The Legend of the Fighting Dutchmen
Kaman. Dekkers. Aerts. Dutch kick fighters are in a league of their own. But who was the best of the bunch?
Who was the best Dutch kickboxer of all time? Not that old chestnut! It's as pointless as comparing a Bosch to a Breughel, a Van Gogh to a Van Dyck, a Muay Thai pioneer to a K-1 superstar.
However, during the 1980s and 1990s, a turbulent period of human history that encompassed the end of the Cold War and the beginning of high-strength weed, the Dutch were producing fighting works of art capable of mugging the Thais and the raging bulls and bears of North America and beyond.
Why Holland? Of all the fighting folks in old Europe, why the Dutch? Why not the Frogs, the Krauts or the have-a-go Lime Juicers for crying out loud? It's a good question, fight fans. Holland is famous for windmills, canals, reefer bars and red light districts. Why was this flat and flood-prone country rocking the Muay Thai and international kickboxing scene with stone killers and super predators with funny sounding names? It's a piece of sporting history that stumps practitioners and fight historians the world over to this very day.
Here's the answer. There wasn't anything funny in the canal water. The Dutch kickboxers and Muay Thai fighters were the product of good tutelage. The gyms were world class, their pedigree was champion thoroughbred and the coaches were top dogs like Cornelius Hemmers, Eddy Smulders and Thom Harinck. Without having to go to Thailand and get beat up by tuk-tuk drivers, Holland was and is the best port for a kick fighter to go and swot up on the nuances and complexities of the eight-limbed art.
But who were these fighting Dutchmen? Let's start with Rob Kaman, the gangly Rembrandt who looked a bit like a fair-haired version of Ron Mael from Sparks. A nine-time world champ, "Mr. Low Kick" came into being at the Mejiro Gym in the late 1970s under the eye of the legendary Jan Plas and best exemplifies the Dutch school of kickboxing. His pro-career spanned 20 years and he beat up a lot of bad dudes and dangerous hombres with pressure busting, low round kicks and fast knockout hands. Kaman mugged the likes of WKA king John Moncayo in 1983, Thai champ Lakchart Sorprasartporn in 1987 and enjoyed three epic dust-ups with Changpuek Kiatsongrit. Kaman, in short, pretty much opened the door for other unknown quantities from the Netherlands to follow suit.
Pilgrims like Ramon "The Diamond" Dekkers. Mention nak muay farang (foreign kickboxers) to an Issan cab driver in a Bangkok traffic jam and he will start yakking (sometimes at great length) about the Windmill From Hell. Much loved and much missed, like Kaman, "The Diamond" was and is an unsung sportsman, worthy of a Rocky style biopic or a two-fisted read on the beach. Waving the flag of the Netherlands after his epic humdinger against Coban, he was the first foreign kick fighter to be truly embraced and lauded by the Thais. No wonder. He roundly beat them at their own game and on their own turf. As timeless as a Mondrian abstract, like Kaman, he set a great precedent for many other eight-limbed pugilists. If you were to make a "who was the best" decision when it came to Dutch kick fighting, "the Diamond" would be the safest rock for Number One.
But then there's Andy: Andy Souwer, the super-welterweight powerhouse who outpointed Yodsanklai in 2008 in controversial circumstances. Proper hard and tasty with it, the sewer alligator from Mejiro Gym in Amsterdam has been fighting ever since he was a nipper, and ring rolled the likes of Masato Kobayashi and Buakaw (by split decision, twice). A vicious little knock-out artist, his aggressive striking and demolition jobs on opponents gave birth to his soubriquet, "The Destroyer".
Hovering in round about the same weight class as Souwer is Albert "The Hurricane" Kraus. With a name like that, Kraus could be an ageing Nazi war criminal on the lam in South America. In reality, however, the only war crimes that Kraus ever committed were within the safe and legitimate confines of a boxing ring. A piston-like pug from Bully's Gym (and later the Super Pro Gym), Kraus beat Kaolan Kaovichit to become a K-1 champ in 2002 and has stomped on Andy Souwer and Zhang Zhao Yu during the course of his ring career.
