Michael Schiavello is well known in much of the world as the English-language voice of Japan's K-1 kickboxing, but in the United States, kickboxing is a small niche sport. In an interview in advance of K-1's July 13 event, I caught up with Schiavello for an interview to discuss where kickboxing is now, both in the United States and the rest of the world, and where it could go if it capitalizes on the boom in popularity of MMA and on its U.S. television deal with HDNet. The full interview is below.
Michael David Smith: What do you think K-1 needs to do to attract more fans in the United States? With how quickly MMA has grown in America, why haven't we also seen a surge in popularity for kickboxing?
Michael Schiavello: One of the big reasons why K-1 has not been bigger in America in the past is because traditionally heavyweight fighters in America are bred for boxing as that is where the money has always been. The money has never been there for heavyweight kickboxers in America, so if you're a big guy and you want to make money off fighting, the best way to do it in America has traditionally been to box. This is different in Japan where most heavyweights are bred to be K-1 fighters. It is also different in Europe where there are a ton of kickboxing schools as kickboxing and Muay Thai is more popular than boxing, and hence K-1 is so strong in Europe doing sell-out shows in Holland, Romania, Budapest, Poland and getting fantastic television coverage across Europe. In Europe, the young heavyweights grew up watching Ernesto Hoost and Peter Aerts. In Japan, the heavyweights grew up watching Musashi and Satake. In America, young heavyweights grew up watching Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield.
Things have changed over the last few years however and now you have a very diverse boxing heavyweight division that is no longer solely the terrain of American boxers. With such an influx of European boxers like the Klitschkos, Valuev, Chagaev, etc, boxing fans are becoming used to the idea that there are good heavyweight fighters outside of America and they will watch fights between two non-Americans and enjoy it. Same goes in MMA now -- Fedor vs Arlovski being a prime example of two Russians fighting in front of a capacity MMA crowd in the U.S.. The increased exposure and growth of MMA in the USA has now also brought a new mindset. Young heavyweights can aspire to be MMA fighters and can train in Muay Thai or kickboxing and know that it could now lead them to big money and regular high level competition in the States, whereas it never did in the past.
What the increased MMA audience has also brought is a greater fight education and a greater want for knockouts. At the end of the day with all the awesome submissions that can be utilized in MMA, what the crowd, particularly the American crowd still love to see is a knockout -- which is something K-1 is made for. There is nothing more simple and easy to understand in fight sports than the knockout, and K-1 is all about the knockout. It offers more weapons and therefore more variety of knockouts than traditional boxing but doesn't have the grappling intricacies of MMA, which makes K-1 a much easier sport to understand for the casual fan.
So with that said, I fully expect K-1 to make an impact on the U.S. scene over the next few years. It will require baby steps at first, but it will pick up as fight fans realize they can see non Americans from all over the world knock each other out in sensational ways and with the world's best production values to boot.
It would be ideal to have an American fighter or two as the flag-bearers for K-1 in the USA, but it is difficult to find quality kick fighters in North America who can handle the attrition of K-1 fighting. American kickboxing is traditionally fought with above-waist rules, the long pants, the minimum kick rule, etc. Even something like the World Combat League, which is really continuous sparring, can't compare to the sheer attrition of K-1 fighting. Even with Muay Thai's boom around the world, it's hard to find good American Muay Thai fighters who can compete with the Dutch, the Thais, the Japanese and the Australians. I know that the producers of the second season of The Contender Asia have been struggling to find an American representative to put in the house. Perhaps what needs to be done is the establishment of small, feeder promotions for middleweights and heavyweights in the USA. These feeder promotions could then be used to create North American talent for future K-1 shows. Again this all happens with time as I said above, now young fighters are realizing there is a future for kick fighters in the USA.
