It may have been a stretch to think that Rico Verhoeven looked up to his Saturday opponent, Badr Hari, as he was making his way to the top of the kickboxing world, and when asked if this might be the case, the Glory heavyweight champion confirmed such a ludicrous notion.
“He was a good fighter, that's it,” Verhoeven said of his early impressions of Hari.
So Hari was no role model of his?
“Definitely not. It was like he had a totally different attitude and he approaches the sport totally different than I do. If you asked me the same question about Peter Aerts, I would say, ‘Yes, of course.' That's a man that I appreciate because of how he approaches the sport and tries to push the sport to the next level and doesn’t try to drag it down with himself.”
WATCH GLORY COLLISION: RICO VS BADR ON UFC FIGHT PASS SATURDAY
The 32-year-old Hari is known as the bad boy of kickboxing, with his outside the ring history as notable as what he’s done inside it over the course of his 16-year pro career. But it’s his status as a ferocious knockout artist with the menace of a prime Mike Tyson that has led him to 106 wins and 93 KOs in his 118 fights, and that has made his fight with Verhoeven a SuperFight some thought we would never see. And that includes Verhoeven.
“There was a point when I thought it wasn't gonna happen,” he said. “It was so quiet around Badr and he didn't really look in shape as well. So it looked like he wasn't gonna fight anymore. But he was talking about one more fight, and that's how it came about. People asked me if I would like to fight Badr. I said, 'Yeah, of course.' He's always saying that he's the best. I'm the best right now, so if he wants to be the best of this time as well, then he should face the best, and that's me.”
Verhoeven is not merely boasting. Owner of a 49-10-1 record as a pro, the Dutchman won the Glory heavyweight world championship tournament in October 2013 with a win over Daniel Ghita, took the world title with another victory over Ghita eight months later, and he’s successfully defended his crown five times. All before he turns 28 in April. The key to his success? Stellar technique and a steady pressure that can be unnerving to even the most experienced competitor.
“It's really played a big part of the success and that's what I'm always saying in all my interviews,” he said. “I want to push this sport towards a different level, so that it's not just fighting and trying to hurt each other, but going into a fight with a game plan and figuring out how I am going to neutralize my opponents - like chess. Instead of thinking I'm gonna throw this and he's going to throw something back, I'm thinking I'm gonna throw this, he's probably going to do this or that, and I'm going to try to miss that and I'm gonna do this, that and that, I'm gonna step away and I'm gonna attack again. (Laughs) So I think about steps three and four, and even five sometimes. That's the biggest difference. I'm always trying to be one step ahead of my opponents. I'm never comfortable at whatever level I'm at. I've been champion now for three years, and I'm still not comfortable.”
Saturday’s fight, which streams live on UFC.tv, is the big one though. Hari, though only five years older than the champion, represents the old school or world-class kickboxing. Verhoeven is the new breed, a young man thinking not just of the fight, but of taking his sport to new heights. In Holland, kickboxing can almost be equated to how baseball once was in the United States. Every kid knows about it, and practically everyone participates.
“It's getting close to that,” Verhoeven said. “In these last few years, I'm promoting this sport so well and I'm trying to show everybody that this sport is beautiful and what we're doing is sport. It's not just fighting and trying to f**k each other up. It is a sport and it has a game plan and a certain vision of approaching this sport and a respect towards your opponents as well. So I definitely see in these past years it's really getting close to that. For example, dads that would say, 'Hey, let's go to soccer,' now say 'Let's go to kickboxing class.'”
Hari may have a different vision, and he’s made it very clear in the lead up to Saturday night in Oberhausen, Germany that it is a fight, and that he’s out for blood. He’s already walked out of a press conference promoting the bout, and at Friday’s weigh-in, he was almost staring through Verhoeven with malicious intent. It’s made this a must-watch bout, but Verhoeven refuses to get caught up in any pre-fight gamesmanship.
“I never put emotion in a fight,” he said. “The only emotional fighter in the ring on the 10th of December is going to be him because he's going to get frustrated. I enjoy fighting. He says in his interviews that it's like surviving, and this and that and I want to knock him out and want to kill him. For me, I just enjoy this sport so much and I want to win. I want to show I'm the best in every way possible. Words don't hurt, so I don't really listen to what he's saying. I don't care.”
Verhoeven does know that this fight has a little bit extra tacked on to it, though, in terms of attention and hype. And he likes that part of it.
“For me, this is just another fight and another person, but what makes the biggest difference, especially here in Europe, are the people showing their attention towards this fight,” he said. “Normally, it's already pretty big, but now, people that you would never hear talking about kickboxing are talking about it now. Everywhere I go - the bakery, the supermarket, the shopping mall - people come up to me and want to talk about this fight.”
And right about now, he’s done talking. He just wants to hear that bell ring on Saturday.
“Badr talks so much,” Verhoeven muses. “I just hope he ran as many miles as he runs his mouth.”