Glen Huisman: Kickboxing a violent sport? Better check again

Kickboxing in the Netherlands: a history and no-nonsense opinions from referee Glen Huisman
Published on Apr 27, 2022, 7:19:44 AM
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Worldwide there are millions of practitioners of martial arts. These martial arts are so deeply integrated into our world that one can say martial arts are part of every culture on Earth.

The martial art stands for the defending of a territory or personal and communal borders. These are often culturally determined boundaries of a group that respect common agreements about what behaviours or precepts are accepted or not within this group. Groups have codes by which they live and for which they are willing to die, if necessary. When the boundaries of these codes are exceeded and the resulting conflict can no longer be settled peacefully i.e. through diplomacy or verbally, martial arts come into play.

In "exchanging" martial arts practiced as a sport, the opponent is not the enemy, but someone you respect for his or her acquired martial arts. Bowing to each other before you engage in your fight is therefore considered an indispensable sign of respect for the other. In the execution of the sport, each of the martial arts has their own individual code This code we call the Warrior code.

History of the martial arts

Within the martial arts we distinguish different disciplines of martial arts. Wrestling is considered the oldest martial art in the world. The cave paintings in Lascaux, France, are about 15,000 years old and already depict wrestlers. These paintings can be found in caves all over the world: from 7000 BC. in Mongolia, and 6000 BC. in Libya to the prehistoric caves of Japan.

Besides wrestling, there are other martial arts that have been around for centuries. For example, boxing was already being practiced by the Greeks and perhaps even by the Egyptians before that. The 'art of fighting' has evolved into different styles along with different cultures. From the Samurai Warrior to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Each style tells its own story and history.

Warrior Code intends to investigate and deep dive into the different forms of Martial Art. We begin with the history of kickboxing. Where did the sport originate, how has it evolved and which direction is the discipline heading in the 21st century? We will also not shy away from the discussion surrounding martial arts about safety and violence in the public debate and endeavor to add valuable expertise to a healthy discussion about the benefits of martial arts in the public debate, based on diverse voices from this world.

Kickboxing, the name says it all, is a combination of kicks, 'the kick', and boxing, 'the punches'. It has its birthplace in Japanese karate and has also taken inspiration from Thai boxing in Thailand, where it is pronounced 'muay thai'. We’ll elaborate on this further down! While there are many similarities between these martial arts, the main difference between Thai boxing and kickboxing is that Thai boxing allows the use of knee and elbow techniques in combat. But 'clinching' - in which fighters try to touch each other with the knee or elbows and/or try to get each other to the floor with judo type-throwing techniques - are also part of Thai boxing. 

This clinching can be seen as a kind of 'embracing', and is not allowed in kickboxing where they work with different types of kicking techniques and punches to hit the 'opponent'. 

A kickboxing match consists of three rounds in which two fighters face off against each other. Whoever collects the most points wins by placing (technical) kicks or punches on the opponent's body. However, the outcome of a fight can also be decided earlier, if one of the two fighters is unable to continue, or is knocked out immediately by the impact of these kicks or punches. 

The fighters can also give up the fight themselves, or the trainer can intervene by literally throwing in the towel. Decisive in this whole context is the referee who moves along with the fighters in the ring and ensures that the fighters stick to the rules. He intervenes when and where necessary. The timing of this intervention by the official is crucial because there is always a risk of suffering serious injuries if a fighter receives punches and kicks to the head.

The fact that competitive fighting comes with risks has been public knowledge for years. However, in today's day and age, aside from these risks, martial arts without the competitive element are also increasingly seen as an ideal way to stay fit. 

Getting a foot in the door with a broader audience

In the past you may have been frowned upon if someone heard you took part in and practiced martial arts and regarded with suspicion, the sport is now much more socially accepted. In fact, kickboxing is growing in popularity. In 2021, more than half a million Dutch people took part in martial arts such as Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Thai boxing and kickboxing. This was one of the conclusions of research conducted by the University of Utrecht commissioned by the Dutch Martial Arts Authority (VA). 

Of the three previously mentioned styles, kickboxing is the most commonly practiced. The combination of kicks and punches on a punching bag is seen as an ideal way to burn off calories and be active in a group at the same time. Another sign of the sport gaining a firmer foot on the ground is the growing number of specialized kickboxing. The public personas and successes of kickboxing icons such as Rico Verhoeven, Badr Hari and newcomers such as Luis Tavares contribute to the popularity of this martial art among both young and older audiences. Kickboxing is increasingly finding its place in the Dutch martial arts climate and, with that, also comes a greater need for professionalization.

