Now that 2016 is in the books, Combat Press is taking a look back at the best that the sport of kickboxing had to offer. Over the next few weeks, Combat Press will announce its award winners in multiple categories, covering everything from the action in the ring to the biggest stories surrounding the sport.
Ionuț Iftimoaie turned in a storybook ending in the last fight of his kickboxing career. The story of the “Comeback Fighter of the Year” played out exactly as could be hoped for by the famous Romanian fighter and actor. In a tale only fit for an actor, the experienced stuntman and Dancing with the Stars contestant performed to script in front of more than 30,000 screaming fans in his birth city of Comănești, Romania.
Iftimoaie returned to the ring for his retirement fight after nearly four years away from the sport. His fighting style, honed under the tutelage of trainer Didier Le Borgne, is just one of many reasons why the Romanian kickboxer became so popular. He has fought and defeated tough competition like Freddy Kemayo and Sergei Gur in a career that spans 14 years.
After four years away from kickboxing, his return, which came against a battle-tested fighter, wasn’t going to be easy. His opponent, Francisco Javier Jorge Loren, was a multiple-time kickboxing champion with a storied history inside the Superkombat ring. The former top-10 middleweight defeated two of Romania’s top kickboxers, Andrei and Bogdan Stoica, in the past two years. Iftimoaie, who knew this would be his final battle, was set to fight with the championship on the line in front of the people of Comănești. The 37-year-old, nicknamed “Ivan Drago,” would play the role of Rocky Balboa in what would be one of the best stories of the year.
The Dealul Galionului, an open-air concert venue, played host to the Superkombat cruiserweight title fight between the challenger, Iftimoaie, and the champion Loren. The event featured one of the biggest audiences for a kickboxing event in Europe in the past decade. There was something special about the atmosphere surrounding the bout when the sun finally went down, the lights came on and the main event was about to begin. As Iftimoaie made his walk to the ring to the legendary sports classic “We Will Rock You” by Queen, the crowd began to chant “If-ti-mo-aie!”
The fan-favorite sang along as the Romanian national anthem was played prior to the start of the fight. The scene was set for a classic fit for a movie, and that’s exactly what unfolded over the course of nine thrilling, back-and-forth minutes of fighting.
The fight delivered in more ways than one. Iftimoaie experienced what a champion has to offer in the early going. As soon as the bell rung, the Romanian stepped forward into the fire. Loren was obliged to meet Iftimoaie in the center of the cage, and he did so with a series of strong right low kicks and powerful punching combinations. Loren found success with his knees and put Iftimoaie on notice with a strong left hook counter midway through the first round. Iftimoaie was just minutes into his return and he was already deep into a fight.
Iftimoaie wouldn’t be stopped, though. His toughness and willingness to exchange inside the pocket pulled him through his first round of fighting in years. Iftimoaie rushed straight forward, bobbing and weaving his way into the pocket to exchange in his comfort zone. He strung his punches together as he tried to avoid the counter from Loren with his high guard and head movement. It was working. Iftimoaie was ripping his left hook to the body, scoring at will with a short jab and throwing a powerful right straight with dangerous intentions behind it.
Iftimoaie was really taking the fight to Loren as the time ticked down. Loren remained tough, but he was getting battered with strong hooks to the body and head. The Romanian TV star carried out his heavy pressure from the beginning of the first round and well into the final frame of his kickboxing career. Loren fought back late in the third round, but Iftimoaie poured out every ounce of energy he had left in what would be his final time in the ring. The two men bombarded each other until the final horn in a monumental slugfest that will go down as one of the best moments of 2016.
The crowd erupted when Iftimoaie, receiving 30-29 scorecards from all three judges, was announced the winner of the hotly contested championship bout. This wasn’t a predetermined plan for one of Romania’s most popular fighters to go out on top. No, this moment for Iftimoaie, and the incredible comeback story, was a reality in a sport filled with narratives too real to script.
Other finalists: Michael Duut, Davit Kiria, Robin van Roosmalen, Jason Wilnis, Benjamin Adegbuyi, and Alexander Stetsurenko
Make sure you check out the rest of the Combat Press 2016 Kickboxing Award winners.