NEW YORK -- Everything that kickboxing can be was encapsulated in a flash during a mid-town Saturday night. Many in the crowd had come here to the Hammerstein Ballroom to see Tyrone Spong, and Spong had dreamed about fighting in Manhattan, yet six second into his first fight here, Spong was on his backside, on the mat, dropped by a straight right hand. A jolt went through the audience. Spong exhaled and returned to his feet. The referee restarted the fight, and Spong's opponent Michael Duut walked forward, looking for the finish, the statement. He threw fire, Spong wobbled, and then countered with a heat-seeking missile. A nuclear bomb. The darkest intentions a man could muster, concentrated into an overhand right.
It was more detonation than knockout, Spong going from vanquished favorite to conquering hero in far less than a New York minute. Thirty-one seconds, to be exact.
For GLORY, there is a hope that the promotion can pull off a similar act, picking kickboxing up off the mat and delivering a blow to the combat sports market.
Its debut show in Manhattan, in the shadow of Madison Square Garden, was no accident. For one, it is the media capital of the U.S. For another, it is a state that the UFC has been unable to conquer, or even dent. The promotion has spent countless time and money working to get mixed martial arts legal and sanctioned in the Empire state, yet year after year, the effort has fizzled in the early summer. Every year, it's wait until next year.
No such problems for GLORY. Kickboxing is not addressed in the state statutes that ban mixed martial arts. A few phone calls, and it was a done deal. GLORY hopes that the show, its first major event in the United States, will begin the process of re-introducing a dormant sport to an audience that has accepted combat sports into their diet of offerings.
"We looked at different cities. New York is a stage where MMA is not allowed, so there was a good opportunity to start here," GLORY sports chairman Pierre Andurand told MMA Fighting during the event.
There was a sly smile on his face when he said it. Of course there was. If he sees something there, an inkling of opportunity, who can doubt him? Andurand is a man who reads patterns and spots trends in a way that few can. He built a fortune on it as a hedge fund owner, one who trained kickboxing on the side and even fought one time [he lost after dislocating his shoulder]. He is a billionaire who believes kickboxing can more than carve out a chunk of the combat sports market. Maybe even challenge the UFC in due time. After all, it has all of the best parts of MMA and boxing -- striking and knockouts -- and few of the drawbacks -- no ground stalemates, few clinches, almost zero dead time. In this belief, he's invested a major chunk of cash.
The journey won't be easy. Kickboxing has lay nearly dormant in the U.S. for years. The sport had its heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s. There was a weekly show on ESPN. Networks occasionally showcased the sports in primetime on the weekends. But rule changes took away some of the most dynamic elements of the sport, and interest waned.
As the '80s wore on, the Mike Tyson era began, and the UFC would follow in the next decade, and soon, kickboxing was an afterthought.
"The biggest obstacle GLORY has is, how do you get people to care about these fighters?" Campbell McLaren told MMA Fighting. "We've seen a lot of styles of fighting in the last 20 years. Why should we care about these guys? Are they the best in the world? Do they have the most intriguing personalities? I think what they've got to do is get this across. They've got to make the U.S. care about these guys. That's the hard part."
McLaren should know. He's one of the co-founders of the UFC, and produced the first 22 events. The UFC's early popularity effectively put kickboxing out of business. But the U.S. battlefront won't be easily taken.
For one, the U.S. doesn't have any real major stars. Don "The Dragon" Wilson is probably the best American kickboxer, according to GLORY's television analyst Stephen Quadros, and that's a problem given that Wilson is 58 years old. For another, few American kids specifically chase kickboxing careers, according to noted trainer Ray Longo.
Longo said most gym newcomers only take up kickboxing because it is an element of mixed martial arts, and nearly all use it as a stepping stone to training and perhaps competing in MMA.
"I think a big challenge is the lack of [U.S.] talent," he said. "You notice the countries here at the event, they're from all over the world. There's no guys from Brooklyn. The cream of the crop is all overseas."
While there were six Americans on the 14-fight main card, it's true, the biggest names are foreigners. Spong has moved to the U.S. but he is from Suriname. Semmy Schilt is Dutch. Gokhan Sakhi is Turkish. Daniel Ghita is Romanian. Danyo Ilunga is Congolese. Giorgio Petrosyan is Armenian. As the collection goes, it's positively United Nations. That's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, the sport is global.
But Andurand sees the U.S. as the key market. In fact, he says he expects the U.S. to become GLORY's home, and that three of the remaining four 2013 shows will be in the U.S. He has designs of graduating to mega-events. Madison Square Garden is even an eventual target.
To spearhead the U.S. charge, GLORY hired Andrew Whitaker, a former World Wrestling Entertainment executive who was instrumental in that company's global expansion. Whitaker took the reigns as CEO in January. In a way, he's being asked to do the opposite of what he did at WWE. There, the brand was strong domestically but had little foreign traction; with GLORY, it's the inverse. Within a year of existence, GLORY had television distribution in 160 countries.
Whitaker is tasked with expansion, more than tripling television programming output -- 2014 promises 12 live events -- and building out the other lines of business.
"It is a significant challenge, there's no question about it," Whitaker said. "But good sports, well-produced sports, punches through programming clutter effectively. And the expectation here is excellence in every quarter."
Saturday night's event was configured for about 1,700 fans, according to Whitaker, and by the time the main card was midway through, the venue appeared to be full. There were small pockets devoted to single fighters, but Spong and heavyweight Daniel Ghita seemed to be the biggest draws.
The action was fast-paced, and so was the event itself. The six-fight undercard was completed in 90 minutes. The 14-fight main card took less than four hours. Fighter introductions had a taste of sizzle, with pyrotechnics, a ramp to the ring, and a giant replay screen behind the fighter's entry stage. There was clear effort in the production.
There is momentum building, yet there is more to do.
GLORY believes it has the first part of the formula right. Not every part of boxing rubs the fans the right way; not every part of MMA is beloved, either. They believe they've scrubbed combat sports of some of those lesser appreciated techniques and stripped combat to its raw essence.
"I think GLORY has the possibility to become real big here in the states," Spong said. "In MMA, UFC is the biggest organization, but still, when a fight goes to the ground, not all the fans appreciate it. You got to be a real hardcore wrestling fan or a hardcore jiu-jitsu fan, and most of the people are just random fight fans. They want to see blood. That's what they want. People are brutal. They just want to see two people hitting and kicking each other, and kickboxing comes real close to that."
At GLORY 9, that was perfectly personified by Spong's first win. He may have captured the tournament, but it was his jaw-dropping comeback win that will be remembered. Like all contact sports, this one can be thrilling and brutal, often in the same moment. Spong's moment was. That is kickboxing's draw. The sudden and the unexpected; frenzied action; thrilling endings.
The sport will continue to exist in some way. Even when it struggled in the U.S., it never disappeared completely. But the now is about finding footing after a knockdown. The team -- GLORY -- is assembled. The strikes have begun to fly. The only question now is whether the blows will land with impact.