FIVE FIGHTS FOR 2015
1. Valtellini vs. Holzken II
From the moment GLORY announced the inception of a welterweight division in 2012, Nieky ‘The Natural' Holzken was considered its uncrowned king-in-waiting. Other names were in the mix - Karapet Karapetyan, Marc de Bonte, for example - but Holzken was felt to be the clear favorite.
Nobody at the time counted on a Canadian newcomer by the name of ‘Bazooka' Joe Valtellini. His debut at GLORY 6 ISTANBUL against the veteran Murat Direkci was thought to be a mismatch in Direkci's favor. Instead, Valtellini battered him and forced his corner to throw the towel in.
Further accomplished performances and brutal stoppages saw Valtellini rocket up the rankings. He found himself in a four-man welterweight tournament at GLORY 13 TOKYO and met Holzken in the final. Valtellini had stopped Raymond Daniels in the semi-finals while Holzken had gotten past a tricky Karapetyan.
The encounter was a Fight of the Year 2013 contender; if you haven't seen it, track it down in YouTube. Constant exchanges at full power but with a high degree of technicality and fluidity made this one a treat to watch. Holzken edged ahead though and was able to stop Valtellini in the third via a trademark body shot leading to a head-shot finish.
A subsequent shoulder injury sustained in a car crash meant that Holzken sat 2014 out. De Bonte went on to win the vacant welterweight belt with a decision over Karapetyan, then lost it to Valtellini at GLORY 17 in June. Watching from the sidelines, Holzken has barely been able to contain his frustration.
In a recent interview he said that Valtellini is "very lucky" to be champion and suggested that the Canadian had been "protected" by GLORY so that the organization could have a North American champion. Valtellini - and his record in GLORY - strongly disagree. The stage is set for what will be a thermonuclear firefight, however long it lasts for.
2. Verhoeven vs. Zimmerman III
In a neat piece of symmetry this fight, which has been on the cards for months, was officially confirmed while I was in the process of writing this article. We're going to get to see it on February 6 and it's going to be a really interesting encounter.
Several threads run through this one: it's a heavyweight title fight, a rubber-match, a real personal rivalry and a stylistic clash between two very different fighters. Both are natural heavyweights, big men, but Verhoeven has developed himself as a master technician while Zimmerman has used his raw power to blast his way to this title contention spot.
They first fought under the Its Showtime banner in January 2012. Verhoeven was still a relative unknown at that point, internationally, while Zimmerman was well-established. The fight was over quickly; Zimmerman's team had planned for him to make Verhoeven cover up and then smash an uppercut through the channel between his gloves. It worked perfectly.
From that point until their rematch at GLORY 9 NEW YORK, Verhoeven trained and trained. He was determined never to get caught out again and in New York he put together a shut-out, taking a clear unanimous decision win over a Zimmerman who was clearly frustrated at not being able to open Verhoeven up like before.
Both of them consider their losses to each other to be anomalies, results which occurred because of luck or particular circumstances. At the same time, both consider their wins to be the clear result of their own efforts, so there's an argument to be settled here. Hopefully we get a definitive answer to it at GLORY 19 on February 6.
3. Buakaw vs. Someone Ranked
The two-time K-1 WORLD MAX champion (2004, 2006) is a huge name in the kickboxing world. But in the last two years most of the talk has been about his activities outside the ring rather than in it. Various legal difficulties stemming from his split with the Por Pramuk camp have made his life into something resembling a Thai soap opera.
Nonetheless, Buakaw Banchamek managed nine fights in 2014 and won eight of them. The loss was to Enriko Kehl in the final of the K-1 WORLD MAX 2014 tournament in bizarre circumstances I won't bother recounting. There's a good write-up of it here if you want to read about the background to Buakaw's exiting the ring and losing the tournament final by forfeit.
Buakaw makes big money off his name value these days. As one of his chief complaints about the Por Pramuk camp was that they kept most of the money he made during his peak K-1 years, it is understandable that his current (and presumably future) focus is on using his remaining competitive years to boost his bank balance.
Whether he is past his prime or not is debatable. He's not had any trouble with the unremarkable names he has been faced with this year. Kehl is a talent and a prospect but hasn't caused Buakaw significant problems in either of their fights.
