Kevin Ross knew it was bound to happen. He has believed for many years that it was only a matter of time before kickboxing got a mainstream push in the United States. Ross, a longtime Muay Thai practitioner, just didn't know when it would happen.
Part of the California native thought kickboxing would gain a foothold long after he had been retired. Yet here he is as a part of the core of Bellator Kickboxing, backed by media giant Viacom, airing on Spike TV and headed by Scott Coker.
"I couldn't be more excited, man," Ross told MMA Fighting. "Not only to see this going on, but to be on the forefront of it getting put out there like that is amazing to me. I never thought I'd still be actively fighting and still in my prime while this was going on. I always felt that I'd be someone to help it get there, but to be doing this is really amazing to me. And I'm very grateful to be a part of it."
Ross meets Matteo Taccini on Saturday at the inaugural Bellator Kickboxing event in Turin, Italy. Bellator has partnered with Italian combat sports promoter Oktagon to build the card. The show will also feature Melvin Manhoef in the main event against Alexandru Negrea, former GLORY highlight-reel maker Raymond Daniels and rising star Anastasia Yankova.
Bellator Kickboxing might not have the elite of the elite in kickboxing at the very start, but what they do have is well-known names, exciting fighters and marketable personalities from the jump. Ross believes the ingredients are in place to take kickboxing, long ignored in the United States, to a completely different level.
"It's unfortunate that the time [kickboxing] has been out there on the large stage it was missing a piece," said Ross, a veteran of Lion Fight and WBC Muay Thai. "Maybe they didn't put the right people out there, maybe they didn't promote it right. It was on TV, but they had really crappy fights that nobody cares about and wants to see."
GLORY had a limited amount of success in the ratings when it aired on Spike TV. The two sides parted ways last year and Coker was more than happy to go back to his roots and build up his own kickboxing promotion. The former Strikeforce head got his start in the striking sport three decades ago, long before he crossed over into MMA.
"Scott Coker is someone whose track record speaks for itself," Ross said. "He knows what he's doing. He has the passion for the sport. He knows what it takes to grow it and he wants to see it grow."
What Coker has done early on with Bellator Kickboxing is obvious. He has signed three of the most well-known and exciting American male fighters in Ross, Daniels and Joe Schilling, who has one fight left on his contract with GLORY before he moves over to Bellator MMA and Bellator Kickboxing full time.
Daniels, who has competed for GLORY and the now defunct World Combat League, puts a premium on being exciting. It's not enough for him to win. He wants his fights to be the water cooler conversation the next day.
"Whenever I step in the ring, it's already a given that I'm going to win the match," Coker said. "That's how I foresee it. How am I gonna win that match? How do I foresee myself winning that match? Now, I can go in there and just throw the basic punches and kicks and do those things. I do have strong basics. But is that really going to make you stand up out of your seat? Is that going to make you jump up and drop your popcorn or your drink on the ground and say, 'Oh my God, did you just see that?' is that going to make you be like, 'When is the next time that person is fighting?' That's what my goal is."
That is music to the ears of Coker and Spike TV brass. With Bellator MMA, they are finding a formula that works with record ratings since Coker took over in 2014. It's likely that a similar formula will be brought to Bellator Kickboxing, putting an emphasis on the very thing Daniels finds important: fun.
"Kickboxing is something that people want to see," Daniels said. "They just don't have an avenue to do that. Now with Spike and everything, it's gonna have that opportunity to go mainstream. They're bringing in athletes that are exciting, that are entertaining, that will be fan favorites and household names in a short period of time. I'm really excited about it, to have such a great organization to actually back kickboxing."
Daniels said everyone in the world of stand-up combat sports has been buzzing about Bellator Kickboxing. He said his social media and text messages have been blowing up on the regular. Everyone wants to know how they can get in on the ground floor. The platform is not only a big one for exposure, but also from a financial perspective for athletes who are paid even less than MMA fighters.
"I think it'll be a night and day difference from what people have experienced in the past, from kickboxing and from the Muay Thai side," Daniels said. "Viacom is a great company. They've got a lot of great companies underneath them and they are already taking care of their fighters. Not only are they setting precedent as far as kickboxing, but also in the way they treat their athletes."
Daniels, who fights Francisco Moricca on Saturday, spoke of Bellator Kickboxing's vision and how Coker and other execs are able to verbalize it to the athletes. Josh Thomson said similar things when he moved over from the UFC to Bellator MMA last year.
The first part of that vision is exciting fights and fighters. Ross knows what he was brought in to do.
"I feel my history kind of speaks for itself," he said. "They know what to expect when I get in there. It's no confusion. My fights are going to be exciting no matter what happens. That's always what I look to go in there and do. I'm very grateful that people see that and trust me to do that for them."
Viacom, Spike and Bellator are all in on the kickboxing side of things. Daniels and Ross are major building blocks. Veterans of countless fights, the two men are finally on the brink of showcasing their prodigious skills on perhaps the biggest stage with the biggest push that kickboxing has seen in the United States.
Ross said there were times he thought that kickboxing would never get a real chance in the U.S. It's happening now.
"There's always that part of me that would think that, but I understand that no one has really come along to put it out there," Ross said. "Yes, fans can do their own research and go and find it, but it's different when it's there, easily viewable for you and being put out there, put on national TV. It's a whole other story."