Karate, Kickboxing, Tae kwon do and Kung fu are among the martial arts upon which K-1 is founded. Throughout the year, the world's best fighters face-off in K-1 qualifying events on five continents for the honor of competing in the K-1 World Grand Prix, held in December in Tokyo.
The history of K-1 can be called the history of Seido-kaikan, which is a school of karate that predecessed K-1.
Before the Beginning
In 1980, Kazuyoshi Ishii founded his own karate organization New Japan Karatedo Federation Seido-Kaikan ( 新日本空手道連盟正道館 ) , after he resigned from Ashihara-Kaikan ( 極真会館芦原道場 ) to which he had belonged for a few months since it (and Mr. Ishii) had broken out of the Kyokushin organization, Kyokushin-kaikan, earlier the same year. He then established the Seidokan Karate school in Osaka, with dojos and university-based karate clubs in the Kansai area.
In 1982, the first All Japan Karatedo Tournament was held in Osaka, organized by Ishii and Seido-Kaikan, the new governing body for Seidokan Karate. The full-contact competition filled the Furitsu Gymnasium and was broadcast on local television.
In 1983, Seido-Kaikan fighters squared off against a group of Kung fu experts at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Kansai, Hong Kong, and had won the contest. Meanwhile, Ishii became the first Chairman of the newly formed All Japan Budo Promotion Association, an organization made up of Kansai-area karate and kenpo groups.
In 1985, Seido-Kaikan opened an office in the United States with Tom Edwards as its manager.
Mr. Ishii began to send his students to other organizations' competitions to show their ability in 1986.
In 1988, two of Ishii's students, Toshiyuki Yanagisawa and Masaaki Satake, finished 1st and 2nd in the Karate Real Champion Tournament, earning Ishii's Seido-Kaikan respect in the martial arts community.
In 1991, following a series of successful tournaments, Seido-Kaikan went to Tokyo for a tournament against USA Oyama Karate, in which Masaaki Satake beat the legendary Willie Williams.
In 1992, Kazuyoshi Ishii held the first ever gloved karate event, in Japan, the Karate Japan Open, and Masaaki Satake had won it.
K-1's eight-year history began with the revolutionary vision of Japan's Kazuyoshi Ishii. Following a sky-high climb through the ranks as martial arts mentor, promoter, and official, Ishii thought it was time to organize a major martial arts event. It was a dream meeting because of its concept, which was to decide the strongest martial artist in a night.
With karate moving closer to kickboxing in style, Ishii organizes the first K-1 Grand Prix at the Yoyogi Dai-Ichi Stadium in Tokyo, on 30 April, 1993. The event was held in a regulation-size boxing ring under the revolutionary K-1 rules, which permit punches to accommodate both karate and kickboxing fighters. A sellout crowd of 10,000 saw Croatian karate and kickboxing veteran Branko Cikatić win the tournament after he knocked out Changpuek Kiatsongrit, Masaaki Satake and Ernesto Hoost. The very first K-1 would be the first place that Ernesto Hoost and Peter Aerts would fight, with Hoost winning the match by decision.
Later in the same year, the K-2 Grand Prix was held, which was a tournament in the light heavyweight class. Ernesto Hoost knocked out Changpuek Kiatsongrit in the final.
After that, another event was held later in the same year, K-3 Grand Prix, that was won by Masaaki Satake.
In 1994, Peter "The Dutch Lumberjack" Aerts became the youngest and the 2nd K-1 World Grand Prix Champion at the age of 23 by beating Rob Von Esdonk, Patrick Smith and Seidokan top champion Masaaki Satake. The second annual K-1 WGP was significant not only for Aerts' feat but also for the participation of the legendary Karate fighter Andy Hug. Before participating in K-1, Andy Hug was winning karate tournaments all over the world and was becoming the number one name in karate around the world. Many saw Hug as an early lock to win this tournament but amazingly was TKO'ed in his first round match against Patrick Smith in 19 seconds. This would be the first of many initial setbacks for Hug in the K-1 world. But later in September, Hug won a bout at the Revenge event againsy Patrick Smith at the Yokohama arena, and established himself as one of K-1's first superstars.
