TOKYO, October 1, 2008 -- At age 29, Masato is already a veteran among K-1 World Max fighters. Tonight, the Japanese kickboxer countered any doubts about his speed and stamina by battling to victory in a pair of absolutely thrilling bouts to capture the K-1 World Max 2008 Final Championship at the Nippon Budokan.
With its 70kg/154lbs weight limit, K-1 World Max's speed and technique have captivated fightsport fans in Japan and around the world. Tonight, this year's top-four World Max fighters clashed in a couple of semifinal bouts, with the winners going head-to-head in the Main Event for the World Max 2008 Championship.
Masato's semifinal opponent was Japanese kickboxer Yoshihiro Sato, the '06 & '07 World Max Japan Champion.
Sato is tall, and used his 11cm/4" height advantage well, pushing in front kicks to control the distance and threatening with the knees when the action closed. Masato, meanwhile, drew on his speed, firing in low kicks and darting forward with punches, as both fighters scored soundly through an electrifying first round. The second saw even more action, Masato powering past his opponent's defenses with numerous left straight punches; Sato showing a great chin and continuing to counter. Incredibly, the boys raised it another notch in the third -- a round that showcased what World Max is all about. Sato benefited from a change in tactics, bearing in with punches, and Masato answered in kind as the pair stood toe-to-toe and traded 'em before Sato got through with a left-right combination to fell his opponent. Masato recovered well to score with straight punches, although most connected at the limit of his reach. Masato did better by closing to work the body blows and uppercuts.
One judge liked Sato but two scored it a draw, prompting a tiebreaker round. Here Masato was quick with his combinations, closing again to work the body; while Sato played it defensively, firing low kicks and pushing his opponent back with front kicks. Masato's aggression made the difference as he passed with the jab and straight punches then drove home body blows from inside. A late Masato left straight cocked Sato's head back, and by the time Sato resumed his punching attacks it was too late. Masato with the hard-fought unanimous decision and a trip to the final.
The smart money had it that Masato would meet two-time and Defending World Max Champion Andy Souwer in the final. But Souwer hit a roadblock on the road to glory, in the form of 21 year-old Ukrainian fighter Artur Kyshenko.
Kyshenko smartly snapped in the kicks to start, but Souwer's blocking and evasions were excellent, and the Dutch fighter went on the offensive late in the first with a couple of smart one-two punch combinations. A bit more action in the second as the distance closed, both combatants throwing punches -- Souwer looking good with tight combinations on the counter. But still, neither fighter showed a killer instinct. Souwer's cautious style was now cause for concern. When would he break out?
The judge's card had the pair even going into the third, and although Souwer's blocking in the final frame was once again near-flawless and his combinations on the counter displayed admirable technical skill, his overall defensive strategy did not win him the round, and the bout went to a tiebreaker.
Kyshenko knew he had an excellent chance to win it. The Ukrainian's stamina served him well as he launched a number of creative attacks, including a spinning back kick and flying knees. Souwer responded with low kicks and also varied his attacks some, but that might have been the Champ's problem -- he spent too much time responding. When the bell sounded, judges gave Kyshenko the nod and a date with Masato in the final.
In ten World Max bouts, Kyshenko's only loss had come against Masato in last year's final. In that bout, Kyshenko was ahead on the cards before falling to a Masato left hook. And so this had the making of a great, albeit unexpected final. Both fighters had gone four rounds in their semifinal contests, but Kyshenko -- seven years Masato's junior -- had taken fewer blows en route to the final.
The fighters came out hard and fast, exhibiting no ill effects from their semifinal bouts. Kyshenko answered Masato's first low kick with three of his own, and Masato worked the straight punches, but Kyshenko's blocking was sound. Kyshenko landed a solid low kick and right hook, however more of Masato's surgical strikes got through, the Japanese fighter improving both his power and accuracy as the first round wound down.
Significant among World Max rule changes introduced for this event was an "open-scoring" system, whereby judges' scorecards are displayed on arena monitors at the conclusion of each round.
It might have lit a fire under Kyshenko when one judge scored the first round a draw and the other two gave it to Masato by a point. Kyshenko started the second with a hard right straight punch and continued striking with combinations until a left dropped Masato. The trip to the mat did not unnerve Masato, who coolly countered with low kicks and closed with uppercuts. Meanwhile, many of Kyshenko's punches were exploding promisingly from the guard only to miss the mark, and a Kyshenko kick sailed high late in the round.
Still, the down had put Kyshenko up on one card going into the third. The Ukrainian had his chance, but could not put this one away. Stamina had entered the equation, and if there was a fatigued fighter in the ring it was certainly not the ever-advancing Masato. Plenty of hard stuff thrown here, Kyshenko floating some and missing more; Masato solidly planted on his feet to take the edge in power and accuracy. Kyshenko however remained dangerous, landing a knee late in the round.
After three rounds, one card had it for Masato while the others added up even, and so a tiebreaker was prescribed.
Crunch time, and they came out swinging -- but again Masato set himself better, picking his spots and hitting the target while doing an excellent job of reading and evading Kyshenko's big hooks. Masato had the initiative, and he had the right attack at the right time. Although Kyshenko connected with a hard upper, his flagging guard left him vulnerable and he received more than he gave, and Masato finished the round in control.
A very good performance by the young Kyshenko, but a better one from the experienced Masato, whose stamina, smarts and versatility erased the second-round down and earned him a unanimous decision and the World Max Belt. It was the second time Masato has won the World Max Final, he also took it in 2003.
