In the halcyon days of kickboxing, the Heavyweight division was loaded with fighter after legendary fighter. Sure, there were still plenty of talented kickboxers among the other divisions, but for the most part, when the big guys were throwing down, the other divisions ceased to exist. The K-1 Heavyweight World Grand Prix tournaments --a must watch at that particular time -- were stacked with all the monsters of the division, and that era is still spoken about in reverent tones to this very day.
When GLORY kickboxing began, several legends were nearing their last hurrah, and at GLORY 4 Japan, back in 2012, a 16-man tournament took place with Semmy Schilt, an icon of the sport, winning it all. Among the pool of talent were Peter Aerts, Remy Bonjasky, Daniel Ghita, Gokhan Saki, Errol Zimmerman and a young, 23-year-old up-and-comer named Rico Verhoeven. Schilt would best Brice Guidon by knockout in the opening round, Verhoeven by decision in the quarterfinals, Saki by decision in the semis, and Ghita by technical knockout in the final, to capture the Grand Slam Tournament crown.
Fast forward four years to 2016 and Verhoeven (49-10), who hasn't lost in GLORY since that night in Japan, is the current reigning GLORY Heavyweight king, having defended his title five consecutive times since winning it after defeating Ghita at GLORY: "Last Man Standing" in June of 2014. The Dutch champion has no equal in the entire sport. He's unequivocally the baddest man in all the land. It goes without saying that the interest in kickboxing has waned considerably in recent years, but GLORY has not stopped pushing the boulder and continues to exhaust itself with the undying hope the sport will finally catch fire and gain the mass appeal of boxing and mixed martial arts (MMA) in North America.
On Saturday (December 10, 2016), GLORY seeks to rekindle the fire from the sport's heyday with GLORY: COLLISION, which pits Verhoeven against Badr Hari (106-12), the notorious bad boy of kickboxing, in the main event of a four-fight main card available on pay-per-view. Prior to that card will be GLORY 36 and the GLORY 36 Superfight Series, and a total of 14 fights for the day.
Said GLORY CEO Jon J. Franklin when the headlining fight was announced back in July: "We are excited to bring this fight to the fans. This is the one they wanted. We wanted it too and so did Rico and Badr."
Hari set the wheels in motion for the highly-touted fight after releasing a target list with several fighter's names on his Instagram page last year, including Verhoeven's. The champion responded to it in an interview on Dutch TV saying he would, indeed, welcome the fight with Hari. The seeds were planted, the fans were begging for it to happen and GLORY put together arguably the biggest heavyweight fight in the sport's history.
"That's what we do," Verhoven told MMAMania. "Every time we raise the limits, make it bigger and push it to the next level."
Verhoeven, 27, didn't have to take this fight, which will be a very dangerous one. He could've continued to take on all comers in the division, but there just haven't been any. Verhoeven dominated Anderson Silva at GLORY 33, winning by TKO in the second round. Prior to that he cruised to a unanimous decision over Mladen Brestovac at GLORY 28, won a unanimous decision over Benjamin Adegbuyi (who he now trains with) at GLORY 22, and knocked Adegbuyi out in the first round of their rematch at GLORY 26. The last time he had a decent challenge was in the first round against Errol Zimmerman at GLORY 19, but Zimmerman suffered a knee injury in the second and couldn't continue.
Was a pivotal matchup against Hari an itch he felt he had to scratch to truly test himself?
"Not really," he said, in a rather matter-of-fact tone. "For me, this is just another thing--not really on the bucket list--but the fans were asking for the fight, so why not make it happen. In the end, the fans make the sport. If the fans are asking for something and we can make that possible, why don't we?"
GLORY color commentator and former Welterweight champion, "Bazooka Joe" Valtellini is of the mind that a challenge like Hari, is necessary in order for Verhoeven to cement his legacy and standing in the sport.
"To be honest, I think he actually needed a fight like this," Valtellini said. "For him there is always going to be … Badr Hari, you gotta understand, is a huge name in this sport and he’s dominated the popularity. Even not fighting, I would put him as still one of the most popular kickboxers in the world. He hasn’t been an active kickboxer in a while and Rico has been active. Badr still has that huge name and forever, no matter what time, every time Rico would fight, you would look on the posts and comments and everyone was like, ‘oh he’s lucky Badr is not fighting. He’s lucky. He’s luck there’s no Badr.’ So, I think he really has to … If he is going to solidify himself as one of the best heavyweight kickboxers in history, he’s got to take this fight and he’s gotta win it."
Verhoeven continued to downplay the matchup saying: "For me, nothing special. In the end, he's just another human being with two arms and two legs. I know for the people outside the sport, 'It's Badr. It's Badr.' But for me, he's just a guy."
Just another guy? Certainly Hari is more than just another guy, as he makes up one half of the biggest heavyweight kickboxing matchup in years. When pressed, the champion backed off the "just a guy" comments, but only slightly.
