Peter Aerts walks away from a downed Gokhan Saki at the 2009 K-1 Grand Prix. Photo by Daniel Herbertson for Head Kick Legend.
Although he has not been very active in the recent K-1 downtime, it's tough to envision a kickboxing world without Peter Aerts. Unquestionably one of the top four Heavyweights in K-1's rich history, Aerts is a 3 time K-1 Grand Prix champion, having won the crown in 1994, 1995, and 1998. You could easily make an argument for Aerts being the all time K-1 greatest, thanks largely to his longevity. No statistic better shows that longevity than this: from 1993 to 2008, Peter Aerts fought in every single K-1 Grand Prix. That means that for over 15 uninterrupted years, Aerts stood as one of the sport's elite names, contending for its highest prize every year. This is the equivalent of Ken Shamrock being a factor in the UFC title hunt consistently from UFC 1 to UFC 100. It's incredible. (Quick aside: the man to finally end that streak? None other than Alistair Overeem in 2009).
So here, we look ahead to the final fight of the great Aerts by looking back at one of the most legendary feuds in early K-1 history - Peter Aerts vs. the late Mike Bernardo. From 1995-1998, these two rivals met in the ring 6 times, and the results were some of the most action packed, KO-heavy fights the sport has seen. Let's take a look at this great rivalry, beginning all the way back in 1995.
We start on December 9, 1995 and an event known as K-1 Hercules. Set up as a year end super card, Hercules featured a number of big superfights (including a rare kickboxing appearance from Pedro Rizzo), and was headlined by Aerts v. Bernardo.
For Bernardo, this fight represented the culmination of a huge year. Making his K-1 debut at the start of 95, Bernardo immediately made a huge impact, defeating the legendary Andy Hug to qualify for the 95 Grand Prix. There, Bernardo made the semi-finals before losing to another new K-1 name in Jerome Le Banner. Bernardo bounced back with another impressive showing against Hug, this time KO-ing him in 2 rounds. In only 1 year, Bernardo had built up a 3-1 K-1 record against top level names, and earned himself a reputation as a heavy handed, aggressive, dangerous striker.
Despite all this, Peter Aerts had to be seen as the favorite. Coming in on an incredible 2 year, 15+ fight win streak, Aerts was The Man in K-1. He was the two-time K-1 GP champion and the clear front man of the company. At just 25 years of age, Aerts already had combined knock out power and aggression with a veteran's tactical know-how. He could brawl with Le Banner or engage in a technical war with Hoost and win against both.
Still, Bernardo had pulled off the upset twice before against Hug. As the main event started, fans had to ask - would this be the man to finally topple Aerts?
Video and much more in the full entry.
It took Aerts just 40 seconds, a handful of strikes, and one impeccably placed right hand to remind everyone why he was the champ. Afterwards, a visibly upset Bernardo looked on, stunned that it could have ended so quickly. Little did he know, this was far from the end.
The next event for K-1 was the Final 16 round of the 1996 Grand Prix. Both Bernardo and Aerts made it through with relatively little trouble - Bernardo dispatching of future MMA superstar trainer Duke Roufus via 2nd round KO, and Aerts knocking out Jean-Claude Leuyer with his trademark high kick in round 1. That earned both men a pass into the Grand Prix finals, and as fate would have it, the two would meet in the quarter final round.
Once again, Aerts was the heavy favorite - not just to defeat Bernardo, but to win his 3rd straight Grand Prix. Already the dominant name in K-1, this was Aerts's year to cement his reign at the top. But for Bernardo, it was a 2nd chance to play spoiler to Aerts and prove that he belonged at the top of the K-1 ranks. Bernardo was also coming in angry, frustrated over his showing in the first fight and out to prove a point. With the Grand Prix crown waiting, Aerts and Bernardo came out for the first fight of the night, both men eager to move on and claim the title, both men ready to get the win.
And with that, Bernardo did what no man had done since Ernesto Hoost in 1993 - he beat Peter Aerts and knocked him out of the Grand Prix.
After starting out with a cautious round 1, Bernardo begins dragging Aerts into a brawl in round 2, making the fight a sloppy slugfest in order to catch Aerts. It's an excellent strategy that works well, allowing Bernardo to gain the advantage in round 2, then shut Aerts down quickly in the 3rd.
Bernardo would go on to make the finals, and while he lost there to Andy Hug, it was hardly a blemish. Defeating Aerts was the real accomplishment, and there was no doubt now that Bernardo was for real.
