The Evolution of Tyrone Spong

Fightland Blog

By Josh Rosenblatt

Photo by Ryan Loco

This past November at the inaugural World Series of Fighting event in Las Vegas, Nevada, Tyrone Spong, who is one of the best kickboxers in the world, made his long-awaited MMA debut against Travis Bartlett, who is not. The fight was predictable -- Spong beat up Bartlett for three minutes before knocking him out with a bruising right cross three minutes into the first round. It was a mismatch and maybe even a little cruel, but everybody has to start somewhere.

What was fascinating about Spong’s debut wasn’t that he knocked Bartlett out but the way he reacted when he did. Instead of jumping on his opponent after he hit the canvas like a veteran mixed martial artist would, Spong landed the punch, watched Bartlett fall, and then turned around and walked away. His cornermen were screaming at him to turn around and finish Bartlett off on the ground, but the Dutchman had reverted to muscle memory, and his muscles are trained to wait for an eight count after a man gets knocked to the ground. Spong quickly realized his “mistake” and turned back, but by that point referee Steve Mazzagatti had jumped in to stop the fight, convinced, perhaps, as much by Spong’s walking away as anything else that the fight was done.  It was a great (if unintentional) lobbying job of the body if ever there was one -- like a basketball player selling a charge.      

This got us wondering: How easy is it for a fighter who’s been training in one combat sport for his entire life to just up and change the way he/she fights? This is the second oldest question in mixed martial arts (the first, and more important, being, Who would win in a fight between a sumo wrestler and a boxer?), but it doesn’t really have the same relevance it used to. These days, fighters are coming into the sport as mixed martial artists, not wrestlers who are learning to box, or jiu-jitsu players who’ve picked up some Muay Thai. Look at Rory MacDonald or Jose Aldo Jr. or any of the great fighters from this new generation: They don’t make the distinction between disciplines anymore.

But Tyrone Spong still does. So we called him at the Blackzilians MMA camp down in Florida (home of UFC light heavyweight Rashad Evans and Spong’s old friend and fellow Dutch kickboxer Alistair Overeem), where he’s training for his upcoming kickboxing fight against Remy Bonjasky in late March, to find out if all this back-and-forth between sports is throwing him off.

Fightland: So when you walked away after knocking down Travis Bartlett, was that your kickboxer’s instincts taking over?
Tyrone Spong: It’s part of me being a kickboxer, yes. It also really didn’t make a difference because he was out already, and I’m always going to be that guy: If I see that a fight’s over, it doesn’t make any sense doing more damage. If it’s over, it’s over.

In the moment did you hear your coaches yelling at you to go back?
They thought I should go back, but I saw that the fight was over anyways, so I turned back just because my corner was yelling at me.

How are you adapting to MMA? Is it hard to make the switch between the two sports?
No, it’s not hard. Everything comes naturally to me. I’m training with a great team, a lot of champions and guys who are already participating at the highest level. And being able to train with them and being able to compare and measure myself with them, it lets me see that I’m on the right path. I’m adapting to it quite well. I like it.

What was it like the first time you wrestled Rashad Evans?
I felt like a fish out of water. Rashad is probably one of the best wrestlers in MMA. And, of course, wrestling isn’t my discipline. It's not where I come from. I’m a striker, so for me wrestling with him was a lot of pressure in the beginning, but as I came along I started to get better at it and understanding the moves more and everything, and now it goes quite well.

Do your skills as a striker make it easier to pick up wrestling?
They do. That and the fact that I’m an athlete and pick things up fast. I’m a natural athlete. I feel blessed that I’m talented like that. It’s just some sort of intelligence that helps you pick up the moves faster. And also I have the passion for fighting, and my talent and my passion combined make it a lot easier.

Your next fight is a kickboxing match, which you’ll probably follow with another MMA fight. Are you ever concerned about going back and forth like this, that in the heat of the moment you’ll forget which rules you’re working under? That maybe you'll do the opposite of what you did in November and in the heat of the moment accidentally jump on top of Remy Bonjansky and try to get him in a guillotine choke?
No no no. It all comes naturally with me. You just use your intelligence in the moment and you’ll be fine. 

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