"These were the toughest fights I've ever had," said Masato in his post-event interview. "My face and my legs hurt. I didn't expect to be downed twice, I gave 100%, and I have nothing left -- now I just want to relax and have a cup of coffee! Of course, I am very happy to win the belt. It is definitely different from what I felt before, now I think I can realize the true value of this belt. I'm completely exhausted, right now I feel like I don't want to ever fight again -- so I'll think about the future later."
"Now I understand why Masato is the champion," said Kyshenko afterward. "He has good punches and kicks, and I think the reason I lost was because I don't have as much experience as he does. But now I've fought him two years in a row, it was a great learning experience. Also it gave me a lot of confidence to beat Andy Souwer, who was the Max champion twice. Last year I finished in third place and this year I was second-place, so I'm improving one step at a time -- next year I'll be the champion!"
In the first tournament reserve, Japanese kickboxer Yasuhiro Kido fought the first-ever World Max Champion, boxer Albert Kraus of Holland.
Good positioning and movement by Kraus in the early going, the Dutchman getting through with the fists and scoring with low kicks. Kido connected with a couple of strikes but otherwise struggled to find his distance, and a Kraus knee at the bell sent the Japanese fighter to the interval with a nasty gash over his eye. Kido came alive in the second, making good with combinations, but time was twice stopped for the ringside doctor to check his worsening cut. Kido did not pass the second evaluation, so Kraus had the TKO win.
"Kido was good and strong and technical," said Kraus post-bout. "I'm happy with my performance this year, the only thing I missed out on was the championship belt."
The second tournament reserve pitted two-time World Max Champion Buakaw Por Pramuk of Thailand against Indian muay thai fighter Black Mamba.
There is a reason Buakaw has won the World Max twice, and the Thai fighter showed it tonight. Mamba made a go of it, but was simply out of his league as Buakaw commanded the distance, pace and style of this one from the first bell. At just 2:18 of the first Buakaw had the win courtesy a couple of downs -- the first after a leg-grab and left straight punch to the chops, the second courtesy a couple of side-launched right hooks.
The evening's 13-bout card also included a World Max Superfight, the ISKA World Lightweight Title Match and another lightweight contest, plus the quarterfinals in K-1's new Koshien King of U-18 series.
In the World Max Superfight, Japanese kickboxer Taishin Kohiruimaki met Dutch kickboxer Joeri Mes. Kohiruimaki started with an ambitious knee, but Mes quickly seized control, making good with the left straight punches to score an early down. Mes continued to close on his opponent, and although Kohi came back with knees and low kicks midway through the second, Mes was the dominating fighter, and started the third with a three-point lead on all cards. Kohiruimaki desperately needed to make some noise here, and as time wound down he opened up -- but it was the indefatigable Mes who got through with the decisive blow -- a left hook on a counter -- to lay the Japanese fighter out flat. An impressive display of power, speed and spirit by Mes.
"I feel good," said Mes, "I fought aggressively, like Melvin [Manhoef] and Badr [Hari]. "I knew Kohi is a good fighter, but he kept clinching. After my win today, I'd like to fight more in K-1. I already fought Andy Souwer once and I lost, I'd like to fight him again and win! I'd also like to fight Japanese fighters like Masato and Sato."
In the ISKA World Lightweight (60kg/132lbs) Title Match, it was Japanese fighters Susumu Daiguji, a 30 year-old karate stylist; and Daisuke Uematsu, a kickboxer two days shy of his 24th birthday.
A quick start and a quicker finish to this one. Daiguji shot in with the fists, Uematsu weathering the attack before countering with a middle kick then pumping up a knee to score a down. As Daiguji slumped against the ropes then onto the mat, the referee stepped in to call it. Uematsu the winner by KO at just 0:29.
Another lightweight contest featured Japanese fighters Haruaki Otsuki and Ryuji Kajiwara.
The shorter fighter, Otsuki hung his guard loose and low and chased Kajiwara with kicks, but ate a few fists -- including a hard right hook in the second. It was anyone's fight going into the final frame. Good action here, Kajiwara punching into his opponent's guard, Otsuki answering with a punishing high kick. Kajiwara scored with a right hook, but Otsuki was more creative inside, and took a unanimous decision.
In the evening's opening fight, a World Max contest, Nieky "The Natural" Holzken of Holland's prestigious Golden Glory Gym rammed the fists past South African boxer Virgil Kalakoda's guard to score two quick first-round downs and pick up the KO win.
Also on the card were the quarterfinal contests in the new K-1 Koshien King of U-18 Series. Paralleling Japan's hugely popular Koshien high school baseball tournament -- which enjoys television viewer ratings exceeding those of Japanese major league baseball -- K-1 Koshien is open to high school students aged 16-18, with a weight range limitation of 57kg/126lbs to 62kg/137lbs. Bouts are conducted under modified K-1 rules, with 5-counts and fighters wearing ten-ounce gloves.
Koshien promoter's selection Hiroya snapped in straight punches to rattle Taishi Hiratsuka, a Top-3 Chubu Region Fighter, prompting the referee to call it for Hiroya. Shota Shimada, also a promoter's selection, took a unanimous decision over Ryo Murakoshi, a Top-3 Kanto fighter; Chubu Champion Ryuya Kusakabe's high kick KO'd Kanto Finalist Daizo Sasaki late in the first round; and Kanto Champion Koya Urabe scored a second-round TKO over Yusuke Tsuboi, a Chubu Finalist.
During tonight's intermission, a draw was held to determine the semifinal matchups for the Koshien Final, which will be held at K-1's New Year's Eve Dynamite event. It will be Hiroya vs Shota Shimada; and Ryuya Kusakabe vs Koya Urabe.