A Game of Thrones for Sky Sport The Magazine

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This feature was written in the build-up to the King in the Ring 86II. It details the rise of TY Williams, the reigning King in the Ring cruiserweight champion. He defends his belt this Saturday the 30th August.

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During a fight, the adrenal cortex releases approximately 30 different hormones into the bloodstream.

Initially, most serve to trigger a specific physiological reaction, producing a quick burst of energy. Some of these hormones, notably epinephrine (aka adrenaline), then facilitate an incredible physical response in preparation for intensive muscular action. Heart and lung activity increases rapidly, the body suffers auditory and visual exclusion (tunnel vision) and blood is diverted to the muscles.

It’s pretty complicated stuff, but all that you need to understand is that much like a castle under siege the body rallies its defences and primes itself before combat.

The fight-or-flight response is as spectacularly powerful as it is exhausting, but the fighter who masters their mental and physiological response to stress can at least mitigate the severity of the after-effects for a time.

However all the positive visualisation and physical preparation in the world can’t carry a fighter through three fights back-to-back in one night without a little bit of discomfort.

Just ask former six-time Muay Thai world champion Jason ‘Psycho’ Suttie, a living legend in the martial arts community and promoter of the toughest test in New Zealand combat sports, the King in the Ring 8-man tournament.

Suttie Bomb

“To fight and win three times in one night? It’s bigger than winning a world title,” says Suttie, “It’s the best thing and the biggest accomplishment that I ever achieved.”

A natural heavyweight (95-100kg depending on the sanctioning body) who spent most of his career at super-heavyweight, Suttie created the King in the Ring series out of somewhat vicarious motives, having never had the chance to fight a tournament at 100kg.

“I generally weighed around 103kg and because super heavyweight has no limit, I fought up to 133kg. I always thought ‘Man, I wish the 8 man tournaments were at 100kg because I’d be killing them’, so I did King in the Ring at 100kgs, living my own dreams through these fighters,” he laughs.

Here’s how the tournament works – eight names are drawn from a hat and the resulting match-ups are announced to the crowd. Shortly thereafter, the first quarter-final fight takes place followed by the second, third and fourth. The victor of each bout heads back to their changing room to attempt to repair some of the damage sustained during the fight. After a couple of non-tournament bouts, the semi-finals begin and the process of elimination continues until the two remaining fighters meet in the main event of the evening.

The winner takes home a cash prize of $15,000 and the title of King in the Ring, but this game of thrones is every bit as arduous as the one on TV. Remember the adrenaline dump? That biological fireworks display as your body prepares to fight for its continued existence? Well, all that dilating and accelerating is incredibly taxing.

“It comes down to mental toughness,” says Suttie. “Everyone gets tired, everyone has injuries, win or lose, and it comes down to how much your brain can take.”

Injuries consistently threaten as a wildcard during the tournament. In a sport where kicks are blocked with the defendants own shin, and the aim of the game is to render your opponent unconscious, there’s always a chance that someone gets hurt.

In fact, it’s almost a certainty.

“I’d say maybe 10% of those guys come out of that first fight uninjured,” says Suttie.

Between-fight recovery methods are rudimentary and coaches concentrate more on psychological recuperation.

“In the breaks the fighter will have a little snack, a banana and a protein shake with some carbs, maybe some electrolytes and then they rest,” says Suttie, “You can’t do a lot, so for me it’s all mental.

“I talk to their brain a lot. [Reigning Super-Heavyweight King in the Ring] Tafa Misipati was injured before his first fight, and I don’t want to give away too many secrets, but I talked him through overcoming the pain and put a little bit of fear in there too. They have a lot of respect for me so I force them to get back out there.”

In the eight tournaments held so far Suttie has had six fighters reach the finals.

In April, last year, Suttie promoted the inaugural King in the Ring 86kg cruiserweight tournament. Eight of the top fighters at 86kg descended on the ASB Stadium in Kohimarama, Auckland, to compete for $15,000 and the crown of King in the Ring.

The top fighters of the North Island Muay Thai scene crowded the bill while the debate raged as to which of the favourites would be king.slav

Would the international experience of City Lee Gar veterans Jan Antolik and Slava Alexeichik see them meet in the finals? Could South Auckland’s SMAC Gym coach Francis ‘Fearless’ Vesetolu take out the field of younger men with his relentless pressure? And what about ETK Northshore’s ‘Kyokushin Kid’ Jamie Eades?

Few people north of Porirua considered the possibility that an unheralded kickboxer from Wellington could overthrow such an elite field of proven fighters.

But, despite having just six bouts to his name, that’s what Alpha Muay Thai representative TY Williams did.

The young father from Wainuiomata earned his place in the lineup after coach Kevin Dick lobbied Suttie for the chance.

“I’d heard there was an opening so I called Jason and I told him ‘Look, I know this guy only has six fights, but trust me, he’s up for it,’” says Dick. “This style is perfect for him. He was a huge underdog, having only had six fights going up against professional guys who had 30-plus fights behind them, but he got it done.”

Williams acknowledges the odds he overcame.

“I went in thinking ‘how am I going to lose, will I get knocked out?’”, says Williams, “So even making it through the first guy was enough for me. It was a big step up, but it felt so natural to do something out of the norm. A lot of people would have been like ‘Oh, I haven’t had enough fights,’ but K1 is my passion, those are the rules I like to fight, so why would I throw that opportunity away?”

Entering the tournament considerably undersized, Williams gave up significant reach and weight advantages to his opponents.