1995 marked the beginning of K-1's expansion. They had the first K-1 event outside of Japan, the first K-1 Fight Night, courtesy of K-1 superstar, the late Andy Hug, who was to host the event, infront of a crowd of 12,000, which took place in Switzerland, homeland to Andy Hug. It was also a qualifier event to determine which 8 competitors will go on to compete in the K-1 World Grand Prix that year. Defending WGP champion Peter Aerts as well as K-1 veterans Ernesto Hoost and Masaaki Satake qualified in easy fashion. They were joined by newcomers Sam Greco and a young power puncher from France, Jerome LeBanner. Andy Hug entered in the K-1 qualifier hoping to get past his sub-par performance in last years WGP and was set to face young boxer turned kickboxer, Mike Benardo. Unfortunately, Andy Hug was TKO'ed out of the WGP.
In the '95 WGP, Japan's Masaaki Satake was KOed by Jerome Le Banner, who then went on to face Mike Bernardo in a slugfest and putting him down in the second round. On the other side of the tourney, Peter Aerts and Ernesto Hoost collided again, but this time Aerts got his revenge after going to an extra fourth round decision victory in a solid technical match. In the final, Aerts made easy work of the young Le Banner and KOed him within 2 minutes in the first round to become a 2 time WGP champion.
In 1996, the qualifier held very few surprises with the usual suspects moving into the final round including Sam Greco, Mike Bernardo, Ernesto Hoost, Stan the Man, Andy Hug, and defending two time WGP champion Peter Aerts. Along with them was the upcoming Japanese Seidokan fighter MUSASHI who KOed his opponent Kit Lytkins in 37 seconds in the first round. The only surprise was last year's finalist Jerome Le Banner was taken out by a young Croatian named Mirko "the Tiger" Filipovic who would go on to be one of the best MMA stars today.
The '96 WGP is, to many, one of the best K-1 WGPs. The surprises started in the very first match as Mike Bernardo stopped Aert's quest to be the first three time WGP champ with a jaw breaking right hook in the third round. This was redemption for Bernardo as months earlier Aerts got a controversial win over Bernardo via a KO in 40 sec within the first round where the ref stopped the match thinking Bernardo was out cold but seconds later he was up and arguing over the decision. Bernardo then moved on to a decision win over MUSASHI in a very hard fought battle. Meanwhile, Young Mirko's hopes of a K-1 Final were dashed by a swift kick from Ernesto Hoost. Hoost then went onto face Andy Hug in one of the best K-1 fights up to this point. The fight went into an extra round which saw Hug get the decision victory by a slim margin. After two years of disappointing losses, Hug finally achieved his dream in K-1 by taking out Mike Bernardo's leg with a stiff kick minutes in the second round and being crowned the K-1 WGP champion.
The 1997 qualifier saw a few new faces including Kyokushin Karate champion Francisco Filho who stunned the world when months earlier when he KOed the defending WGP champion Andy Hug within minutes in his debut K-1 fight. In the qualifier he impressed many again by taking out 7 foot fighter Van Der Merwe again by KO. A few old faces made their return as well. Jerome Le Banner got back on track by beating Rick Roufus by TKO in the third. The first WGP champion, Branco Cikatic, made his K-1 return but unlike Le Banner he was defeated by Mike Bernardo within seconds by an accidental headbutt which made a deep cut in his head causing the doctors to stop the fight.
In the '97 WGP Francisco Filho continued his amazing victories by KOing the heavily favored Sam Greco with a right hook 15 sec in the first round. Ernesto Hoost followed in suit by KOing Jerome Le Banner with a right hook of his own. The reigning WGP champion Andy Hug took out Masaaki Satake with left legged high kick. Meanwhile, the Aerts/Bernardo feud continued with another encounter. Up to this point, Bernardo had won the last three fights with Aerts (one of them by DQ when Aerts accidentally kicked Bernardo in the groin). Many felt that Bernardo had the edge as he has been the only one to defeat Aerts (other than Hoost who beat Aerts in his very first K-1 fight), but this time Aerts prevailed with a KO in the first round. In the semis, the victories didn't come so swift. Filho's impressive win streak was stopped by Hoost after three rounds while Hug was able to return to the finals with a decision victory over two time K-1 champion Peter Aerts. The finals saw Ernesto Hoost prevent Hug's bid for a second K-1 title after 3 hard fought rounds and win his first K-1 WGP title.
