Badr Hari prepares for Gokhan Saki at a public workout. Picture via It's Showtime.
For good and for ill, no heavyweight kickboxer in the past few years has had the same level of impact as Badr Hari. The two time K-1 Grand Prix runner-up is a complex figure - one of the best Heavyweights in the world, but also his own worst enemy. Through his many ups and downs and complex turns, he has always remained a lightning rod of fan interest. And this Saturday, he fights in kickboxing for the last time.
This Saturday, January 28 Badr Hari faces Gokhan Saki in what is being billed as Hari's retirement fight from kickboxing. The fight headlines a stacked It's Showtime show from The Netherlands. The show airs live at 3:00 p.m. EST on HDNet. Look for more coverage on the entire show here at Bloody Elbow later this week.
As Hari plans a transition to boxing, leaving behind his roots in kickboxing, the time is right to look back at the winding road of his career. How will we remember Badr Hari the kickboxer? What is this man's legacy?
In looking over the totality of Hari's career, two moments stand above the rest, and it's the contrast between those two moments that I think best sums up what he's all about. The first is a moment we talked about recently thanks to Edson Barboza at UFC 142 - the Lekobuster.
In late 2005, Badr Hari fought for the first time on a K-1 card in Japan. The fight was a rematch, with the 20 year old Hari looking to avenge a loss suffered earlier that year. Stefan Leko had defeated Hari via spinning back kick to the ribs on an It's Showtime show in June. Now, Hari had a shot at the big stage, but to make his mark, he would need to avenge that loss and take out Leko - one of K-1's top stars of that era, undefeated since 2002. Hari came in to that fight to prove himself, and that is exactly what he did. Not content to simply defeat Leko, Hari scored one of the all time K-1 great KO's, taking the spinning back kick Leko used against him and adjusting it to a spinning wheel kick to Leko's jaw. It's an incredible KO, a great fight, and a true passing of the torch moment, as neither man's career would ever be quite the same again.
Partly on the strength of that KO, and partly because of his notoriously volatile nature, Badr Hari spent the next few years establishing himself as the figurehead of the new generation of K-1 heavyweights. During the mid-2000's, K-1 shows had a lot of problems, with fan interest waning. Starting in 2008, a new crop of young Heavyweights began to really take center stage away from the old guard, and Hari was the clear head of that new wave. That idea of old guard vs. new culminated in the 2008 K-1 Grand Prix, a show that goes down as one of the best GP's in K-1 history, but also one of the most notorious.
Heading into the show, this old vs. new theme was played up. In the opening round, that battle was symbolized by the Peter Aerts vs. Badr Hari fight - the two definitive symbols of their generations meeting in the Grand Prix. When Hari stopped the legend Aerts in round 2, the message was clear - the new guard was in control now. That idea was only deepened in the semi-finals, when Hari and fellow young gun Errol Zimmerman squared off in the 2008 K-1 fight of the year. Hari emerged victorious, setting up a final with 2 time champion Remy Bonjasky. Clearly the stage was set - Hari would win, and the new guard would reign.
Instead, what we got was the second defining moment in Hari's career. At the start of the second round, the young fighter, frustrated at Bonjasky, threw the former champion to the ground and flagrantly stomped him. It was a clear, malicious foul, and an embarrassment. Hari was disqualified, and for the only time in Grand Prix history, the finals ended in a DQ win.
2009 saw Hari bounce back with a KO over Semmy Schilt and much praise for being a new, mature Hari. But in early 2010, the frustration struck again, as in a near repeat of the Bonjasky incident, Hari threw Hesdy Gerges to the mat in an It's Showtime title fight, kicked Gerges when he was down, and was promptly disqualified. Again. Around that same time, Hari was involved in an assault on a nightclub doorman in Amsterdam. Wanted by the police, he fled to Morocco, where he spent much of 2010 in exile. He did eventually return, sorted things out with the police, and had a return fight in 2011 against the overmatched Gregory Tony. This Saturday's fight with Saki will be only his second since the Gerges DQ nearly 2 years ago.
As we look at his career, it's those two moments and what they symbolize that really sum up Badr Hari. On one hand, he is a tremendous fighter, capable of highlight reel KO's. On the other, he's a man with clear demons, who never managed to quite get them under control and cost himself severely on more than one occasion. Through it all, he has remained a fascinating, dynamic fighter - one of the only heavyweights of this era who provides that "must watch" feeling.
Perhaps the greatest loss of Hari's career is the way it fizzled out. His last two years have been marked by inactivity, with Hari wasting his prodigious talents on the sidelines. But he could change that this weekend. Hari ends his career fighting Gokhan Saki - one of the best Heavyweights in the world. If he comes in focused, we could see one last glimpse of the man who shattered Leko's jaw, who knocked Schilt out, who stopped The Reem, who proved that he was one of the best in the world. But if his head is not on straight, we could also get the man who kicked a downed Bonjasky, who made the same mistake against Gerges, who showed that he didn't have the mental toughness to consistently win at the highest level of the sport.
The Saki fight will be our final taste of Badr Hari, and will leave us with that lasting impression. But no matter how the Saki fight plays out, the truth of Hari is that he is two things - an all time great, and a disappointment.
Despite any of his troubles (or perhaps, because of them) when he leaves, there will be a huge gap in the world of kickboxing. The Heavyweight division will be a more boring place without him. So get ready to enjoy the volatile unpredictability of Badr Hari one last time this Saturday.