Sam Greco: Experience is worth more than anything

 

Sam Greco is more than just a world champion full-contact karate fighter who became a world champion kickboxer during the glory days of the now-defunct K-1 organisation: he is a legend. A ferocious fighter who, in the late ‘90s, typified raw physical power and technical precision better than any other man on the K-1 roster. His toughest fight was, as all great stories would dictate, about a lot more than the man standing opposite him in centre ring.

 

Sam Greco: Experience is worth more than anything

"In our industry,” Greco says, “fighters are a dime a dozen, but world champions are the true elite. It’s every fighter’s dream to fight for a world title; it gives you the ultimate recognition and exposure.”

Greco was slated to fight the hard-hitting South African Mike Bernardo for the WAKO world super-heavyweight Muay Thai title in 1999.

 

“The preparation for that fight was extreme. I recruited numerous trainers, sports psychologists, you name it. The prep was approximately three months, but three weeks out, I faced one of the biggest hurdles I just couldn’t jump over.”

Greco’s father had received a series of test results that indicated significant blockages in his heart and cardiac system. He had to undergo immediate quintuple bypass surgery.

“My determination, focus and everything else shifted toward my father. I went to see him in the hospital and he didn’t look too good. This was a fierce man, mentally and physically, and to see him vulnerable in a hospital bed was a shock to me. He was scheduled for surgery the next day, but he asked me, ‘How is training going?’

“‘It’s not,’ I told him. The next day, I went to see him and held his hand. A priest came in and Mum and I stood back. The priest had come to give my father a blessing in the event he didn’t make it through surgery.”

 

The event was distressing, but Greco was clear in his feelings about what was happening.

“I was angry,” he says. “All of a sudden, I was faced with the prospect of my father’s mortality. I was angry; there wasn’t enough time,” he says. “Dad’s last words to me were, ‘I’ll be fine. Do me a favour; go and get what you want. I’ll be fine. I’ll see you on the other side.’

 

“Seeing Dad in recovery with all the tubes hanging out of him and all the rest, he looked like death warmed up. It made me re-evaluate life. I was so strong physically, but I felt weakened. After surgery, the first thing he did when he woke was to thank God. In the coming weeks he was recovering well, so I resumed training and went overseas. Before I left, he said, ‘Do this for me; I’m depending on you.’

Greco’s father, Vic, casts a long shadow over his son’s life, even indirectly opening the path to martial arts stardom.

“I was a bit of a rebel when I was a kid. My father was strict and wanted me to learn self-respect. I started doing Kyokushin when I was about seven.”

 

As a young man, Greco also had a promising career as a soccer player.

“I was playing for Juventus at the age of 16. I was the youngest player in Australia to be playing for the Firsts. I was the only kid in the country that could play on the weekend, come home and switch on the television to watch myself play on Captain Socceroo on SBS and then go to school and be a legend!”

Greco’s early ventures in soccer were successful, but fortunately for the world of martial arts, contractual issues made life difficult.

“I’d been with Juventus for 10 years and I wanted a change. I had the option of another national soccer league club here in Australia, or go to the UK and serve an apprenticeship at one of the premier league clubs. The team management of Juventus weren’t happy with my decision and made my life hell. There was no management for junior players in those days, and financially, my parents couldn’t afford to fight it. So, I gave soccer the boot and went back to karate.”

 

Greco’s decision to return to Kyokushin was a sound one. He distinguished himself, winning the Australian Full-Contact title a total of six times. This success propelled him onto the world stage to greater challenges and an eventual meeting with the style’s founder, Mas Oyama. Karate had grown to a scale where fighters such as Greco needed to balance the reality of an amateur pay-packet against the demands of professional performance.

 

Mr Ishii, founder of Seido Karate, had plans for stand-up martial arts. Himself a former student of Oyama, Ishii had broken away to form his own style of karate that was almost identical to Kyokushin, except in one respect: fighters were paid for fighting.

 

“I remember fighting in the Commonwealth Karate Games in Singapore. I was called up to Oyama’s hotel room afterwards for a meeting. It was unbelievably tense. I had sweaty palms; I was dying inside. I was there to tell him I had an offer from the opposition. It didn’t go down too well, but I had my life to live and a family to support.”

While highly visible, few fighters enjoyed private audiences with Oyama. Meeting him under those terms was tense, to say the least.

“[Oyama] didn’t take it too well. He left for 15 minutes. Then he came back and said, ‘I have an offer for you. I will give you $30,000USD to fight in the All-Japan Championships… if you win.’ He made it all quite clear; he talked about discipline, honour and loyalty. I was feeling bad. Kyokushin was backbone of my career. A week later I wrote to him stating that I intended to build a life for my family morally and financially and had decided to leave Kyokushin.”

 

Greco was clear about what he wanted from his career and equally clear about how to achieve it. That clarity made the decision simple.

“I wanted to train and not work at same time. To succeed, you really have to live and breathe it. Seido gave me that opportunity. The change went well for me; I immediately got an offer to fight in the Seido world tournament, which I won. I won five fights, all by knockout, in one day.”

