Badr Hari returned to the world of kickboxing after roughly one year away from the sport, fighting Tony Gregory on the It's Showtime card yesterday in Lyon, France. In a world in which K-1 reigns supreme, this may not have been as hyped an event as one would imagine, but in the current climate in which kickboxing is fading from the combat sports' conscious due to K-1's financial woes -- Hari's return was met with vigor and excitement from a fanbase craving destruction.
At no point during the main event introduction on Saturday did Tony Gregory look to be a threat to the great Badr Hari. His entrance was filled with a stoic, nonchalant demeanor, absent of any signs of worry on his expressionless face. But most fans knew of his impending doom. Hari, after all, was the destroyer of hope for many of K-1's best heavyweight fighters.
As the cameras in Lyon, France panned over the crowd to a lighted tunnel that Hari was about to walk out from, the crowd stampeded to the entrance, phones and cameras raised into the air to catch a glimpse of kickboxing's bad boy. Hari walked out into the crowd of onlookers with an angry, determined look on his face. Gregory must have stolen something from Hari, and Hari was about to make him pay for his crime.
Chaos ensued as the crowd pushed the guard rails that impeded their progress toward the cleared area surrounding the ring. Every fan in the arena was angling for a better view of the action, making the scene ringside look like Mike Tyson was about to enter the ring. As Hari skinned himself of his clothing and walked toward the center of the ring, Tony Gregory's eyes saddened. The intimidating shadow of Badr Hari had already won him the fight before it had even started, an attribute that many fighters in combat sports can't say is in their arsenal of tricks.
Gregory ran around the ring, trying to avoid the awesome power of Hari's attacks. The fight was comical from the get go as Gregory ducked, dived, and dodged massive uppercuts and overhands, falling to the floor on multiple occasions despite never being hit or eating a glancing blow. Gregory was never cleaned hit with a monstrous shot from Hari, but the referee had seen enough action. Gregory was overwhelmed by Hari's aggressiveness, perhaps being unfairly shown the door even when a few knockdowns were caused by Hari's forward progress and massive frame. But we all knew what the outcome would have been... Gregory laid out on the canvas as Hari raised his hands in victory.
The fight itself wasn't the major story however. Hari's inevitable return to the sport and the need for a figure to popularize the sport once again go hand in hand. Hari has been called a revolutionary, a bedlamite, a villian, and a disgusting human being by a broad range of fans. Some love to hate him, other love to watch him fight, and a few simply want to see his criminal ways exit the sport. Despite his out-of-the-ring brushes with the law, his popularity as a fighter is still intact.
The question to be asked is whether Hari's status as a heel, a man who people want to watch whether they love him or hate him, can help grow the sport in the United States. It's Showtime's new deal with HDNet could be the beginning of a movement to raise the bar for kickboxing in terms of interest. Hari has all the key attributes that can draw fans to a fight. He's exciting to watch, an imposing figure inside the ring, and has the image of a bad boy that is intriguing to fans. He has a demeanor that mimics the "everyone is out to get me" attitude of a Nick Diaz, but he does turn off some of the fans that want to see a professional represent the sport. Hari embody that type of representative.
In my mind, kickboxing has some other issues that are more prominent. There is the idea that the sport has never truly replaced its popular, yet aged veterans. We've seen countless K-1 Grand Prix events over the years with the same names lining the roster. There is also the issue of kickboxing becoming popular in the North American market, a continent that has seen exponential growth of mixed martial arts. If It's Showtime wants a piece of the pie, it will need to prove it can grow and live for a number of years in the market. Whether or not HDNet's reach can provide a foundation for that growth is to be determined.
Is Badr Hari the man to make the happen? My gut instinct believes that Hari will have an unfortunate brush with the law that will sideline him for a very long time, crushing any hope that he can help popularize the sport stateside. It's a risky bet for a promotion like It's Showtime to put hopes and dreams on Hari's shoulder, but I have no doubt in my mind that they are keen to the possibility of Hari not being there for the long haul. We saw some great fighters yesterday who wowed us with great performances. Hari may ultimately be the name that draws eyes, but like many of the UFC's own events -- that could work in allowing those same eyes to watch the future of the sport in other fighters.
I've been a huge kickboxing fan for a number of years. I absolutely love the sport, and it's hard to explain to MMA fans exactly what it is that gets me overly excited about watching major events like yesterday's It's Showtime event over many MMA events. But Hari's story is one of those sagas that tears at a fan's heart. On one end of the spectrum, I condemn the criminal acts he's been involved with in the past, but on the other end of the spectrum -- I am infatuated with the exciting style of chaos he brings to the confines of a ring. It leaves me with some uncertainty as to whether he'll ever be able to help popularize the sport to new fans in North America.
At only 26 years of age, time is on his side, but there may be no hope in affecting the decisions he makes in his life or the people that surround him. It could ultimately hurt his career, and the sport's ability to draw in fans in the future. Can kickboxing succeed without him in other markets? I imagine it can, but his involvement would speed up the process.