How to Kill a Sport

25 Jun

      After attending Saturday night’s Glory 9 New York kickboxing event, which saw Tyrone Spong “defeat” Danyo Ilunga, I have to say it seems Glory is unfortunately on their way to alienating the American public and removing the last vestige of kickboxing interest to be found in the U.S.
      Following on the heels of a fairly exciting developmental tournament held in New York a couple of months ago, Glory, the world’s biggest kickboxing promotion, appeared to be looking to expand their presence here by holding a tournament for the world’s best light heavyweight (209 pound limit) fighters. But despite getting televised on the CBS Sports Network, Glory never seemed to put on the kind of media blitz one would have expected from a major sports outfit trying to break into the American market. There was a notable lack of buzz surrounding the event, held at the Hammerstein Ballroom, a relatively small venue that seats only about 1500.
      The irony of the location, right across the street from the venerable 20,000 seat Madison Square Garden arena, was also noticeable. If this were, say, Japan, it’s likely the Garden would have been the site where the tournament was held and it might well have sold out. As it was, Glory was fortunate to team with New York-promoter Lou Neglia whose use of local fighters on the undercard seemed to draw most of the fans in attendance. A strictly Glory-based show might have left the Hammerstein more than half empty. Even so, the crowd seemed to thin out a little as the tournament progressed, clearly indicating local fans are more interested in seeing their buddies plod through a preliminary bout than viewing the best professional kickboxers in the world go at it.
      Though there was some good action in the “superfights,” particularly heavyweight Daniel Ghita’s sensational one punch knockout of Brice Guidon, the tournament itself proved highly disappointing. Controversy sprang up in the first round when Australian Steve McKinnon dropped a split decision to Filip Verlinden. McKinnon seemed to clearly dominate the last two rounds of the three-round match, yet one judge scored the fight 29-28 for Verlinden and a second judge somehow scored all three rounds for Verlinden provoking the crowd to erupt with boos. (Though I have a slight acquaintance with McKinnon’s father, and thus wanted to see him win, I was not alone in scoring the fight for McKinnon as an informal poll of press row had most reporters giving the fight to the Aussie as well).
      Following the loss, McKinnon’s brother and cornerman, Stuart McKinnon, said he felt the tournament had been set up by Glory for fan favorite Spong to win. Spong, now part of the Blackzilian MMA team, and cornered by former UFC champion Rashad Evans, besides being the best known and most marketable fighter in the tournament, has past ties to the Glory organization. But the assertions of the McKinnon camp could have been chalked up to sour grapes if not for the result of the finals.
      Spong, after winning his first fight over Michael Duut by one round knockout, and his second fight over a depleted Verlinden by decision, faced off with Ilunga for the championship. These were the two odds on favorites of the tournament and should have provided an exciting conclusion to the evening. But instead, when Ilunga gave a slight stumble from Spong’s first punch and quickly covered up, referee Mufadel Elghazaoui inexplicably jumped in and stopped the fight after just 16 seconds. At first, no one was sure what the referee was doing but as it became apparent he was halting the bout and awarding it to Spong, the audience exploded in a chorus of jeers with immediate accusations of “fix” being hurled about. Ilunga, a tough fighter with a good chin, seemed to have trouble with his balance all evening stumbling awkwardly in his earlier fights several times but continually walking through his opponents’ best shots to wear them down. Thus, one moment of being off balance in the opening seconds of a championship fight certainly should not have been enough for the referee to stop the action. While it’s impossible to say if there was any malicious intent on Elghazaoui’s part, if nothing else it was a clear case of total incompetence at the worst possible moment.
      If Glory was looking to sabotage their chances of expanding into the American market and reviving a glimmer of interest in kickboxing here, they succeeded. It’s hard to believe anyone in attendance will be paying to see a repeat performance of another Glory tournament. Which is too bad, since many of the world’s top kickboxers now fight for the organization and the fights – when allowed to continue past 16 seconds – are often entertaining.

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