Branko Cikatic, K-1 and Pride pioneer, dead at 65

Stipe Lucic, Wiki Commons

Branko Cikatic, one of the first stars of the modern Japanese fighting world and the first K-1 World Grand Prix champion, passed away today in Croatia. He was 65.

Cikatic was best known in K-1 and was later one of the first major names in the nascent Pride Fighting Championships. While the striking vet didn’t have a ground game, he didn’t need one in early MMA, and having a K-1 champion in Pride gave the company a major fighting star that was well known in the Japanese sports world. He was later one of the coaches of Mirko Cro Cop.

Cikatic’s death was attributed to Parkinson’s Disease. His career included 270 known fights over 27 years.

Cikatic was already nearly 39 years old when he first made his name as an international fight star in Japan. During his prime, kickboxing was a relatively small sport.

Cikatic started martial arts in 1966 when he was 12. In his early years, he competed in Shotokan karate, taekwondo, judo, boxing, kickboxing and muay Thai.

In 1979, Cikatic won his first major championship, the WAKO European championship in full-contact karate. He won a world championship in that same sport in 1981, defeating Ray McCallum when McCallum was disqualified for a head-butt. He had other big fights, losing to future actor and UFC television announcer Don “The Dragon” Wilson via knockout on September 12, 1987, in Orlando, and drew with Dennis Alexio, perhaps the biggest star of the time in the kickboxing world, on March 16 1992, in Las Vegas.

His career was made on April 30, 1993, at the first K-1 World Grand Prix in Tokyo. This was an eight-man tournament at the Yoyogi National Gym, and it aired live on the Fuji Network. It was the first event of its type and did a very strong television rating on network television in Japan. By winning, he immediately was a significant sports name in the country.

In 1997, Cikatic had a kickboxing match on the first Pride show, held at the Tokyo Dome before 30,000 fans, which was headlined by Rickson Gracie’s win over pro wrestling superstar Nobuhiko Takada. Cikatic kicked opponent Ralph White while he was on the ground at 1:52, and the fight was stopped and ruled a no contest.

As Pride went from being a mix of different type matches to mostly what is now called MMA, Cikatic had his only two MMA rules fights. On March 15, 1998, he faced Mark Kerr, who was then considered the best heavyweight in he world. The battle of the “Smashing Machine” and the first K-1 champion was the main event of the second Pride event ever, and it ended in controversy.

Cikatic continually held onto the ropes to avoid being taken down. He wouldn’t listen when warned, and at one point left through the ropes to avoid a takedown. At another point, when Kerr was working for a takedown, he held the ropes and threw illegal elbows to the back of the head. Fans booed his continual cheating in a ridiculous fight. Finally, the referee disqualified him in 2:14 of the first round.

Cikatic returned on September 12, 1999, just weeks before his 45th birthday. He faced Maurice Smith, himself a former world champion and K-1 star. But by this time, Smith had considerable ground training, and had already held both the Extreme Fighting and UFC heavyweight titles in MMA, in the latter beating Mark Coleman in one of the early legendary fights in company history. In a matchup of two kickboxing legends, Smith played the smart game, taking Cikatic down, where he was lost, and Smith won via submission in 7:33 with a rudimentary forearm choke. It was Cikatic’s last fight.

During his career Cikatic amassed a 152-15-3 record with 138 knockouts in amateur kickboxing and Muay Thai fights. As a pro, his kickboxing record was 87-9-1, with 82 knockouts, one draw and one no contest.

Cro Cop, under his tutelage, became an even bigger star in Japan as the most popular foreign fighter during the heyday of the Pride Fighting Championships.

Cikatic’s health had worsened in recent years, starting with suffering a pulmonary embolism, and in 2018, an infection that led to sepsis. He started suffering from Parkinson’s disease at the time.

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