The Istanbul crowd was on its feet at Ulker Arena, at the start of the GLORY 15 light heavyweight final between hometown hero, Gokhan Saki and Tyrone Spong last Saturday night (April 12, 2014) in Turkey. Chants of "Saki, Saki, Saki," were yelled in resounding unison, Turkish flags were on display and loud cheers for the hometown hero were at a fever pitch as the No. 1 and No. 2 of the division squared off in the center of the ring.
Hell, even the Hell's Angels Turkey Chapter was on hand to see this rematch -- more than five years in the making -- between their guy and the man he knocked out in 2009, the No. 1-ranked light heavyweight Spong.
See the full GLORY 15 results and play-by-play here.
For the first minute the fight was looking to turn into an instant classic with neither man backing down and Spong shoving his forearms and hands in Saki's face during several of the clinches. It was Alpha vs. Alpha for the right to be crowned GLORY's inaugural light heavyweight king and the fans were eating every bit of it up.
"There was bad blood between the two guys because if you'd seen earlier in the fight, you could see the intensity when Spong got up in his face and look, I said 'keep your hand out of his face. Be respectful of the man,'" referee Al Wichgers told MMAmania.com the next morning.
"Turkish Tyson" had advanced to the final after delivering one of his patented left hooks, aka the "Saki-Bomb" to Nathan Corbett's left ear, busting it open and stopping the fight to earn the first round finish, while Spong went three full rounds to win by unanimous decision over Saulo Cavalari to punch his ticket to the final.
"Yes, my first match finished in the first round after like two and a half minutes, and he fought for three rounds. Obviously I had the advantage," Saki told MMAmania.com at the post-fight press conference. "Even with that, I started the match quite cautiously and I didn't want to press on early. Knowing that he might start to press early on, so I was cautious."
The two combatants had landed a few strikes on each other, but nothing yet significant as Galatasaray Soccer Club chants were raining down from the Ulker Arena crowd. Then, at around the halfway point of the round, Spong threw an outside leg kick that Saki deftly blocked with his knee, drastically changing the course of the night's events.
Unfortunately for Spong, this would spell the end of his evening as he fell to the floor incapacitated by pain, anguish and shock from breaking his lower leg.
See the photos gallery here.
The Istanbul crowd had began to cheer when Spong went down, but when they realized he was injured and they immediately quieted to a hush. Saki knew what had happened and put his hands on his head in disbelief, never once raising them in celebration of his victory. The Turkish fighter then -- in an overwhelming and incredible showing of sportsmanship -- walked over to Spong and embraced him before referee Al Wichgers had waved off the fight.
There he stayed with the man he was just exchanging punches and kicks with only seconds earlier. Suddenly it was like the two were close friends. The compassion and understanding of what his opponent was going through, the knowledge of the commitment of what it takes to prepare oneself for a fight at this level, let alone a one-night tournament, and the recovery that would now be in store for Spong was written on Saki's face while he stayed with the fallen fighter.
As gruesome as the sight of seeing Spong's leg break over Saki's knee was, what followed was one of the most beautiful scenes that sports can offer. One human being caring for another, and the sport itself, for that moment becoming insignificant.
"In the ring we fight like gladiators, but at the end we want to see -- even when you knockout someone -- that he is in good health after that," the retired heavyweight Remy Bonjasky told MMAmania.com at The Suadiye Cafe on Sunday morning. "Within the rules you want to show the audience that you are the better fighter, but you don't want to injure your opponent for life. It's heartwarming that Saki showed that he is a good sportsman. A lot of sports can learn from that."
"For him to go down and do what he did was just a major show of sportsmanship," Wichgers said in admiration. "Saki should've went to the corner, but out of respect he went over there any way realizing the fight was done."
The veteran ISKA referee, who has seen this particular type of injury "three times" now in his career, said he had "never" seen anything like Saki's heartwarming gesture toward Spong. That being said, he took umbrage with the crowded scene in the ring that immediately followed.
"I'll tell you the biggest thing that went wrong," he opined. "All the people that got into the ring. You know what? Leave the man alone. Let the doctor come in. Make sure the fellow is alright first, stabilize him. The mother came in. The corners came in. You have to be respectful of the fighter because he's the guy that's injured. Take care of him first."
Spong was strapped to a stretcher and taken by ambulance to Marmara University Hospital. From there, after having the leg casted, he would sign a medical release to leave, since he wished to return home to Florida. The Dutch-Surinamese fighter later returned to Hotel Suadiye in Istanbul, where he was staying and then left with his good friend, UFC light heavyweight Rashad Evans for the Alaturk Airport early the next morning.
Due to his condition, Spong was turned down by British Airways, but was eventually accepted by Turkish Airlines to head back on an early afternoon flight to the U.S. He has since had successful surgery on his leg, but there is no telling how long his recovery will be, or if he will ever be the same fighter he was before the injury.
Saki, who told reporters he wished he and Spong had a "better match so that the viewers could enjoy it more,"
said he was "really sorry" for the injured fighter because he was "going to lose some precious time." The pride of Turkey then revealed the conversation he and Spong had in the ring following the injury.
