Exclusive Interview: Will K-1 Rule Again?
After failed attempts and broken promises, K-1’s new Director of Events and Fighter Acquisition, Ned Kuruc, says its full steam ahead for what was once the undisputed king of kickboxing organizations.
By Rick Caudle
After overcoming a rollercoaster ride of financial and managerial problems caused by poor decision making and lack of direction, K-1 has now risen from the ashes like the Phoenix with a whole new staff and renewed vigor.
Recently re-signing the only fighter in history to win the K-1 Max Final Championship twice, Muay Thai’s living legend, Buakaw, and acquiring the controversial British badass, Paul “Semtex” Daley, the organization is now in prone position to capture the world by storm and teach us all the true meaning of GLOBAL.
We had the pleasure of speaking with K-1’s Director of Events & Fighter Acquisition, Ned Kuruc, about the new regime and what we can expect from the once proud promotion.
Q. Can you give me some insight into what happened as far as the recent meltdown of K-1 and what looks now to be a potential upswing by a re-energized version of the company, particularly with the recent signings of Buakaw and Paul Daley?
A: It’s common knowledge that in 2010, with the old regime running K-1, that they went bankrupt. At that time, the company didn’t have a good business model in place, and there were large amounts of money being put into shows that did not generate a lot of necessary capital.
Mike Kim bought the company in 2010 and put on 5 quality shows but then again, the business plan was not solid and the direction not clearly defined.
I really can’t give you details because all of this happened before I was hired. I can tell you that we now have a different strategy. We are focused on building the brand by bringing in young, talented fighters from all over the world.
One of the first things I did was to re-sign Buakaw. In the fight world there are only 3 or 4 names that people recognize everywhere and he is one of them.
Q: What does the new K-1 management team look like?
A: There is myself in Canada, small teams in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Azerbaijan, with the head office being in China.
Q: Is Mike Kim in Korea still running K-1?
A: Yes, he is working in our head office in China. This is where we have the most personnel. There is potentially a mass market in China, so they represent 70% of our focus.
Q: So, what exactly happened there? One minute he was promoting a big fight in LA, he announced a deal with Spike TV for distribution on their digital platform, and an event on Christmas at MSG in NY, and the next minute all U.S. events are canceled and they’re gone from Spike?? Meanwhile, Glory was able to capitalize, sign a broadcast deal with Spike TV and position itself as the top kickboxing brand worldwide with most of the best kickboxing talent.
A: Again this happened before I was hired so I really can’t speculate on the details. It was bad planning and as I said before, putting money in the wrong places. The potential was there but it just didn’t pay off. The former CEO didn’t have a good business strategy. Not everyone in the fight game is a good businessman.
Q: What is K-1’s view of Glory and how does it intend to compete and repair the damage done to its brand?
A: Glory is putting their money into productions and doing good shows. Personally, I believe there is room for more than one promotion in this world. It represents a huge market place. I watch shows of all fighting sports; MMA, Kickboxing, and Muay Thai. Some are doing well and some are larger than others.
K-1 is unique on many levels. K-1 has different set of rules and is meant to give a fighter from any striking discipline, be it Karate, Savate, or Boxing, a fair chance.
K-1 is a brand name that was established in 1993 and is the oldest of the fight sport competitions. It won’t be hard to recapture the level of success we once enjoyed, because our brand is big and recognized just about everywhere in the world.
Q: One thing Glory has not done is build new stars, particularly American stars that are important if it wants to succeed in the U.S. television business.
A: We have a bit of a different view. You can pay the big stars the big money and certainly they deserve it, but we are more about promoting young, up and coming fighters. Nowadays, the 17 to 24 age group does not know the K-1 brand as well, so they will relate better to the younger fighters.
The older superstars of K-1 are still great, but most would only have 2 or 3 years left in their careers.
Q: What is K-1’s solution to this and what steps is it taking to build new stars?
A: We plan to look for fighters all over the world, but at the moment we are really focused on China. In the future we will have open tryouts and look for great talent in North American and South America as well.
Q: To what extent do you feel Glory has made a mistake by scaling down its tournaments from 8-man to 4-man, even though there will, in fact, be an 8-man tournament on June 21?
A: Who am I to say they have made mistakes? They have their own direction. I can’t say what they should or shouldn’t do. It’s a difficult market and they do a good job. The 8-man tournament is hard, mostly because your dealing with the time constraints of live TV. In a pay-per-view event it’s easier and a 4-man tournament works better for TV as well.
Q: Will K-1 return to the U.S. and, if so, in what timeframe and what markets will it go to?
