IN A GYM ON THE FOURTH FLOOR OF ICHIGEKI PLAZA IN TOKYO, Artur Hovhannisyan stands by a full-length window and looks down upon the streets of Ebisu though his thoughts are miles away. His white gi is pristine and a black belt adorns his waist with three gold bars on the tip (one for each dan ranking). With his shaved head and clean appearance, the 33-year-old Armenian could pass as a banker or an accountant. Indeed it’s not until you see his calloused knuckles and stare into the black abyss of his eyes that you realize who you’re really standing face-to-face with.
“It’s time,” says a voice from across the room.
“Osu!” grunts Hovhannisyan. He slams his ﬁst into his palm, lets out a loud breath and is led out of the gym by two officials with all the solemnity of wardens leading a death-row inmate to the chair. Hovhannisyan enters the tiny Honbu (headquarters) dojo and the wooden door slides shut behind him. The eerie thud of a Taiko drum renders the room silent. As he gazes around the dojo his eyes widen; only now does he truly comprehend the gravity of what lies ahead. On the ﬂoor sit one hundred black and brown belts, legs crossed, perfectly postured. They’re bare knuckled and hungry, like a pack of jackals ready to rip Hovhannisyan apart at the limbs.
At 13:00 Kancho Shokei Matsui, Kyokushin Karate’s global leader, addresses the dojo. His voice is soft and melodic, unbeﬁtting of a man who twenty-three years ago steamrolled his way through the Hyaku-Nin Kumite (100-Man Kumite) with a record 76 knockouts. He directs attention to a small altar and invokes the blessing of Kyokushin’s late founder, Sosai Mas Oyama, or God. Perhaps both — though one wonders how any sort of spiritual serenity can exist in the masochistic madness that is about to unfold. Then again traditional Karate is as much a spiritual pursuit as it is a physical one. The small ceremony, precisely worded in Japanese and conducted with complete attentionto detail, seems to still the ego, empty the mind, and raise the vibrational energy of the room in an almost shamanistic way.
At exactly 13:04 the Taiko drum sounds again. Hovhannisyan raises his arms to protect his head and taps the ﬂoor lightly with his ball of his lead foot, like a bull digging its hoof into a matador’s arena. From here there is no turning back and Hovhannisyan knows today will end in one of only three ways: quit, get knocked out cold or somehow survive one hundred opponents.
“Hajime!” screams the referee, and the Armenian collides with his ﬁrst opponent in a maelstrom of violence. Each bout lasts ninety seconds unless there is a knockout and the rules are simple: punch anywhere except the face; kick and knee wherever you want. There’s no gloves, the only protection coming from a plastic groin cup ﬁtted beneath the gi.
Hovhannisyan pushes the pace of the early ﬁghts. He slows his opponents by crashing his shin continually to the soft ﬂesh on the inside thigh and compressing the femoral artery to lessen the blood ﬂow to the limb. Adding to the action are the harrowing noises that accompany every loaded strike. The crack of shin bone against shin bone; the sickening thump of knuckles ripping into rib cages; and the sudden snap of a knee being driven under the chin and smashing teeth together is a soundtrack a Hollywood foley artist would have trouble replicating.
After the ninth ﬁght Hovhannisyan takes his ﬁrst sip of drink. While it seems he’s churning through the bouts with ease, Hovhannisyan’s peers are concerned. “He’s going very hard instead of conserving energy and countering,” says Francisco ‘God Hand’ Filho, the only man to have twice completed the Hyaku-Nin Kumite. “That’s a dangerous game.”
Hovhannisyan scores three half-knockdowns in the ﬁrst twenty ﬁghts with two kicks to the head and a jarring kick to the rib cage that folds his opponent in half like origami. His aggressive strategy however takes a toll on his body. By the twenty-third ﬁght the Armenian’s torso is a kaleidoscope of red and purple welts, and his gi drenched in sweat and specks of blood. Kancho Matsui knows there’s no way he can continue through another eighty ﬁghts at this pace.
