Turning the Martial Arts Into Mondo Mayhem

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There are people who attend karate exhibitions to marvel at the discipline and focus that the sport demands of its participants, and the ritualism that evokes hundreds of years of history. Then there is karate master Kazuyoshi Ishii, who just likes watching people get their teeth knocked out.

Ishii created the K-1 Grand Prix, an ultimate fighting tournament in which expert practitioners of such disciplines as karate, kick boxing, kung fu, kempo, kakutogi and tae kwon do duke it out to determine which "K" martial art reigns supreme. It's a lot like Iron Chef, with humans taking the pounding as opposed to the veal cutlets.

A founder of the famed Seido Kaikan karate school in Osaka, Japan, Ishii, 48, has respect for the aesthetic and ascetic virtues of the martial arts. It's just that he prefers the martial to the arts, and he believes spectators do too. "To increase the popularity and visibility of karate, we need to professionalize it as part of an entertaining fighting sport," he says. "I want to make K-1 as popular worldwide as F1 [Formula One]."

He's on his way. As a promoter Ishii puts Don King to shame, selling out every event he has ever held, including last year's championship in the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome. In Japan, K-1 fighters like world champion Ernest Hoost, a 6-ft. 5-in., 220-lb. Muay Thai kick-boxing expert from Holland, enjoy rock-star status. The sport is also gaining audiences in Europe and in the U.S. A recent event at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas kept Ishii's sellout streak alive, and a new PlayStation game is bound to hook any American kid who just might happen to enjoy animated pummeling.

Beyond blood, the appeal of the Grand Prix lies in its king-of-the-hill simplicity. Sixteen fighters square off in a bracket-style tournament. There's only one division--heavyweight--and the champion must survive several brutal bouts in a single day. Whatever patina of class and skill the martial arts lend to the festivities is offset by flashing lights, blaring jock rock and Cheech levels of smoke. Ubiquitous ring announcer Michael Buffer has already collected a K-1 appearance fee.

For karate-tournament purists, accustomed to the elaborate formality of participants and a code that discourages cheering, K-1 is an abomination. Says Ishii: "I'm proud of that."