The "Japan vs The World" format here paired one team of seven fighters from Japan against a second team representing the world. (Paradoxically, Team Japan was captained by an American, Bob "The Beast" Sapp; while Team World had as its leader former Sumo Wrestler Akebono, who, although he was born in Hawaii, also holds Japanese citizenship.)
During the opening ceremonies, and to the delight of the crowd, Sapp entered the ring dressed head to toe in traditional Okinawan costume. He then bragged that his Team Japan would surely beat the best the world had to offer. Akebono was decidedly more gracious, first thanking the crowd before turning to Sapp and quietly saying, "Bob, today you are going down!"
And as it happened, Akebono was right.
The fights were held under K-1 rules -- the first two in a 3R x 3min format, the final five a 5R x 3min format.
The opening bout featured the never-say-die Hiromi Amada and American boxer Kimo. "It will be a bull fight, and we'll see who is stronger," predicted Amada at the pre-event press conference. Replied Kimo, "Talk is cheap, I'll let my actions in the ring speak for themselves."
Amada, as always, sashayed into the arena with old-school yakuza arrogance: Draped in a black robe, a pair of dark sunglasses on his tough, pockmarked face; his cornerman waving a placard which read, in blood-red-on-black characters, "Right Straight Punch KO!"
And from the bell, Amada put that right of his to mighty good use, frequently getting in over Kimo's weak left guard to rattle the 33 year-old American. Kimo seemed preoccupied with throwing low kicks and his attempts at spinning back kicks -- attacks he is not at all experienced with, and which were mostly ineffectual. Amada, meanwhile, brought a meat-and-potatoes offence to the bout -- always in with the right, occasional low kicks, and the knee when the distance closed. Amada took control early and never relinquished, putting Kimo down twice in the first and three times in the second to win the bout in convincing fashion. One thing, about the placard prediction -- although the first four downs came courtesy of Amada's right, the coup de grace was a left uppercut.
The Late Great Andy Hug trained for a time in Okinawa, and tonight that fact had to be weighing on Great Kusatsu, who was one of the Andy's last students.
Kusatsu took on Brazilian Fabiano in the second fight. For a 25 year-old, Fabiano showed a very mature style, getting in from the start with hard low kicks and solid combinations, while Kusatsu stayed back and looked for his spots. This was shaping up as a good technical bout, when just shy of the clapper, Kusatsu executed a textbook spinning back kick which caught Fabiano in the midsection and put him down in a heap of pain. There was no way the Brazilian could get to his feet, and Kusatsu took the KO victory to put Team Japan up 2-0.
Next was a contest between K-1 Japan 2003 semifinalist Hiraku Hori and American Northwest Toughman Champion Mighty Mo. This was Hori's first foreign opponent, and at the pre-event press conference he pledged to give it his all. Mighty Mo, on the other hand, was dismissive to the point of rudeness: "I respect that Japanese guy I'm fighting, but I don't think he has what it takes to win. So I'll be the one raising my arm at the end of the fight."
There was not a great deal of finesse in this match, but it was nonetheless exciting. The first round saw Hori staying back, using his 13cm height advantage to score points with low kicks. Mo, meanwhile, repeatedly worked through these to get inside and lay into the body with punches. Again in the second, Hori was disinclined to mix it up, where Mo kept charging inside with his fists. When Mo did use his legs, it was evident that he had quite a bit of power there, as twice his low kicks put Hori on the canvas, but these were both ruled as slips. In the third round, although Mo came out more aggressive, Hori soon picked up the pace, and his low kicks finally seemed to have hurt Mo's left leg.
Although Mo was slightly ahead on two cards, with his leg questionable, things were not looking all that good for Team World at the start of the fourth. But in K-1 things can change in the blink of an eye, and that is what happened when Mo planted a left on Hori's kisser to stun him, then followed up with a right to score a down and turn the tide. Hori valiantly beat the count, but within seconds he had shied away from his opponent and was clinging to the ropes for dear life. The referee might have started a standing count here, but instead simply urged Hori to continue. Mo seized the opportunity and punched out two more downs in quick succession to win under K-1's three-downs-in-a-round rule.
"I've come a long way from when I worked in construction," said Mo in his post-bout interview, "I'm glad K-1 invited me to Okinawa and I hope I can come to Japan and fight again soon."
Next up was a mountain of a man, Montanha Silva of Brazil, against Yasuke Fujimoto, the K-1 Japan GP 2003 Finalist who also beat Francis Botha in Nagoya on New Year's Eve.
Fujimoto, 47cm shorter than his 225cm tall opponent, was able to sneak in past Silva's 22cm reach to connect with a few punches to the midsection in the first round -- but overall Silva looked more confident than ever here. In the second, Silva got over and in with a left-right combination to score a down on Fujimoto, and the behemoth followed up soon afterward with a right hook to score a second down at the bell. Silva, who had faded as fights wore on in the past, got better as this dance progressed, faster even, and really began to set the pace. Early in the third he got in again with a right to put Fujimoto down hard. This time, Fujimoto could not beat the count, and Silva had his first victory in four K-1 bouts. By the look of things tonight, in all likelihood Silva will notch up a few more wins before his K-1 career is over.
