Even as GLORY debuted its lightweight division at GLORY 1 STOCKHOLM, Giorgio Petrosyan was already considered its king by default. Not only was he ranked #1 in the world at lightweight, he was also considered to be probably the #1 pound-for-pound kickboxer in the world.
That first GLORY event featured a field of sixteen lightweights fighting single matches which would leave eight winners at the end of the night. Those eight would then go forward to the final eight-man tournament at GLORY 3 ROME to battle it out in a one-night tournament to produce an ultimate victor.
Petrosyan was expected to be the tournament winner even before the first sixteen participants had all been announced and the bookmakers were right - he beat Fabio Pinca, Ky Hollenbeck, Davit Kiria and then Robin van Roosmalen to capture the tournament grand prize.
Fast-forward to December 2013 and it was tournament time again, this time a four-man affair featuring Petrosyan, Van Roosmalen, Kiria and Andy Ristie, who had earned his tournament spot by going 4-0 since his debut at GLORY 2 BRUSSELS, including a stoppage win over Albert Kraus.
Petrosyan was once again expected to breeze through the tournament in his usual clinical fashion, making elite professional opponents look like intermediates. Floyd Mayweather Jr was ringside for the event and the commentators were freely making comparisons between Petrosyan and Mayweather's levels of defensive perfection.
At that point Petrosyan had lost just once from eighty career fights. That loss came early in his career in Thailand and Petrosyan claims it only came about because the Thai promoter deliberately gave him contaminated water to drink in order to make him ill on fight day. Whether there is any truth to that or not, Petrosyan's excellent record speaks for itself.
Some critics considered the semi-final pairing with Ristie to be a mismatch; before joining GLORY, Ristie had fought for It's Showtime and had demonstrated skill but also inconsistency. Unfavorable comparisons were drawn between his arrhythmic unorthodox style and Petrosyan's textbook technicality.
As it turned out, all the predictions were completely wrong. Ristie's unorthodoxy turned out to be the perfect antidote to Petrosyan's style; his tendency to switch stances, lean down and away and punch from his waist - basically a lot of things you're not technically supposed to do much if at all - threw Petrosyan's sensors right off.
The first round was pretty even; the second saw Petrosyan show signs of becoming flustered. Ristie read that well and came out hard at the start of the third, bullying into Petrosyan and forcing him to break stance and posture while frantically trying to move off and regain his preferred range.
During one such close encounter Ristie, almost nose to nose with Petrosyan, stepped through from orthodox stance to southpaw and used the change to power his arcing left hook/uppercut hybrid. Petrosyan dropped like a stone, followed instantly by the patrons of Madison Square Garden's Theater jumping to their feet. Nobody but nobody had predicted this.
Total shellshock was etched on every face except Ristie's. He allowed himself a few forward rolls around the ring by way of celebration then made his way back to his dressing room for the final fight of the evening.
His opponent would be Robin van Roosmalen, who at that point had actually climbed to #1 in the GLORY rankings by virtue of being more active than Petrosyan since their GLORY 3 encounter. Van Roosmalen won a decision over Kiria in the semi-finals to book his spot in the tournament final and, despite Ristie scoring the big upset win over Petrosyan, he was still favorite to win.
Again, Ristie had other ideas. This time it was his reach advantage which caused problems as he spammed hard rear-leg push kicks into Van Roosmalen's body over and over. Ristie's long arms also allowed him to touch one hand on Van Roosmalen's head and leave it there to block his vision and monitor his movement while preparing a hard follow-on shot.
Sometimes that follow-on shot would be a trademark brutal knee strike and it was via one such that the first knockdown of the fight came. Right near the end of the first round Ristie bent Van Roosmalen forwards with a knee strike; the Dutch fighter backpedaled under fire and swung a counter which left him open for a Ristie right hand knockdown.
The round ended as soon as Van Roosmalen beat the count but blood was in the water. Ristie's eagerness nearly cost him here; the only times in the fight he looked to be in real danger was when he played right into Van Roosmalen's game by standing in front of him trading power shots. Van Roosmalen broke his balance more than once with hard inside-low kicks and Ristie wisely went back to fighting from distance.
Only when he had Van Roosmalen on full retreat did Ristie get stuck in again; a hard flurry against the ropes ended on another knee strike which hurt Van Roosmalen and caused him to shell up defensively. Ristie was able to paw Van Roosmalen's right hand away then crash a left hook into him for the knockout and the tournament win.
GLORY 12 was the pivotal moment of Ristie's career. He went from a relative unknown to being a top contender overnight. GLORY had originally intended the tournament to crown a champion but its rules were reformulated over the Christmas period and instead each division's belts would be awarded over the course of 2015.
Ristie ended up facing Kiria for the vacant title at GLORY 14 ZAGREB in March 2014; Kiria lost in the semi-finals of the GLORY 12 tournament so it was odd to see him in the title fight, but he was the only fighter who didn't lose by KO in the tournament and he was ranked in the top four.
Given Ristie's tournament run it was expected he would make short work of Kiria and claim the vacant belt. At first it seemed like he would; he battered Kiria with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink and scored big knockdowns. But he hadn't counted on Kiria being tougher than old leather.
Kiria trains in Ashihara Karate, which is like Kyukoshin Karate only with even more rigorously sadistic training, if such a thing is possible. Kiria's pain tolerance is through the roof and his small frame contains the heart of a fighting bear. And so Ristie actually exhausted himself in his efforts to put Kiria away, and that cost him.
Having endured three rounds of hell Kiria was ready for some payback. In the fourth round he outboxed Ristie and wobbled him and in the fifth he sealed the deal, knocking him around the ring and making him stagger from corner to corner in frankly comical fashion. Fight fans love an underdog so the Zagreb, Croatia arena was losing its mind and when Kiria knocked Ristie down for the final time, some of the audience were actually in tears.
Van Roosmalen would bounce back from his tournament disappointment with a close decision win over the very good Marat Grigorian at GLORY 15 ISTANBUL. Ristie came back from the Kiria loss by doing a quick demolition job on a disheartened Ky Hollenbeck at GLORY 17 LOS ANGELES. He did a similar thing to ‘Stone Cold' Steve Moxon at GLORY 19 last month.
At the preceding show, GLORY 18 OKLAHOMA in November, Van Roosmalen had faced Kiria and outworked and out pointed him over five rounds to take the World Lightweight Championship from him. When Ristie scored the win over Moxon at GLORY 19, making him 2-0 since the loss to Kiria, matchmakers decided that Van Roosmalen vs. Ristie II would be the next logical step.
And so at GLORY 20 DUBAI on April 3, the two are rematching and the world title belt is on the line. It will be the latest installment in a turbulent lightweight championship tale and whichever fighter wins, the story will still be far from over. Petrosyan is back in action and Kiria is also still in the mix. If the lightweight division's top four have shown us anything, it is that they can each beat each other on any given day.
The carnage looks set to continue.