Over the years, kickboxers have taught MMA fighters how to strike, but fans often don't know much about kickboxing's history. This is the history of kickboxing as it relates to MMA.
For kickboxing, there is neither a universal fight database nor a comprehensive historical record, so I decided to create this article. I may not be the most knowledgeable person about kickboxing, but I have noticed that most kickboxing websites are seriously lacking in their knowledge of the history of the sport. This is partly due to the language barrier between English and Japanese, which is understandable, but people must realize that most media members are unaware of kickboxing's origins.
With this article, I hope to change the standard of knowledge for kickboxing history. I have done a lot of research, but due to the lack of record keeping and history books, some facts may be omitted. However, I believe that this article will be much more detailed than those found on any English website.
The sport began in Japan and I am Japanese, so therefore I must admit that this is heavily written from a Japanese viewpoint.
Kickboxing was born when Nihon kenpo karate practitioner Tatsuo Yamada became interested in Muay Thai. He wanted karate to become a sport. In 1962, he held his first karate sports event. Also that year, boxing promoter Osamu Noguchi became impressed when he watched a Muay Thai event. He wanted to hold a karate vs. Muay Thai event and discussed it with Yamada and Masutatsu Oyama.
In 1963, the Oyama Dojo sent three fighters to Bangkok, Thailand: Kenji Kurosaki, Tadashi Nakamura and Akio Fujihira. Only one karate fighter, Kurosaki, lost there, but he later became a great contributor as a coach for kickboxing.
Kurosaki is a father of Dutch kickboxing. In 1966, he went to Holland by invitation of Jon Bluming, who was a student of Kurosaki and also taught many students in Holland. Under Kurosaki and Bluming's teaching and influence, coaches in Holland learned kickboxing skills.
Coach Jan Plas (Mejiro Gym) later taught Remy Bonjasky and Andy Souwer. Thom Harinck (Chakuriki Gym) taught Peter Aerts, Hesdy Gerges and Badr Hari. Johan Vos (Vos Gym) taught Ernesto Hoost.
Kurosaki left Kyokushin and built Mejiro Gym. Jan Plas's Mejiro Gym in Holland is a branch of Mejiro Gym. The Japanese Mejiro Gym produced the most important talent in kickboxing history.
In 1966, the first kickboxing organization began in Japan, the Japan Kickboxing Federation. It started with Tatsuo Yamada's students and Tadashi Sawamura. Sawamura was the first star of Japanese kickboxing, but he was built up by promotional hype and was never able to beat the top-ranked Thai stadium fighters during his career.
In 1971, All Japan Kickboxing Association (AJKA) began. AJKA had stars with the greatest skill. Toshio Fujiwara began kickboxing at Mejiro Gym in Japan. Kurosaki's hard training regimen, coupled with Fujiwara's original footwork and clinchwork, made Fujiwara the AJKA champion and also the first foreign Rajadamnern champion. AJKA dissolved in 1981.
AJKA's successor, All Japan Kickboxing Federation (AJKF), began operations in 1987. AJKF brought in fighters from Europe including Maurice Smith, Rob Kaman, Vitali Klitschko (current world boxing champion) and many more. They also collaborated with pro wrestling companies like UWF International, Rings and Pancrase. Because the pro wrestling audience was large, AJKF became very popular.
However, it wasn't long before internal troubles and a new wave of independent organizations hurt the local Japanese kickboxing scene.
In 1985, Martial Arts Japan Kickboxing Federation (MA Kick) began to develop with fighters and gyms leftover from AJKF. By 1996, many gyms formerly belonging to AJKF were independent. They built a new organization named New Japan Kickboxing Federation (NJKF). In 1997, the kickboxing gym Active J became independent from AJKF and started the organization known as J-Network.
At the same time, local talent began to grow and started to have success. Atsushi Tateshima and Kensaku Maeda's rivalry started to boost kickboxing's popularity. Celebrities began talking about both fighters. AJKF's 70kg and under division developed interest among hardcore fans.
