Last night 70,000 fans shoehorned into the Tokyo Dome to witness a new K-1 World Grand Prix champion crowned after seven bouts crammed equally tightly into just two hours. It reportedly took half an hour less than that to sell all the tickets to guarantee another record crowd for the massive arena as Japanese fans clambered for the chance to see some of the planet's most accomplished fighters do battle. K-1, whose roots are in the early 1990s and attempts by Kazuyoshi Ishii to find a more entertaining forum to showcase karate, is huge in Japan. It has evolved into a form of kick boxing, similar to Muay Thai except the use of elbows is prohibited and in recent years the rules have been tweaked to minimise clinching and the inside knee work to produce more open and explosive bouts. 'Arguably it's a little more brutal [than Muay Thai] because when they get in close you can't hold on,' explained Australian Peter Graham, the three-time World Kick Boxing Federation world champion, who at six feet, three inches, and 113kg is on the small side in the gargantuan world of K-1. 'They want you to get back to smacking the s**t out of each other. You can say what you want but that's what the fans want to see - big guys beating the crap out of each other. That's what we deliver. Three three-minute rounds designed to get people knocked out - short and fast.' The prize money, by professional martial arts standards, is enormous. The winner last night pocketed US$500,000, while the eight fighters who qualified for the final from all corners of the earth were paid between US$30,000 and US$150,000 in appearance fees depending on their appeal. Yet the fighters, almost all of whom have a solid grounding in Thai boxing, usually with a smattering of kung fu, jujitsu or karate, are not happy. 'It's turning into a freak show. It is a freak show,' said one of the eight World GP finalists on the condition of anonymity, fearing such comments would lead to his contract with K-1 being ripped up. The reason for this discontent stems from the appearance of six-feet, nine-inch tall, 160kg former NFL lineman Bob Sapp, who arrived on the scene in April 2002. Sapp's monstrous physique and wrestling-style stage persona made him an instant star in Japan and took K-1 to a new level. Spotting the market appeal of such monsters, the K-1 Corporation has gone searching for more. An exclusive management contract was signed with Mike Tyson in August, although a projected appearance this month failed to materialise and there is still no sign of solid confirmation as to when one of the planet's most explosive and troubled heavyweight boxing champions will step into the K-1 arena. But the ink is long since dry on what the purists might call another 'novelty' fighter. At New Year's Eve's 'K-1 Premium 2003 Dynamite', Sapp will face Hawaiian Chad Rowan, the enormity of which becomes apparent when one realises that Chad's nom de guerre is Akebono, who in 1993 became the first foreigner to become sumo's yokozuna (grand champion). The addition of what K-1 has dubbed 'Beasts' has rapidly broadened the sport's global appeal, and the news of the Tyson deal was a massive shot in the arm to its profile in the United States and Oceania, but Dutchman Remy Bonjasky, a six-foot-three, 104kg shooting star, fears that many of the newcomers don't belong in the same ring as the accomplished kick boxers who dominate K-1. 'The publicity is good. It draws attention from fans and reporters, but in the sport of K-1 we now have a lot of fighters who aren't fighters,' says the affable 27-year-old of Surinamese descent who looks more like a bank manager than a human wrecking ball, simply because he was one. 'The heavyweights don't have a lot of technique, that's why we're still winning. They're too slow and too big.' At the core of the ill feeling is South African Francois 'The White Buffalo' Botha, who has attempted to cross over from Queensbury to K-1 rules. The former IBF heavyweight champion, who took Tyson to seven rounds in 1999, was a late invitee to the World GP event after the withdrawal of African qualifier Stefan Leko. Botha, who does a passable impression of Hulk Hogan with his partially dyed beard, black bandana, white pin-striped suit and sunglasses, had fought only once before in K-1 when he was disqualified for punching his opponent when he was down. But that low blow was nothing compared to the one he delivered in the pre-fight press conference before his debut in October, when the rest of the K-1 respect fighters openly laughed at his claim that with his strength and experience he could beat every one of them. Last week Botha appeared to have learned his lesson that, in K-1, respect is everything. 'I respect each and every fighter and I don't underestimate any of them,' said Botha, humbled fractionally by the kicks he underestimated before meeting Frenchman Cyril Abidi for the first time. 'I just said I respect everyone, but in the there,' he said pointing towards an imaginary ring after the press conference was over, 'I don't give a s**t. It's very tough. I've been doing well blocking kicks and I don't throw a lot of kicks yet, but it's part of my long-term plan. Eventually I'm going to be as good as Bruce Lee. I'll be flying in, but for the moment I'm getting much better at blocking kicks.' The concern of the true fighters is that the essence of K-1's success - a WWE-style pantomime outside the ring, complete with pyrotechnics and symphony orchestras, that replaces the ill-conceived choreography of wrestling with a genuine product inside the ropes - will be lost. 'I think people do want a pantomime. It's Days of our Lives for guys. The stories make it more interesting,' said Graham. 'It's a show. It's an exciting event, but there's nothing fake about the fighting. I think that is the key factor. They like the show, and the show is great, but the show is real too.' 'There is that risk of losing that, but they'll have the main K-1 fights and they'll have a K-1 Beast show where Bob Sapp will be the main attraction,' added Ray Sefo, aka Sugarfoot, a New Zealander who recalls fighting in front of crowds of 10,000 in Hong Kong in the early 1990s. 'Bob's good at what he does and he plays his role well and Bob's athletic. When Bob first came out it looked like a bit of a joke to us. We grew up in the martial arts and the honour and respect of it all. I felt it made it look silly, but when he fought Remy then we realised that Bob is different from the other big guys who are trying to be Beasts. He's more athletic and explosive and you accept that to a point.' The point is, that while the top fighters hold their martial arts background close to their hearts, K-1 is closer than almost any other sport to that grey line where sport becomes entertainment and as Daisuke Teraguchi, K-1 Corporation's international operations manager, points out, business is business. 'This is sport but it is also entertainment. We need both aspects. People may think with the circus outside the ring we might be turning into the WWE, but inside the ring it's still a genuine sport where fighters respect each other.' Another Kiwi, Dixon McIver, who stands with a foot in both camps as Sefo's manager and K-1's promoter in New Zealand, believes the kick boxers need not worry, because they will be the main beneficiaries from the popularity the 'freaks' bring to the sport. 'The fighters don't like it, but from a promoter's point of view it's fantastic. It's broadening the appeal,' said the former professional rugby league player. 'The sport needed to go mainstream to generate awareness among the general public. But what you'll see is a turnaround because the true fighters will be seen for what they really are. I believe the perfect introduction for Tyson is to give him a couple of fights in which he beats people, then feed him to the top dogs and they'll see how great the fighters truly are.' The fighters, however, are proud people, artists, all of whom talk of enjoying the different status they enjoy in Japan, and not because of the fame. 'The Japanese appreciate fighters more. They accept martial artists as a higher class of person in the feudal system,' said McIver. 'In England or New Zealand fighters are more like boofheads. They conjure up images of thugs and wharfies. In Japan they realise it takes years of dedication and training to get to a higher level in any kind of martial art.' Respect is everything to the K-1 fighters who as a result maintain an inconceivable camaraderie away from the ring. 'I hope it's not going to be a circus or I'm out,' said Bonjasky emphatically. 'I'm a fighter and I want to fight. I don't want to be in a circus.'