K-1 Japan held a press conference announcing a new Super Lightweight World Grand Prix to be held on November 3rd, 2018. The tournament will crown a new 65kg champion for the organization after previous champion Noiri Masaaki vacated the belt earlier this summer to move up a division.
While K-1 Japan still has its experimental cruiserweight grand prix set to go down in September, the return to the 65kg division represents a throwback to the roots of the promotion. It was on November 3rd, 2014 that K-1 Japan held its first event, a relatively unheralded tournament in which Kaew Fairtex shocked audiences with a bloody KO over Glory 65kg Grand Slam Champion Kubo Yuta enroute to becoming the number 1 featherweight in the world.
Much has changed since that initial event held before a small audience in the shadows of the Yoyogi Second Gymnasium. It is fitting that on the fourth anniversary of that inaugural event, K-1 Japan returns to the 65kg division with a GP roster that includes the original tournament finalists in Kaew and Soda as well as a host of newer signings. 65kg has been the crown jewel of K-1 since its pivot to the lighter weights and the eight man one night tournament promises to be one of the top GPs this year, albeit with some notable absences.
The marquee attraction is the quarter-final battle between inaugural K-1 Japan 65kg champion Kaew Weerasakrek (formerly Kaew Fairtex, 142-34-4) vs. Yamato Tetsuya (40-16-1). Since his dominant run in the 2014 tournament, Kaew maintained a reign of terror over the 65kg division that lasted the better part of three years including a second GP run and a 19 fight win streak vs. Japanese fighters. The Japanese killer was finally stopped by Noiri in the summer of 2017 and only by an extra round split decision.
The question everyone is asking is whether that version of Kaew is still here. Kaew is 1-3 since his loss to Noiri including his first KO defeat in K-1 competition against Ren Hiramoto. While two of his recent losses were only by the thinnest of margins in decisions vs. top contenders, all pressure is on Kaew to show a return to form. The Thai vet who will turn 34 years old this year insinuated that retirement could very well be in the cards if he were to suffer another loss.
K-1 has not given Kaew any favors by matching him up vs. the Battleship Yamato. Not only is Yamato a KO artist with 75% of his wins coming via knock out, he has a strong track record in muay thai. While many of Kaew’s Japanese opponents like Kubo, Yamazaki and Soda were caught off-guard by the muay thai stylist’s kicking pace and distance, Yamato is far more likely to be wise of the veteran Thai’s book of tricks. Yamato, who has previously faced the likes of Saenchai, Kongsak Sitboonmee, Pakorn PKSaenchaigym and Sagetdao Petpayathai said that he expects Kaew to be the most challenging Thais he’s ever faced and said he was throwing everything he had to take Kaew out.
Long time followers of the sport may remember that it was Yamato that won the K-1 63kg tournament in 2010 (which, curiously enough, also featured a bloody KO over Yuta Kubo). Following that win, Yamato’s career diverged from K-1 into a muay thai run that saw him winning belts in NJKF, Lion Fight, WBC Muay Thai and YOKKAO. Meanwhile Kaew paused his muay thai career to reign over K-1. It is fitting that on this memorial event, the parallel career tracks of the original FEG K-1 lightweight champion finally crosses with those of the inaugural K-1 Japan 65kg champion.
In another quarter-final battle, K-1 Japan veteran Soda Yasuomi (24-7-0) is back in action vs. Road to Glory UK 65kg winner Mo Abdurahman (30-9-0). Soda is another veteran of the K-1 Japan circuit and was runner-up in the original 2014 grand prix where he came in as runner up after victories of Kimura ‘Phillip’ Minoru and Hiroya. Since that tournament, where he was originally marketed as a buttoned-up Silver Wolf-based Masato-protege, he has undergone one of the most bemusing career transformations in recent memory as he donned the mask of the Great Soda-man. While his masked persona and refusal to cut his hair continues to perplex reporters, he rides into the tournament fresh off a sickening body blow KO vs. Meng Guodong. His opponent, Abdurahman is both the youngest (22) and the tallest (5’11) contestant. The former Glory fighter lost in his initial outing on the big stage vs. Kevin Vannostrand, but he returns to the big stage after a brutal KO victory against muay thai veteran Manachai earlier this year.
The tournament also features two bouts between relative newcomers to the division.
Former Krush 63kg champion Sasaki Daizo (20-15-1) faces the Kiwi Sam Hill (34-11-2), WMC Welterweight champion and King in the Ring New Zealand Welterweight champion. Sasaki is a veteran of the Japanese kickboxing circuit who came to prominence when he placed 8th in the 2008 Koshien High School tournament competing vs. the golden generation of Japanese kickboxers such as Noiri Masaaki, Urabe Koya and Hiroya. Since then he has become known as a contender with a well-rounded skillset that couldn’t quite notch a top level win garnering him the ringname ‘Sleeping Dragon’. After dropping his Krush belt to Gonnapar Weerasakrek, he seeks to correct his career trajectory with a move up a division. His opponent, Sam Hill is making a debut in K-1 Japan. While a transplant more used to taking muay thai rule fights, he has been given a prime opportunity to make a name for himself vs. the well-respected Sasaki.
Finally, Melsik ‘the Gun’ Baghdasaryan (9-2) makes his third return to K-1 Japan vs the former Krush 65kg champion Nakazawa Jun (23-12-1). Melsik, an Armenian based out of Glendale California, is the dark horse of the tournament with a relatively short track record that includes a decision over Chinese king pin Qiu JianLiang. Despite injuries forcing him to back out of two past fights in the organization, K-1 Japan has called him back at a division lower than in past appearances in hopes that he is finally healed up and ready to take K-1 by storm. He faces a tough challenge in Nakazawa, a well trodden brawler that scored a win over Soda at K’Festa earlier this year.
The K-1 executives also addressed reason for some prominent absences. Yamazaki Hideaki, winner of a past Japan grand prix with wins over Soda, Kubo and Noiri, was forced to pass on the tournament out of concern of injury. The karateka was out of commission for over a year after repeat knee injuries after fighting Gonnapar and Kaew and only recently made his recovery to professional competition earlier this June. He is likely to make a K-1 return in a superfight as his team worries about the knee holding up in a tournament context. Shinohara Yuto that defeated Nakazawa earlier this year to win the Krush 65kg belt is moving down to 62.5kgs for future K-1 appearances. Ren Hiramoto on the other hand, is moving up to 67.5kg due to difficulties with weight cutting. As disappointing as his absence is, a move up a division keeps alive hopes for a showdown vs. former champ Noiri Masaaki down the road.
This event will be broadcast live on AbemaTV. The announcement of superfights will follow in a separate presser down the road.
K-1 World GP Third Super Lightweight (65kg) Championship Tournament
QF1: Sasaki Daizo vs Sam Hill
QF2: Nakazawa Jun vs Melsik Baghdasaryan
QF3: Soda Yasuomi vs Mo Abdurahman
QF4: Yamato Tetsuya vs Kaew Weerasakrek
Reserve Fight: Matsushita Daiki vs FUMIYA