Mirko Cro Cop knelt near center ring, holding back tears with his right glove. The Croatian heavyweight had just won his third fight of the night and his first ever World Grand Prix Championship. For Cro Cop, the 17-year battle toward K-1’s prized title ended on March 15, 2013, with a unanimous decision victory over Ismael Londt. As confetti raining on Cro Cop’s celebration symbolized the end of his journey, it also signified the beginning of a new chapter in K-1’s turbulent story.
World Grand Prix 2012 had the excitement MMA fans used to expect from K-1, an organization whose shady business deals, multiple ownership changes and unsatisfied fighters led to the success of their more profitable competitor, GLORY.
Founded in 1993 by karate practitioner Kazuyoshi Ishii, K-1 was the first international organization to blend different disciplines together. Over the last 20 years, names like Mark Hunt, Remy Bonjasky and Alistair Overeem used the promotion’s three-victory tournament as a career stepping stone. K-1’s reputation was first put to the test in 2002 when Ishii was arrested for tax evasion, forcing him to shift control over to Fighting and Entertainment Group (FEG) president Sadaharu Tanikawa.
In 2011, Tanikawa faced accusations that fighters from co-promotion It’s Showtime were not paid for their work in K-1. Tanikawa subsequently admitted to his financial problems and sold it to Japanese real estate firm Barbizon, who then sold it to Mike Kim and EMCOM Entertainment less than six months later. The latter sale inadvertently lead to the formation of GLORY.
Singapore based Total Sports Asia, along with other investors, placed a bid on K-1 when Barbizon put the promotion up for sale. When their bid was denied, TSA flexed its spending muscle and bought It’s Showtime, United Glory and Golden Glory. They also reached out and signed many of K-1’s unpaid fighters. In doing so, GLORY Sports International held the world’s top kickboxing talent under its brand.
With over 140 fighters on their payroll, and ambitions of worldwide expansion, GLORY has reached the level of recognition K-1 once enjoyed. In June, they agreed on a multi-year partnership with Spike TV to broadcast two-hour events on select Saturday nights, broadening their product in the U.S. in addition, a partnership with Asia’s premiere promotion ONE FC reinforced GLORY’s growing influence in the MMA world.
As Scifighting reported last month, GLORY recently purchased K-1’s video library only to find that FEG had sold the footage to EMCOM and their newly established K-1 Global in 2012.
“Essentially, FEG has sold the footage twice now, although it was initially to K-1 Global for a much higher sum. At this time, the bankrupted FEG has sold footage that it no longer owns to GLORY Sports International. K-1 Global has no option right now but to bring this matter to court,” K-1 Global stated on their official website.
Pending legal issues and an inability to find a promotional partner have not stopped Kim K-1 Global from changing the brand’s culture. The 2012 World Grand Prix tournament was held outside of Japan for the first time and they announced plans to expand into Romania and Azerbajian next year. Like GLORY, K-1 reached an agreement with Spike TV, although their events are only available online. Stripped of their heavyweight power, K-1 depends on former MAX Grand Prix champions like Buakaw Banchamek and Andy Souwer to keep the promotion afloat.
Cro Cop’s World Grand Prix victory is seen by few. He celebrates to baron seats and scattered applause; a tournament that regularly drew over 40,000 in Japan garnered the attendance of a few thousand in Croatia. K-1’s first tournament as owners can be considered a turning point and a reminder of the damage done by FEG.