You'd be hard pressed to find a bigger Tyrone Spong fanboy than I. Even bloggers have favorites, but it's our duty to try to approach the sport without bias. Spong makes it difficult. As I set up along press row Saturday night at GLORY 9: New York, another media member leaned over asking who I picked to win the one night, eight-man tournament. Like checking a leg kick, my response was almost involuntary. "Spong. SPONG."
Undoubtedly one of the premier strikers of the past decade, Spong has managed to keep the sport of kickboxing on life support nearly singlehandedly. His name alone brings in the casual fans, making any fight of his an event. It's easy to see why GLORY wanted him heavily featured in their premier stateside showing in the media capital of the world. Spong is kickboxing's rockstar, but I'm not so sure that's what it needs.
For all the undeniable positives Spong brings with him it's his seemingly apathetic attitude towards his place in kickboxing that makes me do a double take. In the little time I've been able to speak with Spong, I never got the sense he cared much for belts or personal glory. A very sharp, charismatic guy, Spong just absolutely refuses to 'play the game' as it were.
Look no further than his fantastic short documentary film series The King of the Ring. At the 25:45 mark Spong appears backstage with producers filming his promotional and roll-in packages for his GLORY 5 bout with Remy Bonjasky. Watching this poor producer try to conjure anything useable out of Spong is utterly cringe worthy. Handling it about as well as anyone would with a noticeably perturbed shirtless Tyrone Spong standing just inches away, the producer's awkward moment perfectly summarizes the struggle in wrangling 'The King.'
GLORY doesn't have a headcase on their hands. They've got a much bigger problem. They've got a man who loves providing for his family above all else and would drop them in a heartbeat if the money was right. It's hard to build a promotion, let alone a sport, around someone doing it purely for financial security.
"I'm guessing there were a few GLORY executives holding their breath there,' said commentator Ron Kruck regarding Spong's early knockdown against Michael Duut. No kidding, but the statement is sort of troubling in and of itself. GLORY has a very vested interest in a man who claims not to need them. Not a great position to be in. As I watched GLORY's small oligarchy of chairmen and investors award Spong his well-deserved prize money and crown him their 95kg Slam Champion, I couldn't help but think these men were simply handing $200K to a man already booked for an upcoming MMA fight and claiming to be leaving for boxing.
Spong elaborated on those feelings when I spoke to him earlier in June.
"You know, I'm in a position where I can basically do whatever I want in this game of combat sports. I train my boxing, kickboxing and MMA. We're all prize fighters so we need to make good money to support our families. I'll go where the money is best. Be it UFC or boxing or kickboxing, it doesn't matter for me."
Referring to himself on Saturday night as a 'moneyweight,' Spong did admit he shouldered responsibility in keeping the sport alive.
"I'm one of the biggest faces for this organization, to promote the sport in a positive way and this stage. But I can deal with the pressure. I've been fighting main events since I was 18. I'm just happy it was a good event."
After watching a packed house exit the Hammerstein Ballroom in a smatter of boos it would be hard to argue the night's main event didn't leave fans with a sour taste in their mouth. Spong, meanwhile, didn't seem the least bit affected by the controversial 0:16 stoppage KO win over Danyo Ilunga. He showed up, he fought, he got paid. Is that going to be enough for GLORY and kickboxing to survive and thrive?
I want to be clear that I don't fault Spong for what's just my interpretation of his workmanlike approach towards entertainment, I'm simply pondering whether a sport and promotion can be built around someone like him. I think as sports fans, especially of teams, it irks us to see athletes so admittedly in it for themselves. When you step in the ring alone I guess you have that right.