There was also no doubt that a rubber match was on the way.
With their series now tied up at 1-1, a rematch was needed to answer questions. Had Bernardo cracked the code for defeating Aerts, or was this a one-time anomaly? K-1 didn't make fans wait long, granting Aerts an immediate rematch. The two men would square off just 4 months later at an event appropriately titled "K-1 Revenge". Anticipation was high, but sadly, the fight was a Randy Couture vs. Vitor Belfort 2 style anticlimax. At just past the 1 minute mark, Aerts caught Bernardo with an inadvertent low blow. When Bernardo was unable to continue, Aerts was disqualified.
Obviously, that fight settled nothing, so K-1 quickly booked the rematch to the rematch. This would be Aerts's 3rd straight fight against Bernardo, and right from the beginning, you can tell that there is something special in the air here. The crowd can sense it, and even watching at home years later, you can sense it too. Finally, the biggest K-1 feud of 1996 would be settled.
If you only watch one fight from this article, make it this one:
Once again, Bernardo had done it. The great Peter Aerts had gone down, again knocked out cold by the power of Mike Bernardo.
For my money, this is one of the best fights in K-1 history, with both men bringing so much skill and heart. Aerts starts off looking to use defense and counter striking to offset Bernardo's aggression, and it works, earning Aerts the round 1 knockdown. But in round 2, the tide starts to turn, as Bernardo again uses his power and brawling inside to start hurting Aerts. By the 3rd round, Aerts has started to take a beating, but he refuses to go down until he simply can not stand any longer, allowing his heavy handed opponent to put him away with less than 30 seconds left in the fight.
With Bernardo now up 2-1 in the series, it looked like we knew who was the better man. But in K-1 there's always another Grand Prix around the corner...
Coming out of this historic 4th match-up, the future looked bright for Bernardo, and full of question marks for Aerts. But as 1997 started, the careers of each man took decidedly opposite turns. Aerts started the year against reigning GP champion Andy Hug, and in something of an upset, Aerts mauled him, scoring the TKO victory in under 2 minutes. From there, the Dutch Lumberjack went on a rampage, winning his next 3 fights all via stoppage to gain entry in the 1997 Grand Prix. As the GP drew near the message from Aerts was clear - he was back, and back with a vengeance.
Bernardo's fortunes were decidedly worse. Coming off the Aerts wins, Bernardo faced a step up in competition, and he didn't respond as well as his fans would have hoped. After starting the year with a draw, Bernardo went 2-2 in his next 4. Since the loses came against Hoost and Hug, it was still far too early to write off Bernardo, but there were questions forming.
With Aerts coming in strong and Bernardo in some trouble, the 1997 Grand Prix looked to be a huge event for both men. And these opponents who knew each other so well would once again clash in the quarter-finals.
For Aerts, this had to be a particularly sweet victory, as he not only overcame the man who had defeated him all last year, but he did it on the grandest K-1 stage of all, gaining an appropriate sense of redemption.
By bringing the series back to 2-2, Aerts set the stage for one final rubber match, but fans would have to wait a year for the issue to be settled. On December 13, K-1 staged the 1998 Grand Prix. For the first time since 95, these rivals were not pitted against each other in the opening round, though they were on the same side of the bracket. After Bernardo dispatched of Francisco Filho and Aerts made quick work of Masaaki Satake, the rubber match was set. Like two magnets drawn towards each other, Bernardo and Aerts found themselves together one last time, and once again, the Grand Prix crown loomed ahead.
Unfortuantely for Bernardo, the Peter Aerts that stepped into the ring at the 1998 GP was one of the best versions of Peter Aerts that ever graced the ring. The legendary champion looked incredible here and throughout the tournament, taking home the GP crown by quickly stopping all 3 opponents in record time - a record that would stand for 12 years.
And so their feud ended, maybe not with the fireworks one might have expected from the final fight, but with another powerful stoppage. In the end, it was Aerts who comes out the better man in the feud, though you have to respect Bernardo's showing throughout the series.
These fights represent a classic era in K-1 history, and help demonstrate just what made K-1 so special during this time period. It's somewhat bittersweet looking back at them today, knowing that Mike Bernardo is gone, and Peter Aerts fights for possibly the last time this week, yet that doesn't diminish the power of this great rivalry.
Join us here at Bloody Elbow this Saturday to see if Peter Aerts turns in one final classic showing for the ages.