Boxers and their success (Or lack there of) in K-1 and Kick-Boxing. (2022)

Originally created as a response at Karate Forums to posts in the thread:American Kickboxers don’t learn Sweeps?, when my response reached over 2000 words I decided to rework it as a blog-post. Credit to the User, Prototype, for creating the topic on the forums, and for the statements which inspired this post. The opening post of the thread:

Prototype: A user here claimed that above the waist american style kickboxers back in the day were at a disadvantage against pure boxers due to the rules prohibiting sweeps, but from my understanding, american kickboxer don’t learn sweeps and other traditional martial arts stuff.

So let’s set the record straight. THe ones who were surely at a disadvantage rules-wise was boxers..who had to face kicks.. Yet they dominated enough to have the rule set changed to 8 kick minimun per round

My initial argument was that most early American Kick-Boxers came from a Competitive Kumite back-ground, which in 1960s/70s America, meant a format where sweeping and throwing were allowed. Although, any boxer entering into American Kick-Boxing at the time would be at a disadvantage in not having a kick offence, I would argue that several elements make this a moot-point:

1. High Kicks to the head and body, are readily avoided with head-movement and body swaying; something boxers are skilled with. Thus, they would have entered the American Kick-Boxing ring with a defence against high kicks.

2. Clinch fighting was forbidden as it is in Boxing; thus, so were sweeps, and throws. Boxers did not need to learn to fight in the clinch.

3. With the clinch eliminated, and range control, still isolated to the use of head-movement, body swaying, and foot-work; high kicks were moot as a weapon, except as one of opportunity.

The rules, in my mind, make American Kick-Boxing just Boxing with high-kicks. Therefore, boxing is a cornerstone skill necessary for success in American Kick-Boxing. You can evade high-kicks with the same body movement you defend against punches with. This can even be seen in contemporary Muay Thai, and other kick-boxing bouts. Thus, boxing skill became, and is, the pre-dominant skill over a more rounded kick-boxing acumen with regards to American Kick-Boxing. As such I assert that with regards to success in American kick-boxing; the better a competitor is at boxing, the more success they will have.

To demonstrate this argument, I will use the example of Joe Lewis as I did in the thread. Joe Lewis trained with former boxing champion Joe Orbillo, notably after Lewis had retired from point-fighting, and was also a regular training partner of Bruce Lee; whom, whatever one’s opinion of his actual fighting skill, was a pioneer of strength and conditioning training in martial arts, even if you credit him with nothing else. As such, Joe Lewis was ahead of the curve regarding actual fighting knowledge, compared to a lot of other veterans of Professional Karate who came from a point-fighting back-ground only. Joe Lewis was also a natural athlete; he earned his Shodan in 7 months, and won his first karate championship (Point-Fighting) with only 22 months of training under his belt. This combination of boxing knowledge, natural athleticism, and effective conditioning for full-contact meant that Lewis dominated during the first years of American Kick-Boxing. Simply because he was a better boxer than his opponents, not a good boxer, by his own admission, but better than his competitors. Lewis was also conditioned to take a hit as well as deliver one, which was alien to his rivals coming from a point-fighting back-ground.However, once the knowledge of the competition caught up; Joe Lewis crashed out from his top place in the pecking order. He lost two consecutive fights before entering what would prove to be a temporary retirement in 1975; and during his comeback effort, from 82 to 83, went 4-2 and failed to recapture the Professional Karate Association US Heavyweight Championship.

