Upstart Karate Combat league soars to exclusive heights at World Trade Center
By Dan Gelston, AP sports writer
NEW YORK (AP) — Bruce Lee never dodged a shattered champagne flute. But one of the earliest KO’s suffered at Karate Combat’s debut card in New York came when broken glass lined the path toward one corner of the sunken pit where fighters would enter.
Sweep the leg?
How about a sweep of the aisle before someone cuts a foot. Such were the consequences of serving from an open bar outside The Pit, a respite for the bow tie and designer gown crowd dressed more appropriately for a ballroom than a barroom brawl. The nattily attired mix of affluent investors, corporate sponsors and the beautiful people made for a lavish setting atop One World Trade Center.
So did the scenery. “The view, you know?” Latvian fighter Edgars Skrivers said. “I have to enjoy it.” Karate Combat set its sights high — 102 floors high — as it became the first sports league to hold an event at the observation deck. The league skipped the ring girls for a tinge of sightseeing, as the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building stood as the main attractions outside the pit.
The crowd of maybe 100 people on Sept. 27 was standing-room only. As in, there was only standing room available at the private event. No seats (so no cup holders for the beers), no souvenirs and certainly no ticket-buying fans.
Brandon Lazo, who trains as a Muay Thai fighter, scored an invite to the “One World” event through a social media contest. “It’s nice and exclusive,” he said.
It’s how Karate Combat wanted to make a splash in the city. The upstart league has eschewed a traditional TV model (for now) in hopes the revenue will flow from media deals, live streams and sponsorships. The nine-fight, full-contact fight card was found on plenty of browsers, from YouTube and Facebook to UFC Fight Pass and Dr. Oz’s CombatGO.
“There’s a hole in the market for something that’s pure martial arts,” said 36-year-old Rob Bryan, who co-founded the league with Michael DePietro early last year. “The goal was to create a product that was exciting and still resonated with the mainstream audience.”
Karate is about to get its biggest taste of the mainstream since Daniel LaRusso had to wax on and wax off with Mr. Miyagi. The sport has been added to the 2020 Olympic Games and will feature three weight classes and eight events. Karate Combat said it had about 100 Karatekas from 30 countries in the league, and several competitors with Olympic aspirations.
But for the fighters who find the Olympics out of reach, Karate Combat could open the door to a new measure of success, especially as legalized sports gambling could become a boon for niche sports.
“Karate Combat is the new thing,” Skrivers said.
Forget traditional fight locales such as Madison Square Garden or Las Vegas casinos. Karate Combat could serve as a travel agent for the well-heeled sports fan, running events under its banner on Miami Beach and at the Zappeion Courtyard in Athens, Greece.
And once there, the fight announcer bellows, “Fighters, enter the pit!” Bas Rutten, the 53-year-old former UFC heavyweight champion, was at the broadcast table and could be heard throughout the venue calling the action. They fight inside a pit built with 45-degree embankments that allows for unobstructed views and that Karatekas can use as a type of springboard during their three-round, three-minute fights. The fights are scored with music that has a “Stranger Things” theme vibe and offensive techniques (minus knee and elbow strikes) are scored more highly than counter-strikes.
“It’s like the old-school karate finishing move where you’ve got the guy on the ground and — bang! — you give him the old knockout blow,” veteran judge Joel Bekker said. “That’s what they want. There’s no extended grappling on the ground. They don’t want to see pulling guard and submission moves. They want to see one guy knock the other guy down and finish.”
The fights early on the card seemingly broke down into staring contests that hardly evoked images of “Street Fighter” and others featured undisciplined fighters throwing wild haymakers. Elhadji “Black Magic” Ndour was one of the few to pull off an impressive win. He said he was evolving into an entertainment-style fighter the league has embraced.
“You can’t change yourself overnight,” he said.
With a view of the lower Manhattan skyline, social media influencers sipping wine and cocktails, and venues plucked from the Travel Channel, Karate Combat may not change the sport overnight, but the dawn of a new day could be looming for anyone who’s thrown a spinning heel kick.
“We’re just looking to push the sport of karate further,” Bryan said.