Clash Of The Titans

What happens when you pit stars from the worlds of boxing, sumo, kung fu and US football against each other in the ring? The answer is, a bone-crunching new spectator sport. David McNeill reports on how K-1 took Japan by storm
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The Independent Online

He's 6ft 3in and 273lb, with a crew-cut head that pinions on a 20-inch neck. His face is a pair of sunken coals nesting over a pug's nose and a mean slit of a mouth. Jerome Le Banner, the French and European kickboxing champion looks like he could kill with a well-directed glare, let alone one of his eardrum-shattering bicycle kicks.

His bout against the 231lb Japanese boxer Hiromi Amada lasts just four minutes before Amada crumples to the canvas, crippled by a series of kicks to the leg. As Amada's groaning, stretcher-bound bulk is being carried past the press box, Japanese supermodel Norika Fujiwara, resplendent in a bosom-hugging red evening dress, breathes into her microphone at an audience of millions on Fuji TV: "Gosh, that looked painful, didn't it?"

It's K-1 time again in Tokyo, and this is just the reserve match. The atmosphere in the giant Tokyo Dome is an odd blend of the hucksterism and razzmatazz of US pro-wrestling - complete with rock music, fireworks and jugglers - and the solemnity of Japanese martial arts. TV stars and models mix with mobsters and businessmen in 30,000-yen (£150) ringside seats, among the 60,000 people who have come to watch combat between 12 of the world's toughest fighters from France, Holland, New Zealand, South Africa, Thailand and the US, in December's annual climax to a series of competitions around the world.

The origins of K-1, one branch of Mixed Martial Arts, are the sort of arguments children have in schoolyards: Bruce Lee could have mashed Mike Tyson. Giant Haystacks would kill Muhammad Ali if he sat on him. The organisers took that simple premise and asked: who will survive if you put the top karate and kickboxing stars in the ring with kung fu and tae kwon do fighters, boxers and wrestlers?

This is how one of the great modern sumo champions, the 440lb Akebono, ended up in the ring on New Year's Eve 2003 with US football star Bob Sapp in a match that lasted less than three minutes before Akebono slammed face first on to the canvas. The sight of the slow-moving, blubbery Akebono trying to cat-punch his way to victory against the muscle-bound Sapp broke millions of Japanese hearts, dealt * a huge blow to the all-important dignity of sumo and smashed TV viewing records.

Since it started just over a decade ago, K-1 has grown into a sporting monster, regularly winning 20 per cent of the domestic TV audience, generating copycat versions abroad and spawning an even more brutal offshoot called Pride, which is so violent it can only go out on terrestrial TV after editing. In Pride, the fighters abandon the padded boxing gloves of K-1, along with the last remnants of the Queensberry rules, and straddle their prone opponents on the canvas to throttle or beat them into submission. At the end of each bout, the canvas is wiped clean of sweat and blood.

While many people in Japan hate K-1, fans will tell you they love its Darwinian purity: three, three-minute rounds extended for one or two extra rounds for fights that end in a draw. Knock-outs and self-inflicted injuries are common thanks to regulations that allow repeated kicks and knees to the head; when K-1 moved to the US, as in last April's K-1 championship in the Las Vegas Ballagio Hotel, the sport is more strictly regulated.

In the second fight of the night, Thai kickboxer Kaoklai Kaennorsing is up against the Samoan-American Mighty Mo, a 280lb ex- construction worker who apparently earned his nickname after he survived unscathed when a building collapsed around him. Kaoklai is a shy, intense, almost laughably slight, 178lb figure who, inside the ropes explodes into a flurry of vicious kicks and punches that seem to bounce off his beefy opponent - until a roundhouse kick snaps Mo on the side of the head and he topples in the first round.

"He faked me then came back with a kick to congratulate me," says the now Slightly Shrunken Mo, draped in a towel as big as a tent, in the post-fight press conference. "I don't think I damaged him at all. I congratulate him: he took care of business." K-1 fighters talk like that: every sentence is a terse sound-bite of stoic, buttock-clenched manliness.

"That's what I love about K-1," says 20-year-old Azusa Asano, who sits with an older man she calls "Papa" in the ringside seats. "It's the difference between the respect and kindness they show each other outside the ring and the violence inside. It's very male; I call it romance for men."

Irony is thin on the ground in this sport: the 6ft 4in Dutch kickboxer Remy Bonjasky, whose specialty is launching himself airborne to deliver crunching knee-kicks to his opponent's face, is nicknamed "the Flying Gentleman". The brutish, laser-eyed South African, Francois Botha, is "the White Buffalo". In between bouts, teams of young karate athletes chop painfully at baseball bats to shouts of "Gambare!" (Go for it!) from the audience.

It is hard to resist mining K-1 for clues to the current state of Japan. Certainly, a constant theme that comes in loud and clear from organisers and fans alike is the stress-reducing properties of these matches. "I come to clear my head and refresh myself for the week," says 37-year-old housewife Kazuko Sakamoto.

Patrick Washburn, head of publicity for Fighting and Entertainment Group, which runs K-1, believes the violence is "cathartic". "There's a lot of repression in Japanese society and I suppose the confrontation part of K-1 helps people deal with that." It is probably no accident that the rise of the sport, with what one commentator calls its "simple, rough narratives", mirrors the decline of Japan's economic ambitions in the 1990s and the return of doubts about where the country is heading.

The final tonight sees a crowd-pleasing pairing of Musashi, the Japanese contender, and Bonjasky, who won last year's final. Both men look weary as they enter the ring to deafening cheers and an unashamed "Gambare Musashi!" from one of the judges. Musashi's pulped, hangdog face seems to carry the weight of local expectations against the foreign hordes. Bonjasky, who wears wire-framed glasses, talks softly and looks like a Benetton model, is distilled kickboxing inside the ring - a lanky windmill with a terrifying repertoire of punches and kicks. And, as the fight heats up, it is Bonjasky who pulls off the most memorable moment of the night, when he launches skyward and ends up head-first outside the ropes - twice. He looks by far the most lethal combatant; some of the photographers pull back from the ringside to avoid him, but the judges call one, then another extra round.

Are the judges reliable? Washburn acknowledges previous problems at K-1 fights. "Two or three were suspended earlier this year for questionable decisions."

Five seconds before the final bell, Bonjasky's foot catches Musashi's head and the Dutchman wins his second K-1 Grand Prix title, along with $400,000. As the K-1 crown is placed on his head, he cries, once again the Benetton model rather than the Flying Gentleman. "I love Japan!" he says.

Afterwards, Bonjasky, his arm in a sling, admits he found the decision to award the extra rounds "strange", and K-1 event producer Sadaharu Tanikawa promises that his organisation will investigate the judging.

In a ringside seat, Kuriko Okamoto says she is looking forward to the coming year's K-1, when it is rumoured that Mike Tyson will be among the competitors. "We are animals with an instinct to fight for what we want and need," she says. "K-1 takes off the mask and shows us what we are." As she talks, wind machines blow paper confetti around the Tokyo Dome and a group of young boys mimic what they've just seen in the ring. "It's the kicks I love," says nine-year-old Keisuke Uchida. "I'm going to be able to do that one day."