Ky Hollenbeck had never seen anything like it. Catching a glimpse of his reflection in the shimmering waters of Monaco's Port Hercule, he strolled aboard the $20 million Andreas Super Yacht, fidgeting with his glasses while his crisp gray suit and jet-black tie seemingly tightened with every step. Seven of the best kickboxers on the planet awaited him, each nonchalantly mulling around the deck like this was just another Tuesday afternoon.
Within hours Hollenbeck would learn his fate, and with it, be cast by the wayside by every major kickboxing analyst with a keyboard or a Twitter account. But for now, he couldn't help but be awestruck by it all. "It was a little surreal," he admits.
"I'm sure some of these guys, they're used to that type of situation. But coming from America, where Muay Thai and kickboxing really hasn't exploded like it has in Europe, it was a first time thing for me. You just live that crazy, rich life for a couple days."
Like it usually does, all of this nearly happened by accident. Hollenbeck grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, a troubled young boy surrounded by a family of academics. Unlike the doctors and scientists that shared his name, Hollenbeck discovered early on a unique affinity for drawing blood with his fists. The brother of sisters, he found himself the target of the typical high school ribbing, and as the street fights and hallway brawls piled up, he figured he needed an edge. "When you don't know how to fight, when you're not trained, you look for any real reason to fight," Hollenbeck reflects with amusement.
And so he crossed the threshold of San Francisco's World Team USA Muay Thai gym, where head trainer Kru Sam Phimsouthsam wasted no time taking an interest in the fiery young 15-year-old. It started slowly, first the smoker circuit, then the amateurs, until someone finally decided to pay Hollenbeck for his penchant for violence. "It wasn't a goal of mine," he concedes. "It just started out, the training, as something to do. I needed an outlet, so I could take care of myself better in fights on the street. But it just kind of progressed. I fell in love with it.
"It kind of fell into my lap, really."
That's how, somehow, ten years later, Hollenbeck found himself the sole American on a grandiose yacht in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, awaiting the seedings draw for GLORY's Rome Final 8 event, kickboxing's premier eight-man, one-night tournament which carries a life-changing grand prize of $300,000. No one could of expected it, least of all Hollenbeck, but here he was. And wouldn't you know it, Hollenbeck was the lucky man to draw an opening round match-up against the darling of the field.
Giorgio Petrosyan. "The Doctor." A cold and clinical Armenian-Italian welterweight with just one loss in 74 fights, who, at the young age of 26, is already considered to be one of the greatest the sport has ever seen. "Giorgio is a one-of-a-kind champion that comes along every so often in professional sports," gushes GLORY executive Marcus Luer. "He has a level of mental fortitude that complements his world-class athletic ability. He is extremely calm and confident outside the ring and brutally clinical when he steps in.
"He will be in the Hall of Fame in kickboxing. His performances in the ring thus far have carved out a place for him in kickboxing history."
Compared to Petrosyan, the No. 1 ranked welterweight in the world, Hollenbeck is hardly a blip on the radar. The early betting odds are astronomically one-sided. Then why, some have asked, was there the slightest glimpse of a smirk adorned on Hollenbeck's face after the draw was announced. "They give me guys who are supposed to beat me, and I end up somehow beating them," he chuckles.
He's right. Hollenbeck has swiftly climbed up the ranks on the backs of a trail of opponents who were supposed to outbox him, outwork him, and plain outclass him. "That's always how it's been for me. People have always counted me out because I come from America and because American Muay Thai and American kickboxing hasn't always been as high-profile as it has been in Europe," he says without a hint of resignation. "This is the position I feel most comfortable in. There's no pressure. Everyone's kind of made of their mind about what's going to happen.
"There's no hero worship from me. I respect the hell out of Petrosyan, and he's a world-class fighter. But only to a certain extent. I'm not starstruck by Petrosyan. He's a man just like me."
This task is daunting, no doubt. But as Luer will quickly tell you, Hollenbeck could be the man to do it. The owner of an awkwardly aggressive and ferociously cerebral fighting style, Hollenbeck exudes a slick sense of confidence that he credits to having grown up in such a scholastic environment. His path has made him the oddball of the family, the butt of good-natured razzing at household gatherings, but few who know him would ever count him out.
It's part of the reason Hollenbeck was so pleased to draw the hardest opening assignment of the tournament. The way he tells it, he secretly hoped to land Petrosyan the entire time. "People asked me that. They said, ‘Would you rather fight him first or last.' And I said, if I have to fight him, I want to fight him first. Because if I do beat him, I don't want anyone having excuses for why I did it.
"I got my wish," he continues with a grin. "Like I said, I'll say it again, the reason I got into it is to fight the best. And he's the best."
Call him many things, but Hollenbeck is nothing but a realist. Fighters often possess a superhuman level of confidence to be able to do what they do, but even Hollenbeck can't be sure what will happen if he travels to Rome and pulls off a string of historic upsets on November 3rd. Because that's the thing about one-night tournaments. Even if Hollenbeck stuns the world and defeats Petrosyan in the quarterfinals, the inevitable adrenaline dump from such an otherworldly high just isn't an option. He'll simply walk into the backroom, cool down, and warm up again an hour later to try and defeat the next world-class opponent, hopefully avoiding injury in doing so, before repeating the process all over again.
"If Ky emerges the victor of the tournament, especially after having to face Petrosyan in the quarterfinal round, it would be a life-changing accomplishment for him," Luer marvels. "He would effectively be the man to beat in his weight division and, with the $300,000 grand prize, he would be afforded the opportunity to devote even more time to his fight career. Based on the fact that kickboxing is his passion the door would be opened to become a true global champion."
Hollenbeck and those around him often try to shrug off the barrage of patriotic questions -- the inevitable result of his unique success -- but sometimes they're unavoidable. It's no secret the United States has struggled to prosper in kickboxing, and even Luer admits Hollenbeck has become "one of the faces of kickboxing in America already."
With K-1 heading to Spike TV in 2013, the western kickboxing scene seems primed for a revival of sorts. But Luer knows the industry revolves around stars, and with a Rocky-like tournament victory, Hollenbeck could quickly become one. It's a long shot, but that's not too bad for a scholarly kid from San Francisco who never planned on being here in the first place.
"That's why people love these tournaments. Anything can happen," Hollenbeck muses. "There's so many intangibles that you can't predict. There's always that chance for something extraordinary."
"I'm going to do my best to do America proud and, hopefully, shock the world again."