FUKUOKA, Monday, April 21, 2009 -- A late flurry of fists and feet
earned Armenian muay thai fighter Drago, 24, an upset victory over
two-time World Max Japan Champion Yoshihiro Sato in the Main Event at
tonight's K-1 World Max 2009 World Championship Tournament Final-16.
Held at the Fukuoka Marine Messe arena, the talent-rich fightsport extravaganza featured the World Max Final-16 Tournament -- a one-match elimination that halved the field fighting for this year's World Max Championship. The world's top70kg/154kg fighters stepped in knowing that a win would set them on the road to glory, and a loss deposit them in the ditch of also-rans. For these warriors, it was do or die.
The heavy favorite, Sato brought a 10cm/4" height advantage to the ring against Drago. From the start the Japanese kickboxer used his reach and low kicks to keep his opponent at bay. But the Armenian got a right overhand through and closed with an uppercut, and the cards had it even after one. In the second Sato arched forward with fists, but Drago answered with front kicks and got a terrific high kick up and on target. Sato threw plenty of low kicks and made partial contact with a knee to keep the score tied. There was not a lot behind Sato's combinations in the third, but the Japanese fighter continued to advance and fire low kicks and knees. Drago landed a couple of solid hooks here, but could not drop Sato, and after three the judges prescribed a tiebreaker round.
The fourth and final saw Drago doggedly advancing, firing all manner of strikes -- best of the bunch a right straight punch and a spinning back kick. Sato, who was tired, stumbling and bloodied, managed only a couple of anemic knees and low kicks, and at the final bell collapsed, painfully aware that the judges' decision would not go his way. An impressive performance by Drago, establishing him as a favorite for the World Max 2009 Championship.
"I am glad that I showed a good fight and won in front of my Japanese fans," said Drago afterward. "Sato was strong, he's had really good fights recently, and last year when he fought against Masato it went to an extra round. However, it seemed that he got tired in the middle of the fight. Now, I will do my best to become the champion -- I will keep train training hard, and let's see what happens!"
"I have never in my life had so much regret," said a dejected Sato in his post-fight interview. "I lost my stamina, in the middle of the fight I suddenly felt as if my hands became lead, like a devil had descended on me. Of course, it could be said that the reason for my loss was I received a lot of punches. But, I was in good shape and my condition was good before the fight, so I don't want to make any excuses for my loss."
The explosive Nieky "The Natural" Holzken met 20-year-old Moroccan Muay thai fighter Chahid in the card's penultimate matchup.
Guards high, the pair traded low kicks and punches through the first, both putting plenty of power behind their blows, but blocking well to stay out of trouble. More combinations in the second, Chadid rotating steadily and firing to the body; Holzken getting a left in on a counter to send the Moroccan reeling and take a points lead into the third. Sound technical exchanges here, Chadid always threatening, Holzken with some dangerous misfires before threading a couple of fists through at the clapper. One judge saw a draw, the other two liked Holzken for the majority decision.
"I was not very happy because I broke my toe while sparring, before three weeks before the fight, and I could not perform my best," said Holzken afterwards. "My counters were good, but I could not finish with the KO I wanted. I think I was only at 80% of my potential tonight."
A two-time World Max Champion, Dutch shoot boxer Andy Souwer took on compatriot Leroy Kaestner, a 21 year-old protégé of K-1 superstar Peter Aerts.
Souwer started slowly, as usual, while Kaestner moved in with body blows, low kicks and tight one-two combinations. There were moments, as Kaestner raised the shoulder and angled the torso, that his approaches reflected Aerts' unique style. Souwer however is one of the best, and that grew increasingly evident as the bout progressed. Souwer's fists and knees scored him a pair of downs in the first, and he picked his spots well to add more points to his side of the scorecard through the balance of the bout. Kaestner did not show any glaring weaknesses, only an understandable lack of experience. Souwer by a comfortable unanimous decision.
"Even though [Kaestner] has little experience in professional fights, he did very well fighting in such a big venue in Japan for the first time," said Souwer in his post-fight interview. "It was good that I put him down early, so I could calm down in the second and third rounds. Of course, I wanted to finish him, but the important thing is I can go to the final eight!"
Another two-time World Max Champ, the hard-kicking Buakaw Por Pramuk of Thailand, stepped in against Brazilian MMA fighter Andre Dida.
Buakaw was heavily favored here, but someone forgot to tell that to Andre Dida, who threw himself at the muay thai master, scoring a shocking down with a big left hook to the nose. Buakaw beat the count, but was very shaky afterward. Dida moved in to finish, firing hooks and closing with uppercuts. It was a rare sight, Buakaw taking a beating, but it illustrated another of the Thai fighter's skills -- a preternatural ability to remain standing under pressure. Dida landed some good stuff, but Buakaw made it out of the round.
