Combat Sports

In the footsteps of giants: Kiwi fighters going global

Mark Hunt’s headlining UFC heavyweight clash against Derek Lewis at Vector Arena on June 11 is a classic case of the young lion challenging the old pride leader to see if a next generation fighter is ready to be king.

Hunt is the last of the Kiwi-Samoan world championship trio, alongside K1 kickboxing legend Ray Sefo and boxing juggernaut David Tua, who dominated the New Zealand and world scenes throughout the 90s and the early 2000s.

The question now is: who are the next tier of Kiwi athletes who will carry the combat sports gauntlet through to 2020 and beyond?

Obviously 25-year-old Joseph Parker, recently crowned WBO heavyweight champion in just his 22nd fight, leads the way in both prestige and scale of achievements on the world stage. But there is a group of hugely talented athletes across boxing, MMA and kickboxing who are well on their way to achieving similar honours.

At the head of the queue is undoubtedly 27-year-old kickboxing star Israel Adesanya. The Nigerian-born kiwi owns a slew of titles and has racked up a massive 72 fights in just six years  – including fighting an incredible 25 times over the past 18 months.

Adesanya was recently victim to a horrendous decision in Los Angeles robbing him of what would have been an historic Glory World Middleweight crown (Glory is the largest kickboxing promotion the world) after putting on a clinic against reigning champion Jason Wilnis. Adesanya is currently signed to the lucrative Chinese based WLF series and is probably the best paid professional fighter outside of Parker and Hunt. Not limited to kickboxing, he’s 9-0 in MMA and has the UFC talent scouts constantly knocking on his door. He’s also 5 – 1 in boxing and is a two time SUPER 8 Champion, including a narrow victory over Shane Cameron's conqueror Brian Minto in just his 4th ever boxing bout.

The Auckland-based fighter is über talented, exudes confidence and is brash enough to garner media attention whenever he opens his mouth. There’s no question this young man will be a global super star, possibly bigger than Parker. It’s only a matter of time. It’s highly likely the UFC will be his end destination, but not before he returns to Glory to claim the world title that should already be strapped around his waist.

Israel Adesanya lands a right hand during his 2015 victory over Brian Minto. Photo: Getty Images

In the boxing arena, Commonwealth Games bronze medalist Junior Fa is following in Joseph Parker’s footsteps in the heavyweight ranks. The 27 year old is 11–0 as a professional, the current New Zealand Heavyweight Champion, and recently debuted in the US under Deontay Wilder promoter Lou Di Bella, who he’s signed to for his next five fights.

At 1.96m (6'5") with a reach of 210 cm, the 115-kilo Fa is a skilled big man in a division of giants. He owns two amateur victories over Parker, including one which derailed Parker’s Olympic dream and saw him turn professional early in his career. Fa also competed in the World Series of boxing for two seasons against the very best amateur heavyweights in the world, including Anthony Joshua, and was ranked in the world top eight. After taking three years out to have a family, the Tongan giant has plenty of ground to make up if he’s to reach the top tier again, but he certainly has the raw potential and the gateway to the US with Di Bella’s backing.

David Nyika will be gunning for gold at the 2020 Olympics. Photo: Getty Images

Boxing’s other truly latent talent is 21-year-old David Nyika, who burst into the public eye at the tender age of 18, winning the light heavyweight gold at the 2014 Commonwealth games.

The 1.94m phenom moved up to heavyweight in late 2015, looking to chase gold at the Rio Olympics. Despite being head and shoulders above Australasian competition, Nyika was pipped in a series of close, and sometimes controversial bouts against top level European competition, missing qualification. However, at the tender age of 21 and still growing into his new weight, the slickly-skilled Hamiltonian has time on his side as he targets gold at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. He will need to look at stints overseas to expose himself to coaching outside of New Zealand as well as a higher level of training and competition to prepare him better for the world stage.

Dan Hooker will be one of the star attractions at Auckland's UFC Fight Night in June.

