Against the ropes: going behind the scenes with Fighting Spirit

Founded in 2004, Fighting Spirit has promoted a range of boxing, kickboxing, MMA, Muay Thai and wrestling events around the world. SportsPro made the trip to Antwerp, Belgium for the latest instalment of Enfusion, the company’s kickboxing property, to find out how Fighting Spirit’s promotions have built a loyal fanbase, and to learn more about its plans to expand into new markets.

Against the ropes: going behind the scenes with Fighting Spirit

A punishing right uppercut to the chin precedes a vicious knee to the body. A bone-crushing spinning kick sets up a decisive one-two combination.

One by one, finish after finish and knockout after knockout, stunned bodies fall to the canvas. The crowd roars its approval with every shin, every fist, every blow that connects with the intended target. The task of knocking out an opponent might seem like a simple one, yet the art of doing so appears to be anything but.

Indeed, if you were inside Antwerp’s Lotto Arena on the last Saturday of September for Enfusion #53, the latest instalment of Fighting Spirit’s Enfusion Live kickboxing promotion, you would have been forgiven for thinking that you were sat in one of the great sporting amphitheatres. 

Rewind 24 hours, though, to when SportsPro arrives at the Belgian venue for the weigh-ins, and there is an element of calm preceding the storm. Here it is a low-key affair; the kickboxers register their arrival one by one, flanked by an entourage of family and coaches, and wearing facial expressions devoid of the nerves one might expect of a fighter just one day from stepping into their equivalent of the lion’s den.

Each competitor patiently waits for their match-up to be called forward, before stepping up to the scales and conducting a short interview that will be aired across Enfusion’s 160 broadcast territories. Then, it is time for the highly anticipated face-off. Traditionally, this provides one last opportunity for fighters to intimidate their opponents, land a final psychological blow and, perhaps most importantly, sell the fight. Here, though, not even a verbal insult is thrown, and Julie Kitchen, Enfusion commentator and former Muay Thai world super-lightweight champion, explains that this is the norm for the series.

The pre-ring spectacle builds anticipation in Antwerp’s Lotto Arena

“You can’t account for every individual because everyone’s different,” she says, “but generally our fighters appreciate their opponent because they know what they’ve gone through and the sacrifices they’ve made. I think it’s a very respectful sport, because the fighters recognise that without their opponent, they wouldn’t even be in the ring.”

This attitude is a refreshing break from the trend that has often pervaded combat sports, where promoters sell events off the back of scripted press conferences, fabricated rivalries and sensationalised weigh-ins. American boxer Floyd Mayweather’s recent crossover bout with Irish MMA fighter Conor McGregor, for instance, was promoted through an international press tour during which the pair competed over who could shout loudest, before producing a fight which largely underwhelmed. Fighting Spirit, on the other hand, is wedded to selling its events based on the quality of a fight card that guarantees a night of exhilarating action, and it shows.

“At first I was not a big fan of the Mayweather-McGregor fight because I like boxing, and for me the fight was not about boxing,” says Laurent Pourrut, chief executive of Fighting Spirit. “I think it was good marketing for combat sports in general, but personally I think it is better for the audience if you have two respectful boxers or fighters who do their talking in the ring – that’s what I would prefer as a fan.

“When we talk about the programmes we have in our catalogue we talk about what is concrete in terms of the production and the number of events, but we also talk with our heart. That makes a difference because then our clients feel we are not selling just to sell, but we’re selling because we genuinely believe in the sport.”

Speaking at the end of the weigh-ins, Edwin van Os, chief executive of Enfusion, adds that Antwerp will provide “big, loud crowds who will be treated to a very long line-up of great fights.” In moments like this, it can be tempting to exaggerate at the risk of heightening expectations, but when fight night rolls around, it becomes clear that Van Os was simply confident of delivering on his promise.

Enfusion #53 is not only one of the promotion’s 20 annual events, but is also billed as one of the series’ biggest ever. The queues to get into the venue imply that the offer of elite kickboxing has certainly stirred the world’s diamond capital, which has staged an Enfusion event every year since 2014.

Antwerp is a tried and tested market for Enfusion and the city’s faithful fanbase has facilitated the event’s move from the smaller confines of Antwerp Expo’s comparatively sparse hall spaces to the 5,200-capacity Lotto Arena. The evening’s entertainment begins as early as 6.30pm with Enfusion Talents, the promotion’s development programme, and even then, VIP guests and partners of the event have flocked to their ringside tables, lured by the added incentive of a three-course meal, while empty seats in the surrounding stands are already in short supply.

Kickboxing star Superbon Banchamek on his way into the ring

“The sport is growing really fast,” says Van Os, “not only in terms of competition, but also in terms of the number of people who are doing it as a hobby, so our fanbase is a well-educated one. There are some really big brands associated with kickboxing now, but I think we will continue to grow fast. The number of events will not necessarily increase, but we are always working on the quality and size of the events so that we can attract more global broadcast partners.

“The good thing about Enfusion is that we really know a lot about the sport. We have been involved with kickboxing for nearly 25 years and we know a lot about the industry. We know how to train people, develop people and to promote. We know all the aspects of the kickboxing industry.”