In the second, a recovered Buakaw began firing in the fists, launching low and high kicks and closing to work the body with punches and knees. Dida got another big punch through, but the right hook only made Buakaw meaner. As fatigue worked on Dida, so did Buakaw, and by the end of three rounds the nasty kicks, knees and punches had leveled the score on all cards. Dida had nothing left for the tiebreaker, and was shown a yellow card for holding. Meanwhile Buakaw kept completed his comeback, taking the bout by unanimous decision.
"People asked me what put me down in the first round," smiled Buakaw afterward, "but I don't remember anything, and I still feel dizzy! After the down, my stamina carried me through, I kept attacking and finishing. I'd say Dida had good techniques, but not quite good enough!"
No-nonsense Dutch boxer Albert Kraus, who won the first-ever World Max Championship in 2002, had a date tonight was a sweet little schoolgirl named Haruka Nogizaka. But mind the Adam's apple -- because beneath the faux blond mane bounced Yuichiro "Jienotsu" Nagashima, from the burgeoning anime- revering Japanese subculture of cosplay. Nagashima may look like a little girl, but he punches like a man, and had won three straight fights coming into this dance.
The contest started with Nagashima tossing in hooks, which were met by Kraus' sound defense. When roles reversed and Kraus began to unload, it quickly became apparent that Nagashima's defense was anything but sound. A left put the Japanese fighter on the mat the first time, and seconds after resumption a right dispatched him to la-la land. Kraus with a KO win at just 1:07.
"I think it went well, I was in good condition and I'm glad to win," said Kraus from the winner's circle. "I expected his punches to be faster than they were. I didn't really care about his costume, I just concentrated on my fight, and I think I taught him that a fighter needs to respect his opponent."
Japanese karate stylist Yuya Yamamoto, a late substitute for injured Taishin Kohiruimaki, went up against Chi Bin Lim of the Republic of Korea.
Lim closed well in the early going with tight punch, kick and knee combinations, and went up a point up on one card after the first. In the second the pace picked up, Lee aggressive with the fists and tagging his opponent well with counters. But in a flash, a Yamamoto spinning back punch surprised the Korean and sent him down. Lee pressed late with hooks, but Yamamoto answered well with kicks to pick up points. An spinning high kick by Lee sailed just short in the third, after which Yamamoto made partial contact with a similarly athletic foot to the head. Lee pressed through the balance of the bout, pumping the knee and landing a dandy spinning back kick to the head at the clapper. A spirited battle, going to Yamamoto on all three cards.
"I think he's a great fighter," Yamamoto told reporters afterward. "When I think of going through to the final eight, I'm a bit scared to fight against those strong fighters. However, I have people who encourage and support me, so I will do my best!"
Rising World Max fighter Artur Kyshenko of the Ukraine took on 31 year-old kickboxer Alviar Lima of Cape Verdi.
The bell sounded and Kyshenko came out like a loaded gun, chasing his opponent across the ring with a barrage of punches. In no time Lima was on the mat, and although he strove to rally midway through the round Kyshenko did better with counters, corralling Lima into the corner and laying in to force a standing count. Lima was totally outworked here, eating fists again late in the round before the referee mercifully stepped in to call it.
"This was a very important fight for me, I had to win and I felt a lot of pressure, but now I am happy that I could win and go to the final," said Kyshenko in his post-bout interview. "I need to proceed step-by-step, work hard to keep winning like today, and make my fights memorable. The process will give me more confidence."
And finally, Italian muay thai hotshot Giorgo Petrosyan met Dzhabar "Chengiskhan" Askerov of the United Arab Emirates -- both boys making their K-1 debuts.
A command performance by Petrosyan the southpaw, who set well with the jab before firing in the left, and made strong contact with low kicks and knees to the body. The Italian showed superior positioning, timing and power throughout, dropping Askerov in the third with a knee to the midsection to win by TKO.
"I think it was a good fight, and my opponent was strong," said Petrosyan afterward. "The start was difficult but it was good that my knees eventually hit him. I was happy I could win in front of Japanese fans, and next time I will show even better techniques! Everyone who has advanced to the final eight is strong, however I believe I am the strongest of them all!"
The Final-16 reserve fight saw Yasuhiro Kido of Japan open a bag of tricks early then switch to low kicks to take a narrow decision over Korean Su Hwan Lee.
Today's winners will reconvene at the K-1 World Max Final-8, set for July at the Nippon Budokan in Tokyo.
In other action on the card, reigning World Max Champion Masato took to the ring for a three-minute 'exhibition' bout with 17 year-old Hiroya, the 2008 K-1 Koshien (high school) Champion.
This was the first in a trio of farewell bouts for Masato, who announced his retirement earlier this month and will exit the ring for good on New Year's Eve (fighting the 2009 World Max Champ). To be sure, this was a bit of fun -- Hiroya strapping on the headgear and shin pads to meet his hero. But both fighters broke a sweat, as Hiroya showed promising positioning, speed and reactions. Stay tuned -- this kid has potential.
The undercard bouts featured fighters from Kyushu and all went to the scorecards -- Masahiro Yamamoto bettering Yuki; Tatsuji edging Ryuji by majority decision; and Kazuki Hamasaki scoring a lopsided victory over Hareruya.