in the center of the ring and Bonjasky circled -- guard up and chin down -- firing in kicks and scoring with a flying knee that split the Frenchman's guard. LeBanner was not keen to close, and although both fighters remained cautious, Bonjasky's combinations helped him emerge from the round up one point on one card.
Action slowed in the second, Bonjasky connecting with a few low kicks and LeBanner pumping punches to the body, but neither fighter doing any damage. The third started promisingly, Bonjasky approaching with kicks, LeBanner answering in kind and bringing the fists in when the distance closed. During an exchange in the corner a Bonjasky middle kick caught LeBanner on the left forearm, and the Frenchman turned away with a grimace of pain. The referee issued a standing count, then asked the ringside doctor to have a look.
Unfortunately for LeBanner, the strike had aggravated a previous injury and he could not continue. Under K-1 rules the win and a spot in the semifinals were awarded to Bonjasky.
The first of the semis featured Badr Hari and Errol Zimmerman. Hari's positioning and timing were exemplary through the first, as he twice sent Zimmerman stumbling with middle kicks and body blows. The second round was electrifying -- Hari using his reach to sink the left jab repeatedly, switching to the body blows when Zimmerman brought the guard up. It was looking a lot like Hari's fight until Zimmerman got in with a right straight punch to score the bout's first down.
Hari sat in the corner, but his face communicated disappointment, not pain. Calmly rising to beat the count, Hari finished the round on the offensive, closing with body blows then tight hooks, staying away from Zimmerman's dangerous uppercuts. The aggression yielded results at the clapper as a Hari right hook dropped Zimmerman.
It was all Hari in the third. Scoring at will with the left jab, firing in a punishing front kick and closing to score with the fists. About the best thing one could say about Zimmerman is that he showed a hell of a good chin, that might carry him to the final bell. But not quite. It was a brutal right straight punch that proved the decisive blow, sending Zimmerman gracelessly to the canvas and Hari to the final.
Saki and Bonjasky met in the second semifinal. A tentative start, both fighters testing the distance with low kicks and jabs. While moving well, Saki seemed unsure of his attack tactics, and had a difficult time getting inside. But Bonjasky was unable to use his height and reach to deliver anything unsettling. The "Flying Gentleman" did, however, get the hurt through in the second. After a strange exchange, Saki found himself all alone center-ring. From the ropes, Bonjasky bounded in with a flying kick that caught the Turk on the left of the body. Perhaps it was sheer kinetic energy, but the force of the blow left Saki on the mat in extreme distress. He could only just manage to get to his knees by the end of the count, so Bonjasky went through to meet Hari in the final.
A healthy Hari and a healthy Bonjasky seemed an ideal final -- but sadly it soon turned surreal. The contest started well enough, the two sizing each other up, Hari testing with the jab that had served him well earlier; Bonjasky closing with low kicks and punches. Midway through the first, Bonjasky got a solid left hook on target. Hari went back onto the ropes then rebounded forward to find a Bonjasky kick coming at his head. The leg sailed high as Hari went to the mat. Hari beat the count and rallied somewhat at the end of the round, closing with body blows then adding a little extra at the bell.
In the second, Hari, aware he was down on all three cards, came out like a loaded gun. Bonjasky answered a body blow with a low kick, and Hari replied with another body blow. The give-and-take repeated several times, both fighters putting their all behind the strikes. After delivering a big right, Hari had Bonjasky on the run. But then things went wrong.
After Bonjasky had countered with a middle kick, Hari grabbed his opponent's leg and threw him to the mat. That's the sort of marginal foul a fighter can get away with most of the time, but Hari wasn't done. His fighting spirit hijacked by rage, Hari then approached his downed opponent to pound down a couple of punches. He'd crossed the line, but incredibly he wasn't finished. Even as veteran referee Nobuaki Kakuda tried to wrest him away, Hari persisted, stomping a heel onto Bonjasky's head.
The crowd was stunned into silence.
Bad boy Hari was forcibly coaxed to a neutral corner as Bonjasky lay motionless on the mat. Hari was assessed a yellow card and a one-point penalty, and the ringside doctor came in to have a look at Bonjasky. After the five-minute recovery interval elapsed, the doctor reported Bonjasky was still seeing double and could not continue. A furious Kakuda then showed Hari a red card and declared him disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct. Bonjasky had the win.
"I wanted to win, but not this way," said a teary-eyed Bonjasky from center-ring.
"Remy's corner was screaming at him to stay down," said a defiant Hari in his post-fight interview. "I came to fight and he didn't. He's a great actor."
"I don't have anything to say to Badr," said Bonjasky afterward. "I still have some double vision. I also have a headache. If this was to happen in another major sport like soccer, it would be a serious problem. I was in tears because I trained very hard for this, and put many things aside to be able to train so much. I didn't want it to end like it did."
K-1 Event Producer Sadaharu Tanikawa's post-event remarks suggested that Hari's conduct had not only hurt Bonjasky the fighter, but also K-1 the sport: "It was such a careless thing for Badr Hari to do. He was incredible in the first and second fights, so it was such a waste. The event was broadcast to 150 countries. If we forgave Hari for such behavior, it would be insulting to all the other fighters. Giving him a red card means he will be fined his entire purse. On top of that, we will have to think of some further punishment after discussing this with [rules director] Nobuaki Kakuda."
"As a Grand Prix, it was an extremely interesting event, however the ending wasn't good."
In the tournament reserve bouts:
New Zealand slugger Ray Sefo took on Korean behemoth Hong-Man Choi in the first reserve. Choi brought a commanding 14-inch height advantage to the ring, but Sefo overcame it in style.
Sefo started with low kicks. When Choi tried to answer in kind, Sefo darted in with a barrage of body blows. Sefo's footwork kept him out of trouble through the first, while his hit-and-run attacks -- including a nice spinning back punch that caught Choi on the chin -- got him out of the round up on all cards. More spinning attacks from Sefo to start the second before a hard low kick that hurt the big Korean. Choi wanted to get the knee up, but Sefo's evasions were sound.
Sefo was clearly well-prepared for the height challenge -- on several occasions he smartly grabbed Choi's leg to deliver a body blow. Choi did little to adjust his tactics in the third, appearing frustrated as he vainly tried to hammer the fists down on his pesky opponent. Sefo was quick enough to avoid Choi's blows and smart enough to plant one or two of his own while retreating. A fine performance by Sefo for the well-deserved unanimous decision.
In his second tournament reserve it was Paul Slowinski of Australia and MelvinManhoef of Holland.
This one started with Slowinski firing in hard low kicks that stung Manhoef; and ended with Manhoef firing in hard punches that destroyed Slowinski. A terrific show of skill and strength by the explosive Manhoef, who battled past Slowinski's range to score two downs in 32 seconds -- the first coming courtesy a hard right hook, the second with an equally hard hook delivered from the left. It was all over at 2:36.
In undercard action involving Japanese fighters, Mitsugu Noda KO'd TsutomiTakahagi; and Taisei Ko took a 3-0 decision over Takeru Taisei
The K-1 World Grand Prix 2008 Final attracted a sellout crowd of 17,823 to the Yokohama Arena and was broadcast live on five continents -- in Japan on Fuji TV; in Korea on CJMedia; across Europe and in Africa on Eurosport; in the USA on HDNet; in Australia on Main Event; and in New Zealand on SKY Network. For rebroadcast scheduling information, contact local providers.
Joining regular K-1 English-language commentator Michael Schiavello ringside was popular Bahamian-American mixed martial arts fighter Kimbo Slice.