“Why are you so tense?” he asks, momentarily stopping proceedings. “You need to relax and not waste energy. Counter your opponent more. Be patient, get your timing right and then explode. There is still a long way to go.”
“Osu!” grunts Hovhannisyan. He shapes up for his next ﬁght and scores an audacious half knockdown with an ura mawashi-geri — Bruce Lee’s famous hook kick — in which the body is spun backward, the leg bent at the knee, and the heel rapped to the opponent’s jawline. Hovhannisyan receives applause from his seconds and affords himself a smug smile. Stick that in your pocket for timing, he may very well be thinking.
His forty-sixth opponent is a 69-kilogram whippet intent on making a name. He targets Hovhannisyan’s ribs then lowers the boom to the abdominal cavity like he’s digging for oil. It’s Gatti on Leija, Hopkins on DeLaHoya, but the punches are bare ﬁsted and the knuckles able to dig in closer to the liver, spleen, pancreas and intestines. Hovhannisyan must stop the onslaught – now. He cracks the little guy with an illegal left hook to the forehead and fells him like a marionette with its strings cut. The little man paws at his face, checking for blood and makes no effort to return to his feet. It is only when the doctor helps him up that a massive haematoma is revealed over his right eye, swollen to the size of a golf ball.
By the seventieth ﬁght something becomes very apparent: Hovhannisyan is breathing heavily through his nose and unable to ﬁll his lungs due to the constant beating on his stomach and rib cage. The opponents are also getting notably stronger and more aggressive, especially the Japanese black belts.
“They won’t pull any shots,” whispers K-1 star Glaube Feitosa. “Even if Artur’s hurt they want to beat him down. Many of the Japanese don’t like the idea of a gaijin coming to Honbu and doing this,”
A body shot in the seventy-ﬁfth ﬁght stops Hovhannisyan by knockout for the ﬁrst time. Three ﬁghts later he is stopped again. In the eighty-second ﬁght he takes an illegal punch to the lower spine and falls to the ﬂoor howling in pain. One wonders if this isn’t his ticket out of hell after three hours of non-stop ﬁghting. But Hovhannisyan somehow gets to his feet, screams “Osu” and shapes up for his next opponent.
From here on it’s hard to even watch. Delirium has set in and Hovhannisyan ﬁghts on heart alone. “I’ve seen guys go crazy now,” notes Filho. “Eighty or ninety ﬁghts in and they’re feverish. Guys biting opponents just to try and stay up.”
When Hovhannisyan is knocked down in the ninety-ﬁfth ﬁght by a jarring kick to the liver, the mind boggles at how such brutality can be allowed to continue. His puffed and purple appearance almost mirrors that of Miyuki Miura who was so swollen after completing the Hyaku-Nin Kumite in 1972, that wherever he placed his thumb on his body, the swelling would rise to the second knuckle.
After withstanding a barrage of punches from the towering Feitosa, and suffering a half knockdown from a kick to the forearm in his ninety-ninth ﬁght, Hovhannisyan squares off against ‘God Hand’ himself for the ﬁnal battle.
At 110 kilograms Filho dwarfs the Armenian but it is his reputation that carries the most weight. It is said Filho completed his second Hyaku-Nin with such ease in March 1995 that he went to visit Tokyo Disneyland the very next day.
Unable to raise his hands or legs, Hovhannisyan goes inside himself. He seems to tap into the collective minds of everybody within psychic range and harnesses the mental strength to withstand ninety-seconds of Filho’s jackhammer right hand.
At exactly 17:11 the Taiko drum sounds one ﬁnal time. His peers rush to embrace him but Hovhannisyan’s face remains expressionless. His mind is on a different plane. His seconds carry him to the side of the dojo and prop him up against the cool plaster wall but he can’t stand. Like a large ship, which turns on end and slides into the ocean, he sinks slowly to the ﬂoor and hangs his head between his legs.
He will receive no money for his feat and there will be no tickertape parades or breakfast cereal endorsements. All that awaits Hovhannisyan is a certiﬁcate, a plaque, a handshake from Kancho Matsui and an ambulance ready to whisk away the eighth man to ever complete the Hyaku-Nin Kumite.
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