Rob Kaman, Ever Adaptable
When a fighter is known as ‘Mr Low Kick’ and was able to beat famed low kick specialist Ernesto Hoost at his own game, it’s safe to say you have an expert leg kicker.
Rob Kaman is one of the greatest kickboxers ever to fight, but also exists in an awkward place in kickboxing history. Rob Kaman was past his prime by the time the great K-1 Grand Prix was in full swing, and as a result we never saw him take part in one.
Instead, he fought in a strange no man’s land era, where a kickboxer would have to take fights under any ruleset they could. This meant that Rob Kaman fought under what would now be called K-1 rules (then known as Oriental rules), full Muay Thai rules and the amusingly named ‘Full Contact’ rules kickboxing, a ruleset that ironically prohibited low kicks.
Today we will look at Rob Kaman and how he adjusted from ruleset to ruleset.
Former Cracked.com writer SeanBaby once described Oriental Rules as ‘a vaguely racist way of saying you can kick someone in the leg’. Today this ruleset is synonymous with K-1, the largest kickboxing promotion in the world. While K-1 would further adjust the rules, it’s more or less the same.
The ruleset originates from Muay Thai, but prohibiting elbows and unlimited clinching. While Muay Thai fighters do have a disproportionate amount of success in this sport, generally speaking, this ruleset is associated with Japanese and Dutch fighters.
Rob Kaman was an early example of ‘The Mejiro Style’. Coming from Amsterdam’s Mejiro Gym, Rob Kaman’s style was heavily based upon Japanese Kyokushin based kickboxers from the original Mejiro Gym in Tokyo.
While most kickboxers are primarily low kickers, due being high reward, low risk, Rob Kaman is different from a lot of his peers in that he had an entire system and gameplan built around low kicks. Low kicks weren’t just a tool in the box, they were the toolbox.
Rob Kaman would build his low kicks off three major principles; distance management (which we will get to later), hiding behind punches, and on the counters. Hiding behind punches is the easiest way to land a low kick. By setting up with punches, you draw your opponent’s focus away from the oncoming leg kick which is about to follow. The most common way of doing this is to throw a jab, straight, hook, and follow it with a leg kick. Amusingly though, this wasn’t Rob Kaman’s specific go to set up for leg kicks. Rob Kaman would instead use a light, almost throw away lead hook and immediately follow into the leg kick. On paper this would be less set up; the hook is so light that it’s really meant more as a distraction.
The second way Kaman would land his low kicks would be to throw a low kick either as the opponent throws a strike, or after successfully stopping their strike. Rob Kaman’s instructional tape series puts a lot of emphasis on parrying front and middle kicks, scooping them out of the way to land a follow up counter low kick. Unlike a lot of instructional tapes, this one would show examples of him actually doing it during fights.
But what about when Rob Kaman fought under full contact rules, which prohibit low kicks? What made Rob Kaman effective under these rules?
Rob Kaman was uncharacteristically mobile for a kickboxer. While a lot is made of kickers being ‘flat footed’, this is usually less being slow and more being methodical to avoid damage from leg kicks. Kaman was a surprisingly bouncy kickboxer, with movement that you would expect to see from a boxer, or indeed a full contact stylist. His style of low kicks was less about walking forward, getting in close and chopping the legs, in the way most low kicks do today. Under Oriental rules he could use these techniques as his third method to setting up low kicks, but this bouncy, movement-based style meant that he had to make relatively few adjustments when it came to moving into full contact rules.
Kaman would make use of what Filipino martial arts call the ‘triangle’ step, where you have an orthodox stance, a southpaw stance, and shift between them by using a neutral stance with feet shoulder width apart. From that neutral stance it’s hard to read whether the opponent is going to attack from a southpaw or orthodox position. Kaman would bounce out of range and into a neutral stance before re-entering the fight, with his opponent unclear on his next move.
The other way Kaman would make distance would be through simply pushing the opponent. Pushing is actually legal in kickboxing, something which confuses boxers frequently. Kaman would throw a low kick in close range, before making a jab like push with the lead hand, creating distance to open up another low kick or high kick. These kicks were always there, regardless of the ruleset.
This focus on creating distance between the opponent, especially in a sport known for forward moving aggression, entices the opponent to step forward and pursue. By creating distance, you force your opponent to move forward to meet you, and thus you can create collisions by striking them as they enter. This was how Kaman got the majority of his knockouts. While he was certainly powerful, it wasn’t any athletic attribute that carried him to success.
Rob Kaman was a champion under both rulesets, with Kaman beating full contact legend Jean Yves Therriault for the title. In truth his adaptability came less from being able to drastically change from sport to sport, but instead having a very mouldable style built on principles which could work in any sport.