Rotterdam or Anywhere: The Octagon’s Troubled Journey to Holland

UFC-in-Ahoy-e1452204496465-1024x532By Brad Wharton @MMABrad48 This Sunday, the iconic Octagon will land for the first time in a country known as one of the crown jewels of the world’s combat sports scene. Holland is a Kickboxing Mecca, second only to Thailand itself when it comes to developing legendary exponents of the striking arts. The nation has churned out more K­1 champions than any other, and MMA events have taken place there regularly since the mid­-to-­late 90’s… so why has it taken so long for the UFC to set up shop in The Netherlands? A History Lesson In 1995, a cage fight took place in Belgium, just across the border from Holland. Forgive the term ‘cage fight’, but this is exactly what this was; a frightening, all­-or-­nothing, no holds barred (NHB) calamity. Old school fans or MMA historians will recognise the type of event instantly: Slap­dash organisation, fans who didn’t know what to expect and fighters (and officials) who didn’t really know what they were doing. The spectacle (it was still far from being a sport) of NHB was still new, dangerous and exciting. Royce Gracie had begun destroying the myth of Kung­ Fu movie visuals, but there was still an expectation from Joe Public that a martial arts tournament would be comprised of high­-flying, blood­-spurting, bone­-jarring, brutality. While that expectation is almost exclusively more fantasy that reality, on that night at Cage Fight Tournament 1, the baying masses would get their money’s worth. This particularly infamous evening in late ’95 featured mainly Dutch fighters at the business end of the card. Most notably in the grand scheme of things, the infamous Bob Schrijeber fought twice in the tournament due to a mid­-event pull out. Now better known as the coach of UFC fighter Stefan Struve, Schrijber was a cornerstone of the Dutch fight scene in the late 90’s to early 00’s, headlining at the Ahoy (where the UFC will hang their hat this weekend) on numerous occasions. A legendary bouncer and street fighter outside of the ring, even the likes of Bas Rutten spoke of Bob with a respectful awe. As a kid living in Holland, I attended a Schrijber fight where a riot broke out in the crowd. The bout was paused and Bob was handed the MC’s microphone. He mounted the corner post and bellowed “Ga zitten!!” (sit down) at the mayhem below. The rioters did as they were told and the in­-ring fight was allowed to continue. Schrijber’s double duty would not be remembered as the most infamous moment of Cage Fight Tournament 1. That dubious honour would instead go to the equally notorious Dutch kickboxer (and long­time Peter Aerts cohort) Renee Rooze. Rooze was, to be frank, a dirty bastard in the ring. As his fight against Heath Herring years later showed, he had no qualms about soccer kicking and stomping when those techniques were outlawed, so naturally he thrived in an environment where they were encouraged. Andre Van Den Oetelaar, a singlet­-sporting Judoka who had competed in early Pancrase events of somewhat dubious legitimacy, got a rude awakening from Rooze. He tried to bulldoze his man into the cage, but the kickboxer took advantage of the barely five foot high fence, draping his lanky arms over the top to keep the fight in his wheelhouse. It was legal, as far as anyone knew or cared. rooze0309The striker landed short, standing elbows in abundance, before a gut­-twisting knee to the body folded Van Den Oetelaar like laundry. Rooze pounced, dropping 12­6 elbows to his man’s spine and head. The cameras caught a harrowing image of the prone fighter frantically waving for the officials (there were two in the cage) to stop the contest. They didn’t. Rooze stood up and unloaded, alternating three huge stomps to the back of the head with two savage soccer kicks. The pair of hapless referees finally intervened as a towel was thrown in; Van Den Oetelaar sat up bewildered, blood spurting from a deep gash atop his head. This was the unbridled savagery the crowd had paid for, and they roared in approval. Cage Fight Tournament 1 would have repercussions for the Dutch MMA scene far beyond it’s rightful footprint. Many speculate that it was this event which led to the subsequent cage ban/taboo in the Netherlands, with most promoters opting (or being compelled) to hold fights in a traditional kickboxing ring as the scene grew. As a slightly more sanitised version of NHB thrived state­side thanks to the UFC, Dutch promoters took a scatter gun approach to the ‘sport’. Various interpretations of the more sanitised Japanese rule­sets became the norm. Some shows opted for the no gloves, open­hand strikes to the head and rope­breaks of Pancrase. Then there was RINGS Holland, which imported their Japanese counterpart’s format, including standing eight ­counts. One Bad Night One