“I naturally sit around 82 or 83kg,” says Williams, “And a lot of these guys are cutting [losing weight through dehydration] down from 90kg and above, but I don’t mind. I like to feel like the real McCoy when I fight, knowing that this is actually how I am.”

Williams was superb in victory, utilising numbing leg kicks, incredible punching power and an absolutely ridiculous ability to take a shot en route to the most prestigious title in New Zealand combat sports.

“In the back of mind, I thought I had a different fight style than everyone else, but I had never tested myself against that calibre of opposition.”

Dick believes the key to Williams’ success is his ability to be coached, combined with extraordinary natural explosiveness.

“Even when he first joined the gym, I saw that he had talent,” says Dick, “But it was the way he listened that really stood out. Some fighters have plenty of natural talent, but they won’t listen to their coaches and so they don’t improve.”

This coach-ability was evident in Williams’ ringsmanship and fight IQ (a term used to describe a fighters capacity to adapt on the fly and fight intelligently).

Williams tailored his strategy to each opponent he faced on his march to the title in order to nullify their strengths and exacerbate their weaknesses.

TY

In his semi-final bout with Francis Vesetolu, a South Auckland icon renowned for his never back down style, Williams threw numerous kicks to his opponent’s legs.

The leg kick as Williams executes it is a phenomenally powerful strike. Much like a hook punch, the fighter utilises the rotation of their hips to generate force in a similar motion to someone swinging a bat. Ideally the kick lands with the instep of the shin cutting in to the tender, nerve-dense muscle just above the target’s knee.

When used effectively, the leg kick has great potential for causing sufficient damage to limit an opponent’s movement before eventual incapacitation. Additionally, because the power in any strike comes first and foremost from the legs, the damage sustained through repeated kicks can nullify a foe’s attack.

The kick-heavy strategy employed by Williams was the perfect counter for an aggressive style such as Vesetolu’s.

“TY is so explosive,” says Dick, “He has an excellent low kick and it’s something that’s made a big difference in his fights.”

On the other side of the tournament, two metre tall Kyle ‘The Knee Assassin’ Gallacher had carved his way through the elimination rounds with his exceptional range and, as his moniker would imply, deadly knees.

Heading in to the final against Gallacher, Williams was fatigued. Dick describes the efforts to rejuvenate his fighter.

“There’s a lot of stuff that goes on back stage after each fight at the King in the Ring, with the icing and the warming up and cooling down. That’s where a lot of the hard work comes in. It’s just about getting him ready and sharp. But again, the important thing is that he listens and everything I call out from the corner, he does.”

This receptiveness would prove to be essential in securing the win.

“We had a gameplan going in against Gallacher,” says Dick. “The idea was to counter-fight with TY’s explosiveness before clinching up to avoid the knees.”

Giving up a significant reach advantage, Williams endeavoured to get inside Gallacher, punching his way in with winging overhands before driving his head in to the taller man’s chest and smothering any counter attack. While incredibly frustrating for Gallacher and his supporters, the strategy proved effective and, after three gruelling fights, the previously unheralded boy from Wainuiomata became king.

“King in the Ring was the first time I learned of TY,” says Suttie, “I didn’t know a lot about him. No one knew what to expect of TY, so I never thought I’d see him in the final, let alone winning it.”

Dick was confident of victory all along.

“I always knew he could get it done, but sometimes at King in the Ring it comes down to the draw. Once the draw was announced at the beginning of the night, I knew we had it because the guys in the first round were going to bang each other up pretty badly.”

“But TY has always had something special. Just the other day he said to me, ‘I remember when you first told me I was going to be a national champion,’ and I told him ‘No, I said you’re going to be a world champion.’”

A year to the day later, at the King in the Ring’s sophomore effort in the 62kg division, TY Williams would legitimise what Dick had long predicted, dispatching Australian Ben Johnson in a seven round cruiserweight world title fight.

Once again it was the leg kicks that came in to play. Blood ran from Johnson’s shins by the end of the third round and with four still to come his legs appeared as if they’d been through a woodchipper.

“It took two months for my ligaments to heal after that fight, but I’ve learned how to modify my style to make sure I’m not too sore by the last fight in a tournament.”

But crowns won with blood must always be defended, and this month at the King in the Ring 86II foes both new and old will look to commit regicide.

Familiar faces Jan Antolik and Jamie Eades return in an attempt to avenge their losses while newcomers Zane Hopman, Andrew Banham and WMC champion Zac Fatamaka endeavour to create legacies of their own.

Suttie pupil Pati Afoa also enters the fray, hoping to bring the title back to Elite Thai Kickboxing.

“Pati’s coming off big victories over Kyle Gallacher and Zak Fatamaka,” says Suttie, “So he’s in really good form.”

Most intriguingly, barring a contractual clash, Israel ‘Stylebender’ Adesanya will make his King in the Ring debut. Adesanya is, to the greater public at least, a hidden gem. Quietly amassing a record of 32-2, with 15 wins via stoppage, Adesanya entered the mainstream in February, this year, when he was signed to the greatest stage in kickboxing, the Glory World Series. Suttie is excited for Adesanya to enter the tournament coming off the biggest fight of his career at Glory 15: Istanbul.

“I love Israel, I love watching him fight and he can really bring it, but it’ll be interesting to see how the other Kiwi boys stack up. I think there are a few guys in there who can give him some trouble but he could be dangerous.”

But the King from the South will not be dethroned easily, with Dick confident of victory.

“I think this is just the beginning of what we have seen from TY Williams.”

Williams, for his own part, is calmly optimistic.

“I never go in certain I’m going to win, but this is how I express my creativity, this is what I love to do. I’m not worried.”

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