You'd have to think Buakaw would remain a force in the top echelon of 70 kilogram (155lbs) kickboxing but there seems little chance of seeing him move to GLORY and face the likes of Andy Ristie, Giorgio Petrosyan and Robin van Roosmalen. His supporters say he would deal with all three without issue; unfortunately it looks like we will never know. In the meantime, look forward to 2015 bringing more shows from Thailand built around paying Buakaw and preserving his legend.
4. Petrosyan vs. Ristie II
Prior to meeting Andy Ristie in the GLORY 12 NEW YORK four-man lightweight tournament Petrosyan had just one loss on his record. And even that result is disputed by his team who claim, not without credibility, that the loss was due to being deliberately given contaminated water to drink by an unscrupulous promoter in Thailand some years ago.
And so when Petrosyan entered the ring to face Ristie in the tournament semi-final, the result was felt to be a given. The Armenian-Italian would use his legendarily watertight defense to shut Ristie's offense down while cruising to a points decision.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. was in attendance ringside and the commentators took advantage of the opportunity to draw comparison between his and Petrosyan's defensive skills. Petrosyan was, they assured Spike TV viewers watching him for the first time, "the Floyd Mayweather of kickboxing".
A few minutes later Petrosyan was flat on his back, experiencing for the first time in his fighting career the curious sensation returning to consciousness under the gaze of thousands of strangers. The blank look of shellshock he wore as he regained his feet and was mirrored by the Madison Square Garden attendees; most of the live audience were kickboxing fans who knew what they had just witnessed.
Ristie went on to stop Robin van Roosmalen in the tournament final with the exact same shot - a trademark left hook/uppercut hybrid - to prove that his first victory of the evening hadn't been a fluke. Adding insult to injury, Petrosyan's brittle hands had suffered during the brief encounter and the bone between two of his right metacarpals had split deeply.
Since the November 2013 loss to Ristie he has been inactive. This is due to his hand healing rather than any psychological effects, and yet the mental effects of his first KO loss remain indeterminate. Does Petrosyan return with his usual unruffled calm, or does the memory of his brief visit to the halls of Valhalla make him gun-shy?
On January 24 he is set to fight under Muay Thai rules in Turin, Italy against the 33-year-old Erkan Varol of Turkey, who sports a respectable 85-13 record with 45 wins by KO. But with his recent record being 1-3 and two of those three losses being to Marco Pique and Albert Kraus, it is hard to see him posing a threat to Petrosyan, unless ‘The Doctor' is suffering some mental or physical hangover from last November.
Assuming Petrosyan gets past Varol, the obvious question is whether Ristie would be able to repeat the feat in a rematch. Petrosyan has been tight-lipped since that fateful November night and we don't know whether he ascribes the loss to a lapse in concentration, his hand injury or simply Ristie's superiority on the evening. Ristie too deserves the rematch in order to have the opportunity to silence his doubters.
5. Saki vs. Spong III
Their first fight took place under the K-1 banner. It was a heavyweight fight - K-1 had no light-heavyweight division - and it was an entertaining battle which went back and forth before Saki was able to stop Spong via an overhand counter-right in the extra round.
The rematch took place in the final of the GLORY 15 ISTANBUL World Light-Heavyweight Championship Tournament, with the winner walking away as GLORY's light-heavyweight champion. Having each won a semi-final match that April evening, the stage was set for what would hopefully be an epic showdown.
Unfortunately it ended very quickly. Spong countered a Saki teep with a hard outside low-kick; Saki read Spong's intentions and had his knee ready to meet Spong's incoming leg. Spong's shin lost, snapping in half in a trademark - yet thankfully rare - kickboxing/Muay Thai injury.
Spong's recovery has been little short of phenomenal. He was back on his feet within two weeks of the injury and was back training within a couple of months. In 2015 he will be ready to return to the ring. An immediate rematch with Saki could be justified, given that the end to the Istanbul fight was simultaneously definite yet inconclusive.
There is no doubt that these two could have a Fight of the Year, so long as bad luck doesn't rear its head again. At light-heavyweight they retain their power but have also maxed-out on their speed. Combine that with their beautiful combination work and high-volume output and you've got the recipe for a seriously exciting rematch. Can Spong claw one back against ‘The Rebel'?