1998 saw the first United States qualifier which took place in Las Vegas. The winner, Rick Roufus, was given a slot into the 98 WGP opening round. Unfortunately for Roufus he was set up against last year’s sensation Francisco Filho. Filho pecked away at Roufus’ left leg through three rounds until he couldn’t go on anymore. Other K-1 veterans also had easy times making to the WGP Final including two time K- 1 champion Peter Aerts, Ray Sefo, Sam Greco, ’96 WGP champion Andy Hug, Masaaki Satake and defending WGP champion Ernesto Hoost. The only notable newcomer to the K-1 ranks was Maurice Smith who was an acclaimed kickboxer that a year earlier became one of the first UFC heavyweight champions. However, Smith’s K-1 career would not be nearly as successful as his MMA career as he was defeated by Mike Bernardo in a five round slugfest.
The '98 WGP is the shortest WGP to date with only one of the fights going to a decision. Francisco Filho tried to pick up where he left off last year but was stopped by a TKO from Mike Bernardo. Both former WGP champions Hug and Aerts made quick work of their opponents Ray Sefo and Masaaki Satake, respectively with TKO victories. Meanwhile defending WGP champion Ernesto Hoost was on his way to possible back to back WGP victories but an injury obtained during his slugfest with Sam Greco forced him out of the tourney. In the semi-finals, Peter Aerts and Mike Bernardo met yet again but like in their previous battle the Dutch Lumberjack would come out on top again with a TKO win in the first round. Meanwhile, Andy Hug made his way to the finals for a third time in the row (a feat yet to be repeated) by winning a tough decision over Sam Greco. In the final Aerts became the first three time WGP champion by KOing Hug with a quick kick to the head inside of one minute in the first round. Amazingly, Aerts is the only K-1 WGP champion to win all three finals with KOs in the first round. Due to this fact, he has been nicknamed "Mr. K-1".
In 1999, K-1 held three preliminary tournaments to determine six competitors who will face the final eight fighters from last years tourney (plus K-1 would choose two other fighters to fill the final spots). The first torunament was held at the K-1 Braves event where former WFCA kickboxing champion Lloyd Van Dams and Team Hug member, Xhavit Bajrami fought to a 5 round decision that saw Bajrami emerge victorious. Due to the selection process both Van Dams and Bajrami were sent to the Final Elimination round. The next tourney (K-1 Dreams) saw K-1 veteran Stefan Leko and Samir Benazzouz receive an elimination berth. The final preliminary tournamnet held at the K-1 Japan event saw MUSASHI receive a pass along with Nobu Hayashi.
At the 99 Final Elimination event the six winners along with Mirko CroCop and IFKA Superheavyweight champion, Matt Skelton were matched up with the previous years eight finalists (Andy Hug, Sam Greco, Mike Bernardo, Ray Sefo, Ernesto Hoost, Maasaki Satake, Jerome Le Banner who replaced an injured Francisco Filiho and regining WGP champion Peter Aerts). As always, the event held a few surprises including Mirko Cro Cop gaining a TKO victory in the first minute of the first round over the hard punching Mike Bernardo.
In the finals, K-1 vet Sam Greco, in his final WGP appearance, took out the young Ray Sefo after three rounds. Mirko Cro Cop TKOed MUSASHI with little effort in the second round. Former WGP champions Andy Hug and Ernesto Hoost slugged it out for three rounds with Hoost getting the nod for victory. In a huge upset, "The French Cyborg", Jerome Le Banner knocked out defending champion Peter Aerts with a huge left hook in the first round. In the semi finals, Mirko continued his path to the finals with an easy knock out win over Sam Greco while it only took Hoost 2 rounds to defeat Jerome Le Banner. In the finals, Hoost stopped the hot Mirko with a nice body punch that crumbled him in the third round to win his second WGP Championship.
