Not so long ago, Danyo Ilunga (56-5, 44 KO’s) was consider the best light-heavyweight kickboxer in the world. He was the world champion in this weight class in It’s Showtime, the top European league which was bought out by GLORY two years ago.
Since then, things have changed. GLORY’s focus on having six flagship divisions – previously, lightweight and heavyweight had been kickboxing’s mainstays – made light-heavyweight more attractive and meant that for fighters who had been bulking themselves to fight at heavyweight,where the money was, light-heavy was now an option.
Tyrone Spong was the first to make the move, entering and winning the GLORY 9 NEW YORK light-heavyweight tournament and beating Ilunga – via controversial stoppage – in the final. Then it was the turn of Gokhan Saki. He won the world title by beating Spong in Istanbul, Turkey earlier this year.
Both men displaced Ilunga in the rankings on their arrival at light-heavyweight. He has since clawed his way back to the #1 position in the contender lists, but the world title belt is what he really wants. The road towards that starts on Friday as he participates in the Light-Heavyweight Contender Tournament at GLORY 18: RETURN TO GLORY.
“Saki is an exceptional fighter. He is one of my favorites because he is fast like a 70 kilogram fighter but powerful like a heavyweight. But it is my dream to have this GLORY light-heavyweight belt so I am going to do my best to win this tournament and then get that fight and win the belt,” says Ilunga.
“I will do what I have to do.”
A student of heavyweight legend Remy Bonjasky, Ilunga’s training camp has been split between Bonjasky’s headquarters in Amsterdam and his own base in Germany. Brazilian banger Saulo Cavalari (28-2, 18 KO’s) will be his first opponent this Friday night.
“I’ve had good preparation, good sparring, everything was good. I spent every other week in Holland with Remy Bonjasky, the rest of the time at my home gym in Germany. Remy has got some good guys coming up under him, some protégés, I had good sparring partners for this camp,” he says.
“Saulo will be a tough fight. He is very aggressive and he has nothing to lose. He goes forward and in all three fights I have seen of him, he just goes forward like hell. I don’t think he will be a guy who thinks about the next fight [in the tournament]. I think he will just go all-out to win the first fight and then see what happens afterwards.”
Some fighters gameplan for their opponents, other’s don’t. Ilunga believes his opponent falls into the latter category. “I think his gameplan is ‘go forwards and hit’, nothing more,” he laughs.
Ilunga considers himself a more strategic type, one capable of tailoring his approach. “I always change my game, it depends on the opponent. Some fights you will see me only go forward and make pressure, other times I counter-attack. It always changes,” he explains.
“We trained for Saulo, watched how he moves and how he reacts, and made a gameplan based on that. Usually it is me who is making the pressure in a fight but I think against a guy who only goes forward it can be better to be the counter-puncher.”
Both Ilunga and Cavalari have very high KO ratios in their victories. Not many people are predicting Friday’s fight to go to decision. Ilunga doesn’t think it will go the distance either, but he won’t commit himself to guaranteeing a knockout.
“A knockout is always nice but I don’t think about it. I only work to win the fight and whatever comes, comes. Winning by quick knockout is the best outcome because it means the fight does not go too long, but that isn’t something I go in there thinking about,” he muses.
“When you try and make the knockout happen, you can guarantee that it won’t. In my last fight [at GLORY 15 ISTANBUL], I was just working to win against Andrei Stoica and then suddenly I knocked him out.
“I saw that he was countering me in a certain way so I was able to use that to land my shots. The same with Stephane Susperregui at GLORY 5, I could see what he was doing and it was time for him to go out.
“That was a bad knockout – I heard the crunch of his nose as the knee landed. You want to win but you don’t want to hurt your opponent really bad, I felt bad for him, but that is the sport.”
The tournament’s other semi-final has the USA’s Brian Collette (21-2, 18 KO’s) facing the power-punching Zack Mwekassa (11-1, 10 KO’s), who debuted at GLORY 16 DENVER with a first-round KO of the UFC veteran Pat ‘HD’ Barry.
Mwekassa is based in South Africa but, like Ilunga, is originally from Congo. The two countrymen are on cordial terms and Ilunga admits that “I would prefer to face Collette in the final. I would rather not fight a friend. But, we are professionals, so if it happens it happens.”
GLORY 18: RETURN TO GLORY takes place this Friday November 7 in Oklahoma City, USA and airs live on Spike TV from 9pm ET. The card also features a world lightweight title fight as Davit Kiria makes his first defense of the belt. He faces perennial adversary Robin van Roosmalen.
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