11/06/2008 - 08.42


In Tuzla, Boznia Herzegovina


In front of 8000 fans, in a dramatic rematch, Bosnia’s Szalko Szildzic Kos Ivan Strugar in the fourth round and regains his title.

By Ennio Falsoni

Tuzla, in the north of Bosnia-Herzegovina, together with Sebrenica, Mostar, Banja Luka and Sarajevo (the capital) witnessed the horrors of the civil war with the Serbs in the 1990s and I assure you the scars of the those 5 terrible years are still very visible on the walls of many buildings. The town is well known throughout old Yugoslavia for its salt deposits, which allowed it to flourish for over 500 years. The town is lively and full of students who attend its university.
Since he was 10 years old Tuzla has been the hometown of Szlako Szildzic, a 27-year-old Bosnian who was named the town’s sportsman of the year in 2007 and who has become a popular icon thanks to his extraordinary success in kickboxing.
His specialty is low-kick, in which as an amateur, he won practically everything, from the world youth and junior championships to the senior championship. He won his last WAKO gold medal at the 2005 championships in Agadir, Morocco. Thereafter, he joined the professional ranks, winning the world title in 2006. In 2007 (last December 14) Szalko defended his title in Montenegro against another great hero of the Balkan countries – Ivan Strugar, a living legend of Montenegro sports. In Budva, at the Hotel Splendid, Strugar defeated Szalko on points to take the world title. At the time I wrote an article about the match. That night, the fighter from Bosnia wasn’t in good form. He had had the flu and was still a bit drained and lethargic. Strugar was never in difficulty and deserved the victory, thus achieving the enviable record of winning 4 world titles in 4 different categories over 10 years. He reigned unchallenged in the 75 to 85 Kg categories.
At 33 years of age, Ivan Strugar is still a strong and complete athlete. Coming to Bosnia and knowing that there would be a highly partisan crowd around the ring, I frankly thought that we might have had some problems if Strugar had won. Instead, it turned out to be the exact opposite of what I had feared.
Szalko had declared to the press, “I’ll enter the ring determined to bring my belt back home, where it belongs.” He was true to his word. Paradoxically, I had bet that Ivan Strugar would never lose by KO while my hotel’s security man and a worshipper and fan of Szalko insisted on guaranteeing that he would. On the many occasions I have seen Strugar in action he has never been KOed. I have been following his entire career, from his matches against Daniele Petroni of Livorno, when he weighed 75 Kg, to the ones in WAKO World and European Championships and in his victorious matches as a pro fighter. Naturally, as president of both WAKO and WAKO-Pro, I always keep an unbiased stance, as a neutral judge of what is unfolding before my eyes, firmly respecting the established rules. However, when somebody asked me for an opinion on who would win I frankly declared that if Szalko fought as shabbily as he had in Budva, where even his punching power was suspect, he would surely lose again. Therefore, I didn’t give him much of a chance. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The over two-hour drive to Tuzla, blanketed with the great event’s posters, was on a dangerous and difficult road connecting it to Sarajevo, winding amidst the green Balkans. In truth, the entire country already knew of Szalko’s attempt to regain his title. Szalko is widely loved and appreciated in Bosnia because firstly, he is very clever – he’s completing his second university degree – and secondly, everybody knows his past as a desperate homeless, penniless refugee who became an exceptional athlete through his perseverance, constant work, bravery and humanity. Szalko is Moslem and coincidentally, Tuzla is the most densely populated enclave of that denomination in Bosnia. He is a very articulate, kind, generous and good man and has become a popular hero for his adoring people.
I saw the evidence of his fame at the Tuzla Sports Hall, filled to the brim with 8000 fans, with both national and Montenegro TV stations broadcasting live and by satellite for the public’s joy. In Tuzla, I again had confirmation that nowadays kickboxing is by far the most successful sport of the martial arts and ring sports of the world. Suffice to think of the audiences of 4000 in Milan, 20,000 in the Amsterdam Arena or the usual 30-40,000 crowding the Japanese K1 Grand Prix tournaments.
I experienced fantastic sensations while being literally mesmerized by the extraordinary popular success.
The Sports Hall offered choreography worthy of and inspired by K1 Grand Prix settings. The athletes coming down the stairs amidst lasers, other lights and smoke effects with rhythmic music accompanying them into the ring. Also the timing of their entrance, the presentation by the announcer, everything contributed to the idea of a great show with grand expectations. The public went wild the minute Szalko entered the hall and kept on rooting for him up to the ring where Ivan Strugar was already waiting. Although the latter was the defending champion, he respectfully let his rival enjoy the limelight. The two know each other very well and are on friendly terms outside the ring. But that evening something special was at stake and they both knew it.