In 1984, organized MMA began with Shooto. This inspired one man, Tomofumi "Caesar Takeshi" Murata, who wanted to make a new sport that combined elements of MMA and kickboxing. Murata is a former kickboxer at the Japan Kickboxing Federation who taught at UWF. He had grappling experience with pro wrestlers. Murata built "Shoot Boxing" in 1985.
Shoot boxing uses kickboxing rules, but also gives points for throws and permits standing submissions. This allows many MMA fighters to compete and have success. Mark Hominick, Toby Imada, "Lion" Takeshi Inoue and Antonio Carvalho have all competed for Shoot Boxing.
Shoot boxing is best known for leading to Andy Souwer's run in K-1, but before he fought for K-1, Souwer made his name in the "S-Cup," which is the biggest tournament in Shoot Boxing. The S-Cup has included current MMA striking coach Hiromu Yoshitaka - who is responsible for Akitoshi Hokazono, Takashi Nakakura and many Osaka MMA fighters' striking - and Mohamed Ouali, who has assisted greatly with American Top Team's striking improvements.
While small, local kickboxing organizations continued to develop, major kickboxing organizations began. K-1 started in 1993 and its tournament format and frequent heavyweight knockouts charmed the audience. Some of the K-1 fighters were later invited to compete in MMA. Branko Cikatic, Mirko "Crocop" Filipovic, Ray Sefo, Peter Aerts, Mark Hunt and many others fought in MMA.
Nowadays, people know that Crocop changed the standard for MMA striking technique. Mark Hunt is currently on a winning streak in the UFC and Ray Sefo is a trainer at Xtreme Couture. By contrast, some fighters transitioned over to kickboxing after starting in MMA. Examples of such fighters include Semmy Schilt and, of course, Alistair Overeem.
K-1 also initially held lighter weight tournaments, K2 and K3, but they did not succeed.
While K-1 did not succeed right away with promoting the lower weight classes, the local Japanese kickboxing scene produced young prospects for the future. By 2000, K-1 began to have more success at promoting the lighter weights. The start of K-1's 70kg division largely came about because of "Masato's" appearance on the local scene. Masato Kobayashi was ambitious about turning kickboxing into a major sport. He became freelance after winning the AJKF championship and also started his own promotion, "Wolf Revolution."
Masato helped to develop the market for under-70kg fights by becoming the first Japanese K-1 champion. That market depended heavily upon his popularity, however, and it made for a severe conflict with the officiating in kickboxing. In the 2004 K-1 Max final, Masato faced Buakaw Por Pramuk. The fight was ruled a draw by the judges, but Masato had clearly lost. Masato did show drastic improvement in his boxing skill, though, and he was further helped when K-1 adjusted its rules to remove clinching.
At the same time, K-1 brought in talent from its parent MMA company, Hero's. Masato faced MMA fighters such as Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, Gesias "JZ" Cavalcante, Genki Sudo and Tatsuya Kawajiri, which gave Masato a celebrity status as the defender of K-1.
Local shows continued to feature lighter fighters who had not received an opportunity to compete for K-1 but wanted to elevate their divisons to a higher status. AJKF held 60kg tournaments. Toshio Fujiwara built his own gym after retiring and produced fighters like Masahiro Yamamoto and Hisanori Maeda, as well as Haruaki Otsuki, Satoshi Kobayashi (later in his career), Naoki Ishikawa, Genki Yamamoto, Shinobu Shiratori and more.
Meanwhile, NJKF had succeeded in building up its 60kg division with captivating fighters such as Tetsuya Yamato, Ryoichi "Rasyata" Sakiyama and Yohei Sakurai.
When K-1 Max charmed people and attracted a local hardcore audience with 60kg fights, K-1 heavyweights began to struggle to keep fans interested until the emergence of Bob Sapp. After fighting well against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira under MMA rules, Sapp was picked up by K-1 and matched up against Ernesto Hoost. His enormous physical force allowed him to stop Hoost even though his fighting style was not technical.