The aforementioned VA is a supervisory organisation, aimed at regulating kickboxing, Thai boxing and Mixed Martial Arts. The organisation's task is to create a safer climate for the practitioners of this martial art. For example, competition fighters are required, for some time now, to hold a fighter’s id (Fightpassport, ed.) to participate in a match. These id’s are then checked by, for example, the organizers of a tournament for safety measures. 

Whilst these developments are all positive, the contrast couldn’t be any bigger when one compares it to how the sport was run a couple of decades ago. You had the practitioners, enthusiasts and sponsors all mingling and the infamous galas without much regulation.

Glen huisman, chairmen World Muay Thai Association

To understand more about the history of the sport in the Netherlands and some of the challenges and opportunities it faces today in its quest to introduce more regulation that will benefit the fighters and sport more generally, Warrior Code spoke to a household name in the Dutch world of kickboxing: Glen Huisman.

Glen, who once started as a stage builder at the first galas ever organised in the Netherlands in the 1980's, has been around the block and seen kickboxing in the Netherlands emerge and change over the years. Glen: “My first introduction to the sport was when I was asked to work as a juror at a gala because a referee had dropped out. I got into the ring and from that moment on I never let go of the sport.”

Glen is a true martial arts enthusiast and part-time collector of memorabilia/Paraphernalia. At home, in his attic, he keeps a whole archive of videos and images of various fights that he often filmed himself. He is also the acting president of the martial arts organisation World Muay Thai Association (WMTA). 

While Glen himself has been an official at small and large galas of Glory kickboxing association for years, he and his organisation are also responsible for the training for officials for various tournaments and competitions that promoters organize in the Netherlands.

Glen, to start at the very beginning, when and where did kickboxing originate?

"There are two possible answers to that, are we talking worldwide or in the Netherlands? I assume you mean the latter. The sport was officially introduced in the Netherlands in 1975 when the three founders Jan Plas, Peter van den Hemel and Jan van Looijen came back from Japan. They went there for karate training and came back with kickboxing, the Japanese variant of our sport.

In the 1960's there was a Japanese guy called Osamu Noguchi (and Tatsua Yamada, ed.) who pitted karateka against muay thai fighters. (These 3 times 3 competitions were organised in the Lumpinee Boxing Stadium in Bangkok of Kyokushin Karate against Muay Thai, ed.) Those Japanese all got their asses kicked... So, the Japanese 'nicked' those techniques and called it kickboxing. Kickboxing also had low judo throws incorporated. This Noguchi was later, after the tournament in Japan, paid a visit by angry Thais, where they destroyed his gym."

Noguchi gym in Bangkok

"The very first kickboxing event in the Netherlands took place on May 31, 1976. Before kickboxing became 'official', we already had full contact karate, the predecessor of kickboxing; but no low kicks were allowed. I mention that detail because the low kick turned out to be one of the most important weapons in kickboxing."

1976 - the first kickboxing event in the Netherlands

What do you think have been the most significant changes over the years in the sport?

"The way of training and the enormous development/evolution of the techniques. You can really say that the sport has developed and kept up with the times. The A-class fighters from the old days would now perhaps struggle to keep up with present day C/B-class fighters."

Who do you consider to be the best, Dutch or otherwise, kickboxer of all time?

"Rob Kaman without a shadow of doubt. This man was one of the most complete fighters. But you could almost say that he fought in the wrong era. Now he would be considered a true legend. I say the wrong era because if you ask any 10 kickboxers about him, they won’t know who he is. Most of them will mention Ramon Dekker, but I don’t agree with that at all."

Besides Rob, I think you can make the claim that the Netherlands has successfully delivered many champions and that we are therefore quite good at the sport. Is that fair to say?

"The Netherlands has indeed created many champions because we were in the right place and time at the right time. The Dutch Style is a household name in the world. One of the factors, I think, is that we are not tied to a certain style: we use techniques from all contact sports. Many countries are somewhat traditional and therefore fight in a one-dimensional way. The Dutch are all-round. I do think that we often spar too hard, but perhaps that is the key to success."

Rob Kaman 

Is Dutch kickboxing still in good shape?

