Photo: Glory Sports International
Rico Verhoeven and Daniel Ghita used to be sparring partners who enjoyed friendly relations -- even if, at the back of their minds, they both knew that they would one day have to face off inside the ring.
In kickboxing, it is common for training partners to fight one another, so the heavyweights did not anticipate too many problems. But, when their fight finally came around in the grand final of the Glory 11 heavyweight tournament, things changed.
Prior to the tournament, the fighters prepared separately, and when both men won their semifinal bouts and progressed to the final, they had a fight for the ages. Verhoeven (43-9, 10 KOs) won the decision, but Ghita (50-10, 39 KOs) took issue with the judges, claiming that CompuStrike stats proved him to be the rightful winner.
Now, they are set to fight again in the main event of Glory “Last Man Standing.” The card, which takes place June 21 at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., is the first pay-per-view card from the kickboxing premier league. On the line in Ghita and Verhoeven’s bout will be the company’s vacant heavyweight title.
“No doubt [Ghita] is someone who feels a lot of tension,” Verhoeven tells Sherdog.com over the telephone as he drives home from another training session in his native Holland. “In the past, I think he has showed that he cannot handle the pressure. Every time he fought a big name, he was ‘not at home’ mentally. Every time something happens, he has an excuse.
“He got knocked out by [Gokhan] Saki in Turkey but talked about bad refereeing, and then he fought me and lost, and again he’s saying there was something wrong, this time with the judges. Well, it’s a judging sport, so however they see it is however they see it.
“And he’s talking about these CompuStrike statistics? Well I’m not interested in that. The key thing is how it looks to the [judges’] eye. In the last round, he was dropping to the canvas just from tiredness. Can you imagine if it had gone to the extra round? I think he would definitely have been knocked out.”
Of late, the two have been involved in a public feud via Twitter, with Ghita taunting his younger rival as a “fake champion” and “boring fighter” who is “not explosive.” Verhoeven took it well at first but gradually became more annoyed.
“Like I said to him on Twitter, it seems I don’t need to be explosive to beat him,” Verhoeven laughs. “I beat him before and I will beat him again. And it’s all about that win. I am not going for the coin-flip; I am going for the win.
“He said he was too focused on a rematch with Saki, but it was the same for me. I didn’t train for Ghita because my trainer Dennis Krauweel said ‘Look, if we meet Daniel in the final then it is no problem because we know him inside out. And we know he cannot handle the pressure and always breaks under tension.’
“I can adapt in every fight. My first fight that night, against Saki, looked totally different to my next fight, against Ghita. You saw two different Ricos. So it doesn’t mean anything when he says he didn’t prepare for me. If you cannot adapt then that says everything that needs to be said.
“I didn’t train for a fight with Ghita, but when we fought I won. So when he says he didn’t prepare for me, he prepared for Saki -- well, you’re fighter, so you need to be able to adapt and to fight anyone.”
One comment which particularly got under Verhoeven’s skin was Ghita’s claim in a recent Sherdog interview to have repeatedly knocked down and dominated Verhoven during their sparring sessions.
“I think we trained together for about three years. It was the perfect relationship at first. He is definitely a gifted guy. In the first year, I learned a lot from him, but after that I think maybe it was the other way around,” says Verhoeven. “But over the years were trained together I noticed that there were certain times he would cancel training sessions with me. When he had a fight coming up, the closer it got to fight night, he would often cancel the final training sessions before that fight. Does that mean he was too good to spar with me? Or was it that he felt I was too good [to spar with before his fight]?
“He said he knocked me down in sparring all the time. Well, I can tell you in this: I think in the second year of our sparring together we made a good training session and I got a bit over-confident. I went in and he dazzled me with a high kick. That was one time. So maybe that is what he is talking about. I can’t think of anything else. And I paid him back in the final of the Glory 11 tournament.”
It is rare for kickboxers to engage in trash talk before a fight and rarer still for a quiet, considered man like Ghita to be the verbal aggressor. Fans have been enjoying the exchanges immensely, but Verhoeven thinks Ghita might be doing himself no favors.
“He is obviously looking for the media attention and yeah, he is getting it, but with all the attention he is also putting pressure on himself. Can he handle all that pressure?” Verhoeven asks. “I think it will be tough for him. That plus the fact that time is ticking for him, he is getting older and the clock is ticking. How many more title fights does he have left in him?”
If Ghita’s last fight is anything to go by, age is not an issue. At 33, he is eight years older than Verhoeven but is as dangerous as ever. His last fight saw him take out the durable and dangerous Errol Zimmerman in an incredible 35 seconds of one-sided violence.
“Meh, that fight lasted like a minute. I don’t think it showed us very much. He can try to do that against me if he wants. He can bring whatever he has and we will see what happens,” says Verhoeven.
Verhoeven will soon head to the United States to get acclimated ahead of the June 21 fight. In the past, he has based himself at the Blackzilians’ Florida headquarters to prepare for his stateside ventures, but for this one he is going straight to California and training at Dynamix MMA, a gym headed by fellow Dutchman and former kickboxer Antoni Hardonk.
“I am prepared well, I am ready for this fight and I am excited,” Verhoeven says. “I know the fans are excited so for me I just want another amazing fight -- and to prove that I am number one, again.”