Last week, we wrapped up 2015 in kickboxing with a look back at the top kickboxing stories of 2015. This week, part 2 of our series takes a look ahead. What are the biggest stories to watch for in 2016? And who is poised to be the big star we are all talking about at this time next year? Let's take a look:
1. Glory's Next Steps - As we saw last time, 2015 saw Glory continue to stand atop the international kickboxing mountain, but it also saw the company part ways with Spike TV in the US. They have one 2016 show announced so far - Glory 27 Chicago on February 26. That show will once again air on the ESPN Networks. If this becomes a permanent home for Glory, that's a good thing, but we're not there just yet. To reiterate: Glory is at the crossroads right now. This is either the year where they establish a new home and begin truly building their brand away from Spike, or this is the year where our dreams of a strong kickboxing presence in the US fade away. Unless...
2. The US Kickboxing Scene - Glory may have left their broadcast partner, but they have no intention of leaving the US as a market, and will still be regularly promoting shows here in 2016. At the same time, US kickboxing is poised to have a strong year. MMA organization Legacy Fighting Championship started a kickboxing company last year, and while they are yet to catch off, the potential is there. The same is true of the excellent Lion Fight organization out of Las Vegas, who promotes superb Muay Thai shows that air on AXS TV. Finally, there has been talk of Spike keeping kickboxing programming going even without Glory. This may be in partnership with Bellator, and it may not, but it's worth a reminder here that in April, Bellator presents a card in Italy co-promoted with Italian kickboxing organization Oktagon. All of these mean the US is filled with potential for 2016, and becomes an important market to watch.
3. China's Breakout Year - If you are talking about the most important markets to watch out for, the hands down international winner right now is China. Just as we are seeing in other combat sports, China is developing a strong kickboxing presence right now, with 2016 a potential huge year. Leading the path is Kunlun Fight, an excellent company that has hosted many of the world's top fighters in the last year, and has gone a long way towards establishing China as a relevant international player where fights are not just softball guaranteed victories. Recently, major fighters including Rico Verhoeven, Simon Marcus, and Mosab Amrani have all tasted defeat in China. It's still not easy to watch these events internationally, but for hardcore fans, this is the country to watch out for.
4. WWDD: What Will the Doctor Do? - 2015 saw the return to action of former consensus #1 pound for pound king Giorgio Petrosyan. The Doctor is 4-0 since his 2013 loss to Andy Ristie and made a big return to Glory this past fall. He seems ready to reclaim his #1 in the world status, but in order to do so, he probably needs to topple both Glory Lightweight champion Robin van Roosmalen and uncrowned champion Sittichai (and a revenge win over Ristie wouldn't hurt either). There's also the question as to where he will fight. Petrosyan fights all over, but one of his home bases has always been Oktagon in Italy - the same company that is working with Bellator. Could the Doctor end up on Spike in April after all? And will he end the year by reclaiming his crown?
5. Former Champions Return? - There are a lot of big name former world champions out there that have been remarkably inactive as of late. Gokhan Saki fought once as a kickboxer in 2015, while Tyrone Spong, Daniel Ghita, and Marc de Bonte did not fight at all. Spong, de Bonte, and Saki all made it perfectly clear why not - money. The champions all felt they were not being paid what they should be, and they were not going to fight until that got sorted out. Saki has since worked things out with Glory and will be back in their ring in 2016. You also have Joseph Valtellini still out indefinitely with an injury and Badr Hari allegedly retired and potentially heading to jail. Plus, Mirko Cro Cop is still suspended from MMA, and given how little time he has left as a professional fighter, it would not shock me at all to see him flaunt that suspension and take an international kickboxing fight. The end result of all of this - possibly a lot of major names back in action in 2016.
Finally, here are my picks for the fighters to watch in 2016:
- Takeru - The Japanese star fights for K-1, where he has established himself as one of the best in the world. But it's at 55kg, a weight class which has never been well represented. Still, he had a huge 2015, and could have an even bigger 2016.
- Artem Vakhitov - The Russian Light Heavyweight ends the year with a huge win over Danyo Ilunga that propels him into Glory title contention. Always a tough fighter, Vakhitov has the ability to be a champion - this could be the year he makes that final step.
- Dustin Jacoby - It's no secret that the American fighter has struggled in Glory, but he went a very impressive 3-1 in 2015 and ended the year knocking out Wayne Barrett. He seems to be really putting it all together, and I'm eager to see where it takes him.
- Chad Sugden - The rightful Glory #1 contender in many ways, Sugden holds a win over Murthel Groenhart and a 2-0 Glory record. The 21 year old has a bright future, and I would not at all be surprised to see him standing across the ring from Nieky Holzken before the year is out.
- Anatoly Moiseev - This Russian fighter looked incredible in a pair of Glory fights this year. He's got a fan friendly, hard-hitting style, and is looking at a top 10 opponent next time out (Davit Kiria perhaps?).
- Ren Hiramoto - Hiramoto is the latest in the K-1 tradition of young hot prospects, but he has looked increasingly skilled in every fight, taking it to the tough Minoru Kimura as a highlight of his 2015. 2016 may still be a little early for him on the big international stage, but he's on his way there, make no mistake.
That's it for me kickboxing fans, so now it's your turn - what do you think I missed, and what are you most looking forward to in 2016?