Choi Wins K-1 Asian GP; Bonjasky Dispatches Mercer

Mar 21, 2005
SEOUL, March 19, 2005 -- Making big waves in his K-1 debut, Korean fighter Hong-Man Choi turned aside three opponents to win the Asian Grand Prix in Seoul. Choi picks up a shiny trophy and a check for ¥6 million (about US$55,000/45,000) with the victory, and becomes the first fighter in 2005 to qualify for the K-1 World GP Final Elimination tournament, set for Osaka this September.

Choi is a giant of a man, standing 218cm (7'2") and tipping the scales at 157kg (346lbs). A former Korean Sireum wrestling champion (a sport similar to Japanese sumo), Choi is a national hero in Korea, loved as much for his warm personality as his cool fighting style. In pre-tournament interviews, the big guy with the big smile singled out Jerome LeBanner as his K-1 role model. He also told the hundreds of journalists in attendance the he had worked extra hard on his boxing technique in preparation for this tournament and developed his kicks and fight strategy with one of the best, K-1 Seidokaikan star Nicholas Pettas of the Spirit Gym in Tokyo.

Where some gigantic fighters have been gigantic flops in K-1, Choi's combination of power, youth (he is but 23) and speed (for his size) proved a winning formula.

The tournament began with a bout between Qing Jun Zhang, who at just 18 years of age was the youngest participant; and Kaoklai Kaennorsing of Thailand, who won it all here last year to take the first K-1 Asia GP.

Zhang had been criticized for a lack of aggression in his decision win over Akebono last year, but here he rushed in from the bell with punches and low kicks. When a Kaoklai high kick missed midway through the first, Zhang was quick with an overhand counter. But Kaoklai remained calm, tossing enough kicks in to keep the first round even. In the second, Zhang was first in again, getting past with punches then working knees from the clinch, while Kaoklai looked less than sharp. Just seconds from the end of the round, Kaoklai launched a flying kick that rattled his opponent, but Zhang was saved by the bell. In the third, Kaoklai launched more attacks, and was quick on the counters to take a narrow but unanimous decision. The much improved Zhang need not be terribly disappointed, at this rate of development he clearly has the potential to do good things in K-1.

Korean Muay Thai fighter Myeon Ju Lee took on Hiraku Hori of Japan in the second bout. Lee is a former Korean Muay Thai Association Heavyweight Champion, but Team Dragon kickboxer Hori brought a 10cm (4") height and 10kg (25lb) weight advantage to this contest. Both of these fighters had struggled as of late, losing a combined five of their last six bouts.

This was a very good match, both fighters connecting early with plenty of straight punches, Hori the southpaw looking better with the high kicks. By midway through the bout, Lee was bleeding from the nose, and Hori seemed to be taking control. The Japanese fighter showed superior technique to continue his domination into the third -- but Lee, buttressed by the partisan crowd, bravely stood his ground, popping a right hook through late in the round to snap Hori's head back. But here and throughout, it was the Japanese fighter who controlled the distance and hence the fight.

And so it was Hori through to the semis with a unanimous decision -- a win all the more satisfying to witness when Hori pulled his arm away from the referee who had raised it in victory, and went over to warmly congratulate Lee.

The next matchup put former Sumo Grand Champion Akebono, representing Japan, in against Nobuaki Kakuda, a Japanese Seidokaikan master coming out of retirement for this fight.

Akebono desperately wanted to notch his first K-1 win after five consecutive defeats, but the muscular Kakuda, who turns 44 next month, looked in good shape and light on his feet. The first round was surprisingly eventful, Kakuda playing hit and run, Akebono repeatedly bulldozing his opponent into the ropes then bringing up the knees. It was during one such exchange that Akebono slipped a right punch in to score his first-ever down in K-1.

Although Kakuda tried to rally with punches, the 30 cm (11") height and 130kg (280lb) weight advantage were working for Akebono, who continued the push and punch attack in the second to score a second down, again with a right hook. Bulk and age took their toll, and the pace slowed considerably as the fight wore on -- the two men almost motionless by the end of the second.

In the third, Kakuda snapped some nice punches up toward Akebono's head, but the Sumo Champion weathered these, hanging on to take the win on points and earn a trip to the semis.