"Of course, he's been that guy, but now I'm that guy," Verhoeven proudly said "Yeah, he fought everybody and he put up some good fights and I respect him for that. In the end, he's still a guy with two arms and two legs in kickboxing qualities. I've got the same thing. I'm a natural heavyweight and yeah, let's see what he brings to the table. Now I'm on that level or even higher. I'm on a different level than I was years ago. Of course, when you are younger and you were watching K-1 you were like, 'Oh shit, those were some good fights.' Now I'm older and I'm putting on good fights myself and I'm elevating this sport to the next level. For me now, he's just another guy."
At the GLORY: 'COLLISION' introductory press conference last month in Amsterdam, Netherlands, the head games began when instead of squaring off with Verhoeven for the fans in attendance, Hari stormed off the dais and left the arena.
"If that was a thing of getting in my head, it didn't really work," Verhoeven scoffed. The champion also made note that day that Hari, who hasn't fought since August of 2015 (a third round technical knockout win over Isamel Londt in Akmat Fight Show in Grozny, Russia) saying, "You can't prepare for a top guy like me in just four months."
Hari has gotten into fights at press conferences before. One of the more notable ones happening back in 2014 with Peter Graham for the GFC promotion. Todd Grisham brought that up in a pre-fight interview, prompting Hari to say, "So maybe that's why it was a good reason not to face [off with] him."
Most fighters can easily view a fight as a sportsman, as competition, but not Hari. For him, it's always personal. With how he speaks on fighting, it's almost as if each bout may as well be a street fight.
"I'm an emotional guy," Hari said "I see everything personally. He sees it as a sport and just a game. For me it's not a game it's all about survival. And it's all about being strong. It's about your name. It's more than just a fight. I"m just a guy, who goes all in. It's more than just a fight. Every fight … Every opponent is like my enemy. I need to hurt him. I need to hurt him very bad. There is no time for being friends."
The narrative for this fight is the age-old classic, good guy vs. bad guy, or if you prefer, hero vs. villain. Verhoeven does everything the right way and has had a squeaky clean career thus far. Hari is the exact opposite. He possesses the bad reputation with a rap sheet to back it up, having been arrested multiple times for assault charges and serving jail time as well. Most recently, he spent six months in prison for a 2014 assault conviction. His illegal troubles have impeded his fighting career, which includes an "It's Showtime" Heavyweight title and wins over Gokhan Saki, Alistair Overeem, Semmy Schilt, and Peter Aerts.
"In the end, that's what makes the hype," Verhoeven said. "Every movie and just in life, it's always good vs. bad. That's what's creating this madness around this fight, but in the end it's just a fight."
In many ways this fight bridges the gap between the old days when the heavyweight division was at its peak and now, where it's Verhoeven and no one even remotely close to being second. It's a matchup of old-school against new-school. Hari, who never won a K-1 Heavyweight World Grand Prix, also told Grisham had Verhoeven fought in one he would not have won it either. It's a dream matchup, with both sides eager to prove they are the best heavyweight on the planet. The challenger has nothing but disdain for the current GLORY champion and you won't hear respectful words coming out of his mouth any time soon. Hari can be dismissive all he wants, but facts are facts, and Verhoeven has certainly beaten his share of tough opponents on the way to the top of the mountain, with wins over Zimmerman, Saki and a pair of wins over Ghita as well.
"I've beaten everybody," said Verhoeven, who is now 12-1 in GLORY competition. "I've been in the ring with all of those guys. Guys that were knocking people out--like Errol. That's what they try to create, 'everything he hits falls over.' In the end, he's just another guy. Same with Errol; same with Benny [Adegbuyi]; Same with [Mladen] Brestovac; same with Badr. They are just humans that love to do this sport of kickboxing and I love it to. Let's see who is the best. At the end of the day I think that's most important. And we are going to put on a good show for the fans and the people."
It's a safe assumption that Hari will be charging forward toward Verhoeven as soon as the bell sounds for the opening round of their three-round non-title fight, and he will trying to unleash a bevy of punches on the champion in attempt to take him out early. "I always go for the knockout," Hari told Grisham in a pre-fight interview. "I like that. I go for the kill. I don't believe in second rounds."
That, of course, is what the champion will be expecting as well.
"Yeah, that's what he always does," Verhoeven said. "If you look at his fights and his style of fighting … He could start easy, but for how long? Maybe 20 seconds or 30 seconds. He's going to come out blazing one way or the other. I'm prepared for everything. So if he wants to make this--he probably doesn't--a point fight, he's going to lose. If he wants to make it a knockout fight, he's going to lose. In the end, he can turn it anyway he wants, but I'll be prepared for everything."
Valtellini said he "has a feeling" Hari will come out aggressive as well, but he thinks Hari and his coach, "Big Mike" Passenier should try a different approach against the champion.
"If I was 'Big Mike' and Badr, I wouldn’t come out as aggressive as people are expecting," the former GLORY welterweight champion said. "I think Badr should be a little bit more patient and respect the talent of Rico and kind of set his shots a little bit more. I don’t think he needs to be as aggressive as people are expecting him [to be]. For Badr, pace himself and then try to use his power later in the first and into the second round. Try not to let all that power go in the first round."
