Heading into Glory 11 Chicago, the fight many kickboxing fans were most looking forward to was Gokhan Saki vs. Daniel Ghita in the Heavyweight final. Sure, the fight wasn't actually set, as both men had to get through their semi-finals, but a Saki vs. Ghita final seemed inevitable.
Enter Rico Verhoeven.
The 24 year old Dutch fighter refused to be a stepping stone. Instead, he pulled off a tremendous night of upsets, first defeating Gokhan Saki to spoil the finals, then defeating Daniel Ghita to complete the Cinderella story. For fans who have been following kickboxing, it was an incredible coming of age moment for Verhoeven, a fighter who has long shown potential, but never fully hit his stride until now. For those just tuning in, it was still an amazing story of one man defying the odds through sheer force of will.
After the fight, Bloody Elbow had a chance to speak with a clearly exhausted, battered, but energized Verhoeven. He made it clear where, in his mind, this night places him in the Heavyweight ranks:
"I'm the best Heavyweight in the world... I'm the new face of Glory."
Last week, few would have felt such a statement could be true. Today, after defeating the world's top 2 Heavyweights in a single night, it's hard to argue with it. So what brought Verhoeven to this new level?
"Hard work... I've been boxing a lot with one of the top competitors in the world, Tyson Fury, and his trainer took me on the pads and showed me small stuff I can fix. It dropped in my head like 'yeah, I can do this.' First people just said 'oh, he has big legs, he can kick', now it's 'he can kick AND he can punch.'"
But it's not all work. Get Verhoeven talking about the sport and its rich history and you can see his passion for kickboxing come through. You also see his Dutch roots, as he cites the influence of one of the all-time greats on his career:
"Peter Aerts was a great inspiration for me. I was 6, 7, 8 years old and I saw him on the television winning K-1 and I was like 'oh my god this is awesome.' He's inspiring people by doing what he loves to do and being great at it. And I'm here now in the same position. It's a dream come true... Now I hope the American people will enjoy it and embrace our sport."
But eve more than that, the win was personal for Verhoeven, as he drew inspiration from his family to get through:
"I did it for my daughter. She's nearly three years old so she understands some things which are said to her. I promised her I was going to come back with the title and the prize money... I was thinking about that promise; that's what kept me going in the final minutes and gave me the power to win the tournament."
The big question then becomes what next for the champion. And there's one name that must be mentioned: Semmy Schilt. The longtime #1 Heavyweight in the world is rumored to be retired, though Glory still lists him as an active fighter on their site. Would Verhoeven be ready for the challenge of Schilt?
"Of course I'd fight Semmy. I'll fight anyone."
Fans may not have gotten their Saki vs. Ghita, but in Rico Verhoeven, they did get their real-life Rocky Balboa story. Now, it's up to the young fighter to keep it going - to fight off the Heavyweight sharks that will want to knock him off his pedestal and take his belt and his #1 spot. And if Glory 11 was any indication, that's going to be much easier said than done.
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