Kyokushin Karate blossomed in an isolated environment. Deep in the back-country of 1950's Japan, a select few, trained by the Bull Killer, Mas Oyama, (That handsome devil in the above picture) went on to establish knock-down rules Karate as one of the most hard-hitting, brutal, and intense forms of organized combat in the world.
Kazuyoshi Ishii, the founder of K-1 and mastermind behind the Seidokaikan offshoot of Kyokushin, brought kickboxing to the masses in 1993 to demonstrate the power of Karate to the stand-up striking community. Most people know the big dogs of Kyokushin from K-1: Andy Hug, Francisco Filho, Glaube Feitosa, and Sam Greco. But beneath the layer of kickboxers lies a rich tapestry of combat sports athletes whose names nor accomplishments often see the light of day.
For this reason I've put together my very subjective list of the "Top 20 Greatest Kyokushin Fighters of All-Time". There will definitely be some names that devout kickboxing fans will recognize on this list, but more than likely I'll be introducing the majority of you to some new faces (or at least, that's my hope). As I mentioned earlier, this list is purely subjective. I selected the fighters mainly on achievement, but also on quality of competition and technical skill. Ranking Kyokushin fighters is dificult because the weight of their accomplishments depends on what tournaments they participated in, how frequently they did so, and how far they advanced.
If you're a Karate die-hard and you feel I missed someone very near and dear to your heart, drop me a line at @SandersonSensei and I'll take a look, just for you. Aren't I great? (The answer is yes.) Or if my list sucks, feel free to make your own and wave it in my face. We're all friends here, after all.
A little information on the different types of tournaments before we begin: A World Tournament includes every weight class. There are no divisions and no upper weight limit. Any Weight Tournament splits fighters into one of three weights: Lightweight (Under 70 kg) Middleweight (70 kg to 80 kg) and Heavyweight (Over 90 kg). That's it. Pretty simple, right?
So without further ado, let's get started with Number 20 on our list....
#20: Gary O'Neill
6th World Tournament 1995- 4th, 1st World Weight Tournament 1997- 5th, 2nd World Weight Tournament 2001- 5th, 28th All Japan Tournament 1997- 2nd, 29th All Japan Tournament 1998- 2nd
While Sam Greco may be the most widely recognized Australian Kyokushin champion from his stint in K-1, Gary O'Neill is undoubtedly the man with the greatest accomplishments. A 75 kg fighter that competed and won against heavyweights, O'Neill was known as one of the most technical fighters of his day. While his World Tournament rankings may not look like much, you should probably keep in mind that in the 6th incarnation of the World Tournament (When O'Neill placed 4th) there were over 150 fighters competing from every weight class, including heavyweight .
Gary's biggest accomplishments were certainly his 4th place at the the 6th World Tournament, and his two back-to-back finalist positions at the All Japan Championships, both of which he dropped to one of the best Japanese fighters of all time- Hajime Kazumi. Nothing to be ashamed of. O'Neill was a pioneer for Australian combat sports, and one of the first people to show that a lighter weight foreigner could throw down with the big dogs.
Read More for the Full List
#19- Lechi Kurbanov
8th World Tournament 2003- 5th, 3rd World Weight Tournament 2005- 2nd, All American Open Karate Championships 2002- 2nd, 19th All Japan Weight Championships 2002- 1st
For my money, Lechi Kurbanov is one of the most exciting fighters in the business. His only problem was coming onto the scene just as another titan of Kyokushin did- Ewerton Texeira. Ewerton has beaten Lechi at nearly every occassion they've met, but that doesn't mean the Russian still isn't one of the best of all time. Known for his fantastic spinning kicks and KO power, Kurbanov was a fan favorite to watch. He even participated in a few IKO-1 funded kickboxing events, where he fought embarassingly poor "K-1 style fighters" and knocked them out brutally. Fun, right?
Kurbanov never landed that big tournament win to push him into the top 10. Sadly, he fairly recently fell victim to an automotive accident that put an end to his best competing days. It's unfortunate that we may never get to see Kurbanov's peak, but we can always enjoy some of the nastiest highlights in the business instead.
#18- Nicholas Pettas
6th World Tournament 1995- 5th, 7th World Weight Tournament 1999- 5th, 1st World Weight Tournament 1997- 3rd, 26th All Japan Weight Tournament 1994- 3rd
If the name Nicholas Pettas sounds familiar, that's because he was a regular participant in K-1 back in the early 2000's. While Pettas is most likely known for his commentary and being knocked out by Peter Aerts, Badr Hari, and Jerome Le Banner, the Dane still picked up some impressive and underrated wins against Musashi, Gohkan Saki, and Yusuke Fujimoto.
Before he entered kickboxing, wrote a book, and became an actor, Nicholas Pettas was one of the first foreigners to be promoted directly under Kyokushin founder Mas Oyama. Pettas was famed for his two back-to-back top 8 positions in World Tournaments, as well as his highly technical fighting style. He was also one of the first Kyokushin practitioners to participate in gloved karate matches that allowed punching to the face. Is there video you ask, with wide eager eyes? Yes.
Yes there is. (Featuring a cameo by Glaube Feitosa)
#17- Ryu Narushima
7th World Tournament 1999- 8th, 1st World Weight Tournament 1997- 3rd, 26th 12th All Japan Weight Tournament 1995- 1st, 13th All Japan Weight Tournament 1999- 1st, 16th All Japan Weight Tournament 1999- 1st
Ryu Narushima, nicknamed "The Dragon," is arguably my favorite fighter out of the entire top 20. Without gushing over him too much, here's the facts: Narushima weighed around 66-68 kg. For our American audiences that translates to about 145 pounds. The reason that Narushima ranks in at #17 on this list is because he was the lightest fighter to ever reach the top 8 of any open weight world tournament. Oh, and who was the person that ended his stellar run that night? That would be Francisco Filho- The K-1 Heavyweight star who would go on to win the entire tournament.
Narushima was probably one of the most technical karaetkas that ever lived. And not only was he technical, he had a KO ratio higher than most heavyweights. He dominated his weight class during the All Japan Weight Tournaments. He also put on one the best performances of the night in the 6th World tournament in the early rounds against Gary O'Neill, whom he lost to. Extremely fast both mentally and physically, the Dragon was a true warrior. There's only one lightweight fighter that's better, but we'll see a bit more about him later. In the meantime, enjoy these fantastic Narushima highlights.
Tune in soon for fighters #14-10. I hope you all enjoyed it.