The term kickboxing can have a pretty broad application. Technically it refers to any stand up martial art that allows kicking and punching and so covers a pretty broad spectrum of styles. The narrower focus of the name would be styles that identify as kickboxing, which still includes a lot of sports, but for the sake of this article we’ll be focusing on the history of Japanese Kickboxing, and its spread to Europe, and North American Kickboxing which has similar roots but developed separately. Alongside Muay Thai, which we’ve covered separately, much of modern kickboxing has come from these styles.
While the individual components that make up the sport can trace their history back for hundreds of years, kickboxing as we know it can be seen as beginning in the 1950’s. Competition often led to the development of new techniques (just take a look at BJJ or MMA) and the first steps came from Japanese Karateka Tatsou Yamada, who developed a system that combined Karate and Muay Thai. Yamada was interested in Muay Thai because, at the time, contact was unthinkable in karate competitions and he was interested in developing karate matches that involved full contact. In November 1959 he proposed the formation of a new sport, which he called ‘Karate-Boxing’ and by February 1963 there were competitions held between Muay Thai fighters and Karate practitioners – three karate fighters from what would eventually become the kyokushin dojo travelled to Thailand to compete at the legendary Lumpinee stadium. 2 of the karate fighters won their bouts and their experience (along with the experience of other karate fighters who tested themselves against Muay Thai fighters) worked towards building the Japanese kickboxing style, adapted from Kyokushin (full contact) karate. The first official kickboxing association was created in Japan in 1966, with the first official kickboxing event being held shortly afterwards.
Japanese kickboxing surged in popularity as it began to get picked up by TV stations. By 1970 kickboxing cards were shown on several TV channels multiple times a week, routinely featuring Japanese kickboxers taking on Muay Thai fighters flown in from Thailand. The All Japan Kickboxing Association recorded around seven hundred kickboxers in 1971. However, by 1980 the ratings on the shows had dropped and so did the amount of coverage kickboxing got on Japanese TV. It disappeared completely until 1993 when Kazuyoshi Ishii, who founded Seidokaikan karate (a variation of Kyokushin which involved competitors donning boxing gloves and striking the face when judges weren’t able to reach a decision on who had won), launched the first K-1 competition which went on to become known globally – particularly for their heavyweight fights.
Meanwhile in America there were full contact matches between different martial arts styles from the early 1960’s and in 1970 Joe Lewis, a karate champion who had studied Jeet Kune Do with Bruce Lee, grew frustrated with the point fighting style of karate competitions. Alongside promoter Lee Faulkner he organised a bout that allowed kicks, punches, knees, elbows and sweeps – though the event was titles as ‘full contact’ the announcers called it kickboxing, and the events continued with somewhat unclear rules. Sanctioning bodies started to form with the Professional Karate Association (PKA) and World Kickboxing Association (WKA) launching in 1974 and 1976 respectively. They organised rankings and sanctioned events on a global scale, and were followed by the International Sport Kickboxing Association (ISKA) in 1985 and International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) in 1992. These bodies have worked to create national competitions and support international events as well – the ISKA and K-1 had a partnership that ended in 2006, when they worked to create a North American league, the World Combat League, fronted by Chuck Norris.
In Europe there were two kickboxing approaches. American-style kickboxing became popular in West Germany, where Georg F. Bruckner started promoting the first events in 1974 (earning him the title of the ‘Father of European Kickboxing’) and eventually formed the World Association of Kickboxing Organisations (WAKO), a global amatuer kickboxing governing body. Throughout German-speaking Europe the elbow and knee techniques were associated with Muay Thai, and there was no real awareness of Japanese kickboxing until K-1 was launched.
In contrast Dutch kickboxing – possibly the most well known European Kickboxing style due to athletes success – was directly influenced by Japanese Kickboxing. Jan Plas, the Father of Dutch Kickboxing, learned kickboxing from Kenji Kurosaki, a Japanese martial artist who founded the Mejiro Gym in Tokyo. Plas founded his own Mejiro gym in Amsterdam, the NKBB (The Dutch Kickboxing Association) and ran the Vos Gym and, before his arrest on drug trafficking charges, trained many top fighters including Peter Aerts, Melvin Manhouf and Valentijn Overreem – Alistar Overeem’s older brother. Plas’s gym and other major Dutch gyms all developed their styles from Japanese foundations and, competing in global competitions like K-1, Dutch fighters earned huge renown for their aggressive style and victories. Of the nineteen K-1 champions between 1993 and 2012 fifteen were Dutch fighters.
The modern sport of kickboxing is dominated by two major organisations; Glory hold cards that are exclusively kickboxing and ONE Championship have kickboxing events as part of their mixed sport cards, both of which are helping to drive kickboxing on to new levels of popularity.
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Are you a kickboxer? Did you know much about the sports history? Let us know in the comments!