The transition from amateur to professional meant a significant change of lifestyle in all kinds of ways.

“I remember Mr Ishii picking up me and Michael Thompson (the Englishman who had finished runner-up to Greco in the Seido world tournament) in a convertible Rolls Royce and showing us around Tokyo. The glitz and glamour had arrived.”

 

Greco’s first kickboxing fight in Japan was to be against Masaaki Satake, the reigning world champion. No small order, in fact.

“I had three months’ training with Dana Goodson to get ready for Satake. Basically, I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. It was a hard fight — I’d only had one kickboxing fight before it — but it was going to take me where I wanted to go overnight instead of having to wait a week, if you know what I’m saying.”

The fight was a success, for Greco at least — he defeated Satake by knockout in the second round, compressing his cheekbone in the process.

“And then the fun and games began with Mr Ishii. He said he wanted me to fight Peter Aerts for my next fight. ‘Who’s he?’ I asked. I looked him up and discovered who he was. It was around that time that the t-shirts of our K-1 fight were coming out.”

 

Aerts turned out to be a taller order than Satake, but Greco acquitted himself admirably.

“We were the main event. I dropped him early with a right hand, and when he covered up, I just kept punching his gloves, which shows how advanced my training was — I didn’t even think to hit his body. He dropped me in the second or third round with a body shot, but I got up and fought on.”

 

Greco lost the fight, but his place on the roster was assured. From then on, Greco was fighting — and winning — against the best heavyweights the world had to offer, including Jerome Le Banner and Ernesto Hoost. In time, he would meet old training partner Stan Longinidis in Melbourne at ‘The Crowning’, held at the Crown Casino in Melbourne in 1995.

“Before I began training with Paul, I was training with Dana Goodson and Stan. At that time, Stan had just come back from the States, after fighting Duke Roufus, who had beaten him by KO. We were training together, it was all good, and then a year later, Christopher Chronis wanted to put on a show and had sourced Roufus as an opponent for me. I felt a bit bad and tried to talk to Stan and Dana about it; they weren’t keen. In the end, I decided not to [take the fight].”

 

Regardless, the die was cast and provided the impetus for the showdown in the final of ‘The Crowning’.

“I’m on one side [of the draw]; Stan’s on the other side. I had two hard fights while he had two first-round KOs. Our fight in the final was a brawl; I wanted to rip his head off! It had become a real grudge match as a result of the Roufus thing.”

 

Greco walked away with the victory in a fight that is spoken of as one of the most distinguished heavyweight clashes on Australian soil during the ‘90s. Afterwards, Greco continued to build his reputation as one of

the world’s most fearsome kickboxers, with a string of tough fights and predominant victories over some of the toughest names in K-1, such as Cikatic and Hoost.

Those performances brought the opportunity for the world title to his door. Mike Bernardo, the hard-hitting South African, was the man standing in his way. With his father’s blessing once he had emerged from surgery, Greco could concentrate on the task ahead.

 

The fighters in K-1 often worked in close proximity with each other, allowing them to form relationships that were in stark contrast to the adversarial nature of those relationships inside the ring.

“Before the fight, Bernardo and I went to see the doctor for the pre-fight medical together. We travelled in the same transport; we may have been fighting each other, but fighters pretty much did everything together. I got to know Bernardo a bit before that fight. He was down-to-earth, and a very religious man. We had a long discussion. When we parted company, he gave me a hug.

“Before the fight, I went and wished him luck in his dressing room and then, once we were in the ring, I made the sign of the cross. That’s when I knew I had him.”

 

Greco may have won the mind game, but the physical contest remained. It got off to a very rocky start.

“Paul [Fyfield] said to me, ‘this guy hits like a train — he used to spar Tyson. Do not trade punches with this guy; four punches max and get out of there’. I remember I was feeling great and I threw a fifth punch and [Bernardo] caught me with a right hook. Next thing, I’m trying to peel myself off the canvas and everything sounds like it’s submerged underwater.

“Suddenly, I heard someone screaming, ‘Get up!’ It was Paul. I got to my knee by the count of five and stood up on seven. The ref asked me if I was okay, and I don’t know of a fighter who would ever say ‘no’. I made out the end of the round and when the bell rang, I wandered over to a neutral corner.”

 

The referee assisted Greco in finding his way to his actual corner, where Fyfield set him right.

“Paul told me to stick and move for the next round so I could properly recover. Then he said, ‘Your dad’s depending on this.’ It was all he had to say.”

Greco recovered through the following round and, in the successive ones, outclassed Bernardo with a display of considerable skill and power to win the WAKO world title by majority decision.

Greco has used his success in kickboxing to form the platform for a successful life after sport; he has worked as an actor in both film and television, runs a number of restaurants, works as a personal trainer and also does public speaking engagements for corporate groups. In the course of his public speaking, he uses his career to illustrate the principles of success. Finally, he reduces the spectrum of principles to one thing, the one idea that throws a light on all the others.

 

“At the end of the day, you can’t take away the experience. Experience is worth more than anything.” 

 

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