The Age of the Kickboxing Four Man Tournament is Over

Peter Aerts (right) victorious over Semmy Schilt (FEG inc.)

Modern kickboxing has had its fair share of ups and downs, but since the fall of FEG in 2011 there has been a growing trend in kickboxing and that trend is the one-night, four-man tournament. Made popular by promotions like GLORY, Kunlun Fight and countless others, it has become the standard of which modern kickboxing exists and frankly, it misses the mark on what made tournaments and kickboxing special.

In the case of GLORY they are used for anything and everything. The common application of four-man tournaments has been for title contendership. The problem is, though, if you look at GLORY’s title picture right now, it’s a muddled mess with there being no actual clear contenders in any given division. Winning a contender’s tournament no longer means a title shot is yours, it now means perhaps you’ll enter another tournament, or fight someone who wasn’t in the tournament for contendership. Take Ariel Machado, for example. He just won the GLORY 38 Light Heavyweight tournament, which earned him a shot at Artem Vakhitov. Vakhitov is injured so now at GLORY 43 Saulo Cavalari and Pavel Zhuravlev are fighting for an interim title. The winner fights Vakhitov when he’s healthy to unify the titles.

Do you see the problem there? Let’s not even speak of heavyweight, with Rico Verhoeven taking non-title fights while contenders literally stack up, then take fights to stay busy, lose, then lose their spot as a contender. If it feels like there are four contenders for Rico Verhoeven, that’s because there are. Ismael Londt, Benjamin Adegbuyi, Jamal Ben Saddik and D’Angelo Marshall. There’s probably more that I’m forgetting about. Now, well over a year after his last defense, he’ll defend against Jamal Ben Saddik, who earned his shot at Verhoeven after defeating Ismael Londt last year, not because he won a tournament.

These recent decisions not only undermine the four-man tournaments that they are holding, but make them seem entirely obsolete. Fighters that we’ve spoken to don’t like fighting in four-man tournaments because the pay isn’t substantially better, the risk is higher and the reward seems to be a giant question mark. As for spectators, mileage may vary, but personally, the four-man tournament lacks the drama of the old eight-man tournaments and running one every show lacks the magic of the tournament. Quite simply, there are no real stakes involved anymore with these tournaments.

The old K-1 format was two main shows: The Final 16 where there were 16 fighters in 8 fights. The winners then had a lottery to pick their spot in the Final 8, then in December there was the Final 8. That final tournament was the combat sports event of the year, no matter what else went on that year, the K-1 World Grand Prix Final was going to deliver in crazy action. GLORY ran a few 8-man tournaments, including GLORY 3’s Lightweight tournament and GLORY 9’s Light Heavyweight tournament and GLORY Last Man Standing’s Middleweight tournament. Interestingly enough, the last two were actually in the United States, meaning that any sort of talk about logistical hurdles in the US can be overcome.

(GLORY Sports International)
(GLORY Sports International)

The four-man tournaments were an interesting experiment, but have proven to be cumbersome, lacking in the same sort of energy that bigger tournaments had. Also, because they happen so often don’t feel as special and create confusing lines of contendership for many divisions. GLORY currently has six weight classes, meaning they could easily spread out a big 8-man tournament per division to every-other month and leave room for shows with title defenses and super fights without concern.

While it was a noble idea to try something new, the sport of kickboxing grew to what it is today on the backs of those tournaments and the stories that they built. I can still remember the first time that I sat down to watch a K-1 event with my now-wife, then-girlfriend. It was the 2010 K-1 World Grand Prix and we were watching it live while I covered it for my site. The stories were very clear-cut and to this day she still remember not only who Peter Aerts is, but his win over Semmy Schilt and how there was no way it should have happened. That was one of those moments that simply doesn’t happen in a four-man tournament. Him not winning the tournament didn’t matter, him fighting for his life against the giant, reigning champion in Sem Schilt was a perfect image and I’m not sure that she can name any modern fighters outside of Rico Verhoeven because she met him once.

The sport of kickboxing has lived and died by those tournaments and K-1 Japan has been able to show the world exactly why those tournaments are so special. They took a damaged brand and worked it back up from very, very small shows to slowly clawing their way back to the level of recognition that K-1 had before FEG went under and they’ve done that with one-night, eight-man tournaments. GLORY has one of the most talent-rich rosters in the world of kickboxing, they have grown their brand to be known as the place for kickboxing and have cultivated a new breed of champions, challengers and recognizable stars, now it’s time to make them legends.