It was as if the calendar had been turned back a few months, with the mercury rising to 20 C/68 F in early December. And as the K-1 World Grand Prix 2008 Final fighters took the outdoor stage at Shinjuku Square in central Tokyo, it was as if the calendar had been turned back a few years -- with boisterous cheers rising from the hundreds of fans who'd come to catch a glimpse of their favorite K-1 fighters.
It's been a long time since a K-1 World GP Final has attracted such keen interest, both in Japan and internationally.
This year's WGP Final comprises both proven veterans and newcomers with something to prove. At the Yokohama Arena tomorrow, one of these eight fighters will be crowned K-1's 2008 World GP Champion. With the planet's most prestigious fightsport title and a winner's purse of US$400,000 on the line, the stakes couldn't be higher -- but at today's public press conference the mood was decidedly relaxed.
Tournament favorite Peter Aerts arrival on stage brought a roar from the crowd. But where was the Dutch kickboxing legend's first-fight opponent, Moroccan bad boy Badr Hari? Lost en route in the serpentine streets, the MC reported.
"Hi everybody," said Aerts. "I'm not sure what's happening with Badr, maybe I'll go pick him up myself tomorrow! And if he doesn't want to come, I'll bring him!"
Surinamese-Dutch kickboxer Errol Zimmerman communicated much confidence with few words: "Hello everybody, I'm happy to be here. I'm going to fight [Ewerton] Teixeira tomorrow, and I'm going to destroy him and become the youngest K-1 Champion!"
For his part, Teixeira, a Brazilian kyokushin karateka, looked overwhelmed by all the attention. "I prepared well, trained hard, and I'm ready. Please cheer for me, and good luck to all the other fighters."
Russian Dynamo Ruslan Karaev and Turkish kickboxer Gokhan Saki strode onto the stage relaxed, smiling and waving to the crowd, joking with one another.
Said Saki: "Hello everybody, I'm very happy to be here to fight the last eight, I trained really hard and my condition is good. My first fight tomorrow is against Ruslan Karaev and of course I'm going to go for the KO. And after that, no problem! I'm ready to fight everybody tomorrow, I'm going to show you all who the new generation is!"
Karaev laughed off the tough talk. Making his introductory remarks in Japanese, Karaev then switched to Russian. "I'm happy to be here in Japan and I'm looking forward to a great result tomorrow. I'm sure it's going to be a great fight with Saki, anyway we'll see what happens. Good luck to all the other fighters!"
Dutch kickboxer Remy Bonjasky and French K-1 veteran Jerome LeBanner's appearance elicited another huge response from the assembled fans.
"I think tomorrow is going to be a very special day for K-1," said Bonjasky, "you're going to see a lot of knockouts, especially from me! So I'll see you tomorrow!"
LeBanner, exuding the confident air that has an increasing number of sportswriters picking him to win his first fight -- if not the entire tournament -- departed from his convention, to address the crowd in English.
"Okay everybody, I'm very happy to be here this afternoon. First of all, I want to thank my team, who gave me a very hard time -- I never prepared so hard as this time. I think tomorrow you will see a knockout, but the headache will not be mine -- I think you will have a very big headache tomorrow, Remy!"
With the fighters' remarks completed and ominous rain clouds filling the sky, a bewildered figure in track pants was seen wandering toward the stage. It was Badr Hari, whose morning walk had led him astray, but had finally found Shinjuku station.
"I promise tomorrow I will be on time," laughed the two-time and defending K-1 Heavyweight Champion, "and I'll make it a very quick fight!"
Also speaking were the fighters in the tournament reserve bouts.
"There's a lot of legends and a lot of great fighters here today," said New Zealand slugger Ray Sefo, who will meet Korean behemoth Hong-Man Choi in the first reserve. "I'm ready, and it's going to be a good one!"
Said Choi: "I'm prepared for the fight, I'll see you all tomorrow!"
In his second tournament reserve it will be Paul Slowinski of Australia and Melvin Manhoef.
"I'm fighting tomorrow a very small, very strong, very explosive and very ugly man," said Slowinski. "I trained good for the fight and I look forward to it!"
Manhoef, embodying casual chic in a salmon and sea-green linen suit and sandals, got the other fighters laughing with his retort: "Paul's right -- I'm very small, I'm very explosive and so on. But you know, I don't have to kiss him, I only have to knock him out -- so we'll see tomorrow!"