The mark of the new century also marked the beginning of K-1's fascination with tournaments. 13 tournaments (8 preliminaries, 3 major blocks and then the final two) were held to determine who would make the trip to Tokyo for the World Grand Prix and this time everyone had to earn a spot, including the eight finalists of last year. The first major block tournament was the GP in Nagoya which saw defending WGP champion Ernesto Hoost face off with Jerome Le Banner in the finals. Hoost was injured from his previous match and his corner threw in the towel at the start of the second round. Per K-1 rules, both men advanced to the Final Elimination round. In the second block torunamnet which was held in Yokohama, a cocky French kickboxer named Cyril Abidi upset both Peter Aerts and Ray Sefo before being knocked out by a returning Francisco Filho. Both men advanced to the WGP.
The third block tournament was met with sadness. On August 24th 2000, a month before he was to partake in the tournamnet, Andy Hug died in Japan from Leukemia, he was only 35. Many people were still mourning the death of one of K-1 and martial arts biggest stars, as the tournament took place in Fukuoka. In the end both Mirko Cro Cop and Mike Bernardo made it to the finals.
With the three block tournamnents complete, six men were set for the WGP (Le Banner, Hoost, Abidi, Filho, Bernardo and Cro Cop). MUSASHI had to only win the Japan GP to get his ticket to the final while the last slot went to Peter Aerts. Unfortunately, this year would be a year of many misfortunes for the K-1 WGP as just weeks before the torunament was set to start, both Mike Bernardo (injured) and Jerome Le Banner (sick) had to withdraw. Ray Sefo and Stefen Leko were chosen as replacements but the damage was already done with two favorites of the torunamnets out even before it started.
In the first match defending WGP champion Ernesto Hoost took on Mirko Crocop. This was the third time these two have faced and Hoost won both via KO. This time the match went to a draw and in the extra round Hoost got the decision victory. The second fight also went into an overtime draw as Leko and Filho had to fight for two extra rounds before Filho finally got the victory. Peter Aerts had his chance to make up his upset loss to Cyril Abidi, but instead was headbutted continuously until he was bleeding from a huge gash above his eye. The ring doctor let the fight continue and Aerts got the decision win, but the damage again was already done and Aerts could not continue with the tournament causing another favorite to withdraw from the tournamnet prematurely. Abidi got to go in Aerts place to the next round. In the final bout, Ray Sefo TKOed MUSASHI in the second.
In the semi-final round, Hoost outlasted Filho while Sefo got another TKO victory over Abidi, avenging his previous upset earlier in the year. In the finals, Hoost claimed a third WGP title by winning via decision over Ray Sefo, tying Peter Aert's record of three WGP wins. Even with the final being a great match, technically, the tournament as a whole was considered a let down due to the withdrawing of fighters and the passing of Andy Hug that still hung in the air.
In 2001, K-1 expanded the qualifying torunament process again to 4 qualifying tournaments and 2 repechage (second chance or loser bracket) tournaments. Like last year, everyone had to qualify to make it to Japan and the World Grand Prix. The first tournamnent was the Osaka GP where Jerome LeBanner met rookie Adam Watt in the finals. Adam Watt made it to the finals by after losing to Ray Sefo in the first round. Sefo came into the tournament with a back injury, which he reaggravated during the fight, causing him to bow out and allowing Watt to take his place in the finals. It only took LeBanner 46 seconds in the first round to put Watt down and advance to the finals. Unlike last year, this year's qualifying tournamnets would only allow the winner to go to Japan while the runner up would go to one of the repecharge tournamnets (this would prevent some of the disastrous/sloppy performances of last year). In the Melbourne GP defending WGP champion Ernesto Hoost solidfied his spot in the finals by defeating Matt Skelton by decision in the finals. Even though it was no surprise that Hoost made it to the finals, the big surprise was when young Mirko was knocked out by relative unknown Michael McDonald, ending his shot at the WGP this year. The Nagoya GP saw the rise of 23 year old Alexey "the Red Scorpion" Ignashov in the WGP by beating out heavy hitter Lloyd Van Dams. Van Dams was allowed into the finals after another injury hampered Mike Bernardo. The last qualifying torunamnet took place in Las Vegas and was filled with upsets. The first was when K-1 vet Francisco Filho lost to Muay Thai practitioner Sergei Ivanovich. In the finals, three time K-1 WGP champion Peter Aerts faced veteran Stefen Leko in which he was heavily favored. Instead, Aerts was knocked out in the third by huge right hand, sending Leko to the WGP and Aerts to the repecharge torunament.