"I grew up in a poor neighborhood," said the Brazilian in his post-bout interview, "and so I've had a few fights in my day, and taken some hard punches. But Fujimoto's punches were some of the hardest I've ever felt."
Asked how his size effects his fighting style, Silva smiled, "Well, I've got used to punching downwards, if that's what you mean."
Akebono was also all smiles after the bout, as Team World had now pulled even with Team Japan at two wins apiece.
Dutch-based Nobu Hayashi met Petr Vondracek of the Czech Republic in the next bout. Vondracek won the K-1 Italy GP in 2002, and the 26 year-old kickboxer was looking to make a name for himself in Japan.
That he certainly did, as he was nothing but relentless here. This was a classic K-1 bout, technical yet highly spirited. Hayashi got through with some solid punches in the early going, but Vondracek was as aggressive as a fighter can be, repeatedly backing his opponent against the ropes and then unleashing windmilling punching attacks. Hayashi absorbed a half-dozen blows before going down the first time, and although he got back with a good left midway through the round, he never really got back into this fight. Spectacularly, Vondracek again got Hayashi against the ropes and this time it was a right uppercut that put Hayashi down. Just seconds later, it was a right haymaker from Vondracek which ended the fight in the most convincing manner possible -- by first round KO.
With Team World ahead going into the penultimate bout, Tsuyoshi Nakasako had the daunting task of salvaging it for Team Japan in his fight against defending K-1 World GP Champion Remy Bonjasky of the Netherlands. At the pre-event press conference, Nakasako, who had lost his last four bouts, remarked, "2003 wasn't good for me, but I hope 2004 will be my year."
Well, so far, 2004 isn't Nakasako's year either.
To be fair, the first round was fairly even, Bonjasky and Nakasako trading low kicks and the occasional combination, neither doing much damage from the looks of it. In the second, Bonjasky worked the knees, but could not get a down against a tough Nakasako, who responded with some good knee strikes of his own.
One difference between a fighter and a Champion is that a fighter can have an off day, but a Champion, well, fans just don't allow him to have an off day. And there is another difference -- when you are the Champion, your opponent sees you as a golden opportunity to improve their stock with an upset. Which may explain why, with two decent rounds behind him, Nakasako decided to taunt Bonjasky in the third, dropping his guard and swaggering some. If this was meant to put Bonjasky off his game, it was a brave gamble.
Like many brave gambles, it failed.
It was midway about through the third when Bonjasky got Nakasako in the corner and brought the right knee up to score his first down. Nakasako had committed, and so elected to keep up his cocksure act afterwards. We soon had a tragicomic moment, when just as Nakasako was staring down Bonjasky, mean-like, the Dutchman deftly snapped a high kick up to the Japanese fighter's head, and laid him out flat.
To his credit Nakasako got back to his feet, but there followed a frenzied Bonjasky attack which had Nakasako swaying, stumbling, and finally falling for the third and final time just five seconds before the bell. A masterful win befitting the world's best K-1 fighter.
"I was a little tense in the first round," said Bonjasky afterwards, "but I got better as the fight went on. Nakasako is very tough, but when he let his arms slacken in the third, dropping his guard like that, my corner called for me to throw the left high kick and I finished him off."
With Team World up 4-2 and now assured of victory, the main event provided a last chance for Sapp's Team Japan to salvage some honor. When Seidokaikan star Musashi stepped into the ring against big former-NFLer Stefan Gamlin, it was also about Karate. "Because Okinawa is where Karate originated," said Musashi before the fight, "I especially want to do well in this bout."
The first round saw a surprisingly mobile Gamlin with the more aggressive start, throwing punches, most of which, unfortunately for him, missed. Musashi was patient here, and although he got rattled once he kept his wits about him. In the second Gamlin again began NFL-style, chasing Musashi round the ring. But Musashi exploited a weakness in Gamlin's guard, and answered a missed punch with a hard kick to the midsection which took the wind out of the German. Pleased with the damaging effect of his attack, Musashi coolly put a knee in to the same spot seconds later to drop Gamlin, who was slow in getting up and so did not beat the count.
Musashi's KO victory gave Sapp a measure of revenge against Gamlin, who at the wild press conference a day earlier had first trash-talked The Beast, and then doused him with a box of powdered tea.
"I think the Okinawa fans are great," said Musashi afterward. "I came here to win, and I won, but honestly Gamlin's aggressive style didn't give me a chance to do some of the things I hoped to do in the fight. That's the only thing I regret, my performance was only 50-60%, surely not as good as I would have liked it to be."
Despite Gamlin's loss in the main event, Team World captain Akebono was delighted with the overall results: "We saw the best of the world, and the best of Japan, and I think it was a very good event. I certainly found the bouts very interesting."
Added K-1 Event Producer Sadaharu Tanikawa, "It was a very good event -- all fights ended by KOs, and that has to be exciting for the fans!"
Judging by all the noise they made, the sellout crowd of 5,844 in the Okinawa Convention certainly agreed, even if Sapp and Team Japan didn't win.
The K-1 Japan Series Burning 2004 in Okinawa was same-day broadcast across Japan on the NTV network.
Special thanks to Monte Dipietro and K-1 for this review.
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