Half full, or half empty? That's the question you have to ask yourself when trying to evaluate 2011 in the world of kickboxing. There's no doubt this was the most tumultuous and news-worthy year in kickboxing in quite some time, but exactly how you view all these events depends on your own views. Let's take a look at both sides:
The Glass is Half Empty: 2011 as a Year of Decline
It's been a disheartening experience trying to cover kickboxing this year. Obviously, the big news of the year all centered around the collapse of K-1 - an event that has been a long time coming. For some time, we had heard stories of fighters never being paid for taking part in K-1 shows. In late 2010 and 2011 that list grew out of control, with major names like Giorgio Petrosyan and Ray Sefo coming forward and saying they were owed vast sums by the organization. K-1 went on an indefinite hiatus at the start of the year, and as the months continued, the end seemed inevitable.
In summer, the company was finally sold, to a shell company whose true partners remain somewhat unclear. There was talk of a 2011 K-1 Grand Prix to be co-promoted by It's Showtime at the end of the year, but that didn't happen, and for the first time since 1992, this year will see no K-1 Grand Prix champion crowned.
The loss of K-1 had a ripple effect throughout kickboxing, particularly in the Heavyweight division. K-1 had always been the main home for Heavyweights, and their absence led to a real lack of action in the division in 2011, with potentially far-reaching changes. Biggest Heavyweight news is the retirement of Badr Hari. After a mostly inactive 2010 and 2011 due to various legal issues, Hari will fight his final kickboxing fight in 2012 before moving on to a career as a boxer. Hari was a divisive figure, but there's no doubt his presence will be missed. We've also lost Kyotaro to boxing, Cosmo Alexandre to MMA, and there's talk of both Tyrone Spong and Gokhan Saki following Cosmo's lead. Amongst the K-1 legends, Semmy Schilt has been totally MIA all year, while Ray Sefo, Peter Aerts, and Jerome Le Banner have been more occupied with pro wrestling careers than with kickboxing.
So no K-1, no Schilt, no Hari, no Aerts, no Grand Prix... it was a rough year. And it will take a lot for the sport to push through this rough patch. So if you want to view this as the end of the sport, you certainly have reason to. However...
The Glass Is Half Full: 2011 as a Year of Transition
It's important to remember that K-1 is not the same thing as kickboxing. They are a kickboxing organization - one of many. True, they are (were?) the biggest, and their loss is akin to MMA losing the UFC. But that doesn't mean the sport is dead, and in the absence of K-1, a number of organizations have stepped up their game around the world, including Krush and SuperKombat.
No organization had more success in 2011 than It's Showtime. The long-time top kickboxing organization in Europe established itself as #2 to K-1 a few years ago, and took that #1 mantle this year. 2011 highlights include the year's biggest tournament (the 70kg Fast and Furious show), strong shows throughout Europe, and building up new names. 2012 looks even better with a big January 28 show headlined by Badr Hari vs. Gokhan Saki, rumblings of a major show in the spring, and planned expansion into major markets in Australia, Japan, and Brazil (still no US though!). It's Showtime has slowly built themselves up thanks partly to a more sports-oriented approach, and their hard work has now truly begun to pay off.
And of course, the K-1 news isn't all bad. As 2012 begins, the chances of K-1 actually mounting a comeback are strong, with a new organization (FIKA) and leader (original K-1 founder Kazuyoshi Ishii) at the helm. They have announced plans for a full Grand Prix schedule in 2012, and rumors of shows in the spring have begun to circulate. For the first time in nearly a year, I am (cautiously) optimistic about the future of K-1, and the chances for a return of the Grand Prix.
Add in new fighters like Robin van Roosmalen and Ismael Londt making a name for themselves in 2011, and you can see a lot of positives for the future, and a clear path to a better 2012.
In the end, perhaps it is too early to truly tell the story of kickboxing in 2011. If the sport continues the downward slope of the year, this will likely be looked at as the beginning of the end. If it bounces back, this will be a bumpy patch in the road and a time of transition. Which will it be? No one can say for sure right now - we can only guess at what the future holds.
So, half full, or half empty?
Check back all week for more 2011 Kickboxing Year in Review coverage.