Appearing in his K-1 debut, Murat Direkci needed just 87 seconds to defeat former World Max Champion Albert Kraus in a Superfight; while Yoshihiro Sato captured the Tournament Championship Belt at the K-1 World Max 2007 Japan. Held at the Ariake Coliseum in Tokyo's seaside district of Odaiba, the event kicked off the '07 World Max season with an abundance of thrilling bouts and a couple of stunning upsets.
Since its inception in 2002, K-1 World Max has become a fan favorite in Japan and around the world, mainly because the 70 kg/154lb weight class consistently delivers spirited, fast paced bouts. The Inaugural World Max Final was won by Dutch boxer Albert Kraus, who was but 21 when he captured the title. Kraus was back in action tonight, the heavy favorite to win in his Main Event Superfight with kickboxer Murat Direkci of Turkey.
But Direkci fought like an underdog should -- possessed of and driven by the awareness that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain. The approach paid off. From the bell the Turk charged forward with his fists, and within seconds had put a left punch in on a counter, clocking Kraus on the chin and knocking the former Champion to the canvas. Kraus easily beat the count, shaking his head as if to say that the only hurt was on his pride. But Direkci just kept on coming -- shortly after resumption he stepped in with a left-right combination that dropped Kraus a second time. This time the Dutch fighter was slower getting up. After taking a careful look at Kraus, the referee waved his arms in the air to stop the bout and give Direkci the huge victory.
"It was my night," said a beaming Direkci afterward. "I am an all-round fighter, I knee, kick and punch. In this fight, I saw the chance to punch, so I went with it. Of course, I always go for the KO!"
Two-time and Defending World Max Champion Buakaw Por Pramuk used his preternatural power and prowess with both kicks and punches to earn a convincing KO win over shoot boxer Andy Souwer in the final last June. Tonight, the Thai wunderkind stepped in for a Superfight against Tsogto "Shinobu" Amara, a Mongolian kickboxer and karate stylist making his K-1 debut.
Buakaw took his time here, tenderizing Amara with occasional low kicks and straight punches through the first, while coolly dodging just about everything that came his way. In the second Buakaw mixed up the low and high kicks, and Amara responded to a Buakaw knee to the midsection by turning away in pain, which cost the Mongolian a standing count. Buakaw worked a full array of attacks in the third, cocking his opponent's head hard with a left hook, then dropping his guard late and inviting Amara to try and hit him -- the failed attempts further fueling the Mongolian fighter's frustration. There are few who come close to Buakaw in the ring, and it was clear here that Amara is not yet one of them. A comfortable unanimous decision.
"This was like a practice fight for me," said Buakaw, "so I dropped my guard and had some fun. My goal this year is to defend my title, and I know that fighters like Masato and Souwer will be coming after me, so I'll have to do my best."
A fighter who certainly did his best tonight was Yoshihiro Sato, who dispatched three challengers to earn the K-1 World Max '07 Japan Championship Belt. The eight-man World Max Japan tournament followed K-1's classic format -- a quartet of first-tier fights advancing winners to the semifinals, the two victors there clashing in the final. All fights were conducted under regular K-1 World Max Rules, three rounds of three minutes each, with one possible tiebreaker round.
Continuing a K-1 tradition, a single non-Japanese was invited to participate -- this time it was Andy Ologun of Nigeria, a sometime-model, television personality and freelance fighter. Incredibly, Ologun scored the evenings' other major upset victory in his bout with kickboxer Takayuki Kohiruimaki.
Kohiruimaki is among Japan's best World Max fighters, having won the Max Japan Tournament in both 2004 and 2005. "Kohi" was cool as always with his low kicks, but throughout the fight seemed hesitant to step in and mix it up with Ologun. For his part, Ologun blocked the low kicks well, and was active and effective with his fists. Kohiruimaki appeared to have underestimated his opponent's arsenal, Ologun working a wide variety of attacks -- jabbing of course but also frequently leading with the quick right, getting in solidly with a left uppercut in the second and bloodying Kohiruimaki's nose. Judges weren't convinced after three, but in the tiebreaker round Ologun was the far more aggressive fighter, firing in five straight punches from the bell and scoring a down with a right midway through to pick up enough points for the upset victory.
The next fight featured 25 year-old boxer Tatsuji and kickboxer Hayato. It was Tatsuji by decision the last time these two tangoed, and so Hayato was looking for a little payback here. But Tatsuji didn't give him much of a chance, swinging away early in the first, connecting with a left hook for a down. Tatsuji worked the body with gusto in a slugfest of a second round, but Hayato weathered the blows and came back with a hard left hook and a couple of nice straight punches. The boys brawled through the third, careening across the ring in a riot of punches, kicks and knees. They did everything but knock each other out, which didn't bode well for Hayato, and when it was over Tatsuji advanced on points.