In Fukuoka there were two four men repecharge torunamnets. In the first , Francisco Filho redeemed himself by defeating Sergei Ivanovich and then winning the torunmanet by beating Lloyd Van Dams after an extra round. In the other tournament, Adam Watt upset the mighty Mike Bernardo while Ray Sefo outlasted the heavy hitting Mark Hunt. Unfortunately for Sefo, already plagued with injuries, he had to bow out again due to an injured eye. In the finals, Mark Hunt met Adam Watt and was able to get the TKO win over Watt and a spot into the WGP finals. The final two spots of the WGP were given again to Peter Aerts and to the K-1 Japan winner (who was Nick Pettas this year).
The WGP 2001 started out strong with defending champion Ernesto Hoost battling the young Stefen Leko to a three round decision victory on his path to a possible fourth WGP title. Following that match was what many considered one of the most hard hitting fights in K-1 history, "The French Cyborg" Jerome LeBanner fought Mark Hunt. Both men came out swinging, but it was Hunt who punched harder and knocked out the favorite LeBanner in the second round. Alexey Ignashov would also win by KO when a well placed knee broke the nose of his opponent Nicholas Pettas. The final first round match placed three time champion Peter Aerts against Kyokushin Kaikan champion Francisco Filho. Both men fought a very competitive fight, but it was a misplaced kick from Aerts that connected with Filho's elbow causing it to swell up. This forced Aerts to end his run for a fourth title early. Ernesto Hoost would also be forced from the tournament after a foot injury, allowing his first round opponent Stefen Leko to advance against Mark Hunt. With both Aerts and Hoost out of the tournament, this would be the first tournamnet since the '96 edition (which Andy Hug won) that a new champion would be crowned. In the semi-final round, Leko would fo the distance against Hunt, but fall short to the decision. On the other side of the semis, Filho did his best to hold off Belarusian Ignashov and was successful by getting the decision victory. In the finals, Mark Hunt, a man who got eliminated twice on his way to getting to the WGP, was crowned the 2001 WGP champion after a three round decision.
In 2002 the K-1 heads decided to stop the long winded tournaments as it was putting a strain on matchmakers and the fighters, as evidenced by the rash of injuries the two years they were done. So instead, they would have one event with eight matches with the winners going on to the finals in Tokyo. Fifteen of the fighters were handpicked by K-1 while the last fighter, Michael McDonald, qualified by winning the K-1 Las Vegas tournament.
The one night event was held in Saitama and had the best of K-1 fight for a spot in the WGP. The first match saw defending WGP champion Mark Hunt edge out Mike Bernardo in an extra round while Ray Sefo got a relatively easy win over Martin Holm. Three time WGP champion Peter Aerts got a hard fought victory over Glaube Feitosa while it took four rounds for Stefan Leko to defeat Alexey Ignashov. K-1 Las Vegas winner Michael McDonald had the daunting task of facing seven foot monster Semmy Schilt and actually took him the distance, but ended up on the short end of the decision. Jerome LeBanner, one of the best fighters in K-1 to not win the WGP beat K-1 newcomer Gary Goodridge in just 42 seconds. The main event of the night is probably one of the most infamous fights in K-1 history. Bob Sapp was a former American Football player and professional wrestler who got injured and then decided to dabble in MMA. Sapp had no skill to speak of but instead he had a huge body and loads of charisma that made him a huge fan favorite in Japan. Although he was a fan favorite he wasn't the favorite to beat three time WGP champion Ernesto Hoost. However, in a stunning upset, Hoost underestimated the wild Sapp and got cut so badly the doctor stopped the fight and Sapp was awarded the win.
