In the book "Principles and Practice of Sports Management," University of Massachusetts Professor Lisa P. Masteralexis estimates the career of a professional athlete at less than five years. Apparently, Dutch kickboxer Peter Aerts has not read that book.
Aerts, 38, has participated in each and every K-1 World Grand Prix Final in a glorious career spanning the sport's 16 year history. The "Dutch Lumberjack" has taken the crown three times, and in Yokohama on December 6, will endeavor to do it again. Incredibly, Aerts is not coming into the grueling eight-man elimination tournament as a nostalgic icon, but as the clear favorite -- a position he cemented by eliminating 2007 World GP Champion Semmy Schilt at the September 27 Final-16 tournament in Seoul.
The K-1 World GP Final is the world's most prestigious fightsport event. Culminating 12 months of qualifying and regional elimination tournaments, it kicks off with the year's top eight fighters clashing in quarterfinal bouts. Winners there advance to the semis, from which a pair of warriors emerge for the final showdown, the victor earning the K-1 World GP Championship.
In advance of the event -- which will be broadcast live on five continents -- we circumnavigated the globe to get the predictions of international sportswriters and K-1 experts.
The first quarterfinal matchup pits Aerts against K-1 Heavyweight Champion Badr Hari. Many believe Aerts' toughest challenge of the night will be getting past the 23 year-old Moroccan dynamo.
"The first match will be crucial for the tournament, says Jeroen Winters of Holland's Mat Magazine. "But the 'Old Master' Aerts is in great shape and will never allow a 'newcomer' like Hari to keep him from his 4th title."
"The favorite is clearly Peter Aerts," says Alexis Del Castillo of Spain's K-1Fans. "Aerts was the only fighter able to defeat Semmy Schilt and he is again at one of the best moments in his K-1 career."
"Peter Aerts has an 80 % chance to win against Hari," says Kasra Ashhami of K-1 Scandinavia. "Aerts is too experienced, heavy and strong for Hari, an upcoming fighter who could be tomorrow's champ but is still not strong enough and not heavy enough to defeat an opponent such as Aerts today. If Peter is not inured after the semifinals, he will win the Grand Prix for the 4th time!"
"Taking out the defending champion Semmy Schilt is one of the top stories in combat sports this year," says California-based 'Webmaster Gumby' of Brazil's On The Mat. "If Peter Aerts manages to win the K-1 Final this year it would truly make him a legend." Of a similar mind is Brazilian sportswriter Marcelo Estrella, who predicts Aerts will KO Hari and go on to also win the final by KO.
The concentration of talent in the first quarterfinal was emphasized in many of our experts' predictions, and reflected by Hari finishing second in the straw poll.
"As Hari himself has mentioned he has the 'best scenario' for this year’s championship, at least if he can get past Aerts." says Jens Habermann of Germany's K-1sport. "Although Aerts has experience and strength on his side I choose Hari as he's had the more convincing fights this year, with KO victories over Feitosa and Sefo, and also because of his youth and technique. I predict that Hari's going all the way this year."
Marko Gyllenland, editor-in-chief of Sweden's Fighter Magazine, concurs. "Hari has evolved as a fighter, he can win this bout by decision and continue through to win the championship."
Takao Matsui, who writes for the martial arts magazine Kakutogi Tsushin, is one of more than a few Japanese sportswriters picking the Moroccan. "Hari's speed, technique and aggressiveness are his big weapons," says Matsui. "I believe he'll beat Aerts and go on to become the new champion."
The second tournament quarterfinal pits 22 year-old Surinamese-Dutch kickboxer Errol Zimmerman against 26-year-old kyokushin karateka Ewerton Teixeira of Brazil. Most respondents have Zimmerman taking this bout, and although none figure either fighter will go all the way, Gyllenland pegs Zimmerman as the dark horse; while Stuart Tonkin of Japan's Kakutogi website and Australia-based K-1 television commentator Michael Schiavello do the same for Teixeira.
The next matchup is between a couple of go-to kickboxers -- Gokhan Saki of Turkey and Ruslan Karaev of Russia.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see Karaev take the upset tournament victory," says Andreas Bruzelius, also weighing in from Sweden's Fighter Magazine. "This year has been amazing for Karaev, he still takes a lot of risks, and leaves himself unprotected at times, however his timing and precision are better then ever, and with the power in his punches, he's a hard man to stop."
Karaev also picks up a dark horse vote from Ashhami.
Saki, meanwhile, has captured the imagination of our experts. Del Castillo, Winters and Mark "Hammer" Castagnini of Australia's International Kickboxer Magazine all select Saki as their dark horse; while Fred Varcoe of Japan's Metropolis Magazine exudes even more confidence in the young Turk's chances.
"Saki fights to win," says Varcoe. "Karaev is good at taking punishment, but there are limits. I think Saki will win the tournament, he just seems to have too much firepower: he's got the skills, the focus, the desire, tactical awareness and the knockout punch."
The last of the quarterfinals features two-time K-1 World GP Champion Remy Bonjasky of Holland and French veteran Jerome LeBanner. After Aerts and Hari, Bonjasky and LeBanner finished best in our experts' survey, making this another critical contest.
"This is Remy's fight," says Schiavello. "He has too many tools, he is too quick and his work rate is too consistent. Look for Bonjasky to outscore LeBanner. He has a new lease on his fighting life and the prerequisites for success are all aligned for him: physically in shape, mentally ready and a new hot girlfriend to hang off his shoulder alongside the Grand Prix belt! He hardly ever loses, his defense is tighter than Fort Knox, he moves like a middleweight and his workrate is the highest of any fighter in the top eight. The winner of the GP will be Remy Bonjasky."
"Bonjasky has proven time and time again that he is just about impossible to hurt -- unless you go for the family jewels that is" says Tonkin. "He also manages to win just about every judges' decision he fights to, so unless LeBanner manages to put him away early in the first fight, it is going to be very tough to beat him."
"Bonjasky has put a recent slump behind him and should edge past LeBanner," says Tim Leidecker of Germany's GroundAndPound. "I think Bonjasky and Aerts are poised to meet in the final, with the "Flying Gentleman" getting revenge for last year's semifinal exit at the hands and feet of Aerts, to win his third K-1 World GP Final."
Castagnini sees it another way: "LeBanner very hungry and aggressive and based on Bonjasky's last performance, LeBanner should be too strong. Could this be Jerome's year?"
According to Brice Hoarau of France's MuayThaiTV, it definitely is: "I think this could be 'LeBanner Time'! Not because he's a better fighter, not because he has more power, not because his skills are better -- because objectively Bonjasky is the best technician in the tournament. It will be 'LeBanner Time' only because he wants it more! In Aerts' bracket I don't think the finalist will finish two fights without injuries, but if LeBanner fights in the final he will be at 130%! His iron mind will give him the victory this year!"
And there we have it. Significant support for Hari, Bonjasky and LeBanner, but a clear majority predicting the indefatigable veteran Peter Aerts will battle through the field to victory in the K-1 World Grand Prix 2008 Final.
Also strongly in Aerts' favor is an ongoing fan poll on the K-1 Japanese Website. At time of writing, Aerts has garnered a commanding 47% of votes for pick to win; while Bonjasky, LeBanner and Hari trail with 13-15% each and the other four hopefuls share the remaining 10%.
But no matter how many dozens of sportswriters or thousands of fans believe Aerts will win the K-1 World GP; there remain seven men possessed of very different opinions. And at the Yokohama Arena on December 6, those seven men will lace up their gloves and step into the ring determined to prove a lot of people wrong.