Kick Boxing: Saturday night was made for fighting: Kick boxing combines grace and brutality as Britons seek global limelight. Mike Rowbottom reports

THE Master of Ceremonies smiled like the Cheshire Cat in the centre of the ring. 'Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready?' he enquired, with the required degree of showbiz archness.

The response from the socially graded congregation at the Everton Park Sports Centre - beer drinkers in jeans and trainers at the perimeter, wine drinkers in ties and suits at VIP tables within sweat-spraying distance of the canvas - was clearly insufficient.

'I don't think the fighters can hear you. Are you ready?' This time the response from the 1,200 spectators was sufficient, and their Saturday night out could begin in earnest.

This year's final event in six World Kickboxing Association promotions presented a curious amalgam of grace, technical accomplishment and brutality.

Kick boxing was established in the late Seventies by karate experts in the United States who wanted to match themselves against the best exponents of Thai boxing, a discipline devised around 3,000 years ago in the Buddhist temples of Thailand as a means of self-defence and an aid to meditation. While Thai boxing allows punching and kicking of all targets, grappling and use of the knees and elbows - don't ever argue with a Buddhist monk - kick boxing is a more basic combination of kicking and boxing. Not that you would argue with a kick boxer either.

Both variations of martial artist were on show in Liverpool, which occasioned some oddity. There was razzmattazz - 'Ladies and gentlemen, cheer the warriors on'. There was the elemental

appetite for blood and battering - 'You're sparring with him, Shaun]' shouted one middle-aged female supporter. And, awkwardly, there were the vestiges of Thai religious observances.

Ashley Gichard, a 19-year- old PE student from Sale, preceded his victory in the Thai British superlightweight title fight by dropping to his knees in prayer and then pressing his forehead against each of the corner cushions. Other flourishes by Thai boxers were viewed with a mixture of curiosity and stifled derision.

The traditional pre-fight dance - the Thai boxer's haka - has been dropped from the proceedings, largely because of the accompanying music. Not good television, apparently. Paul Hennessey, the promoter, can see the

argument. 'It sounds like a cat being strangled by someone banging a dustbin lid,' he said.

In a martial arts world that is dizzyingly full of different disciplines, the relative newcomer of kick boxing is working hard to project itself. Judging by initial viewing figures, the domestic television audience is responding to the WKA offering.

What will sustain interest, as in all sports, is the high-profile performer. Saturday offered Aicha Lahsen, a doughty 21-year-old from Ormskirk who is tipped to reach world championship level after winning all five of her fights since switching from freestyle karate, where she was European junior champion.

'Kick boxing has already brought me more recognition than 100 karate fights.' Not that the switch has been without its difficulties. 'In my first fight I punched the girl and I saw her wobble, and I thought: 'I can't do it. This is not me.' The second fight I broke the girl's nose and I thought, 'I still don't like this'.'

She is soldiering on, however, with the ambition of becoming a film stuntwoman. Gary Sandland, who became a world heavyweight champion on home territory in the last fight of the night, is hoping eventually to follow the many martial arts exponents who have become involved in films either through taking part or directing fights. Sandland, who is already a wealthy man and Mercedes driver thanks to his building insurance consultancy, has marketable potential. He looks like a fleshier version of Sylvester Stallone with a touch of James Garner thrown in.

His fight against William van Roosmalen, of the Netherlands, took place at around pub chucking-out time, which, given the bulk of the action, was appropriate. Against a taller, more technically adept, opponent, Sandland employed the basic

approach which had earned him a record of 25 wins in 26 bouts, 24 by knockout, 19 of those in the first round.

One left hook in the fourth round, more martial than art, dropped the Dutchman and lifted everyone else in the hall off their plastic seats. This warrior did not lack for cheers.

(Photograph omitted)

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