The K-1 community was stunned that K-1 superstar Hoost lost to the rookie "Beast" Bob Sapp but forutnately for Hoost he wouldn't have to wait to long to get his revenge. Weeks before the 2002 WGP would take place, seven foot monster Semmy Schilt decided to take a match with then PRIDE Champion Antonio Rodrigo Nogueria. After losing to Nogueria, Schilt announced to the K-1 heads that he ended up injuring himself during a game of bowling. With Schilt out of the Finals the K-1 heads decided this would be the perfect opportunity to set up a rematch between Hoost and Sapp.
The stage was set for the WGP 2002 edition where fans came in abundance to watch Sapp/Hoost II. Sapp came into the match like the previous one...relying on his brute strength and after pounding Hoost in the corner for a minute (even though most of his swings were missing), the referee stopped the match and gave a TKO victory to Sapp, stunning the crowd again. However, during the fight, Sapp injured his hand and could not continue thus allowing Hoost to move onto the next round. In a more technical match, Ray Sefo took Peter Aerts to three rounds in a match that saw the upstart New Zealander get a very close split decision. Defending WGP champion Mark Hunt was able to easily dispatch of Leko with a third round KO, while Jerome LeBanner looked to be on form this year by knocking out K-1 Japan champion MUSASHI in two rounds.
In the semi-finals, Hoost needed only 2 minutes to end Sefo's WGP hopes while the eagerly anticpiated Hunt-LeBanner IV went to a grueling decision in which the judges gave the nod to LeBanner. In the finals, Hoost met LeBanner in what would be the fifth time in their careers. Up until that point, both men have claimed two victories a piece all coming via KO or TKO. It took three rounds but in a thrilling battle Hoost was able to overcome the powefull LeBanner and claiming his unprecedented fourth title and solidifying his nickname, "Mr. Perfect".
At the beginning of 2003 K-1 was facing a huge scandal that would change the makeup of K-1, to many die heard fans and critics, for the worse. K-1 founder, Kazuyoshi Ishii was charged and subsequently found guilty of tax evasion, by which he had to serve 22 months in prison. Because of this, he had to step down as head producer of K-1. Without a leader, many felt K-1 was done for. Yet, to the surprise of fans and the MMA community, former K-1 fighter and part-time event referee Nobuaki Kakuta, business man Sadaharu Tanikawa and fighter Bob Sapp took over as head producers of K-1 ensuring its survival. However, with the new three man team in control, the dynamics of K-1 changed. Gone were the shows that focused on the top kickboxers or martial artists competing against each other and in came what many labeled as the "freak shows" which showcased big muscular men that would wow the crowd with their size if not their skills. Coincidentally, these shows were nicknamed "Beast" shows, sharing the same nickname as Bob Sapp (another big strong muscular man that had more brawn than talent). Even though Bob Sapp became a sensation in Japan the previous year the two "K-1 Beast" events held were disappointments in both match quality and revenue.
Despite all the background changes, K-1 still moved forward filling in the slots for the 2003 K-1 WGP. There were only four qualifying tournamnents and one repecharge tourney to fill in the remaining slots for the elimination round being held in Osaka that would also include the final eight fighters from last year. American kickboxer Carter Williams earned a berth with his win in the Las Vegas GP. K-1 newcomer Jerrell Venetian won the GP in Basel. "Red Scorpion" Alexey Ignashov made his K-1 return by winning the GP in Paris by taking out Cyril Abidi. Peter Graham won the GP in his hometown of Melbourne while another K-1 newcomer Remy "Black Panther" Bonjasky qualified for the WGP by winning the repecharge GP.
Even though the qualifying tournamnets went without a hitch, the Osaka event was turning into a nightmare weeks before it began. Three K-1 favorites, Jerome LeBanner, Mark Hunt, and Ernesto Hoost were all out, the former two due to injury while Hoost was afflicted with a rare skin disease. To replace them, K-1 had to call in an aging Sam Greco, an unprepared Mike Bernardo, and Francisco Filho whose last fight was in 2001. Including all the winners, K-1 filled the final two slots with Cyril Abidi and former heavyweight boxer Francois Botha (part of the new "freak show" initiative).