The above Joe Lewis versus Tom Hall fight is a good example of how far Lewis’ early advantage slipped away. Hall was the better boxer, in that he showed head movement, and had better close in boxing, and it earned him the decision victory. Still not good boxing by any professional or Olympic standard, but at least solid at an amateur level. To paraphrase a statement from Lewis himself, when he was the dominant PKA Heavyweight Champion, when asked whether he intended to try professional boxing; Lewis claimed he was far from proficient enough, he just had a better boxing acumen than his early kick-boxing opponents. However, even in those early days, from 1975 onward, the Kick-Boxers developed boxing skills precisely because of Lewis’ pioneering approach, and the realisation that to fight in boxing gloves one needed to know how to box. Thus, despite dominating from 1970-75, Lewis’ boxing skill advantage seemed to disappear overnight in 1975 as his competitors had time to catch up. Also, despite a brave showing in his 82-83 return, Lewis did not evolve enough in the intervening years to remain a champion level fighter.In some ways Lewis was the Ken Shamrock of his day, and American Kick-Boxing. Lewis was a strong, and surprisingly fast, heavyweight; with a knowledge base ahead of the other players, which meant he dominated while he was pioneering the sport. However, once his knowledge advantage disappeared, an inability to evolve further meant he could not remain competitive. Like Shamrock and Vale-Tudo/Free-Fighting; from 93-96, Shamrock was top of the pile because he had an amateur wrestling back-ground, knew catch-wrestling, and had some skill in Muay Thai. When Shamrock returned in 2000, it was no longer enough to know submission fighting or how to strike; Brazilian Jujitsu, Amateur Wrestling, and Muay Thai were the knowledge base of modern MMA fighters, and one had to be good at them to be competitive, not simply have knowledge of them. Similarly, the American kick-boxing of the early 70s simply required one to know how to fight in boxing gloves to dominate; from 75 onward one had to have boxing skill to be competitive.

So, ultimately; in kick-boxing, you must have boxing acumen, but most especially in American Kick-Boxing. The rest of the article; I will be addressing a couple of statements I consider interesting.

Prototype: If Bob Sapp beats arguably the greatest Kickboxer of all time – Ernesto Hoost to a bloody pulp with wild swinging punching, I can only imagine what Mike Tyson would do to Hoost.

A general rule thumb is that if you take two competitors who are equally strong; the more skilled one will be the victor. If you take two equally skilled competitors; the stronger one wins. At the professional level; a competitor is conditioned to a competitive level. Plus, no one becomes a professional through luck; you either have the skill to be a professional or you do not. Exempting elite competitors, on the professional level there is a third part to the general rule of thumb above; if you take two competitors who are equally strong and skilled, then the one with the stylistic disadvantage loses. Even in boxing there are styles of course; and to give an example of stylistic disadvantage, you can look to Ali versus Foreman. Foreman was one of the heaviest hitters in the game, and tough too, but his unsophisticated Slugger style meant he was unable to bring these advantages to bear against the Out-Fighting tactics of the Ali. Ali was one of the greatest of all time; but I would not place him far above Foreman (At his best) in terms of skill and strength. After all; Foreman won Gold at the Olympics, and walked past Norton and Frazier, both of whom had wins over Ali at the height of his career, and both fought Foreman when they were active contenders. Foreman’s slugger style just gave him an innate disadvantage against Ali’s out-fighting and strategy.

Anyway; to swing this back to the statement on Sapp and Hoost. I would argue that Hoost’s weakness was always aggressive fighters. This can be seen in his early career, where he gave away losses to several fighters he would defeat later. Once he hit his stride circa 2000; his weakness became aggressive big men. He never solved the puzzle of Bob Sapp or Semmy Schilt; both fighters above and just under the 300-lb mark respectively, but defeated aggressive fighters who caused him trouble earlier in his career, with Jerome Le Banner being an obvious example. Comparatively speaking; Sapp went onto suffer losses to Ray Sefo, and Peter Aerts, after his fights with Hoost. Two fighters Hoost would fight, and defeat, after his disasters against Sapp. To be honest; I have always been suspicious of Sapp versus Hoost 2. Hoost knocked Sapp down in the first round, and the KO was declared while Hoost was still standing. Sapp was too injured to continue in the tournament, but Hoost was still in good enough shape, despite the KO ruling, to take Sapp’s place and go on to win the K-1 World Grand Prix 2002. I give Sapp the fluke of their first meeting, but I do believe Sapp was being protected during their second bout.

Regarding Mike Tyson; his weakness was tall, out-fighters/boxer-punchers, whom he could not intimidate. This was first demonstrated by Tyson’s loss to Buster Douglas, then shown again with the Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis losses. Now; it must be mentioned that Holyfield beat Douglas, and Holyfield was beaten by Lewis, so it was a very select group that fought at the level of Tyson in his prime; in that their greatest challengers were each other.

Now; Prototype was not suggesting a hypothetical Tyson and Hoost match up. However, it made me think, and in theory a Hoost versus Tyson fight in their primes could have been interesting. Tyson weighed around the 218 lb mark on average, and Hoost at just a bit less at 215 lb. However, Tyson came in at 5’10 to Hoost’s 6’2.4, and gave away a reach advantage like the one Tyson suffered against Holyfield. However, Tyson often fought at a reach disadvantage, so it is hard to say how this would impact such a fictional set up.