The Dutch weren't just exporting wee fellas. They had big blokes, too. Guys like Semmy Schilt. The four-time K-1 Grand Prix champ, feared for his striking and grappling alike, put his brand on the hide of many a hubristic ego. Multifaceted and monstrous with it, he competed on the Pancrase, UFC and Pride circuit in the nineties and noughties before finding his true place, of sorts, in the kickboxing ring last decade. With big career defining KOs of Ray Sefo, Ernesto Hoost, Jerome Le Banner and Peter Aerts notched on the butt stock, he's a strike merchant par excellence.
Another big bastard is the K-1 heavyweight king and "Dutch Lumberjack" Peter Aerts. He may have lost a few in his time but Aerts, a former three-time K1 champ, is thought to be the best Dutch fighter of the modern era. The plaid-wearing pug with the head-splitting high round kicks has been in the back alley with Ernesto Hoost (a perennial rival), American kickboxer Maurice Smith and the heavy-hitting Frenchman Jerome Le Banner to name but a few. A multiple champ in Muay Thai and kickboxing, Aerts was a prominent player in K-1's glory days, and, like Rob Kaman and Ramon Dekkers before him, inspired many other Dutch fighters to follow his lead.
Then there's the "not Dutch but Dutch" category. Guys not born in Holland but who are naturalised and fight for the tricolour flag nonetheless. First up is the big bopper Ernsto Hoost. Competing out of the Johan Vos gym, the K-1 and K-2 super-heavyweight talent bust up and beat down the likes of Changpuek Kiatsongrit, Remy Bonjasky, Jerome Le Banner, Ray Sefo; not to mention (the late) Andy Hug, and Bob "The Beast" Sapp in various boardroom disputes. He retired but it proved boring. So, aged 48, "Mister Perfect" took a break off from schooling up his own fighters to make a comeback this decade. Fortunately, it was lucrative. Old Man River beat the equally aged and demi-retired Peter Aerts in 2014 for the WKO heavyweight title in Japan.
Ivan Hippolyte would be a great name for an old-time reggae singer, but the only crooning that Hippolyte ever did was the eight-limbed acappella. Boxing out of the Vos Gym in Amsterdam, the Dutch-Surinamese fighter was an underrated clinical technician who scorched the very canvas of a fighting ring. With a career that spans back to the eighties, the former middleweight champ famously whupped Pompetch Naratreekul for the Lumpinee title in 1995 and was once the proud owner of the WKA welterweight title. Now retired from the showbiz spectacle of modern day kickboxing, "The Hydro" is now training up a new generation of fellas out of the Vos Gym where he learned his game.
Remy Bonjasky is not an exotic brandy but another Dutch-Surinamese boxer from Mejiro Gym in Amsterdam. Known as "The Flying Gentleman," Bonjasky is an athletic, gutsy fighter and three-time K-1 champ known for his aerial kicks and flashy techniques. Active since the nineties, he came to prominence with a TKO of Ray Sefo and was once matched against a Sumo wrestler in a bout straight out of Bloodsport. Let not that sordid spectacle dissuade you of his talents and collection of big time wins against Anderson Silva, Alistair Overeem and Badr Hari.
Last but by no means least in the "not Dutch but they're Dutch" category is Badr Hari. The naturalised Netherlander from the sandy kingdom of Morocco is the Johnny Too Bad superstar of modern day kickboxing. Unfortunately, the former K-1 and It's Showtime heavyweight champ is on lockdown in Holland on a two-year stretch for assault and battery and out of the ring dance for the foreseeable.
Any impossible list will have its omissions. Fighting Dutchmen who need their own space, their own tributes. Like the much overlooked figure of Michael Lieuwfat who fought Samart, Paluhadlek, Orono, Karuhat and Rambo during the golden era of Muay Thai. And good old boys like Lucien Carbin (the first Dutch fighter to reputedly beat a Thai), Peter "The Hurricane" Smit, Frank Lobman, Rayen Simson, Gilbert Ballantine, Andre Brilleman, Melvin Manhoef, Tyrone Spong, Nieky Holzen, Alistair Overeem, Perry Ubeda and Rico Verhoeven. Each sportsman has his own class, his own style and each one of them was important in his day. When it comes to bullshit lists, and their glaring omissions, it pays to remember that.
Different times. Different weights. Who was the best? Who was the big Dutch topper? It's like the worst question ever. How do you choose? Belts, baubles and decades aside, like art it's a truth best left in the eye of the beholder.