August 24th 2021, marked 21 years since the untimely passing of K1 Legend, Andy Hug. For the younger fight fans out there, Andy Hug likely only exists to them in the form of highlight reels that show off a mad selection of moves.
Andy Hug was best known for his use of the axe kick, and a selection of spinning kicks and punches that left his opponent unsure of how to read him. These techniques are what got into the highlight reel, but it was Andy Hug’s great fundamentals that allowed him victory after victory.
Andy Hug got his start in martial arts in Kyokushin Karate. Most kids do some form of karate at some point in their childhood, but unless you’re doing a style like kyokushin, those kids are probably not learning the tough fighting art they think they are.
Kyokushin, unlike most other styles, puts an emphasis on hard sparring and fighting over kata and form. Due to an unusual quirk of it’s ruleset, it also bans punches to the face, while for some reason allowing head kicks. The idea here is that Mas Oyama, the founder, would rather competitors fight bareknuckle than with gloves, and sacrificing punches to the head allows fighters to fight more realistically. It’s not true of course, but what it does do is create a training environment where a fighter is taking hard bare knuckle body shots and hard kicks to the leg with little to no protective gear every day in training. Kyokushin fighters get tough, and they get tough very quickly.
Andy Hug stormed through the European Kyokushin scene before making his way to the Kyokushin World Open, the most prestigious tournament in the sport. He competed three times in the world open; two of those times he lost to fellow karate legend Shokei Matsui, who eliminated him in the 4th round of ’84, and defeated him in the final of ’87. This made Matsui the youngest kyokushin champion in history, and Matsui would compete in the 100 Man Kumite. An absurd, and very real test, where a fighter must test their self against 100 fresh opponents in one after the other.
In his final KWO tournament, Andy Hug again reached the finals, this time facing Francisco Filho.
The fight was controversial. Hug lost via head kick KO, however the whistle had been blown. The kick was technically after the bell and whether or not it should have been considered a win was a point of contention at the time. Regardless of whether or not it counted in a sporting setting, Hug had still been kicked in the head.
After recovering from the KO, Andy Hug made the switch from Karate to Kickboxing. Upon getting his debut in the premiere organisation K1, he then had to face a unique problem that most of the kyokushin fighters to transition to K1 had to face. Punching to the head.
It’s deceptively hard to start adapting to a new style when you’ve spent decades training something else, and for years, Hug had never had to defend his head from punches. So of course, he had to prep for everyone to head hunt him.
In the first two years of his career, Hug was KO’d 3 times with punches, along with a decision loss to Ernesto Hoost, one of the top 3 all time greats. K1 had the matchmaking approach of just throwing new comers to the wolves, with freakshow fights being common. Hug was no exception to this, with only his third fight being against Branko Cikatić, the first ever K-1 GP champion.
Once Hug had adjusted to face punches, he was a force to be reckoned with. 1996 was the year for Hug. The 1996 K-1 GP, like every year, saw the best heavyweight kickboxers that year qualify to fight each other in a same night tournament. The two finalists would have had to fight three bouts that night in order to win.
Mike Bernardo, the big lumbering South African fighter, had an impressive run to the finals. Bernardo was never considered the best kickboxer around, but this tournament had really switched him on. KOing K-1 Legend Peter Aerts, and beating Musashi on his way to the final, Andy Hug had a hard fought war with Ernesto Hoost and after finally making it to the finals, he faced a man who had already beaten him.
Mike Bernardo and Andy Hug had fought before in the opening stages of the ’95 K1 Grand Prix. Mike Bernardo had won via a stoppage, and now Hug had to prove that he was capable of beating Bernardo.
In the first round, Hug knew what he had to do. He was the smaller man, and Bernardo had the power to put him out. Hug played a smart defensive game, using his southpaw lead hand to check the jab, and tagging outside low kicks on the counter. Occasionally stepping in with fast punch combinations.
The second round Hug had found his timing. Hug stepped in more offensively, confident he could outspeed the giant. He stepped in with that same outside leg kick, and this time the force of the leg kick put Bernardo down. Bernardo rose from the 10 Count, and after a few timid exchanges between the two fighters, came the “Hug tornado”.
One of Hug’s signature moves which saw him a lot of success, was a spinning kick to the leg. Hug was known for his spinning kicks to the head and his impressive axe kick, but their real benefit was setting up the Hug Tornado to the leg, which he scored routinely on people.
He spun, Bernardo reasonably didn’t know what to react with, and was struck in the same leg by a spinning kick that put him down for the final 10 count. Hug at only 5’11, had toppled the giant, and become the K1 GP Champion.
Unfortunately, Hug was never able to capture the GP title again, coming in second place in ’97 and then again in ’98. As for Mike Bernardo, he never won the GP Title, but did beat Mirko Cro Cop to win a K1 GP in Fukuoka. A tournament that Andy Hug was also supposed to compete in, but was not meant to be.
Ahead of the Fukuoka tournament, a tumour was found on Hug’s neck and after a short stay in hospital, Hug passed away due to Leukemia. His death was very sudden, and a shock to the combat sports community. He was seemingly fine one month, and then gone the next.
Hug left an impressive legacy. He was the karate fighter. Showing the world that not only was karate a powerful martial art, but that even the most outlandish techniques could be made effective with great fundamentals and athletic ability.
And in 2006, Japan voted him as one of the most important people in Japanese history. His impact on the sporting culture of Japan and Switzerland cannot be over stated.
Mike Bernardo himself, passed away in 2012, leaving us his own legacy with many fun fights to watch. We can look back at their fight in ’96 as a special one. Two great fighters, who were never quite able to reach the top in the way that Schilt, Aerts and Hoost did. But for that night, they were the K1 Grand Prix finalists, and nothing can take that away from them.