The match started and after some sizing up, Strugar launched a strong kick to Szalko’s right thigh in the centre of the ring. The latter seemed more relaxed and agile landing a quick spinning back kick on Strugar. A few attempts to exchange punches at close range, some ably avoided hooks and the round was substantially even.
In the second round Strugar rushed from corner and immediately pressed his rival, attacking him violently with nice kick and punch combinations. Szalko took the blows, with the hint of a smile. Towards the end of the round he did reach the Montenegrin’s face and legs. However, the round was Strugar’s.
The third round didn’t see much of a change with Strugar on the attack. He was very tense and you could see it. His moves lacked fluidity because his attack was based on the power of the blows, striving for a knockout. The two faced each other with their guards lowered and had some excellent exchanges. Szalko was more flexible and could kick better, specifically his roundhouse and frontal kicks, but he was also dangerous with his spinning back kick. The public was riveted to the action and exploded with roars during the positive phases of the match. Strugar appeared to me to be like he was at Budva – stout, alert, in control of the match. Meanwhile, Szalko was clearly livelier, more energetic and better than he had been at Budva. Strugar again had an edge in the third round and so I thought we were watching a repeat of their first encounter.
With the fourth round Strugar seemed profoundly intent on accelerating. He held the centre of the ring and pressed his rival all over the ring. Szalko lowered his guard and rolled his shoulders as if to free himself of the tension. At a certain point, a kick attack left the Bosnian on the canvas. I wasn’t sure if he had slipped or been knocked down by the kick. Regardless, Szalko did something he shouldn’t have done: he got up, turned his back on his opponent and started towards his corner. The referee, at that point, should have started counting him. Instead, he gave him the order to continue the match. Strugar’s handlers would later complain to me about this incident, but in truth it didn’t change the final outcome.
Szalko’s mouth was a bit open as if he was gasping for air and looking truly tired. I assumed the match was about to come to its logical conclusion. Little did I know! “I did it on purpose,” Szalko would later confess to me. “I tried to set him up. He must have felt safe. He let his guard down so I could land my winning blow.”
Just as I thought that Strugar was in total control of the match, the devilish Szalko, exploiting that moment of lowered hands, shot a phenomenal right hand that landed squarely on his opponent’s face. So violent was the punch that Strugar’s nose was slightly fractured. He was on the canvas, his legs in the air, his face contracted and his eyes wide open as if asking “what in the hell happened? How did I get down here?” He tried to stand up almost immediately, I think, because he wasn’t lucid enough to wait a bit and try to regain his senses. He got up but staggered, blood streaming down his nose. The referee, Croatia’s Romeo Desa, was counting him (too slowly, I must admit) while staring into his eyes. Afterwards the referee told me that his pupils were tremendously dilated. Strugar was standing but visibly groggy. The crowd was on its feet, going nuts, while and super-calm Szalko was in the neutral corner. After 8 seconds the referee suddenly raised and crossed his hands. It was over. Strugar had been KOed, incredibly, and Szalko had regained his title.
Four or five people from Strugar’s corner entered the ring to look after him. Unfortunately, a soft drink bottle flew into the ring, thrown by a stupid kid. The Bosnian was smothered by hugs and kisses from his group with piercing cries of joy. With everyone standing, just below the ring, a tense discussion took place between the security people and the kid’s parent. Soon I was called into the ring. As I was climbing the steps, Tuzla’s mayor, whom I had visited earlier in the day, intercepted me and asked, “who won?” “Szalko Szildzic” I answered. Upon hearing this, the mayor ensnared me in a bear hug while screaming and much to my surprise he lifted me into the air. I didn’t know what to do to get free of his overwhelming joy. I went into the ring and approached Strugar, still leaning against the ropes, to ascertain his condition. His face was contorted and his eyes were still clouded. So I talked to his seconds who confirmed the K.O. was regular, as was his opponent’s victory.
I confirmed this to Szalko’s seconds, and then the referee called the two fighters to the centre of the ring, with Strugar taking longer to get there.
The speaker did his job and the referee lifted Szlako Szildzic’s arm as the new world champion. It was pure mayhem, which faded slowly as the happy crowd filed out of the building. They had witnessed a bout of historic proportions.