Choi's first-tier fight opponent was a Japanese Sumo wrestler, 38 year-old Wakashoyo, who made his entrance in a purple Japanese yukata. Choi got a much warmer reception when he strode into the ring wrapped in a bright red Korean han-bok gown.

The bout started with Wakashoyo pushing Choi back into the ropes and throwing punches. But Choi got the clinch to stymie the attack, and after the break, to the crowd's delight, reversed the momentum. The atmosphere in the arena was electric, and when Choi got a left through to score a down, it was rapturous. Wakashoyo kept on coming, but Choi was always better, and midway through the first he clocked his opponent with a right punch to the head to score a second down and advance to the semis.

The first of the semis saw Kaoklai school Hori. Early on, Hori grabbed an attacking Kaoklai leg and, as the Thai fighter fell, held on a little longer than expected. This visibly irritated Kaoklai, and we have seen before how dangerous it can be to get Kaoklai mad. From that point on this was a mean fight, Hori trying in vain to bear down on his opponent, Kaoklai relentlessly firing in the kicks. Near the end of the round, Kaoklai showed some skill with his fists, catching Hori with his guard down and swinging in a right to score a down.

In the second, Kaoklai stayed quick and light, several times ducking clear of Hori's high kicks, then smiling at his own evasive skill to further intimidate his opponent. In the third, Kaoklai fought with the finesse that has made him one of the best. So nimble was his footwork, so superior his evasive techniques that the Thai fighter kept his guard down the entire round, inviting Hori to come at him before punishing him with hard kicks. It was an easy call for the judges: Kaoklai through to the final.

The second semifinal was a dream showdown between two traditional wrestling masters -- Choi the Sireum Champion, Akebono the Sumo Champion. Thus far in his K-1 career, Akebono had grown accustomed to a break of several months between bouts, but due his win against Kakuda now he was back in the ring for an unprecedented second fight in a single night. How would he hold up against Choi, who had youth on his side, and the energy of the crowd to draw upon?

Not very well, as it happened. The bout started with the pair standing toe-to-toe, trading punches. Choi was delivering the better of these, looking particularly good with the left, and Akebono was forced to the defensive. The two went to the clinch twice, and when the fight resumed it was more of the same -- Choi using his reach, just a little better with the fists. As the round neared its midway point, it became evident that something was wrong with Akebono. The limping fighter looked toward his corner with pain etched on his face, and in a flash the towel came in to end the fight. Anti-climatic though it was, Choi had the win and a trip to the final. Akebono, it was later revealed, had aggravated an injury to the left shin suffered in his fight with Kakuda.

Wanna talk 'David and Goliath'? Well, the final was about as 'David and Goliath' as it gets, Choi more than doubling Kaoklai's weight and towering a full 38cm (1'3") above the Defending Champion. If that wasn't enough, Choi was relatively fresh here, having fought scarcely two minutes on the night, whereas Kaoklai had logged a full six full rounds.

The fight was something of a physics experiment. It began with Choi planting himself center-ring, clamping his right fist to his chin and extending his left; and Kaoklai circling, looking for a way to chop that tree down.

The first thing Kaoklai tried was darting in with low kicks, but despite his best efforts he could not get under Choi's reach to connect with the Korean's legs, as Choi proved more than capable at backing out of harm's way, With Kaoklai's low kicks arcing harmlessly through the air, the first round was scored even on all cards. Kaoklai adapted a strategy of charge-and-clinch in the second, but Choi would have none of it, and used raw strength to peel Kaoklai off his torso then put in punches. Kaoklai did manage, somehow, to leap up and score with a dandy high kick here, but it must be said that Choi was better with his graceless mauling, and he started to take the lead.

In the third, Choi was more aggressive, pounding Kaoklai with his fists and working the knees from the clinch, while Kaoklai picked up a yellow card for excessive retreating. Soon afterward, almost comically, Kaoklai took to blindly tossing punches up toward Choi's head from the clinch, but it was becoming increasingly evident that the Thai wunderkind was just not going to get it done against a fighter of Choi's size and power. Both fighters laughed frequently as this one wore down, with the crowd equally enjoying their hometown hero's dominance and Kaoklai's valiant attempts to overcome it.

One judge liked Choi after three, but the other two saw a draw, so the fight went to an extra round. Kaoklai finally connected with a low kick here, and got nice contact with a right to the head -- but, again, Choi's smothering attacks were effective enough, he was able to corral his opponent into the corner then let fly with the punches and knees, leaving Kaoklai little choice but to duck out and run away.