Verhoeven, who has only 13 career knockouts on his record, has been incessantly criticized for his lack of stoppages throughout his career, yet he has continued to dominate the field of competition. The Dutch champion's knockout percentage may be low at 28 percent, but that doesn't mean he doesn't possess any power, and it surely doesn't mean he doesn't possess a chin either. Verhoeven isn't looking to change his style, which has been a model of consistency, just so he can get more knockouts or to please anyone else.
"Heavyweights have knockout power," said Verhoeven, who recently launched a new cologne called "Perseverance" as well as an apparel line. "It doesn't matter which way you try to turn it. Every heavyweight that hits you, you just go down and you can be well skilled or less skilled, it doesn't matter. If you make a mistake, or drop your hand and a heavyweight clips you with a good shot, you go down. No point in discussion. For me, I always try to focus on the technical game. I always go for the 'W' first and then try to finish it as nice as possible. That is the way I approach this sport. People can think about that whatever they want. I don't care. I just care about winning."
And winning is something Verhoeven has done quite often these last few years. Other than the aforementioned loss to Schilt at GLORY 4 in 2012, the champion has suffered only one other defeat since then, a decision loss to Andrey Gerasimchuk in January of 2015. It was a fight he took outside of GLORY at Kunlun Fight 15 in Nanjing, China. Verhoeven performed poorly, but his head simply wasn't in it due to his wife Jacky being home in the Netherlands, pregnant with their youngest daughter, Jazlynn.
Hari represents the biggest challenge Verhoeven has had in a very long time and it's a fight that he absolutely has to win. A loss in a landmark fight on the biggest card in GLORY's history would be beyond devastating for the champion.
"There is so much to lose," Valtellini said. "Rico has a lot to lose in this fight, where I think Badr, it’s more of a win-win for him. One, he’s getting his name back on fighting the top guys in the division, but if he loses there are so many things he can come back and say: He hasn’t been active. Maybe things were going on in his life. I think Rico has a lot more to lose, but also a lot more to gain. I think it’s a tougher situation for Rico."
"Yeah, of course," Verhoeven said, agreeing he has much more to lose than Hari. "But for me, that scenario isn't even in my head. There is no point of thinking or talking about losing because it's not going to happen, man."
Meanwhile, Hari, who already predicted a knockout that will set up a rematch for the title when he spoke at the GLORY: COLLISION press conference last month, is convinced it's going to be his day in the sun in Oberhausen on Saturday.
"I'm going to neutralize him and I'm going to see everything coming," said Verhoeven. "So, he will not hit me. I will not get hit like he hits all his other opponents. They are all sitting ducks and that's just not me. That is the main reason [I will win]."
"He will be hit," Hari told Grisham. "You can only not be hit if you are invisible. He's not invisible. He's standing in front of me, so he will be hit."
Regardless of pre-fight trash talk, both fighters are well aware of the enormity and significance of this fight they are about to have at GLORY: COLLISION. It's a fight the sport of kickboxing and kickboxing fans have longed for and one that will garner attention from all points around the globe.
"That's what we see here in Europe," said Verhoeven. "People that weren't really following kickboxing are into kickboxing now. 'Hey this is going to be huge and it's a huge fight coming up.' This is what we wanted. At least, what I wanted to happen to this sport. To get recognized. The magnitude of this fight is huge. Wherever you go. If you go to the bakery, or you go to the supermarket. There are people standing and going crazy about this fight and want to talk to you, 'the fight coming up. Are you ready? How are you feeling? You look good.' All those things and it's getting me excited."
"This reminds me of the old K-1," said "Big Mike" Passenier, Hari's coach for the last 11 years. "In K-1 there was always one big fight. If these two guys end up meeting each other, than you know it's about to go down. And now it's a different format, but the same thing, Badr is fighting Rico, something is going down. Saturday we will see what happens."
You'd be hard pressed to find someone to argue with you that should Verhoeven win, he'd be considered an all-time great and one of the best heavyweight kickboxers ever. Not that he isn't one of the greats already, but a win over Hari would undoubtedly cement his legacy within the annals of the sport.
Verhoeven says he will leave that up to the fans to decide.
"I think that is up to the fans, not up to me," he said. "Like I said, what I do is I perform and I've always have performed on the highest level. And I try to test myself every time in whatever way that is possible. That is the only thing that I can do. And then It's up to them to decide to say I'm the best or whatever they say. Maybe they will come up with a new challenge for me. I'm ready for everything.
"I enjoy them so much. And I love all the fans, the haters, the fans that support me. In the end, it all fuels you up and gets you ready to go the gym and perform. Because without them, we're nothing. It's been an awesome road. Like I said, I've been on a roller coaster and I've been really enjoying myself. Now, one of the biggest fights coming up. Let's see what's going to happen."
Whatever happens inside Konig Pilsener Arena, and no matter who wins, history will be made in Oberhausen, Germany on Saturday. Kickboxing fans can hardly wait for the biggest fight GLORY has ever put together: Rico Verhoeven vs. Badr Hari for heavyweight kickboxing supremacy.
It's a fight the sport has been longing for and one that it desperately needed.