In the cut-throat world of the UFC, West Auckland’s Daniel Hooker is the only man who is consistently footing it at the pinnacle of the world’s most brutal sport. The 27-year-old is 3-3 in the promotion and has 12 stoppages from his 13 wins overall.

The granite-chinned road warrior is a student of the game and has travelled the world to hone his craft, including stints in Thailand, Vietnam and the prestigious US camp, Team Elevation, where he was one of the principle sparring partners to former UFC Bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw.

Hooker has yet to fully show his truly world class skill set on the biggest stage, having opted to compete in the 66 kilo Featherweight Division, however he has shifted up to the 70 kilo lightweight division where he looks far stronger and back to his brutal best. Now based out of the elite City MMA gym in Auckland, Hooker’s next bout against veteran UFC warhorse Ross Pearson on the New Zealand June 11 show will be a true benchmark of how far he’s come in the game.

Another potential UFC candidate on the rise is explosive Flyweight Kai Kara “don’t blink” France. The 24-year-old flyweight is one of the few fighters at the 125 pound (57 kilo) limit who carries genuine power in a division which rarely delivers knock outs.

The diminutive pocket rocket recently delivered the sole knock out of the Ultimate Fighter series at the end of 2016 with a brutal walk away KO of Terrence Mitchell, before narrowly losing to number one seed Alexandre Pantpoja in the quarter finals. Despite the loss, France caught UFC president Dana White’s eye with his devastating one punch KO power. France has won five of his last six fights, and last weekend again showed his ridiculous power, pole axing 75 kilo Brazilian Rodolpho Jaques, a 30 fight veteran (22 wins, 8 losses), in the third round with a single right hook.

With a series of highlight reel KOs to his name, France’s “don't blink” moniker is well coined, and offers just the kind of excitement UFC match makers should be looking for in the upcoming show in Auckland.

Next among the group of young up and comers is the unlikely figure of 1.8 metre tall Genah Fabian, the former New Zealand sprint and triple jump champion, who looks like a cat walk model but kicks like a mule.

The 27-year-old has only been fighting three years, but has already signed to Bellator, widely regarded as the second largest MMA and Kickboxing promotion in the world.

The first and only kiwi signed to Bellator, Fabian currently has three fights left on her contract as she looks to improve her seven-win, one-loss professional kickboxing record and two-win MMA career.

Raw athletic potential and pure marketability best describe the German-Samoan-Kiwi. She has explosive power and rare grace and co-ordination, which has seen her marked for great things despite her inexperience. Now based at City MMA in Auckland after two years at the renowned Tiger Camp in Thailand, Fabian is training alongside Hooker and Adesanya and holding her own against the big boys, literally.

Gisborne- born teen Bryon Chivers is another fighter making huge strides. The 19-year-old won the middleweight world amateur IMMA title over six gruelling days in Las Vegas at the end of 2016.

Having moved from Gisborne in March last year to train with New Zealand’s branch of American Top Team, under Mark Hunt’s grappling coach Steve Oliver, Chivers quickly responded to a world-class environment. He improved so rapidly Oliver selected him to be part of a New Zealand team that traveled to San Diego for an intensive training camp in preparation for two events — the International Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Federation World Championships and the IMMA amateur world champs. The latter was held as part of UFC International Fight Week.

The rest, as they say, is history. Chivers locked on to his chance, defeating five opponents in as many days to lay the platform for what promises to be a potentially world-beating MMA career.

Although only Parker and Adesanya have so far broken through the ceiling at the pinnacle of combat sports, the latent talent of the New Zealand melting pot is bubbling away and ready to make a mark on the world stage.

Improved local coaching, particularly in the kickboxing and MMA spheres, means fighters no longer need to base themselves overseas. This is less the case for boxing, but that too is changing as knowledge and experience is shared and the sport gains greater profile on the coat tails of Parker.

The signs look good for Kiwis to continue to punch above their weight, pursuing glory on the most extreme of stages. But combat sport is a harsh mistress. A single misstep can set a fighter back years. One brutal moment can curtail a career. That's why the fight game is so compelling.

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