At the end of it all, and while neither fighter had inflicted a whole lot of damage on the other, judges had to pick a winner and went with Choi. And once again, the crowd went wild.

"I want to thank my coach and all my fans," the emotionally overwhelmed Choi said afterward, "this fighting has made me hungry, let's all go eat!"

There were also three Superfights on the card:

Defending K-1 World Grand Prix Champion Remy Bonjasky of the Netherlands stepped in against former HBO Heavyweight Champion boxer Ray "Merciless" Mercer of the United States.

You had to like Mercer entering the ring to the music of classic Public Enemy, which sounded as edgy here as it did when it was recorded 20 years ago. But Bonjasky, "The Flying Gentleman," won the retro playoff, waltzing to the accompaniment of Ennio Morricone's soundtrack music for the 1966 film "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."

Alas, this fight was nether good, nor bad, nor ugly: It was, one could say, a 'non-fight.' The bell sounded, the pair moved toward one another, dancing a little, and then the first strike -- a Bonjasky high kick -- caught Mercer fully on the left side of his head. The American stepped back, and it was clear from the fog in his eyes that there was no reason to let him continue. Disappointing as it was for the crowd, the referee made the correct decision by calling this one off right after the standing count, as to let the dazed Mercer continue meant flirting with serious injury. A KO win for Bonjasky at just 22 seconds of round one.

"I am disappointed that it was over so quickly, because I wanted to show fans more," said Bonjasky in his post-fight interview. "But it was a direct hit, and a good hit, but I can't help that!"

Three-time K-1 World Grand prix champion Peter Aerts of the Netherlands took on Carter Williams of the United States in another highly-anticipated Superfight. The 2003 K-1 USA Champion, Williams was confident that he could use this bout to get his K-1 career back on track after some recent setbacks. "I'm a next-generation fighter," said Williams pre-fight," you will see, the American Hurricane is going to come through with fists of fury!"

Aerts worked the low kicks in the first, trying to wear down Williams' left leg, while the American frequently led with the left punch, but could not put the combinations together against his opponent. In the second Williams was more aggressive, working the hard low kicks to effect. It was close heading into the third, and it is hard to see how either fighter would have figured they were ahead, yet neither did a whole lot here to try and outscore their opponent. In the end it was a good technical fight, which showed Williams as a maturing fighter. However, being ten years younger than Aerts, one might have expected Williams to turn up the heat in the late going, which he did not do -- where were the "fists of fury"? The judges saw a draw, and so the bout went to a tiebreaker round.

Here again the exchanges were fairly even, but Aerts caught a bit of a break when a routine-looking attack set Williams to stumbling backward awkwardly. For a moment Williams looked to have twisted his ankle, in any case he was unable to fight and so was assessed a standing count. This proved the difference on the scorecards -- call it experience over youth if you like, anyway Aerts got the trophy.

The third Superfight saw behemoths Semmy Schilt of the Netherlands and Montanha Silva of Brazil lock horns. This one was over just about a minute into the first round, when Schilt put a low kick in to throw Silva off balance, then deftly followed it up with a left hook for the KO.

In the tournament reserve fight, tough guy Tatsufumi Tomihira of Japan got a high kick up and then put the knees in to score two first-round downs and record the win against Min Ki Kang of Korea. In an undercard fight, Yong Seok Ko of Korea beat compatriot Jong Man Kim by majority decision.

Since K-1's first foray to Seoul last July, the sport's popularity has rocketed in Korea. Pop singing star Hye-Seong Shin sang the Korean national anthem during splashy opening ceremonies, which also featured a special ring appearance by K-1 star Ray Sefo and a novel dancing kata display by a group of local Taekwondo kids.

The K-1 Asian Grand Prix 2005 attracted 15,918 fans to the Olympic Gymnasium in Seoul. The event was broadcast in Korea on MBC ESPN; in Japan on the Fuji TV Network; and in North America on inDemand, DirecTV, and TVN (at 9 p.m. EST on Sunday March 20). For those in other regions, please check with your local broadcasters for scheduling.

You can find the official results here: www.so-net.ne.jp/feg/k-1gp/top645.htm. For an overview of the World Grand Prix 2005 format, see the K-1 Official Website: www.so-net.ne.jp/feg/k-1gp/stop.htm)
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