BJ Penn famously said of his fighting career, “Birds fly, and fish swim, and I do this.”
It’s true of all these combative sports, whether it’s jiu-jitsu and MMA, where Penn became a champion, or karate and kickboxing.
Some of your favorites become fighters because they seek money, or fame. They could have done any number of things.
Others, like Penn, became fighters because it’s simply what they were born to do.
Among the latter was a karate practitioner who journeyed from his home in Switzerland to become a hero in his beloved art’s homeland: Andy Hug.
Sadly, it was fifteen years ago on this day that Hug died in Japan, just weeks before what would have been his 36th birthday.
Today, I’d like to remember what he gave us in his life. So, if you don’t know the name, here’s a quick primer:
A native of the town of Wohlen in the Canton of Argovia, Hug cut his fighting teeth on the world’s knockdown karate circuit. He is recalled as the first non-Japanese to reach the finals of the Kyokushinkai World Championship in Japan back in 1987. Later, he switched to the Seidokaikan style, where he won a world title in 1992.
However, it’s in the rings of K-1, in that kickboxing promotion’s heyday where bouts commanded mainstream media exposure, where Hug’s legacy resides with most of us.
Hug’s bouts were characterized by a never-say-die attitude and a fascinating interplay of kickboxing and karate styles. He became famous for using techniques rarely seen, particularly his axe kick and a spinning back heel kick to the leg (sometimes called the “Hug Tornado”), out of an unorthodox stance.
Hug advanced to three K-1 World Grand Prix Finals and became a huge favorite among Japanese fans, who loved his traditional karate acumen and respectful demeanor. He won the tournament in 1997.
But at the twilight of his career, tragedy would strike the Swiss samurai: a diagnosis of leukemia in the summer of 2000.
So much has changed in the past 15 years in the world and in kickboxing that it’s almost impossible to think of how different both would be if Andy Hug were still around. Hug was a rare ambassador for a sport that likes to kick itself when it’s down continually. While we only had a brief amount of time with Andy Hug he provided us with some of the most memorable moments in kickboxing history and taught us all that hard work, dedication, belief and spirit can get you very far in the world.
The following video offers a bit of the triumph and tragedy surrounding Hug. It includes video of his funeral in Kyoto, attended by luminaries of the martial arts world. Reportedly, 12,000 mourners gathered outside Hoshuin Temple when Hug’s ashes were laid to rest on August 28, 2000. A Christian ceremony was later held at Grossmünster Cathedral in Zurich, Switzerland.
RIP Andy Hug, 1964-2000.
Please visit his official site for more on this unique hero of the martial arts.