In the third tournament matchup, shoot boxer Hiroki Shishido took on Keiji Ozaki, a kickboxer appearing in his first K-1 bout. The pair worked the legs through the early going, but it was a right hook on a counter that earned Ozaki a down midway through the first. Ozaki was in the zone again in the second, blocking and evading well and connecting with creative attacks including a flying knee and a spinning back punch. Both fighters opened up in the third, generating numerous chances, Shishido getting in with a spinning back punch. A tough one to call, judges giving it to Ozaki on the basis of his first-round down.
Yoshihiro Sato, who stands 185cm/6'1", started his march to glory in the fourth quarterfinal. The kickboxer turned 26 scarcely a week ago, but had already built something of a reputation for himself over his nine K-1 World Max bouts -- upsetting slugger Mike Zambidis and only losing to elite opponents such as Kraus and Buakaw. Sato's opponent here was Yasuhito Shirasu, and from the start the lanky Sato endeavored to use his 15cm/6" height advantage to effect by stepping forward and bringing up the knees. But Shirasu, not surprisingly, had anticipated this tactic and wisely kept a V-shaped guard pressed tightly against his chest. Shirasu powered his way inside in the second, catching Sato on the jaw with a left. The third was both spirited and sloppy, and overall Sato got the better stuff in to take a unanimous decision and moved to the semis.
It was announced prior to the first semifinal that due an injury to his left leg, Ologun was unable to clear the doctor's check and so could not continue in the tournament. Under K-1 Rules, Kazuya Yasuhiro, who had beaten Satoruvashicoba by decision in the reserve bout, took the Nigerian fighter's place against Tatsuji.
The first was fast, Yasuhiro firing in low kicks, both fighters making partial contact with punches but neither putting a great deal of punishment in. Tatsuji was on the sore side of several kicks to the groin in the second, these prompting several time stoppages. Tatsuji got a combination through here but overall the targeting was poor and the blocking was good and, apart from the repeated rattling of Tatsuji's package, neither fighter suffered significant damage. The third was more of the same, Tatsuji delivering a flurry of punches at the clapper to take the win by decision and earn a spot in the final.
The second semi, between Sato and Ozaki, began with Sato again bringing in the knees, Ozaki meanwhile countering with the fists, scoring with a right straight punch early on and later with a hook and a nice spinning back punch. Once more in the second, Ozaki braved the low kicks and knees to close the distance and work the fists, but Sato got a timely hard knee up, and surprised Ozaki with a high kick late in the round to maintain the pressure. The third found Ozaki apparently fatigued, Sato looking the fresher of the pair, still pumping away with the knees and low kicks. Stamina was the difference here, Sato's earning him a unanimous decision and a trip to the final.
And so it was Sato vs Tatsuji, not the final that many would have predicted, but then again tonight was proving anything but predictable. The bell rang and Tatsuji circled, looking for a way in. Sato remained cool, tentative with the jab, putting in merely perfunctory low kicks when Tatsuji approached. Soon Tatsuji took the initiative, coming in with a right straight punch. But Sato was ready -- and burst a knee up to his opponent's jaw, dropping him soundly. Tatsuji beat the count, but 30 seconds after resumption Sato shifted gears and went on the attack, jumping forward with a knee that caught Tatsuji hard on the nose and sent him back to the mat. This time Tatsuji, now bleeding somewhat, went stumbling awkwardly into the ropes as he tried in vain to find his feet. The referee quickly called the fight, and Sato had the honor of the first K-1 tournament victory of 2007.
"I'm very satisfied with the three fights tonight," said a smiling Sato in his post-event interview. "What I want to do now is get my skills up so I can compete at a world-class level."
With his tournament victory, Sato collects 5 million yen in prize money, plus a bonus of 300,000 yen for the KO he scored in the final. He also qualifies for this year's World Max Final Elimination.
There were three undercard bouts on the card: Hiroya TKO'd Akihira Takahashi; Kozo Mitsuyama beat Ash-Ra by unanimous decision; and Yasuhiro Kido scored a KO win over Kenji Kawabata.
Building on expanding interest in World Max, K-1 Event Producer Sadaharu Tanikawa announced that 2007 will see some 20 events featuring World Max contests, both in Japan and in licensed K-1 Fighting Network productions scheduled for Croatia, Sweden, Korea and other countries around the world.