Nine years ago I made a conscious decision, one that I’ve second-guessed and celebrated, one that has helped me to become known as an “expert” in a field while feeling simultaneously curious to what would have happened if I had taken a different path. That, in a nutshell, is the sport of kickboxing. There are ups and downs, with the extremes being just that: extremes. Nine years ago, after almost fifteen years of consuming everything that I could in the realm of martial arts, from pro wrestling to early MMA to kickboxing and muay thai, I made the decision that kickboxing was underrepresented in the modern media landscape that was seeing an endless supply of MMA news, analysis and opinions, so why not take a stab at it?
Since then there have been ebbs and flows within the sport. Most recently, there have been attempts to make both muay thai and kickboxing something that fans of combat sports could grow to love as much as they’ve grown to love MMA. American fans have, by and large, met the sport with a cold indifference. The maturation of MMA has led towards a bias towards grappling as the dominant art form, and why not? A child could sign up for jiu-jitsu, judo or wrestling classes without having to worry all-that-much about the sorts of injuries that can occur from striking arts. As an adult they can make the decision to learn striking, but striking is still, for most onlookers, crude, brutal and violent.
To many, kickboxing simply doesn’t exist. It’s an accolade tacked onto an MMA fighter’s fact sheet, it’s a sport that could show up at odd hours late at night on ESPN or something people had talked about vaguely. It’s the kind of sport that only spread by firsthand knowledge, that occupied the realm of roughly-dubbed VHS tapes, burned and scribbled-on DVDRs, ill-seeded torrents or later the odd animated GIF here or there. The re-introduction to American audiences has relied heavily on MMA lead-ins, unable to stand on its own when seen as “just a part of MMA,” or “MMA without grappling.” Yet there are still those willing to challenge these misconceptions.
Bellator Kickboxing on Spike TV is one such promotion looking to help grow the sport, doing so at longtime kickboxing enthusiast Scott Coker’s behest. In a way, it feels like the network threw Coker a bone for the sorts of magic that he’s been able to work with Bellator MMA, taking it from the decidedly B-league of the sport to a worthy competitor for the juggernaut that is the UFC. On their upcoming Bellator Kickboxing 7 card there are three American stars featured, all of which have fascinating and starkly different backgrounds, yet they find themselves all working towards the same goal.
Raymond Daniels comes from the world of sport karate, where he is known as the GOAT — or greatest of all time — and nobody doubts it, either. His most mainstream exposure before he began his professional kickboxing career was in the WCL, which was a failed attempt to bring sport karate “kickboxing” into the combat sports realm with confusing rules, a team format and oddly enough, tons of top tier talent who went on to have great careers in MMA, boxing and kickboxing.
Joe Schilling is the brawler with a golden tongue whose love for kickboxing led him to to taking on any and all fights, mostly in muay thai, before taking his place at the top of the heap in kickboxing. He’s been an MVP for the sport for years now, regardless of wins or losses, and tried his hand at MMA without fear. Joe’s style hearkens back to the golden days of K-1 where skill and talent were always king, but the real stars were the guys who had that and the ability to throw down and make magic happen inside of the ring.
Kevin Ross has literally been the posterchild for muay thai in the western world, with the now-famous image of the tattooed, mohawked Ross in a deep bow, with the words “MUAY THAI” engraved across his knuckles. He’s embodied the competitive spirit of muay thai by taking on any fight presented to him, including some of the all-time greats, and done so competitively, never giving up and always putting on a show. His entrance into kickboxing was much-anticipated, but never came to fruition until he signed with Bellator, bringing one of the most exciting fighters in the world into the sport.
“I still feel the same way about the sport as I did when I first saw it, I think it’s the most exciting and the toughest sport on earth.” – Joe Schilling
Each man’s background highlights the different paths that instead of diverging, converged into the sport of kickboxing under the Bellator Kickboxing banner. What’s truly interesting is, much like myself when given a choice, each one of these men chose the broken-down, battered and misunderstood sport to ply their trade, with a shared goal of seeing the sport that they’ve worked hard to become great at grown and prosper.
“Kickboxing has been my love and passion since I was 15-years-old,” Schilling explained. “Being the natural competitor I am has caused me to take chances and compete in pretty much every style of fighting there is. I’ve seen pretty much the entire evolution of kickboxing in the United States from watching the old Strikeforce Kickboxing shows on ESPN to where we are today. I still feel the same way about the sport as I did when I first saw it, I think it’s the most exciting and the toughest sport on earth.”
He is not alone with this passion.
“I believe that we are at the beginning stages of watching kickboxing & Muay Thai really start to grow here in America, and worldwide, to a place where fighters can actually start making a living doing what they love,” Ross added. He himself has traveled all over the world to compete in muay thai, making his name internationally before he could find a home for himself in the United States where he could fight and be paid well enough to make a living as a fighter.
“I am honored to be able to travel on this journey with them as they re-introduce the great sport of kickboxing back into the United States.” – Raymond Daniels
Raymond Daniels has had a different experience in the world of sport karate, and his transition to kickboxing is still relatively new, but yet, his experiences mirror those of Schilling and Ross. “I’ve had the great fortune and blessing to be able to travel and see the world with my martial arts experience. Nothing has been like the home I’ve had with Bellator Kickboxing, as they treat their athletes better than any organization that I have ever worked with or heard of. I am honored to be able to travel on this journey with them as they re-introduce the great sport of kickboxing back into the United States.”
