The final fight of GLORY’s final event of 2017 could not possibly have ended the year in stronger, more dramatic fashion.
Rico Verhoeven fought a thrilling world heavyweight title fight which instantly became a strong contender for ‘Fight of the Year’. The blows which finished the fight in the fifth round will also surely be in the running for ‘Knockout of the Year’.
It was a huge fight on a huge stage, the sold-out Rotterdam Ahoy arena packed full of fans eager to see the bad blood between Verhoeven and Ben Saddik brought to its culmination. And the fans in the arena were just the tip of the iceberg: the fight was being followed by millions around the world.
There was intense media attention surrounding the fight and that added to the intensity of the build-up and the pressure on both athletes. A rivalry which had its roots in a 2011 stoppage win by Ben Saddik over Verhoeven was made even more bitter during the weeks before the fight, especially after a now infamous incident at a pre-fight press conference, when Ben Saddik spat in Verhoeven’s face.
For a fan, it seemed almost too good to be true. Two giant heavyweights who really don’t like each other, a sold out arena, a world title on the line and a personal issue to be settled are all ingredients for a truly epic encounter. Yet the possibility always existed that something could go wrong, that the fight could end in an unsatisfactory manner such as a cut, or that the ticking bomb would simply fail to explode.
All those fears evaporated just seconds into the fight. Verhoeven and Ben Saddik crackled with tense, nervous energy as they circled each other. The arena air felt heavy with expectation; this was clearly going to be a dramatic fight.
The fighters soon channeled their tension into physical activity. Carefully, at first, because the risk of a counter-shot from a fighter of this size means that when you are the first to open up, you had better be sure of your timing, and then gradually they started to find their rhythm.
Huge drama came early: in the second half of the first round Ben Saddik, who had been having an unexpected measure of success with his jab, landed a heavy right hand which sent Verhoeven stumbling backwards. More punches followed and Verhoeven was rocked. The possibility of a first-round finish in Ben Saddik’s favor was very real. The arena noise became deafening: one section of the crowd wanting the finish to happen, a larger section vocally hoping it would not.
Verhoeven covered up, kept moving, cleared his head and got to the end of the round. His cornernam Dennis Krauweel had some strong words for him in the interval, while in the other corner Ben Saddik was being congratulated on his clear winning of the first round.
Tension had made Verhoeven stiff in the first round. Ben Saddik’s onslaught had, ironically, loosened the defending champion up a little. He is a superb boxer, one who has a wide range of technical skills and the ability to move like a middleweight when he wants to. That form wins his fights, but requires a certain degree of relaxation to do so.
Verhoeven’s other key weapon, his exception fitness, means that he is all but certain that if he can take a fight into the deep waters of the championship rounds, the opponent can be drowned there. He had said as much to Ben Saddik during fight week, almost word for word.
Likewise, Ben Saddik and everybody else knew his best chance of winning was to score an early stoppage. The opening rounds were supposed to be his most dangerous and indeed he was dangerous in them. The only surprise was that he stayed dangerous into the final minutes. In the fifth round he was somewhat faded, but he had arrived for the fight in career-best physical condition and it showed.
Fans are debating whether Verhoeven deliberately exposed himself to risk in the first half of the fight as a deliberate tactic to deplete Ben Saddik’s gas tank and set him up to be finished. It probably was the gameplan, but Ben Saddik was able to capitalize on it more than Verhoeven had expected him to be able to. His success in parts of the fight surprised a lot of people.
What is beyond question is that Verhoeven did almost exactly what he said he would do. In his pre-fight interviews he said he would take Ben Saddik into the final minute of the fight, to punish him as long as possible, then knock him out.
As it turned out, the finish came just over a minute into the final round, so Verhoeven wasn’t too far off. Throughout the fourth round Ben Saddik’s energy had tapered and he was noticeably flagging at the start of the fifth. That’s when Verhoeven clicked himself up into a higher gear and went for the finish.
A lead-leg high kick caught Ben Saddik squarely on the side of the head and badly rocked him. Verhoeven followed up, herding him into a corner and hammering away with right hand bombs. One got through, followed by a left hook and another right which sent Ben Saddik reeling.
Referee Paul Nicholls jumped in to deliver a count, determining that Ben Saddik had been saved from falling to the canvas only by the ring ropes. Ben Saddik beat the count, barely, and the fight restarted. Verhoeven stalked across the ring and delivered another barrage; this time Ben Saddik went down, dropping to the canvas with his back against the ropes and one arm hanging over them.
Rico Verhoeven remains the world heavyweight champion. And on tonight’s showing, that won’t be changing any time soon.
Rico Verhoeven def. Jamal Ben Saddik by TKO (punches). Round 5, 1:10