K-1 was clearly pleased with the powerful but not technical Sapp and he became very popular, though this was really more because he was a newcomer entering K-1. Sapp went on to face famous Yokozuka champion sumo wrestler Taro Akebono. He brutally knocked out Akebono, who had no clue about the striking game. Sapp did make an impact with that freak fight, but his record got worse as his career progressed. He lost to Mirko "Crocop" and Ray Sefo, but defeated Seth Petruzelli and Yoshihiro Nakao.
During this era, Remy Bonjasky and Akio "Musashi" Mori led the K-1 heavyweights. Neither was a strong finisher and the success of the events depended heavily upon knockouts. Therefore, K-1 relied more upon fighters with big frames and power than on ones with technical skill. The organization brought in former Ssireum (Korean Sumo wrestling) fighter Hong Man Choi. Besides winning some freak fights, he could not make an impact in the sport.
Fighters began to convert from MMA back to K-1. Semmy Schilt, who had a background in Daidojuku Karate, fought in MMA and then converted to kickboxing. Schilt used his big frame for clinch attacks but he also had skills outside of the clinch. His jab and front kick were important parts of his fighting style and they allowed him to stop the advance of opponents with a smaller reach. While he did not display great athleticism, Schilt's presence brought a new theme to the scene.
"Who can beat Schilt?" fans wondered.
Badr Hari and Alistair Overeem became known as answers to that question. Hari brought speed to the K-1 heavyweight division, while Overeem brought power. Overeem was also known for his career in MMA, but his striking skill is what really got him noticed. Especially when he KOed K-1's next star candidate, Hari.
Overeem's huge muscular body and striking pressure forced opponents to move backward, which is not as easy to do as in the lighter weight classes because it is harder to control one's balance at a heavier weight. Hari showed amazing speed for a heavyweight and a long reach; both of which he used against Semmy Schilt. Hari's speed allowed him to overcome his reach disadvantage and his defensive skill allowed him to avoid Schilt's jab en route to knocking Schilt out.
At 70kg, Masato decided to retire following his second win of the K-1 tournament. The organization needed to find new stars. They tried to make Yoshihiro Sato into a star, but they did not succeed even though his match with Masato was exciting. That forced K-1 to launch a 63kg division.
This led to the formation of K-1 Koshien. It was named after the Japanese high school baseball tournament, which is the most popular amateur sports event in Japan. K-1 Koshien produced Masaaki Noiri, Hiroya Kawabe, Kizaemon Saiga and others who helped to develop a deeper 63kg division.
Tetsuya Yamato won first K-1 Max 63kg Japan tournament
At the same time, under-63kg fighters never had a chance to compete for a major organization. Therefore, these fighters in Japan looked for a new challenge in Muay Thai. Muay Thai's most talented fighters have always belonged to the lighter weight classes because of Thai fighters' smaller average height.
One fighter known for challenging many Thai opponents was Arashi Fujiwara. He had no opposition in Japan at his natural weight (53kg), so he fought above his weight division like Hisanori Maeda. However, Fujiwara still could not beat the top-ranked Thai stadium fighters. No foreigner could beat the ranked Thai fighters until Genji Umeno knocked out Wutidej Lookprabaht with an elbow to become the first Japanese Lumpinee ranked competitor.
At last, Fight Entertainment Group (FEG) - which ran K-1 - can no longer promote any more events. They owe a considerable amount of money to fighters and are unable to pay. Many kickboxers now train MMA fighters instead. In Europe, Glory bought its main rival, It's Showtime, and now just one organization will run kickboxing.
We have already seen Mark Hunt knock out opponents in the UFC. If Alistair Overeem passes his drug tests, we may get to see a K-1 grand prix winner challenge a UFC champion. Of course, Overeem has had a much longer career in MMA, so such a fight would not be "MMA vs. Kickboxing," but fans and media will surely talk about his K-1 background if that day comes.
SKILL MMA's Japanese Martial Arts Gym (include many kick boxing gym) or Venue photo series
SKILL MMA's Japanese Kick Boxing / Muay Thai Scene Gym List
SKILL MMA's Japanese Kick Boxing / Muay Thai event list
Big thanks to Robert Sargent (from MMA Rising) for English editing.