Schilling and Ross have adorned what feels like an endless array of professional fight posters now, their faces etched into the minds of kickboxing and muay thai fans. Along with that comes the glory of each victory, the quiet reflection of each defeat and the sense of excitement every time they step into the ring again. Raymond Daniels has had his ups and downs as well, but he was given a crash course in professional kickboxing while still learning the ropes. That being said, he’s become one of the most highlight-worthy fighters of this generation, with his spinning back kick becoming that of legend, accounting for some of the most spectacular knockouts that any combat sport have seen in years and an instant-hook for the battle worn and leery fans unsure about taking a leap into a whole new world of a sport they’re not already immersed in. Yet, regardless of this, the sport has still struggled to find its audience.
“Where the sport is heading is a big question mark, to be honest,” Schilling explained with his usual blunt clarity. “I think the sport is in as good of a position as it’s ever been yet still in the same position it’s always been. It’s right there ready to explode or crumble. It really all depends on the same things it’s always depended on and fell short on in the past; Promotions committing to it and actually promoting the fights and the fighters actually coming to the ring with responsibility that I’ve felt on my shoulders for the last 10 years. That responsibility is to show the world an action packed, no playing it safe war.”
“I think the sport is in as good of a position as it’s ever been yet still in the same position it’s always been. It’s right there ready to explode or crumble.” – Joe Schilling
There is a sense of responsibility within the sport of kickboxing, a sense that it still needs to “prove” itself somehow, like the action in the ring hasn’t spoken for itself. The times when it’s been given a chance it has been met with apprehension or derision from hardcore MMA fans and journalists, including Bellator MMA Dynamite 1, an event that featured both MMA and kickboxing (albeit a mix of Bellator fights and GLORY fights on the kickboxing portion), yet the kickboxing portion failed to deliver with the high-paced action that fans were promised. To many, it was simply a missed opportunity, or another reason to continue ignoring the usually-exciting sport of kickboxing, whilst ignoring that there have been plenty of MMA events that have not only under delivered, but dragged and failed to deliver on even a basic level.
For someone like Ross, he’s seen the sport grow enough within his career that he sees hope, though. “A lot of artists never get to benefit from their life’s work, but that is not why we do what we do. This has been my passion that I lived and breathed for the last 15 years and 60-plus fights. It changed who I was, gave me direction and quite literally saved my life. I am here for a reason and if that reason has been to make it that much easier for the next generation to live and breathe their passion, then I have already surpassed my greatest expectations.”
” This has been my passion that I lived and breathed for the last 15 years and 60-plus fights. It changed who I was, gave me direction and quite literally saved my life.” – Kevin Ross
As for the future, though? That is still uncertain. Bellator has poised itself in a position to bring kickboxing into the modern combat sports lexicon, with these three fighters as the avatar. That puts a lot of pressure on them, although all three have already had that pressure in their own struggles to get to where they are, so they’re no strangers to this.
“I’m proud of my reputation not only as a fighter but more so as an ambassador for the sport and not just the Americans but the actual sport,” Joe continued. “I feel like when I fight the success or failure of the show is on my shoulders and to be quite honest I wouldn’t want or trust that responsibility to anyone else. I want the ball, so to speak, and on the 23rd that’s exactly how I feel. No one will ever say Joe had a boring fight, no matter how hard my opponents may try to make it a boring fight I’m always always always trying to put on an exciting show for the fans. And that is what this sport needs as well as a promotion to showcase the show I’m putting on.”
“I am humbled by the opportunity to be here, doing what I love and living my dream,” Ross said, echoing the thoughts of his longtime friend Schilling, although in his own way. “I am blessed beyond belief. Thank you to Scott Coker and Bellator for not only believing in me but for believing in the sport that I love.”
Daniels also had positive things to say about Bellator Kickboxing and their vision for the sport of kickboxing, “It is a dream come true that Bellator has put its faith in this sport and in me to display it to the world. With Bellator now backing kickboxing, there is no limit to how big it can be. I believe Bellator Kickboxing will be the best kickboxing organization ever. It needs the next great American Kickboxing superstar so that people will recognize kickboxing here in the states like they do in the rest of the world,” he said, quickly looking to take on that responsibility, much like Ross and Schilling have. “I look forward to taking on that role and holding the weight of America on my back and taking on all challengers and doing what I do best, put on a great show and create new highlight reels for all the kickboxing fans around the world.”
What kickboxing has needed, what it’s always had during its boom periods, and what it will always need is heroes. That might sound cliche, but when speaking about any sport, any action film or television series the titles, the teams and the promotions might be valuable bits of trivia, but the heroes are what people remember. Heroes are what build the narrative, that further the legend of a sport and help to bring it to immortality. All of these three men have been working their whole lives to see that dream become a reality, and for now, they do so under the Bellator Kickboxing banner where they’ll be competing this weekend, airing on October 6th after Bellator 184.