“While Americans stopped using roundhouse kicks, the Thais were sharpening all of their skills.”
Let’s return to Las Vegas, 1988, where a fight that is more like a human sacrifice is about to start.
Rick Roufus, an undefeated American heavyweight, was fighting for the first time under an altered version of Full Contact Rules kickboxing against Changpuek Kiatsongrit, a Muay Thai fighter from Thailand.
In truth, only one major rule had been changed: kicks to the legs would be allowed for this match. (They were banned in the Full Contact format.) Elbows, knees, and clinch fighting would still be forbidden.
Changpuek Kiatsongrit, whose name translates to “Crazy Elephant,” had never fought above 150 lbs in Thailand. Yet, there he was, going overseas against an opponent who was over 200 lbs! Not only that, but he would have to completely abandon elbow and knee strikes, which he had trained in all his life.
The first round was dominated by Roufus. His size and superior punching shattered Changpuek’s jaw and knocked him down twice.
Changpuek recovered, and unleashed a barrage of kicks that battered Roufus’s legs to where he was limping around the ring in the fourth round. Kick after kick landed, and the referee stopped the fight in the fourth. Roufus couldn’t even get himself off the ground, giving Changpuek a shocking TKO victory.
Rick Roufus’ younger brother, Jeff “Duke” Roufus, dismissed Kiatsongrit in a post-fight interview. He said that it doesn’t take any talent to perform leg kicks, and the rules didn’t allow his brother to win.
Yet, most of the rules were in Rick Roufus’ favor. Changpuek couldn’t throw elbows, knees, or clinch without the referee separating them, which is devastating to a smaller fighter.
So how did a larger, stronger, faster fighter get dominated in this fashion? How did a Tae Kwon Do black belt get beaten by kicks to the point that he had to be carried out of the ring on a stretcher?
Most will point to the rule change, but this is only somewhat true. This logic doesn’t explain why Roufus was inexplicably unable to check Kiatsongrit’s leg kicks during the fight.
After all, Roufus was a black belt, and even wore his belt during the fight. How was he unable to defend against such a basic martial arts technique? The obvious but overlooked answer: he trained under Full Contact rules for most of his life. Under these rules, he wasn’t permitted to use leg kicks, so its unlikely that he and his trainer spent a lot of time drilling leg defense in practice.
Why didn’t American kickboxing allow kicks to the leg? Some would say that it was attempt to limit injuries, but the truth is that they simply weren’t profitable.
During the 1970s and 1980s, boxing was still the king of fight sports and no one wanted to see punching exchanges ended by leg kicks or matches slowed down by clinch fighting. Elbow strikes were considered too violent.
Keep in mind that unlike boxing and wrestling, Eastern martial arts still hadn’t found a place in the American sports landscape. The only real exposure the average American had to Eastern martial arts were movies featuring Bruce Lee (Kung Fu), Steven Seagal (Aikido), Chuck Norris (Karate) and Jean-Claude Van Damme (Karate).
But their over-the-top violence didn’t translate well in competition. Headbutting, throat punches, or limb-breaking would never be accepted in a civilized society. This is probably why American Karate and Tae Kwon Do tournaments used point fighting, where one had to strike a designated area, fighters would be separated, and the ref would award a point.
However, these tournaments also had the problem of being slow, and the average American consumers wouldn’t pay to watch them. The Full Contact format, with its dazzling spinning kicks and combination punching gave young Americans who wanted to compete their chance to shine, while at the same time giving off a safe and marketable appearance to the American public which hadn’t seen much of western kickboxing and certainly hadn’t seen Muay Thai.
Fighters such as Benny “The Jet” Urquidez (Karate), Rick and Duke Roufus (Karate/Tae Kwon Do), Don Wilson (Karate), and Dale “Apollo” Cook (Karate/Tae Kwon Do) became the standard-bearers for American kickboxing during the 70s and 80s.
Kickboxing had found a small but devoted niche in the U.S. as young men eagerly signed up at their local gyms hoping to follow in the footsteps of their heroes. But the path taken by aspiring American kickboxers in their air-conditioned, well-lit dojos was a far cry from the open air, terribly hot and humid gyms of Thailand-gyms that, arguably, no westerner would actually pay to train in.
While Americans stopped using roundhouse kicks, clinch fighting, and elbow strikes—they were illegal in competitions—the Thais were sharpening all of these skills for their competitions.
Seeing how different the martial arts upbringing was between Changpuek Kiatsongrit and Duke Rufus, Rufus’s inability to stop Changpuek’s barrage of roundhouse kicks makes more sense. Both men trained for competition, but what sold as “kickboxing” was very different in their respective countries, and on that fateful night in Las Vegas, their differences became painfully clear for Rick Roufus.
Note: you can watch the Changpuek Kiatsongrit vs Rick Roufus fight in its entirety on Youtube. Lawrence Kenshin did an excellent study of this fight which you can also see below:
Muay Thai vs. Kickboxing: “The Legendary Fight That Changed History”