While MMA has flourished in the United States in the last decade, kickboxing—a popular spectator sport in the 1980s—hasn’t been able to keep stride. Now, the Japanese-founded K-1 organization is making inroads across the Pacific, and they’re starting at the grassroots level to find the next American superstars.
Alistair Overeem was sporting oversized sunglasses, sitting casually in a director’s chair, biceps ready to explode out of his cotton t-shirt. The voice of veteran kickboxing commentator and trainer Vinny “Showtime” Shoreman echoed throughout the staging area. Sarama, traditional Thai music that accompanies Muay Thai fights, filled in whatever audible vacuum was left when Shoreman stopped yelling into the microphone. Hundreds of kickboxing hopefuls warmed-up in the stands and surrounding area, striking pads and mitts for what could be the biggest opportunity of their lives. This was K-1’s first open tryout, on location in Venice, California, in an effort to make headway in the United States. Leave it up to K-1’s luck to pick the hottest day in July to host open tryouts—“open” being the operative word.
A motley crew of 200 professionals, semi-professionals, and whoever else stumbled off the streets of Los Angeles had come for their shot at K-1 fame. The stage, sporting several K-1 logos, hosted two or three contestants at a time. They performed one minute of shadowboxing followed by one minute of hitting Muay Thai mitts. Former Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion and K-1 Tournament Champion Alistair Overeem and K-1 superstar Masato Kobayashi were among the half dozen judges viewing the event.
Contestants included a towering Nigerian-born bodybuilder who, after ripping off his free t-shirt that K-1 had supplied, grabbed the microphone and spouted movie lines ripped off from the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme film Bloodsport. MMA media member Spencer Lazara took his crack at the tryouts on a dare from Overeem. A younger man—sporting jeans, no shirt, and no gloves—strolled in from the neighboring basketball courts to take his turn, punching the air and mitts in what looked like his first time punching anything, ever.
Larkin, Antoni Hardonk, and Mighty Mo all braved the heat to take a gander at K-1’s first open tryouts.
K-1 has apparently taken notice of the marketing moves that the UFC has perfected. The UFC has taken combat sports advertising to a whole new level this past decade. Fan conventions in three different countries, social networking, ticket giveaways, a mobile fan center, and other guerilla marketing campaigns have aided the company’s bottom line.
Bryce Shepard-Mejia, a 27-year-old professional kickboxer from Oregon, now training in San Diego, echoed the excitement of those participating. “It’s awesome. I like the way they set it up. Like most productions, it could be a little more organized, but I would love to fi ght for K-1.”
The timing of the open tryouts coincide with K-1’s return to Southern California on September 8 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for K-1 Rising 2012 USA World Grand Prix. The event features two tournaments: heavyweight and MAX (154 lbs). Those participating in the tournament are fi ghting for a shot at representing the United States in the K-1 Rising World Grand Prix Final later this year in Japan.
The heavyweight tournament consists of Mighty Mo, Rick Roufus, Seth Petruzelli, Dewey Cooper, Randy Blake, Xavier Vigney, and Tony Lopez. The MAX tournament includes Michael Mananquil, four-time Muay Thai World Champion Kit Cope, WBC International Champion Chaz Mulky, Scott Leffler, MTAA National Champion Bryce Krause, Ben Yelle, Joey Pagliuso, and Justin Greskiewicz.
While K-1 is not deviating too far from its normal crop of stars, the tryouts were far from fruitless. Three
undercard fights include up-and-comers from the tryouts in K-1’s continuing search for the next great American fighter. The next popular U.S. fighter is also the man who Vinny Shoreman believes will be the key to K-1’s success in the Western Hemisphere.
“To touch people in the United States, they need to have an American hero,” says Shoreman. “They’ve had Might Mo, Dewey Cooper, and they’ve had various Muay Thai fighters. Whoever can stand up against the Dutch and the other contenders needs to be seen.”
A large part of the UFC’s success in Canada can be attributed to the achievements and popularity of UFC Welterweight Champion Georges St-Pierre. Likewise, Brazilian champions Jose Aldo, Junior dos Santos, and Anderson Silva have helped MMA rival the popularity of Brazil’s national sport of soccer.
“Everyone needs someone to look up to,” says Shoreman. “They need K-1 role models in the U.S. They need to fi nd a star, and these tryouts is how they can do it.”
The combat sports landscape is changing. K-1 has dialed back its number of events recently. Japanbased Pride FC lost a decade-old power struggle with the UFC, selling out to their rivals in 2007. DREAM, a now defunct MMA promotion that K-1 held a stake in, once held events in massive arenas. With their domestic market seemingly dwindling, K-1 has turned their attention to North America in hopes of fi nding the next kickboxing superstar. For K-1’s sake, they need to find their hero.