Both were knock-out artists: 88% of Tyson’s victories were by knock out, and 62% of Hoost’s victories were by knock-out. Hoost did fight significantly more than Tyson, by a multiple of 2.086, to give it a number. Even if we use an equation to give Tyson a fictional career of 121 fights like Hoost, if we accept the knock-out rate as consistent, then Tyson still has a better fictional knock-out rate of 75%. Thus, Tyson unarguably has the edge in knock-out power in a fictional match-up. I would also give Tyson the strength advantage with his giving away at least 4 inches in height, yet coming in just slightly heavier than Hoost.

If we look at their mutual strengths the fight does remain interesting. Tyson was short for a heavyweight, and not particularly fast on his feet, although he had a good dash. However, he was very good at cutting the corners and slicing the angles to corner his opponents, and thus mitigated the disadvantage of his height through good ring control and having excellent foot-work. Tyson also employed the peek-a-boo defence, and through his career demonstrate an exceptional defence, which again, helped him mitigate his height disadvantage. Tyson also had incredible hand-speed, and could throw powerful combinations, making him incredibly dangerous once he got inside an opponent’s reach.

Hoost, on the other hand, made use of distance control through his low kicks to be the dominant kick-boxer he was. Hoost also had very good hands, reflective of his Dutch Kick-Boxing heritage, where emphasis is made on punching over elbows and knees. He was, and is, very good at setting up low kicks with his punching offensive. He also scored as many victories with his hands as he did his kicks. Similarly; Hoost’s defence was very much bread and butter Dutch Kick-Boxing; utilising a lot of footwork to get in and out and to create angles. Indeed; Hoost is probably the archetypal example of a Dutch Kick-Boxer who made the style work on the world stage.

I think what makes it an interesting fictional bout is that both are each other’s nemesis in a way. Tyson was a legendarily aggressive fighter, which is the sort Hoost struggled with the most. Hoost is an example of an out-fighting kick-boxer, who uses foot work, and low kick combinations to control distance to set up knock-out blows. At the mid-range, both were excellent combination workers, and my primary question would be whether Tyson’s pee-a-boo defence would have adapted well to Hoost’s powerful kicking offense. Similarly; would Tyson’s use of angles have been better than Hoost’s and allowed him to turn it into a boxing match.

As with a lot of fictional bouts involving Tyson; I think I would say it depends on that magic fourth round. If Tyson could successfully bull-rush Hoost in the opening rounds; then it would be Tyson’s win. However, if Hoost, and I think he would have a good chance of doing so, could use his out-fighting skills to draw Tyson beyond the fourth round, all the while working the legs, then I believe Hoost would be the victor. It would also depend on the rule set; American and International rules allow for up to 12 rounds, which would tax both fighters. Muay Thai and Oriental rules allow a maximum of five rounds which Tyson, even with his famed stamina issue, could probably fight comfortably within. American and International rules not allowing clinch fighting, or knee strikes, would restrict Hoost’s arsenal, but he was more known for his punching and kicks. Muay Thai and Oriental would give Hoost the most freedom, but I think Tyson’s infamous dirty boxing and explosive power, and probable weight and strength advantage, could see him safely through clinch fighting. Really could not call it, but I am inclined to give Tyson the edge in theory, just because he was more dominant at his prime. Though, Hoost and Tyson both had slip ups in their primes; Sapp and Douglas respectively. However; as discussed below, Boxers do not do well outside of the Boxing ring, even when they have been dominant Boxers.

Prototype: A shame we didn’t have more fresh elite boxing blood in K1 to see how the kickboxers would parry their punching expertise.

I think it important to concede that, unfortunately, a lot of boxing talents brought into K-1 were past their prime. However,some had a pedigree, and had achieved something in the world of Boxing. Below are a few examples:

Francois Botha (IBF World HW champion): Boxing: 48-11, K-1: 4-12

Shannon Briggs (WBC World HW Championship Contender): Boxing: 60-6, K-1: 1-0

Ray Mercer (WBO World HW champion): Boxing: 36-7, K-1: 0-2

Vince “Cool” Phillips (IBF world LW champion): Boxing: 48-12, K-1: 0-1

Virgil Kalakoda (WBN and IBF inter-continental LM champion): Boxing: 25-8, K-1: 10-10