Another reason why K-1 hasn't taken off in the States in the past is because there has been no firm television agreements in place. K-1 is a made-for-television product. The production values are just crazy and the coverage of the fights second-to-none in my opinion as someone who has worked with some of the best production crews in the world. Now with HDNet in place broadcasting all K-1 GP and MAX events, the opportunity is there for K-1 to make its push into the US market, again with baby steps at first. The response to the broadcasts on HDNet have been overwhelming to say the least. For the first time ever last December, we broadcasted the K-1 Grand Prix live to North America and everyone seemed to love the non-stop action and the production of it all. It's a great indication that American fans want to see more of the quality striking action K-1 is offering.
I agree with you that K-1 is a great TV sport. What's your sense for how it's doing in terms of growing its international TV audience? And has K-1 penetrated the international audience to the point where people recognize your face and your voice in every country of the English-speaking world?
K-1's international television presence is larger than a lot of people think. To date K-1 has been broadcast in 138 countries, with last year's K-1 Grand Prix broadcast being the biggest ever. I myself didn't actually know how extensive the coverage of K-1 was until I received a list of all broadcasters with a breakdown of every network that airs K-1 worldwide. It's massive, with especially big penetration in Europe through EuroSport and then individual countries' broadcasters like SBS 6 in Holland, ProTV in Romania and others. In Europe, particularly central Europe, K-1 is king. When we were in Lodz we walked past a bar at 8pm and they were playing K-1 on the television. Also I had no idea but even Al Jazeera broadcasts FEG product! Sky TV in New Zealand last year broadcast every K-1 GP, MAX and DREAM event. Main Event in Australia did a lot of K-1 pay per views. Then you also have the huge penetration in Asia that continues to grow. So yes, you'd be amazed how wide reaching K-1's broadcast arm is and it is growing, as we have seen with HDNet coming on board and doing wonderful things, including their specials like "K-1 Classics" and "Best of the K-1 Grand Prix" I guess one major indication to me is that yes, my voice and face has become recognized as the voice and face of K-1 in the English-speaking world. I also get heaps of e-mails from people even in non-English speaking countries that get a hold of our broadcasts. It's very flattering.
Is there any one K-1 fighter right now who you think has the talent and the charisma to become a star in the US?
First and foremost is Badr Hari. Love him or hate him, Hari is one of those athletes you will always tune in to watch because you know that anything can happen. It's like watching Tyson back in the day, or John McEnroe, or Diego Maradona: there is brilliance there and awesome natural ability, but there's also the chance he's going to blow his fuse, bend the rules or completely shatter them. He's also golden on the microphone, he's good looking and he has that presence about him as someone who shines just that bit brighter than the rest. Utilized and marketed in the correct way in the States, Badr could be absolute gold dust for K-1. As I have said before, Badr is the most naturally talented fighter I have seen since Alexey Ignashov. In his short K-1 career, he has produced some of the most amazing knockouts in history. His spinning heel kick KO of Stefan Leko in a super fight at the Tokyo Dome in 2005 was something straight out of a movie. Just incredible.
Do you think K-1 should have punished Badr Hari more severely for his actions in the World Grand Prix final? I think an American sports league likely would give a lengthy suspension to an athlete who committed such a blatant foul on such a grand stage, but Badr Hari was right back fighting for K-1 again at Dynamite just three weeks later.
This is a very debatable point. How much punishment is enough? It's so subjective. He was disqualified from the Grand Prix and so missed out on taking home half a million dollars; he was stripped of the heavyweight title which is very stern given as his actions didn't take place in a title defense match; and he was fined his entire purse, which would have been a hefty fine indeed. I think that was punishment enough though it can be certainly argued that he should have been suspended for a length of time. Badr apologized to Remy and apologized to K-1 and the fans. He felt the consequences of his actions where it seems to hurt fighters the most these days -- in the hip pocket.
When do you think we'll see another K-1 event on US soil?
In 2010, K-1 is planning on making a return to the USA with a major event somewhere in the mainland.
In your view, who's the best fighter in K-1 right now?