The Osaka event was a mixed bag of fights. Peter Aerts dispatched Jerrell after three rounds. Alexey Ignashov knocked out Mike Bernardo during the second round while Peter Graham took out Sam Greco's leg thirty seconds in the second round. Ray Sefo took out the young upstart Carter Williams while Stefen Leko was able to outlast Filho. The last two fights of the night left a very bad taste in the mouth of K-1 fans as both Botha and Sapp were DQd for hitting Abidi and Bonjasky while they were on the ground, respectively.
The 2003 WGP finale took place in the Tokyo Dome and saw a great night of action. The first match was actually a rematch from Osaka as Francois Botha faced Cyril Abidi two months after their infamous fight where Botha knocked Abidi out while he was on the ground. Originally Abidi was supposed to face Stefen Leko but contract disputes fell astray and Botha was recalled in promising a very different and more decisive fight. Unfortunately for Botha it was a decisive victory BUT it was a unanimous decision against him. In the second quarterfinal Australian fighter Peter Graham faced the young Remy Bonjasky, who was a very heavy favorite going into this tournament. It only took one round for Bonjasky to prove why he was hevaily favored after putting down Graham with a couple of solid knees to the chin. Next Ray Sefo faced Japanese favorite MUSASHI in a very close fight that favored MUSASHI. In the final matchup the young Alexey Ignashov was set to face the veterean WGP winner Peter Aerts in a amtch that truly showed the difference in experience that favored "Mr. K-1" Peter Aerts and granted him a pass into the semis.
In the semis Bonjasky proved he deserved to be in the finals by taking Abidi out with numerous knee strikes and punches that gave him the win in less than 2 minutes. On the other side of the semis MUSASHI and Aerts waged a full out war against each other that had the Tokyo Dome crowd on their feet for the full three rounds. Many claimed it was the first time in a long time that the promising future K-1 champion that everyone once saw in MUSASHI had rememerged. Fourtnatly for MUSASHI, the judges saw it too and awarded him the victory. The 2003 finals would be between two men who represented the future of K-1 and would also represent the first new WGP K-1 champion since Hunt in 2001. Bonjasky was clearly the fresher man only having to fight a little less than 6 mins while MUSASHI had to fight a full 6 rounds to make it to the finals. Yet even though he was tired MUSASHI showed he could still go toe to toe with the young Bonjasky and by the end of the third round the K-1 fans witnessed a match many have claimed the match of the year. The whole world was on their feet waiting to hear the judges decision and who would claim the 2003 title...in the end the judges gave the victory to Remy Bonjasky! The "Flying Gentleman" was awarded one of the most prestigious titles in the kickboxing world and ushered in a new generation of fighters lead by Remy Bonjasky.
2004 would be the 12th year of K-1's existence and in most asian cultures the 12th year is the most important as it will be the ending of one chapter and the start of a new. What better way to start the new by having one of Japan's biggest stars (literaly) to enter the K-1 ring. Chad Rowan aka Akebono became the first NON-japanese sumo wrestler to win the top ranking as Yokozuna (and held it for an astounding 8 years) and retired as champion. Yet a few years later he decided to make the questionable decision to move to K-1. He made his debut at the beginning of the year (or end of last year depending at how u look at it) at K-1's first new years super show Premium Dynamite 2003. His first fight was to be (to the japanese) a dream match pitting the former Yokozuna champion against the "beast" Bob Sapp. The stage was set with thousands in attendance and millions of viewers watching at home for what was supposed to be the match of the century...instead it was a 3 minute squash as the wild fury of Bob Sapp overpowered the slow Akebono, sending him crashing to the mat to the groans of fans.
Akebono tried to bounce back in the following K-1 event which was held in Saitama in the famous Saitama Super Arena. This time Akebono was to face a smaller, possibly more manageable, definitly more talented fighter in MUSASHI. The heads of K-1 presumed that with Akebono's over 250lb weight and 7 inch height advantage it would make up for Akebono's lack of talent. Unfortunalty for Akebono... it didn't. Though Akebono didn't get knocked out he did lose by a unanimous decision in a match where MUSASHI's speed and quick strikes completely overwhelemed Akebono. It was soon dawning on the K-1 fans that Akebono was fast becoming another "freak" show that was all spectacle and no talent (like Bob Sapp, former boxing champion Shannon Briggs and Francois Botha..though Botha was becoming a better fighter over time).