It is seven o'clock on a chilly September morning in the Netherlands.
Murthel Groenhart wakes a few moments before his alarm goes off. It’s just starting to get light outside. He eats and showers quickly. It isn’t long before he is guiding his car slowly through the rivers of Amsterdam’s morning traffic.
On the road, Groenhart is indistinguishable from the thousands of fellow commuters on their way to work. But no desk awaits him. Instead, he is on his way to Mike’s Gym, one of the world’s most famous kickboxing facilities.
There he will meet head coach Mike Passenier. At 8am they will commence the first of the day’s two training sessions. Murthel repeats this schedule every weekday when he is in a fight camp.
On September 28, Groenhart (54-15-3, 30 KO’s) will face Davit Kiria (20-8, 6 KO’s) at GLORY 10 Los Angeles, and he is looking to bounce back in style from a decision loss to fellow lightweight contender Robin Van Roosmalen at GLORY 7 Milan.
“I saw him against Giorgio Petrosyan, Shemsi Beqiri and Yuri Bessmertny,” Groenhart says of his Georgian opponent. “To be honest I wasn’t that impressed. He seems like a tough guy, but as long as my preparation is very good then I won’t lose.
“I don’t always watch videos of my opponents. But Mike [Passenier] has told me to watch videos for this one, he says it's important to do that in order to get the strategy right.”
You don’t have to watch Kiria for long to see that he is a slightly outside the regular kickboxer mold. His background is in Ashihara Karate, a spin-off of Kyokushin Karate.
Kiria’s chosen style puts even more emphasis on conditioning and hard contact than its notorious parent art does. His stoic indifference to pain has already been remarked on by his online fanbase.
So has Kiria’s unorthodox kicking game. Its crowning jewel is Domawashi Kaiten Geri, a diving front-roll into a heel-kick. That one has caught Groenhart’s attention.
“Yeah I’ve heard he’s a karate guy,” he shrugs, indifferent. ”But he’s quick with that rolling kick. If one of those lands cleanly on your head then I think you will definitely fall down.”
That grudging compliment is as much as Kiria can expect in the way of pre-fight cordiality from Groenhart, who admits that before each fight he has extremely hostile feelings towards every opponent.
That hostility means he cannot even talk to his opponents in the days preceding the bout. He can talk about them though.
Groenhart had plenty to say about Robin Van Roosmalen prior to their fight, including the much-repeated assertion that his stocky rival was “a leprechaun”. That one got under Van Roosmalen’s skin.
Robin might be short, but he packs a punch. After winning a decision over Groenhart - and narrowly missing out on a KO - Van Roosmalen mockingly saluted “leprechaun power” in his post-fight interview.
“Ah, I think it was just a case of ‘every dog has his day,’” Groenhart says when asked for his opinion on how the fight went. Despite being dropped by a trademark hook in the first round, Groenhart thinks he wasn’t far from scoring a finish of his own either.
“I had already opened him up and cut him in the first round, I had my distance worked out, so for me I think it was only a matter of time. But then I got greedy. I came with a left knee and my hands were down. He timed that knee, he threw a left hook and caught me with it,” he explains.
“It was a really good punch. After that I didn’t really recover, in the second and third round I was on autopilot. In the last round I remember I caught him with a kick to the head and then he was staggering a little but I just didn’t have the power to finish it off.
“When you get hit with a good shot like that it really slows you down, you feel weaker and slower. Its like it damages your cardio, its like you have already been fighting for five rounds.
“So even though I could see that Van Roosmalen was in trouble in that last round I couldn’t find the power to do anything with it. When you get hit with a punch like that, you feel it from your head to your toes. It was a good punch. He’s a small guy but he has a lot of power.”
Once the war was over the two were able to shake hands and talk a little. They are unlikely to become close friends and take each other to dinner, but they did at least manage to get back to civility.
Which was fortunate, because some weeks ago they encountered each other again. Having separately made trips to Florida, they unexpectedly came face to face at The Blackzilians training center.
“Yeah that was really nice. I had two weeks there training with Saki and Mike. And we went to the beach and out in Miami and stuff, it was really good,” Groenhart says of his sojourn in the coastal city of Boca Raton.
“Robin was there also, we shook hands and we talked with each other. We were relaxed.”
Is Groenhart’s approach a conscious effort to get in the right mindset for the fight, or is it something which just happens? Groenhart takes a minute to reply, looking upwards as if hoping to find the answer hovering in the air above him.
“It’s always like this. Before a fight my opponent is my enemy. It’s like there is something in me, before a fight I just cannot be friends with you. After the fight we can all relax and make friends but before the fight I hate you, I want to really destroy you,” he says.
He isn’t alone. All the fighters from Mike’s Gym are well known for taking a similar hostile approach towards their opponents. Is Groenhart just embodying the team ethos?
“I don’t know any different. I’ve always been like this, but then I’ve always been with Mike from the beginning. He was my coach from the start and he’ll be my last trainer,” he says.
“I have been like this from the first day. My attitude is like, ‘I don’t need any new friends.’ After the fight we can talk and whatever, before the fight you are my enemy. I cannot talk to you nicely before the fight.
“All these months of training, all the pain I have been through in training, all the pain in life on the way there, all the times training was so hard that I wanted to quit - if I am nice to you before the fight, all that feeling is gone.
“I don’t want that. I want you to feel my pain when we fight.”
Needless to say, Groenhart is not a fan of seeing fighters get overly friendly with each other in the ring.
He notes that it tends to occur much more in MMA than in kickboxing but regardless of where he sees it - fighters repeatedly touching gloves and high-fiving each other, for example - he does not like it.
“I hate that,” he says, shaking his head. “People want to see a fight, they want to see that aggression, even a little bit of hate. After the fight its OK, you can make friends, get a beer, whatever. But don’t do all that in the ring, nobody wants to see that.”
Would it make it harder for Groenhart to maintain his aggression and focus if he was faced with an opponent who took every opportunity to compliment him and make friendly gestures towards him?
“It happened a couple of times already, it wasn’t a problem. He can be as nice to me as he wants, as soon as he looks in my eyes he knows what time it is. I’ve had guys being all nice and stuff at the weigh-ins and I just said ‘yeah, see you in the ring tomorrow,’” he says.
“I’m not someone who is going to talk with an opponent before a fight. I’ll see you in the ring and we will do our talking in there.”