If you mean K-1 overall (middleweights and heavyweights), the best in my opinion is Masato and then Artur Kyshenko. If you mean K-1 heavyweights, it's a hard call. Bonjasky, Aerts, Schilt and Hari can all lay claim to being the best. They are the 'big four' right now. Hari just demolished Schilt inside of one minute on a non-K-1 show in Amsterdam. That was impressive. I have never seen Schilt get monstered like that. Wow, this is a hard question because I could make a case for each of these four guys! I want to say Hari, but he doesn't seem to have the jaw that Aerts does. I want to say Aerts, but Hari monstered him too. I want to say Schilt, but Aerts conquered him masterfully in Korea last year and Hari just took his soul. So I will say Remy. He has a lot of knockers but fact is he is consistent (he has lost only six fights in the last six years and he has fought 38 times in this period), his defense is water tight and when he turns it on he is aesthetically beautiful to watch.
You mentioned that Masato and then Artur Kyshenko are the top two K-1 fighters, in your view. For American fans who aren't familiar with them, what do you expect us to see from those two, both of whom are fighting on the July 13 card?
Firstly, let's talk Masato. If you're making a list of pound-for-pound the best fighters on the planet, it would be remiss not to include Masato. He is just a phenomenal athlete and the complete fighter: he is the best natural boxer in K-1, he is fast, he is smart, he also kicks like a mule and is just beautiful to watch. When you see him fight look closely at his footwork, at his timing, at the angles he works, at his ability to both go on the offensive and to counter attack. Even most of the K-1 heavyweights I talk to, when I ask them who is the fighter they like watching the most in K-1 overall, guys like Ray Sefo and Peter Aerts and Mike Bernardo tell me it's Masato. Look up his fight against Buakaw in 2007 at the Budokan. That's one of my favourite fights ever. Have a look how fast Masato is. It's like he's on fast forward! He won his second MAX title last year in truly emphatic fashion, twice having to pick himself up off the canvas in one night in two different fights. Like Wayne Parr said to me, "I will never forget where I was when watching Masato win the MAX crown again." On July 13 ,he takes on Kawajiri in a fan voted fight and the second part of his retirement trilogy. The first part was an exhibition match against teenager Hiroya in Fukuoka, and the last part will be a super fight at Dynamite on NYE against the K-1 MAX 2009 champion whomever that will be. The Kawajiri fight will be crazy, especially for the first two minutes. I expect Kawajiri to open up like a house of fire in the first two minutes and throw everything at Masato. If Kawajiri is going to win, this is where he will win it. If not then, I expect Masato to lead him to deep water and outpoint him over three rounds. That's my prediction.
Artur Kyshenko is a phenom. He is a Ukrainian born into poverty who used Muay Thai as his means to transcend and turn his life around and the lives of his family. He's only 22 and if he wins the K-1 MAX crown this year he will become the youngest K-1 champion in the sport's history, a record Peter Aerts has long held as he won the K-1 Grand Prix title as a 23 year old in 1994. Kyshenko has everything at his disposal. He's a big unit -- I'm amazed that he actually cuts down to 154lb and maintains so much power -- and has wicked kicks, vicious hands, tight defense and a massive will to win. In particular, his leg kicks and his liver shots are just sublime. He's ruthless too. His KO over Alviar Lima last time out was just brutal. It was a complete beatdown.
Kyshenko takes on Andy Souwer on July 13. Souwer is a two-time MAX champion and maybe the closest thing to a faultless fighter I have ever seen. This fight is going to be amazing. Wow, I get goosebumps just thinking about it!
You use a lot of scripted lines during your calls. How much time do you spend writing those, and do you ever think you do too much scripting, at the expense of describing the action spontaneously?
