The Urabe Brothers (K-1 World GP)

Movie Magic in Tokyo: The Urabe Brothers Battle For K-1 Gold

For many fans of combat sports, the prime reasoning behind watching a fight is to see a moment or moments in which one opponent is dealt with great adversity. This moment leads to the momentum swinging in the direction of one fighter. It’s a moment in which we watch a hurt or struggling fighter dig into the deepest depths of their will to survive, grasping at any chance to make it through the hardship and bring themselves back into the battle.

It’s a rare occurrence when a fighter dealt with great obstacles survives and then goes on to win the fight. It’s an even rarer occurrence when it happens multiple times in one weekend. This past weekend had many great examples of dramatic momentum swings.

The drama ensued when the fans were treated to a brief, wild slugfest between the heavy-hitting Melvin Manhoef and Hisaki Kato at Bellator 146 on Friday evening.


The magic continued with the World Series of Fighting 25 eight-man lightweight tournament. The eventual tournament winner, Brian Foster, was defeated in the quarterfinal round in just under two minutes before re-entering the tournament to replace an injured Mike Ricci and taking part in an absolute barnburner against former two-time title challenger Luis Palomino in the semifinal round. Foster would have his revenge against João Zeferino in the finals just two hours after getting handed a loss by Zeferino in the quarterfinals.

The drama didn’t end there. Instead, it continued through the weekend when Marat Gafurov unified the ONE Championship featherweight title with a gritty performance against Jadambaa Narantungalag. Gafurov was met with much adversity on the feet after he locked in an armbar that his opponent was unwilling to quit fighting through. Narantungalag finally broke out of the armbar and put Gafurov in danger when the two men returned to their feet. Gafurov didn’t give his opponent the chance to concede when he was afforded a second opportunity. Gafurov put his opponent to sleep with a rear-naked choke in the final seconds of the fourth round.

The back-and-forth tussles weren’t exclusive to mixed martial arts. The Canelo Alvarez-Miguel Cotto pay-per-view boxing bout was a grueling, back-and-forth “Fight of the Year” contender with the WBC World super featherweight title on the line. And boxer Francisco Vargas remained unbeaten despite getting knocked down in the fourth round by his Japanese opponent Takashi Miura. The former champion Miura was floored with a punch in the ninth round after taking a punishing barrage of damaging strikes.

While the action wasn’t hard to find this weekend, maybe the best fight of the weekend is the one you missed. It was the fight that most fans of combat sports probably didn’t know was even happening. A fight with such emotion, dramatic turns and skill in the highest order. A fight that would be hard for the best writers to script, an absolutely incredible tale of two family members meeting for the most prestigious title in their weight division in the sport of kickboxing. Brothers fighting not for the first, but second time in the same calendar year and second time for the K-1 World GP 60-kilogram championship.

The first fight came when the two men met in the finals of a one-night, eight-man tournament for the inaugural K-1 60-kilogram world championship. Once the world’s most prestigious kickboxing promotion, K-1 made a resurgence in 2014 following a multiple-year battle with financial troubles. The tournament featured the brothers on opposite ends of the bracket. The now 25-year-old elder brother, Hirotaka Urabe, knocked out opening-round opponent Karim Bennoui before battling to an extra-round decision victory over former top-10 fighter Javier Hernandez. The younger, now 24-year-old Koya Urabe made quick work of his first-round opponent, Denis Puric. Koya stopped Puric with punches in the first frame before defeating semifinal opponent Masahiro Yamamoto with a first-round knockout.

Hirotaka was confident heading into the match-up with his younger brother. The two men train together every day. They have battled in the gym before. As the fighters were being introduced, Koya pressed his right hand into the corner before bringing it out straight into center ring, a ritual he has done time and time again, but this marked the first time he had done it while staring across the ring at his elder brother. Koya started to bounce confidently as the two men stepped into center ring, eyes locked as they knew they were about to meet for the K-1 tournament title. Koya immediately pressed the action in the first round. He used his jab to keep Hirotaka from setting his feet to land his counter strikes. Koya utilized his advantages as the southpaw fighter, crushing his left straight into his brother’s nose. Koya was pressing forward and taking the fight over with his punches and chopping left low kicks. Hirotaka was frustrated and tired after the first frame. He had previously fought five rounds and the kicks to his right leg looked to have finally taken a toll.

Hirotaka came out swinging in the second round. He didn’t want to show his frustrations to his brother. Koya pushed through the brief exchange before getting right back to work with his stiff jab and hard low kicks. Koya was destroying the rear leg, crushing left low kicks one after another into the right thigh of Hirotaka. Koya continued to land low kicks to take away the legs and open up his punching combinations all while taking away Hirotaka’s ability to counter with his right hand. Koya landed a counter left that sent Hirotaka reeling and he followed it up with another hard right jab, left straight combination. Koya’s relentless pace was too much for his brother, who looked to have been broken during the second round. Any attempt Hirotaka made to get back into the fight was thwarted by his brother’s damaging kicks and punching combinations.

The two men started the third by exchanging punches in center ring before Koya stumbled Hirotaka with a hard low kick. The beautiful work being done by Koya with his left kick and left straight was showing on the legs and face of Hirotaka. A double jab followed by a straight left hurt Hirotaka late in the round before Koya continued to press forward with volume striking combinations. Hirotaka started to land more late in the fight, but with his rear leg damaged, he was left throwing punches with his arms and not at his full power. Koya knew he had won the fight as the final round came to a close. Hirotaka threw his hands up in defeat immediately following the final bell, signaling what many believed was an upset and the coming out for Koya. As the scores were read, Koya, with sweat still dripping down his face, had his hand raised as he glanced over at his brother, who had his left hand on his hip in defeat.