A: I can’t go into detail at this time but the plan is to go to North America, South America, and Latin America. The U.S. is a big platform.
Q: How important is the 8-man tournament format to K-1’s model?
A: To be honest, I believe it has been a good format, but like I said, it’s hard to do within the confines of the time restraints for television. Years ago when K-1 first started in Japan, it worked well but the market has evolved now and times have changed. We plan on doing them once or twice a year perhaps as a specialty show. We might do some this year but are mainly looking at early 2015.
We are also adding several new weight classes. The tournaments are fun but now the fans can follow their favorite fighters as they move up the ladder. Also, in the tournament arena, a fighter can get injured and still have to compete. It will be better for them when they can train for a fight and have a level playing field.
Then when we have the tournaments and the champions are established, they can go on to defend their titles against the top contenders.
Q: Who are K-1’s biggest stars right now?
A: Buakaw from Thailand, Andy Souwer of The Netherlands, Enriko Kehl of Germany, and Canadian Shane Campbell to name a few. Of course, Paul Daley, who is already a well-known fighter.
Q: Lets talk about the recently signed fighters, Buakaw and Paul Daley. There are rumors that Buakaw has been seen training in Judo, Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling. Do you think there is a chance that he will pursue a career in MMA in the near future?
Buakaw is a personal friend of mine and when go to Thailand I stay at his gym. As far as him going into MMA, I think we’ll just have to wait and see. Although, our Heroes MMA brand may be coming back, but at the moment I just can’t say.
Q: Most recently you’ve signed the British Fighter, Paul Daley. Though he is a controversial figure, yet a great athlete with a somewhat of a checker past. He has failed to make weight six times in his pro career and been banned for life from the UFC. He was also released from Bellator Fighting for legal troubles stemming from a bar fight in England. Do you believe he’s turned over a new leaf and is seriously going to try and play it straight now that’s he has another chance in K-1?
A: I honestly think he will do very well. He has, shall we say, “matured” a bit now and has learned from his past mistakes. We have an agreement for him to fight in the 80kg class, which should alleviate the weight issue. Though he is controversial, he is an explosive fighter and a total badass. That’s why we signed him.
Q: What other big name prospects is K-1 looking to sign?
A: That I really can’t say at this point. We are looking for many young, up and coming great fighters. We are open to anyone in that category who can prove themselves worthy.
Q: Is Master Ishii, the founder of K-1, involved again in any way? He had announced some kind of new fight company in China, but nothing seemingly materialized?
A. No, he is not involved in any way.
Q: How many events will happen in 2014 and where will they take place?
A: I can’t give you an exact number but we are working on shows for the end of the year in China. Also, We will be having the Max Final on July 26th in Thailand, with other events in Ireland and Spain. Nothing is in concrete at this time for the U.S. We’ll have 9 or 10 events, with probably 6 of them available on TV.
Q: What is the new vision for K-1?
A: What we must realize is that what happened in Japan in the early days with 90,000 people in attendance cannot be done nowadays. That was a special time and place and no promotion can make that happen again. Times have changed and trends have moved on. In comparison, we held our Max Final in Croatia and got 18,000 people, which is the biggest show of any company in many years.
We have been very successful since going to China where we put China’s top fighters competing with each other.
In China, the norm is for athletes to live in dorms and do nothing but train, 24/7. They are extremely dedicated and regimented. There is a tremendous amount of excellent, talented fighters in China and we hope to help raise it to a new level by bringing in lots of coaches and staff over the next 2 years. Their athletes are among the best in the world.
But in terms of rebuilding the K-1 organization, its time for a new regime and new approaches to take shape. We want to do a good job, be profitable, and keep moving upward.
We will do that by acquiring the best, young fighters we can find. We give new fighters a chance beyond what they’ve known in the past.
For example, there’s a fighter out of Romania named Miodarge Olar. He has had a difficult time competing. He has fought out of his weight class, taken fights on short notice, and overall been abused by promotional companies. We are signing people like him and giving them a fair shot because we believe in they deserve it.
Not too many other organizations operate like that.
But we want a fresh, new look because this is a young man’s game now and we are in tune with the market.
The old style of booking a TV event and selling tickets, wouldn’t work these days and we are bringing other business savvy into play with our new direction.
We are Global now for a reason. K-1 is about raw talent from any country.
Other companies have blinders on and wouldn’t look in the same places we do for talent. We’ll have fighters from Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Serbia, and Azerbaijan.
This is our plan for the next 3 years and it’s just gonna get better and better every year!