Arthur Williams (IBF CW champ): Boxing: 47-17, K-1: 0-1

Eric Butterbean Esch (IBA World SHW champion): Boxing: 77-10, K-1: 3-4

Yong Soo Choi (WBA super FW champ): Boxing: 29-4, K-1: 3-1

In Jin Chi (WBC FW champ): Boxing: 31-3, K-1: 1-1

All the boxers above fought on the world, or at least on an international, stage and did well. There may have been more boxers that I am unaware of who also entered K-1 at some point, but the above are the ones I am certain of, and can find a record for. All with winning records as well, by the time they retired, so arguably very competitive boxers on the level they fought. Sadly, only two have a winning kick-boxing record, and Shannon Briggs achieved his by only fighting in K-1 once. With that said, some did pull off shock wins; Botha being the best example from the list above. Boxers have not done well in cross-over efforts. Issue is; K-1 usually brought them in for their freak show fights, and as mentioned before past their prime. The K-1 management also and often fed them to a kick-boxer they wanted to promote. Thus, it is hard to judge how said boxers would have done if they had been in their prime. However; they have also fared poorly in attempts to enter the world of Mixed Martial Arts, and earlier Mixed Rules/Inter-Style contests.

There is the case of Mike Bernardo though. Bernardo was a one of the most competitive fighters in K-1, being the 2000 K-1 World Grand Prix in Fukuoka winner, and a regular K-1 tournament runner up, who fought all the top K-1 fighters of his day at least once and had victories over them. He was also a kick-boxing champion in several other organisations. However, he was also the World Boxing Federation World Heavyweight Champion, with a boxing record of 11-1, though he was stripped of the title for inactivity. Plus, he began boxing professionally a couple of years prior to beginning his K-1 career, so one could argue he was a competitive boxer entering K-1. However, his back ground was karate and kick-boxing, and he started his competitive kick-boxing in 1990. He is an exception to the rule, but an exception which demonstrates that one could be competitive in both Kick-Boxing and Boxing. I think it rather telling that he was not an International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association, World Boxing Council, or World Boxing Organization Champion, which suggests that while Bernardo fought at the top Level as a kick-boxer he could not do so as a boxer. However, he never did capture the K-1 World Grand Prix crown, unlike several of his rivals, suggesting that although he was a top fighter his fighting ability was inconsistent.

Prototype: When the K1 fighters get pressured by boxing they seem to crumble. Look human. Same thing with Lebanner against Mark Hunt. Mark Hunt is not a boxer.

I am loath to accuse someone of selective viewing, as we are all prone to it, but I would argue, especially with the example of Hunt versus Le Banner fight being used, that what has really been witnessed is an example of fight psychology. Mark Hunt was, and is known, as the Super Samoan expressly because of how hard he hits, and the punishment he could take. Hunt caught Le Banner with a hard punch, that Le Banner did not see coming. As anyone who has been in the ring can tell you; it’s the hard punch you do not see coming that puts you down, not the hardest punch you take during the fight. Shaken by a hard punch, Le Banner then failed to continue to put up an effective defence; he was effectively out of the fight the moment the upper cut connected, and the hook followed, in the last minute of the second round. Hunt’s offensive after that was just finishing the job.

In broader terms; it is also important to note that the go to defence in Kick-Boxing is more regularly to cover up, than necessarily use a lot of head movement or foot-work. Unlike boxing, where one might attempt to duck, and swerve out of being cornered, because of the danger of a low kick or high kick being thrown after any punch combination or as soon as one tries to move.There are a few examples where moving into a kick led to a knock-down or even a knock out, because someone has moved into a low kick and been bowled over, or basically moved their head into the path of a kick. This is not to say head-movement is not used in defence, or parrying but that they are not used in the exact same manner as classical pugilism. Similarly, kick-exchanges, and clinch fighting, can often lead to collisions far more often than boxing, and where as a clinch leads to a break in boxing, in K-1 and kick-boxing formats where knees and clinch-fighting is allowed; it can often be wiser to cover up and try to work for space, than attempt a boxing exchange.

With all the above said; I would state that Boxing and Kick-Boxing are very different sports despite sharing the similarity of being stand-up, combat sports where boxing gloves are used. Boxing is an essential skill to possess in Kick-Boxing, but it is not the lone skill, and without a knowledge of how kicking effects distance control, and defence tactics , boxing alone will fall short in the more varied arena of kick-boxing.

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