NEW YORK -- Tyrone Spong wants to be the best fighter in the world. Whether boxing, kickboxing or mixed martial arts, he wants every crown imaginable. It's an ambitious goal, some might even say it's a crazy one. But Spong simply loves to fight. The challenge and the thrill of competition is in his DNA, and it comes out whenever someone wants to fight him, whatever the discipline.
On Saturday, the challenge wasn't just one fight. It was three. Or at least, the possibility of three. At this point of his career, he recently admitted, he doesn't necessarily like tournament fights, but this show, GLORY 9, was the best collection of kickboxing talent the U.S. had seen in years, maybe ever, and that meant the winner of the tournament would be the star of the show. He wasn't going to let anyone else take the job.
It wouldn't be fair to say Spong dominated the eight-man field. In fact, he survived an early first-round scare just to advance. But from there he found solid ground under his feet, and eventually won the tournament, beating No. 1 ranked Danyo Ilunga in the finals.
Spong's biggest challenge came in his first fight. Facing Dutchman Michael Duut, Spong was dropped in the opening 15 seconds by a straight right. But in an instant and stunning momentum swing, Spong fired back an even bigger right, a M.O.A.B. with such ferocity that it knocked Duut down twice. He managed to get up to his feet before the 10-count, briefly leaned against the ropes, and then fell back to the mat again as the referee waved off the bout.
It was the signature moment of a strong debut for a promotion trying to carve a niche in the crowded American combat sports market.
"It's a responsibility," Spong said after collecting his $200,000 winner's check. "I'm one of the biggest faces for this organization, to promote the sport in a positive way and this stage. But I can deal with the pressure. I've been fighting main events since I was 18. I'm just happy it was a good event."
The final was tinged with a hint of controversy, as Spong rocked Ilunga with a straight right, and was in the midst of a barrage against the ropes when the referee stepped in to stop the fight. Ilunga was never dropped during the sequence and immediately protested the stoppage, but replays showed he was on wobbly legs upon the finish. GLORY rules don't allow the referee to give a standing eight-count to a fighter who hasn't been dropped.
Prior to winning the title, the soft-spoken Blackzilians fighter won a decision over Filip Verlinden in his semifinal bout, meaning he defeated the Nos. 1, 2 and 4 light-heavyweights in the organization, all in the same night.
Afterward, he said he'd prefer to stay out of future tournaments, but would consider an offer if it came his way. Calling himself a "moneyweight," he reiterated his plan to fight in MMA for the World Series of Fighting in August, and then a move into boxing by the end of the year.
"Give me one big name and a good fight," he said. "That's what I prefer."