bad night alone would not be enough to stunt a scene though, especially in a country so notoriously, progressive and liberal as The Netherlands. So why has one of the world’s fight capitals never seriously taken to MMA? Before the UFC began their serious commitment to the UK in 2007, the casual British prizefighting fan looked almost exclusively to boxing for their high­-end, live event experience. But Lennox Lewis was long gone, Ricky Hatton had peaked and Joe Calzaghi was soon to retire. The UFC hit the UK at a time when it was crying out for a cool, polished product, moulding the likes of Michael Bisping and Dan Hardy into international stars that could hang on the world stage. The Dutch, conversely, had been consistent world­beaters in the competitive striking realm; there was little need for fans or practitioners to diversify with the likes of Ernesto Hoost, Peter Aerts, Remi Bonjaskey, Ramon Dekkers, Semmy Schilt and more dominating for decades. K­1’s World Grand Prix, essentially the World Cup of kickboxing in its original incarnation from 1993 to 2010, was almost exclusively bossed by the Dutch’s superior technique and will. While MMA in various forms kept it’s head above water in Holland, it was always second fiddle to something they were better at. The Dark Side There has been another, altogether darker and more serious stumbling block obstructing MMA (and combat sports in general) in Holland in recent years. There is a commonly accepted link between crime, prizefighting and martial arts the world over; The Netherlands is no different. Some of the biggest faces in the Dutch fight scene have been linked to organised crime, particularly drug trafficking, over the years. Kyokushin Karate stand­out and long­time Schrijber cornerman Hans Nijman was killed in a gang­-related hit in 2014. Dick Vrij, a Dutch Free Fight pioneer, opted to return to prison while out on probation after authorities informed him that he was on a similar hit list. Former GLORY heavyweight champ Hesdy Gerges was at one point sentenced to 54 months in prison for a conviction related to a Belgian warehouse raid that turned up a Charlie Sheen-bothering 128kg of cocaine. Amsterdam, Holland’s biggest international port and tourist destination, has been redoubling efforts against organised crime under Mayor Eberhard van der Laan since his 2010 election. The firebrand official’s office repeatedly refused to licence a slew of major kickboxing events – including GLORY – since his appointment, with the Mayor himself putting a spotlight on the criminal element that frequented said galas. A Light at the End of the Tunnel With Alistair Overeem and Stefan Struve just days away from headlining Holland’s first ever UFC event, this story has a predictably happy ending. Mayor van der Laan’s stance has softened significantly, to the point that he took part in a 2015 ‘icebreaker’ meeting with some of Dutch kickboxing’s leading lights, apologizing for previous negative condemnations of the sport. Later that year GLORY débuted in Amsterdam at the RAI Exhibition Centre: Not quite the 53,000­ capacity Amsterdam Arena that played host to It’s Showtime in years gone by, but a step up from the Ultimate Glory events crammed into the novelty event space at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport… the very same events that has originally put the sport in Mayor van der Laan’s cross-hairs. The Dutch still lack a standard­bearer in the UFC. Overeem could well earn a title shot with a win this Sunday, but he is a beautifully flawed heavyweight; always falling just short of greatness inside the Octagon. He’s 35, not ancient for his division, but with 70 professional fights on record since his 1999 debut (and numerous knockout losses to boot), Overeem is more twilight than new dawn. Stefan Struve is – with all due respect – not that guy. Germaine de Randamie ­ the only other Dutch national on the card – seems unlikely to trouble the elite at 135lbs. After Dutch MMA’s brutal beginning and troubled youth, the UFC’s foray into Holland may be the start of something big; a catalyst that will draw some of the nation’s talented kickboxing prospects away from the ring and into the cage at an age where they can still make an impact. UFC’s Fox Sports deal wont hurt either; the network has a solid presence on Dutch TV and with it the ever-alluring draw of mainstream fame. For the first time in a long time, the Dutch combat sports scene is making the news in and of itself, rather than as a backdrop to the latest organised crime tragedy. Finally, the Dutch MMA fans have something to cheer for. All they need now, is someone.

Written by Brad Wharton

Leave a Reply

MMA Odds and Ends for Friday: Evangelista Santos vs. Saad Awad set for Bellator 154, Dhiego Lima signs with Titan FC

UFC Fight Night 87 Newcomer Breakdown: Josh Emmett