The loss was bittersweet for the younger sibling. Confetti fell from the ceiling following Koya’s title win as Hirotaka stepped out of the ring and limped his way to the back room, stopping to bow for the fans. Koya was still trying to catch his breath after fighting three times in one night. The roller coaster of emotions continued in the award ceremony when Hirotaka was brought back to the ring to accept his second-place trophy. As Koya was presented with the championship belt around his waist, he could never quite muster up a smile in the wake of his victory. Hirotaka accepted his trophy and the fighters were brought to center ring for the traditional post-fight ceremony photos. As the other fighters and staff members gathered for the night’s final pictures, Hirotaka stood contemplating what had just taken place. He was forced to remain in the picture despite attempting to walk away. The emotion finally broke on his face. The loss had finally set in.

The two men went undefeated the rest of the way through 2015 before they met for the second time last weekend. Koya hadn’t defended his title, but he had won two fights under the K-1 banner. Meanwhile, Hirotaka won the KRUSH 60-kilogram title with a third-round knockout finish of Zhuang Shuson at KRUSH.58 in September.

The second fight started much differently. Neither man was forced to face two opponents in one night prior to the fight, which led to two relaxed, confident fighters ready to clash in the middle of the ring. Hirotaka quickly began to establish his jab and footwork to avoid the kicks of his younger brother. Koya wasn’t pressing the pace like he did in the first fight, instead choosing to pick his shots and avoid the dangerous counter striking from his older brother. The two men went tit for tat, with Koya landing quick, sharp kicks and left hands and Hirotaka coming back with his left kick and right hand. Koya took the fight over, staying just outside of striking range while he was able to land his jab with more frequency as the round closed. The action was tight and technical. One inch in either direction could have spelled an end to the fight for either man.

Koya took the momentum he earned with his punching combinations and kicks in the latter half of the first frame to start quickly in the second round. Koya took it to his brother with a relentless stream of punches. He threw a hard left straight that pushed Hirotaka back against the ropes before he continued to throw another 15 punches in a matter of seconds. The fight was turning on Hirotaka. He was getting forced on his back foot, but not given the time to set up his counter right. Another strong left hand sent Hirotaka against the ropes and a follow-up straight left after a jab-right hook combination put Hirotaka in trouble against the ropes. Hirotaka was hanging on, but taking punch after damaging punch. Koya threw his jab with consistency, often following his stiff right with a strong left straight to the body and head. Koya was putting together another strong performance, what looked to be another championship showing. With less than a minute left in the second round, Koya cracked Hirotaka with a three-punch combination and lead-leg low kick that sent Hirotaka against the ropes once again. Koya kept pressing forward with punches, but he made a major mistake when exiting punching range. As Koya was backing out with his hands not quite back to guard his face, Hirotaka jumped in the air with a right knee that floored his younger brother. The shot sent gasps through the Yoyogi National Stadium in Tokyo. Koya had met adversity for the first time against his elder brother. The flying knee turned the round in the favor of Hirotaka. He immediately became the aggressor and looked to finish the fight. Koya struggled to make it through the end of the round, but he had survived the many battering exchanges.

Koya shook off the knee and came out hard in the final frame. He stuck his jab in his brother’s face and started to pile up the damaging blows once again. Koya was pushing Hirotaka all over the ring, landing his punches and kicks while avoiding the now more frequent counter strikes. Hirotaka re-established the center of the ring, but he couldn’t keep it for very long. The men ferociously exchanged punches and knees. The high-paced technical striking affair was starting to wear on the men. They were taking heavy strikes while landing shots of their own. Koya started to take over late in the fight, landing his right jab and left straight in alternating sequences. Koya landed a strong four-punch combination following a great display of head movement. He was again taking the fight over late, landing more and more frequently as the seconds waned. With the knockdown in the second round, the fight was most likely heading to an extra round with a draw on the judges’ scorecards. Hirotaka wasn’t going to chance losing another decision to his younger brother. Koya gave his brother the space he needed following a successful combination. Hirotaka slammed a left jab into the chin of Koya and pressed him against the ropes. Hirotaka had baited his brother into bringing his guard up high while he expertly lifted his knee underneath his brother’s guard. The knee landed flush on Koya’s chin sending him crashing to the mat with just 53 seconds left in the final round.

Hirotaka knew he had won the fight. He rolled over on his back and gazed into the rafters as the referee called a stop to the contest. The parents of the siblings watched with horror from the crowd. Their mother cried hysterically as she covered her face with her clothing. Thier father stood with a frightened and concerned looked on his face. The brothers embraced as Koya was brought back to his feet. Koya put his hand around his older brother’s neck while Hirotaka put his right hand on his younger brother’s head to console him following the amazing display from the top-level fighters.

This fight was not only a battle for family bragging rights, but a battle to become the No. 1-ranked fighter in their weight division. The drama and emotion from the lead-up and aftermath of the fight couldn’t be matched by what transpired in the ring. This is a fight that couldn’t be scripted by the best writers in Hollywood. No. This fight could only unfold in the spectacular world of combat sports.