Is it just karate without the philosophy?
`When you are watching a film or television these days, they are kicking, not just punching'
The great unanswered question of our time is: If you could pit Bruce Lee or Jean-Claude van Damme against Mike Tyson or Frank Bruno, who do you think would win? A world championship kick-boxing event at the Brighton Dome on Saturday provided some contradictory answers.
Kick-boxing is where East meets West; the black-belt puts on gloves and foot-pads and steps into the ring. It is karate with the philosophy taken out and full-contact punches put in. The Dome was effectively a US v UK match. The British fighters came mostly from the Sama Club in Brighton; the Americans were a mixture of Florida and Hollywood.
In the super welterweight world-title fight over 12 rounds, Curtis Bush from Virginia, holder of world titles in three other weight classes, and star of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles I and II, and Psycho Kickboxer: The Dark Angel, defeated Tom Montgomery, the intercontinental champion.
Billed as "The Explosive Thin Man", Bush weighs in at 154lb, but at six feet tall his reach resembles that of a giraffe, rather than a turtle. Montgomery, a few inches shorter and a few years longer, pushed him hard and took several rounds, but in the end was up against too much power.
In the other international title fight, Nick Clark got his chin in the way of one too many right-footed upper cuts from Larry Jarrot, while the Sama Club had the consolation of Jim Caldercourt stopping Mark Kern to take the world amateur super welterweight title.
Mike Hollobaugh, the American trainer, equally experienced in boxing and kick- boxing, had "no problem putting a kick-boxer up against any boxer you can name - and the kick-boxer would take it every time. The key is that he has four weapons instead of just two," he said.
Stretching and strapping up in the dressing-room, one of his fighters was rather more sceptical: "One thing's for sure - if Tyson hits you, it don't matter who you are, it's going to hurt." There is one story, guaranteed authentic, about a well-known boxer who got into a brawl in Puerto Rico with a kick-boxing policeman - and was knocked out.
Kick-boxing has an abundance of the one thing usually missing from the more cynical game of boxing: an evangelistic, pioneering commitment to the sport. Billy Murray, a world-title hol-der from Bel-fast in Mont- gomery's corner, said: "It would help if a few more guys from Belfast took it up." All it has lacked hitherto are the massive purses of boxing.
For Montgomery, it is back to the building-site the following day. According to the programme notes, he is "currently working at Brighton University", but as he modestly admits: "Only because we've been working on an extension there - that's the extent of my university days."
Clark is a painter and decorator. Most of the Americans double as bouncers, but Morales Reuben, of Scrapyard Kick-Boxing, Orlando, saw a future for them as doubles for Sylvester Stallone and his ilk in the realm of stunt work. Scrapyard has supplied most of the bodies for the film of Mortal Kombat.
The Americans were marvelling at the rumoured size of the purse for a Tyson-Riddick Bowe fight, when most of them were struggling to get the plane fare to England. But the States can also lay claim to the first $100,000-a-fight (£63,000) kick-boxer, in the shape of the charismatic Rick Rufus, the middleweight champion.
Another American, Donny "The Dragon" Wilson, recently challenged van Damme to a $100,000 fight. But van Damme allegedly turned down the invitation, saying: "Why should I fight for $100,000 when I'm getting paid $7m for my next three movies?"
When Wilson could offer $7m, then he would fight. The fighters cast doubt on van Damme's claims to a kick-boxing pedigree, but did allow that Dolph Lundgren had been a genuine contender before giving it all up to become an actor.
Like Brigitte Bardot in her prime actually getting into bed with her leading men, or Mickey Rourke going a few rounds, the Americans see little or no distinction between what happens on and off screen.
To men like Bush, in the smooth David Carradine kung-fu mould, the ring and the studio are all one. "Bruce Lee was the fire for our generation," Hollobaugh said. "When you watch a movie or the television now, they are kicking, not just punching."
It was perhaps appropriate then, that Chris Ellison, formerly of The Bill, should be handing out the prizes. In Ellington, the new television series he is currently recording, Ellison plays a Barry Hearn-type sports promoter. "Barry Hearn would never promote kick-boxing," he said, "or not yet anyway, because there isn't enough money in it."
Ellison's personal view on the martial artist v pugilist question was that: "Kick-boxing is a great spectator sport, but it won't replace boxing. Boxing is more serious. A boxer could feed off most of those kicks and a boxer's punch carries more weight than their punches. And there are so many openings."
I want to make a proposal to Barry Hearn and Don King, let's settle this question once and for all. Forget Riddick Bowe. Offer van Damme his $7m - or even Dolph Lundgren - and line up Tyson, and this could be the fight of the century. Alternatively, forget Tyson and call Stallone, and we could be looking at the largest-grossing film in the Rocky series.
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