"I went to him and he asked me 'Did I break my leg?' and I said yes, but just stay calm, and everything is going to be fine," the GLORY light heavyweight champion told MMAmania.com.
An asterisk will no doubt be placed on Saki's victory due to the fight's conclusion and the injury to Spong not allowing the fight to continue. Pundits will no doubt, speculate as to what would have occurred had the fight went on, and if Saki actually deserves to be the champion, especially since the fight was even, prior to the Turkish fighter's knee check wreaking havoc on Spong's leg.
"I don't care what people say," Saki said with conviction and without translation to MMAmania.com. "Always, if I win it's not good. If I lose it's not good. I win and I know, when I'm busy like this, I'm the best kickboxer in the world."
GLORY matchmaker and head of talent operations, Cor Hemmers, chimed in on the matter to clarify that Saki's win was not a fluke.
"People forget sometimes, that a block is also a technique and it's about timing and things like that," he said. "When you block at the right moment it's very effective. He made a good block, his timing was good, Spong kicks very hard and this is the outcome."
Saki's head trainer Mike Passenier explained the technique to MMAmania.com after the conclusion of the press conference, and how it is designed defend against low leg kicks and deter opponents from throwing them.
"Listen, if somebody has a nasty low kick, normally it's a normal check," the veteran trainer explained. "Sometimes you have to short check. If you have to short check, it means you check with your knee. It becomes a big bruise most of the time, so you won't kick for like one minute. Sometimes you can break a leg, or you can break a bone, and that's what happened."
"I have seen it a couple of times," Bonjasky said about the injury to Spong. "You make a thousand low kicks, but it can happen to anyone. What happened is one of the things of the sport. It doesn't happen very often, but it still happens. It hurts because he is one of the star fighters and he is a good guy and he loves the sport. You don't want someone to experience this. It's terrible for him, because it will maybe take more than a half year or year to recover from that. You are going to see what it is going to do to him mentally because he has been through a rough time. He lost two dear friends and now this, it's a really tough time for him."
The other topic of conversation was Saki's drop to the light heavyweight division after fighting at heavyweight and the majority of the time being undersized against his opponents.
How was he feeling after fighting twice in one night in his new weight class?
"I feel good. I feel good. I don't have problems to lose weight," he told MMAmania.com as Passenier and his other coaches began to laugh. "My coaches are going to laugh. One here, one there. So one or two days, I have the feeling that this is not my weight. That is part of the game. Today, you see I feel good. I think I was faster now that I'm not as heavy. I showed it."
Passenier, who said he was laughing at Saki's remarks because "sometimes he needs to drop three or four kilos and he comes in two kilos heavier," always wanted his fighter to compete at light heavyweight, feeling it was more suited for his skill set rather than going up against opponents who always outweighed him by a significant margin.
"From the moment he came into the gym I said listen, 'why don't you be a light heavyweight?'" he said. "I didn't understand this one, because like I say, 'you are too good of a fighter to last at heavyweight,' because heavyweight fighting is a different kind of fighting.
It has nothing to to with fighting anymore, it has to do with pressure and how you put the pressure. And always they are at least eight kilos over him. Sometimes 10, sometimes 15, sometimes 20 or 30 kilos over him and he has to stand there. And then, okay, we did good against all these guys we fought but I said 'we can do so much better and in light heavyweight -- like tonight -- they were all good fighters; all six were good and you see the difference."
Saki improves to 7-2 under the GLORY banner and 81-16 (1 NC) overall, while Spong drops to 6-2 in the promotion and 91-6 overall. Formerly ranked at No. 1, he now drops to No. 2 behind Danyo Ilunga, who won by technical knockout over Andrei Stoica earlier in the evening.
Hemmers said Ilunga did a "good job" but he wasn't willing to commit to any names for Saki's first opponent just yet, saying, "Well I think we first let him enjoy winning the championship. I have my thoughts about his challenger already, but I will keep that to myself and we will discuss internally."
"The Rebel's" first title defense will likely take place in another city besides Istanbul, as Hemmers reminded the media that Saki, along with any GLORY title holder has "an obligation to defend his title within the year" which would be before the promotion's return to Turkey's largest city. "That is what I expect," he said.
The match may have been marred by the injury to Spong, but the night belonged to Saki. The crowd -- who remained concerned and respectful of their hero's downed opponent -- adorned their native fighter with cheers as GLORY chairman Pierre Andurand and Hemmers presented him with the $200,000 winner's prize and wrapped the brand new light heavyweight championship belt around his waist.
So what did the newest GLORY champion say he would be looking forward to the most before he heads back into training?
"Man, it was so hard for me to diet down to this weight," he said. "I had to be so careful with my diet and with the amounts I could eat. So I think now I am going to McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, I am going to have them all on one plate!"
Before the final against Spong, he was draped in the Turkish flag, when he left the post-fight press conference room in the bowels of Ulker Arena he was draped in his new light heavyweight belt.
Anyone who witnessed GLORY 15 will never forget what happened to Spong's leg in the tournament final. Hopefully, those same viewers remember the humility and sportsmanship that was displayed afterward. On this night Saki's heart was stronger than his left hook and the sport of kickboxing has become greater for it.