It seems like pretty much anytime a relatively high level kickboxer comes into MMA, he is met with huge superlatives about his impact on kickboxing and what he accomplished. This can sometimes make it hard to determine the truth - is this fighter REALLY one of K-1's all time greats, or was he just OK? Here, I launch a new series that hopes to clear up some of these questions. And yes, I did totally steal this idea from Coach Mike's incredible Factgrinder series, which is fantastic, must-read stuff.
We start with a man who made some waves in 2013 - not just in kickboxing, but in MMA as well. Tyrone Spong has only fought twice in MMA, going 2-0 in WSOF, but thanks to his training with the Blackzilians camp, his work with Rashad Evans, and his Reem-esque style of crossing between sports, he's become something of a hot commodity in MMA and kickboxing (and, if he has his way, boxing). So just how big a deal is Tyrone Spong in kickboxing? Let's see.
Spong started fighting in kickboxing in 2001, making his A-class debut (a distinction used in Europe that basically means "going pro") in 2003. Fighting out of Amsterdam and trained by the highly respected Lucien Carbin, Spong was a force early on. He was a Muay Thai based fighter, initially using a very traditional Thai approach, which he has over the years adapted to a bit more of the Dutch style. He claimed his first world title in 2004, and continued to bring in titles in the coming years, often times using his explosive speed and power to earn flashy KO's.
What's most interesting about this earlier phase of Spong's career is his weight. For years, kickboxing was dominated by two weight classes and two weight classes alone. You were either a 70 kg fighter (the rough equivilent of an MMA Lightweight), a Heavyweight, or trapped in the no man's land in between. It's only just recently that kickboxing has begun to acknowledge the existence of high level fighters between those divisions. (And can we all think about that absurdity for a moment? Imagine the UFC having two champions - Pettis and Cain. If you weren't the right size to challenge for one of their belts, you need not apply.)
Spong? He was in the no man's land. A bit too large for Lightweight, but far too small for Heavyweight, Spong jumped around from 72.5 to 86 kg, winning world titles up and down that range. For my fellow non-metric users out there, that's 160-190 pounds. Essentially, it's winning world titles at Lightweight, Welterweight, and Middleweight - not bad at all.
Still, he was winning those titles in some degree of obscurity. Spong was a big hit amongst the hardcore fans and in The Netherlands, but in these divisions he was never going to break through to the next level. And his major wins from that time - over the likes of Muay Thai veetran Kaoklai, Joerie Mes, and Dmitry Shakuta, all come against very skilled, but not truly elite, fighters.
Starting in 2008, Spong made a much needed switch, bulking up first to 95 kg, then to Heavyweight. Along the way, he parted with longtime trainer Carbin and began working with arguably the greatest Heavyweight kickboxer of all time, Ernesto Hoost. Hoost was a good fit for Spong in many ways, as he too had made the move up to Heavyweight in his career.
With that step up in weight came an immediate step up in profile and competition. And unfortunately for Spong, he stumbled. The transition to Heavyweight was not an easy one for him. Two of his greatest assets, his speed and his explosiveness, were a bit more limited with the added mass. And now that he was fighting significantly bigger men, he often faced a power disadvantage - another area where Spong had traditionally been the one with an edge.
Starting with his 95 kg world title win in It's Showtime, Spong went on a 5-4 run (technically it's 5-3, 1 NC, but realistically he lost that No Contest). For a fighter with only 3 losses in the first 8 years of his career, a 5-4 run is bad. Decision wins from that time over the likes of Attila Karacs, Kyotaro, and Ray Sefo just weren't as impressive as the Spong KO's we had seen in the past. This new version of Spong was technically sound, but lacked the killer side he had shown when dominating the lower weights. And his losses, to Nathan Corbett (again, that's the "NC"), to Jerome Le Banner, to Gokhan Saki, were not great showings.
Ironically, it was in a loss that Spong finally got his groove back. In the 2010 K-1 Grand Prix quarterfinals, Spong faced eventual winner Alistair Overeem. Though Spong lost to the much bigger fighter, it was a very strong performance - the toughest of Overeem's GP run and a fight that proved Spong truly could hang with the division's best. Finally, Tyrone Spong the Heavyweight was living up to the expectations built up by Tyrone Spong the Middleweight.
Since then, Spong has not lost. He's now on a 9 fight win streak, with 6 of those wins coming via stoppage. He splits his time between Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight, and holds recent wins over Peter Aerts, Remy Bonjasky, Nathan Corbett and Danyo Ilunga.
But for all the talk of Spong being the best in the world, there still is something missing at times. These are good wins - but he has not fought the very best of the Heavyweight division, and Light Heavyweight remains a division in the process of being built up.
FINAL FACT CHECK:
There is a tale of two Tyrone Spongs. In that range of weights between 70 kg and Heavyweight, Spong has made a huge impact. You could make a strong argument that he is the best ever in that range, though it's worth noting that it's an area still very much in development in kickboxing.
Once you move in to Heavyweight, Spong is impressive and a top 10 fighter, but he doesn't quite have the same lofty credentials. At Heavyweight, there is a degree of as-yet-unfulfilled hype behind Spong. He's currently fighting the best he has at this higher weight, but he has not yet been able to dominate the way he did in smaller weights. And in the very Heavyweight-centric world of kickboxing, that may be what is most important.
But that's only for now. Because at just 28 years old and on a current 9 fight win streak, the book on Tyrone Spong is far from done.
Tyrone Spong highlights:
vs. Alistair Overeem
vs. Nathan Corbett (Glory 11)
vs. Kaoklai (Brutal KO, and man is Spong skinny)