IT used to be simpler. In Mike Tyson’s heyday, the world’s leading heavyweight boxer was the ‘baddest man on the planet.’ Tyson Fury has confirmed himself as the best heavyweight in boxing today, though he doesn’t hold every major belt. And there are other significant combat sport promotions now, the UFC has Francis Ngannou as their heavyweight champion and Rico Verhoeven has ruled the heavyweight division in Glory, the top format in kickboxing. So who is the ‘baddest man on the planet’ today?
“I don’t know. I think Francis is the baddest man on the planet in UFC and Tyson [Fury] is the baddest man on the planet in boxing and I am the baddest man on the planet in kickboxing. So I think we’re all on that same pedestal in a different sport, let’s keep it at that. Because we’re all amazing in what we’re doing. It would be amazing to do a cross[over event] one day. I’ve been training with Tyson, I think it was 10 years ago [when they started] and it was four years back-to-back. So we know each other very well and we’ve talked about it,” Verhoeven said. “When we were training he wanted to do some kicking so we tried to teach him how to do some kicks. How cool would that be?
“I think I’m getting the recognition that I deserve from the people that know the sport. But there are still so many people that do not know the sport. The sport of boxing and MMA is so much bigger, and the people that follow that so much bigger than kickboxing. I’m one hundred percent sure if my sport would be as big as boxing I would get the same recognition as for example Tyson Fury or whatever champion’s out there. I think it’s just a lack people knowing the sport of kickboxing.”
He linked up with Tyson Fury and the two became regular training partners long before either man reached the summit of their respective sports. “Back then we weren’t champions,” Verhoeven recalled. “We said if we both become champion one day and then we fight each other, you come to my world to boxing, and then you come to my world, kickboxing… That would be so cool. That would be a huge stunt in the whole of sport of martial arts. Let’s see if we can make that happen one day.”
The training he did with Fury developed him as a fighter. “He [Fury] said I’m going to become world champion, I said I’m going to become world champion and we both did it. That’s just amazing, to share that vibe with somebody that knows what you have to do to become that world champion. What you do and what you leave behind, that’s some sacrifice right there,” Rico said. “That [boxing training] just elevated everything I did in the sport of kickboxing… It really added to the whole game.”
Sparring with Tyson Fury was a revelation. Verhoeven hadn’t known what to expect when they first met all those years ago. “I wanted to get some improvement in my boxing [so he went to spar with Tyson Fury in a training camp in Belgium]. This guy, pop, pop, pop, I wasn’t used to the fast jab and him being so tall. Closed both my eyes, with the headgear on. ‘Get this f**king headgear off because I’m not seeing s**t!’ I took the headgear off, it was a little bit better but still I got my ass kicked. After five rounds my trainer said he’s tired, let’s put the pressure on and he [Fury] turned to southpaw, bap, bap, bap. Oh man! That was some training. Instead of feeling disappointed or whatever feeling you would have getting your ass whooped like that, I was: ‘Woah, I can learn from this guy. This guy is amazing.’ That’s how it all started,” Verhoeven recalled. “They saw my determination to become better and I got better every time.
“It’s more different than you think but I think like everything in life you have to try to balance and everything out and see what works for you and what doesn’t work.”
On Saturday (October 23) Verhoeven fights the concluding bout of a trilogy with his six foot nine inch tall rival Jamal Ben Saddik. All those years sparring with Fury will unquestionably benefit Verhoeven in this contest. But Verhoeven got so much more than that out of his time with Fury. “Also picking his brain about the whole sport,” he said. “That’s something that I will treasure for the rest of my life.”
The lessons from boxing help set Verhoeven apart from other kickboxers. “I always go into a fight with a plan and I play chess. That’s what I took from boxing – think about what you’re doing, every step that you make, every move that you make you make for a reason and make feints before you attack,” he explains. “Not just think of step A and B but also think of step C, D and E.”
Since 2014 he’s reigned as Glory’s heavyweight champion, defending title time and time again. He has something in common with the heavyweight champions from other combat sports. Sustained success. “It’s consistency. Focus. The focus of being the best is amazing, is really good, but you’ve got to keep that every fight. Every step that you take you’ve got to keep that motivation and focus and discipline. Because if that drops then you start lagging and you might lose it,” he says. “So just stay focused on what you’re doing. Then with that, all the rest comes.”