"In itself, Dutch kickboxing is in good shape. But we have to let go of the arrogance that we still think we are the best in the world. We are being overtaken on the left by the Belgians and French and on the right by the English who are a light year ahead of us in terms of MuayThai. We have to go back to basics. Which means, among other things, that we have to go back to matches of 5x3. Shake it up a bit and move on. Then I’m confident we’ll get back on top; there is enough talent waiting."

Bonjasky's flying high kicks, Hari's punches and so on, how does the Dutch kickboxing style compare to that of Thailand, for example? How can you recognise a Dutch kickboxer? Is there a Dutch kickboxing style at all?

"This is almost incomparable. In Thailand it is 'a way of life'. There, kids will live in a kickboxing camp from a very young age in order to build a career and support the family. while in the Netherlands we consider kickboxing a side job. It's almost amazing that we have achieved such great successes worldwide. Technically speaking: the differences between Thailand and the Netherlands are great, look at a sparring session between Thais and Dutch on YouTube, then you'll see what I mean. Thais learn together, the Dutch train to get better at the expense of you (their opponent)."

And in terms of professionalisation, are you positive about the future of kickboxing in the Netherlands?

"Tricky. We currently have 8 kickboxing federations and a MMA federation in the Netherlands. Let's see if we can join these up and create one bigger organisation. The Martial Arts Authority aims to do this within 2 years and that means making compromises for some of the existing ones."

Can you suggest what exactly this might look like?

"In order to further professionalize, we need recognition, because with recognition doors and grants opening up. This would benefit the development of the sport. We haven't had a national team for years (in fact, we never had)! Some branches have received Olympic recognition, but these are not very popular in the Netherlands. The rules are very modified to meet that Olympic standard."

What can you specifically improve with regard to how kickboxing is organised in NL? Is there a need for a central platform that promotes transparency in sport and makes it more efficient to pit talents against each other?

"A lot can and must be changed within the organisational structure of kickboxing in the Netherlands. A (digital) platform would be welcome, but it should not get bogged down in a commercial thing. Many initiatives come and go because they are all driven by commercial interests  around the corner which often makes that not the best fighter, but the best selling fighter comes into the spotlight. There's plenty to do, but the associations aren't really the party that decides who will face each other at the moment; that's what promoters do. It’s all about supply and demand."

What do you say to people who still view kickboxing as a violent sport?

"Please just form your own opinion rather than believing everything you read in media. There is always that same response from people who say 'that's not a sport, that’s beating each other up'. While all practitioners know better and that there is much more to it." 

However, you cannot deny that kickboxing is still regularly accompanied by violence outside the ring, as was the case recently with Badr and Wrzosek. How do you respond to that?

"Look back at the images. Do you see kickboxing fans or rather hooligans messing things up? In my 38 years in the sport, I can count the number of times violence erupted outside the ring on my two hands, and I’d still have fingers left. I won’t deny that serious things have happened, of course, but without trivializing the matter, football should have more of an image problem than kickboxing."

Would you let your child take part in kickboxing lessons?

"I would let my child take lessons, but I would not like to see them compete in the ring. I've seen too many excesses for that. The training is simply a complete workout for the body and it also strengthens self-confidence in your own abilities. I think that’s enough."

Can an average competition fighter earn a lot of money in the Netherlands?

"It really varies. The big earners only form a very small group. There are only a few who can really make a living from this sport in the Netherlands. And then we're talking about the elite in Glory."

Glen Huisman with former professional kick boxer Peter Aerts

You've been involved in the sport for decades. What makes kickboxing so special?

"The aspect of being 'alone'… Although you train as a collective, in the ring you are all by yourself. You know what you've trained for, but the surprise remains in whether you've done enough…What did your opponent do when you decided to skip training one night?"

What is the essence of a good fighter?

"The essence of a good fighter is fighting spirit coupled with work ethic. A lazy but talented fighter won't get as far as a motivated yet mediocre fighter. My personal opinion is that a good fighter listens to his corner (the place from which the trainer gives instructions outside the ring, ed.). The coach is 'his eyes and overview of the match'."

Last question before we let you go, how can the way a kickboxer practices the sport serve as an example of how we should approach or live life?

"The brotherhood, the sportsmanship and measuring forces/techniques. Alpha men and women who want to know where they stand. But after the game we gave each other respect. Social media is full of boxing quotes. One of my favorites is, 'It's not about how many times you go down, it's about how many times you get back up!'"

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