Back inside the arena, an image of a kickboxer imprinted on a giant canvas looks down on the fighters as they burst through the backstage curtain, take to a raised walkway and march towards the ring. Either side of the walkway, large screens tease the crowd with montages of past fights, whetting the appetite of a baying audience that demands to be served a plentiful supply of knockouts.     

In some cases, the fighters’ ring walks are introduced by a live rapper, others by a Moroccan band, but all are accompanied by faces etched with a tortured blend of focus, zeal and apprehension. For a professional fighter, the short walk from the comfort of their dressing room to the pressure of the ring can feel like a lifetime. Most have already spent months beating bags and punching pads, and visualising victory, but those final waiting moments are often the most challenging.

In the ring, the flashy moments of surrounding entertainment suddenly pale into insignificance as the revolving spotlights come to an abrupt halt and hone in on the competitors as they receive their final instructions from the referee. Here the fighters stand alone, and this enduring image is where combat sports truly appeal to the animalistic side of human nature. Sometimes it is out of curiosity, other times out of pride, but competing to see who is better is a trait that has long been part of our society. 

“I think the appeal of combat sport comes from the way it looks,” Pourrut points out. “When MMA first became popular, for example, so many people went to the live events because it was not something common, it was very different. It’s not always so much about the sport, but it’s also about what people are watching. To see two people face-to-face in a ring or a cage is somehow attractive because it is something fans have never seen live before.” 

There is a clear aim, then, to ensure that each of Fighting Spirit’s combat sport events is a spectacle. To highlight this, Enfusion #53 also plays host to the final round of the inaugural Enfusion League, a six-man competition during which every fighter faces each other once, with extra points being awarded for knockout victories. A higher share of the €200,000 purse means that every fight takes on further significance, which also gives Fighting Spirit an additional selling point when negotiating long-term deals with broadcasters.

“This format is a new tool for us,” explains Pourrut. “It’s interesting because it’s a similar structure to soccer or other sports. You can be the best team but sometimes you might have a bad week, but then you’ve still got the chance to come back. In the same way, the best fighter will win in the end because he has five fights against the other top fighters in his weight category. That’s what is interesting for the audience as well, because it is the best from the weight class, and the importance of every fight keeps the fans enthusiastic.”

Indeed, the league gives fans an opportunity to recognise the fighters and choose their favourites over the course of the season. With various countries represented, the format attracts spectators from all over Europe, and each fighter’s introduction to the arena soon points to where the crowd’s loyalties lie. Moroccan knockout specialist Nordin Ben Moh is greeted by chants one might associate with a partisan soccer crowd, and eventual Enfusion League champion Tayfun Ozcan walks out to a wave of flags from his native Turkey.      

 Superbon strikes his Enfusion #53 opponent Mohamed Khamal with a knee

The biggest greeting, however, is reserved for Mohammed Jaraya, one of Enfusion’s poster boys who has progressed through the series’ development programmes, gaining a reputation as ‘The Destroyer’. In the hours leading up to his fight, the 21-year-old Moroccan can be seen walking among the crowd, clenching his fist as he readily poses for photos with adoring fans who have watched him develop from the amateurs to become one of the sport’s main attractions.

This is somewhat of a microcosm of one of Enfusion’s more endearing qualities. There is never a sense that the fighters are above their fans, but instead an overwhelming sense of community that permeates from the event organisers down to the athletes and their audience.         

”I think Enfusion stands out because it’s not just a brand,” explains Kitchen. “There’s a family behind it which has been working together for a long time. We’re a small group behind the scenes and we all get on and work very well together. The organisers don’t just treat the kickboxers as fighters, but they get to know their story. It’s not so much like a production line of shows coming up and then the fighters. We get to know them which I feel is an extra touch that appeals to our fans.”

While the promotion might have a small team behind the scenes, its ambitions are undeniably lofty. Headlining Enfusion #53 is Thai fighter Superbon Banchamek, the number one ranked kickboxer in the world, and his inclusion is a major coup for Enfusion and Fighting Spirit, both of which are aiming to crack the Asian market.

“I would certainly say Asia is the biggest target for us,” Pourrut declares. “If you look at the demographic, the youngest people in the world are in Asia, and the target age group for combat sports is the 15 to 35-year-old male bracket. I would say the main territory we are looking at is Thailand, because they have a real passion for kickboxing and Muay Thai, but Indonesia and the Philippines are on our radar, too.”

Attracting fighters with a global profile, then, is clearly a key strategy for growth, but even after Banchamek dispatches his opponent and the fans head for the exits, Pourrut stands surveying the arena, evaluating the success of the evening and weighing up how the event’s offering can improve. Fighting Spirit recently opened an office in Budapest, and has plans to launch in Malaysia, Dubai and Miami, where it will be able to target the US and Latin American market. Worldwide expansion, then, is top of the agenda, and with that in mind, there is a sense that events on the scale of Enfusion #53 are now setting the standard for Fighting Spirit.

“I want us to produce more and more events and expand in different continents,” Pourrut asserts. “We need to be closer to our partners to understand their needs. What makes us stand out is our passion and expertise. We want to go on enjoying what we do, and enjoying watching what we have. Whether it’s in media or something else, as long as you enjoy your business and put your heart into it, you will keep your clients happy and the audience will continue to be interested in what you do.”

This article originally appeared in issue 96 of SportsPro Magazine. To find out more or to subscribe, click here.