I don't sit in front of my PC trying to come up with lines. I will do things or see things that trigger what I think could be a cool line and lock it into my memory. For example, my little sister is pregnant at the moment and the other day I felt the baby kick when I put my hand on her stomach. I thought to myself, that could be a good line to have in my mind for a show: "I've seen unborn babies kick more than this guy." So I put that in my mind and if on the next show I see a fighter who has forgotten his kicks I may slip that line in somewhere if it feels natural, not forced. You can't script lines into a commentary because you never know what is going to happen in a fight and I do all the K-1 and DREAM fights live, not in a studio. So the lines become as much a part of the spontaneity as calling the action. I don't think I ever try to force lines into the commentary at the expense of the action, which is always first and foremost. I like to use some of the lines to compliment the action or to fill in gaps when the action is slow.
The July 13 show includes two fights featuring very good MMA fighters (Kid Yamamoto and Tatsuya Kawajiri) fighting under K-1 rules. What is your opinion of fighters going back and forth between kickboxing and MMA? Should more fighters do it? Which MMA fighter would you like to see in K-1, and which K-1 fighter would you like to see give MMA a try?
I think it's fantastic to see fighters trying their hand at both sports. I respect that MMA and K-1 are two completely different sports and therefore I don't get into debates as to which is better and which would beat the other. You just can't gauge it. I mean look at Tim Sylvia getting KO'd in nine seconds by Ray Mercer. Does that prove that boxing is better than MMA? No, of course not. Ray Mercer fought in K-1 four years ago and got stopped in only twenty seconds by a single head kick from Remy Bonjasky. Does that mean that K-1 is better than boxing, and because Mercer beat Sylvia that K-1 is also better than MMA, and because Sylvia is a former UFC champion that K-1 is better than UFC? No! It just means that on that night, Mercer was the winner over Sylvia; Remy was the winner over Mercer; etc. I respect the athletes like Kawajiri, Mousasi, Andre Dida, Overeem who step out of their comfort zone and pit their skills in K-1 stand up. I think having fighters cross between the fight codes allows potentially twice as many match ups. The talent pool in any organization is always limited, so the moment two organizations work in with each other and cross over you are pretty much doubling your match up potential. As for which K-1 fighters I'd like to see in MMA, well Ray Sefo trains exclusively now with Randy Couture and Xtreme Couture in Vegas. He's working with guys like Jake Bonacci, Nick Fekete, Brice Ritani-Coe, doing stuff with Wanderlei Silva, Phil Baroni and others. I'd like to see Ray take a full-fledged shot at the MMA world. I'd also like to see Semmy Schilt get back to MMA and I'd like to see Gokhan Saki give MMA a try some day and Andy Souwer. As for which MMA fighters I'd like to see have a crack at K-1, I'd want to see Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva fight under K-1 rules given one's Shotokan background and one's Muay Thai background. I'd also like to see Arlovski just once under K-1 rules as I think he has some proficient striking as he demonstrated before Fedor smoked him. In K-1, he would have more distance to work those skills.
In the United States, we have some tension between fans of MMA and fans of boxing. Do you think the UFC, boxing promotions, and K-1 are all competitors? Or does it make more sense to view them as sports that complement each other well and that should hope to reach many of the same fans?
This same tension exists everywhere, not just in the USA. Here in Australia where kickboxing and Muay Thai is huge there is a lot of tension between those two factions. In the States because of the traditional stronghold of boxing and the now boom of MMA, the tension is there.
Are boxing, MMA and K-1 competitors? Only in the sense that they are all competing to attract fans to the fight game. As fight fans we should not be throwing sh*t at each other saying that K-1 is better than UFC; or that MMA is better than boxing; etc. These are feeble and useless arguments that can never be won. Instead we should be embracing that we live in a day and age where we have so many types of fighting for our viewing pleasure. You can flick on your television set and for the first time in history you can watch high level MMA then turn over to high level boxing then turn over to high level K-1. We're living in a fight fan utopia. Why spoil that with petty arguments as to which style or promotion is better.
The K-1 World MAX 2009 World Championship Tournament Final 8 will take place July 13 in Tokyo and will be broadcast July 17 at 10 PM ET on HDNet.