Vindication, Canadian Style

By John Lee Apr 28, 2008
Canada's golden boy, Georges St. Pierre (Pictures), recently and emphatically claimed vindication amid much fanfare in Montreal. Another Canadian will be looking to do the same Tuesday in the Dream middleweight grand prix in Japan.

The trajectory of Denis Kang (Pictures)'s career in recent years closely resembles St. Pierre's. Both had career-defining victories in 2006 and both fell from grace after suffering brutal knockouts in 2007.

For Kang, a training partner of the UFC welterweight champion who is looking to turn the corner in 2008, St. Pierre's victory must certainly come as a welcoming omen.

"What can I say about greatness? GSP is like the Wayne Gretzky of MMA. He really inspires me," exclaimed Kang about St. Pierre's performance against Matt Serra (Pictures).

Kang's loss to Yoshihiro Akiyama (Pictures) in 2007 was not his first, but it certainly was the most damaging to his career. It marked one of those epochal moments often witnessed in the fight game in which the winner assumes the previous accomplishments of his opponent.

This has been the case in South Korea, where Akiyama saw his stock rise dramatically after his huge win over Kang.

South Korea has been a key market for Kang, who has been a central figure in disseminating MMA and bringing it to the South Korean mainstream through commercial endorsements.

"I think it started with the Spirit MC events around 2005," Kang said. "MMA was beginning to be known before that but not mainstream yet. My Everlast commercial definitely brought a lot of viewers' attention to MMA."

In defeat, Kang was usurped by Akiyama in the house that he had helped build. But ask the middleweight stalwart if he feels resentment for being used as a launching pad, and his reply will be unexpectedly generous.

"No, I'm not bitter about it if that's what you mean," Kang said of Akiyama's success. "To each his own. … I'm glad he's doing well."

Kang, a seasoned professional who has been fighting for more than 10 years now, seems to understand this is part of the cycle. After all, knocking off a top contender is also how he garnered his success.

Somewhat of a journeyman earlier in his career, Kang managed to string together a series of wins in smaller promotions in 2003. But the MMA scene in North America wasn't the gold rush that it is now and, like a modern-day Conde Koma, he headed outward to the obscure country of South Korea in 2004.

There Kang joined an upstart promotion called Spirit MC, and the marriage between the two has been a synergistic one, benefiting both the fighter and the promotion.

Spirit MC has an interesting business model in that it functions primarily as a promotion but also holds the managerial rights to its fighters. The goal is basically to build up fighters to feed to larger promotions, using the fighter to attract greater exposure for its promotional brand, domestically and internationally.

While this has raised a litany of transparency issues, it has been overall very positive in Kang's case. Incidentally, it has also produced a successful model of cultivating and procuring talent through "international feeder organizations," like Spirit MC and Cage Rage.

This was a risky move, but Kang likes to say "the greater the risk, the greater the glory." His gamble to South Korea worked.

In 2005, Spirit MC signed Kang to Pride, which at that time was considered the pinnacle of the sport. Proving himself through impressive wins over Takahiro Oba (Pictures) and Andrei Semenov (Pictures), Kang was invited to the Pride welterweight grand prix in 2006.

In the first round, he met Murilo Rua (Pictures), a heavy favorite to win the tournament. As soon as the fight started, Kang threw a penetrating straight right that shot down the pipe. Rua was rocked. Kang smelled blood and charged in with a salvo of punches that dropped the backpedaling Rua. He then unleashed a torrent of strikes on his downed opponent before the referee pulled him off. The match lasted a mere 15 seconds.

All of Rua's accomplishments then fell into Kang's hands -- another part of the cycle.

Kang would make it to the finals of the grand prix, fight through a torn bicep and drop a controversial split decision to tournament winner Kazuo Misaki (Pictures).

But a star was born that year. Before the Anderson Silvas of the world, Kang was the name that invariably came up when talking about the middleweight division.

That is, until Akiyama came along.

In this week's middleweight tournament, Kang will be looking to vindicate himself and prove why he's still relevant in the division. His first challenge is a stiff one against a dangerous striker in Gegard Mousasi (Pictures) (13 of Mousasi's 20 wins came by KO or TKO).

You would think that Kang would be a bit concerned coming off a knockout loss, but he coolly responds that he didn't train all that differently for this fight.

"Working in Montreal with GSP and in Vancouver at Revolution and Universal has prepared me well," he said.

Also, the fact that he had a chance to train with fight guru Greg Jackson back in December can't hurt. It will be interesting to see if Kang, who likes to develop game plans for his fights, will employ a similar wrestling-based tactic that found St. Pierre so much success.

Not looking past Mousasi, though, Kang mentioned Akiyama as the fighter he most wanted to face in the tournament. The storied judoka had to pull out of the field, however, after re-injuring his broken nose.

That narrative perhaps will have to wait for another time. The task at hand is the Dream middleweight grand prix.

"Well, I want to win of course, but I am taking it one fight at a time," Kang said. "I hope that this tournament gives me a chance to showcase all my skills by pitting me against different types of opponents."

His wish could come true. The tournament is filled with an eclectic range of fighting styles, though the evolution of the fight game is headed toward a convergence of styles that requires fighters to be well versed in all aspects of MMA.

On paper Kang looks to be the most well-rounded fighter in the field, which gives him an advantage on the competition. Add in the fact that he has had tremendous success in tournament formats and you have to start wondering if the stars are lining up for Kang once again.

Yet he is spare with his words. Like St. Pierre, Kang seems content to let his fists do the talking. This is vindication, Canadian style.
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