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Photo: GLORY Sports International

Most kickboxing experts are fully expecting GLORY heavyweight champion, Rico Verhoeven to have his way with Ismael Lazaar when they face off at GLORY 41 on Saturday. The latest challenger for “The King of Kickboxing” was once the champion in the Superkombat promotion. But Lazaar is a little bit round in the middle and significantly shorter than most heavyweights, which is why all signs lead to a dismantling at the hands of the champion.

However, Verhoeven (50-10), 28, isn’t saying that. In fact, he’s been preparing like he’s about to face one of the best fighters on the planet.

“The people can say, ‘hey this guy is easy.’ But this guy can come with a crazy surprise, so we gotta watch out for that,” Verhoeven told MMAPlus via Skype. “And I don’t like to be surprised. In my head I just keep making him a better and better fighter so I don’t get surprised. So, the moment I get in the ring it can only be easier than it already is. In my head, he’s one of the best fighters there is. So when I’m in the ring, it can only be easier.”

While he may have a dad bod and doesn’t exactly look the part, make no mistake about it, Lazaar (30-2-2) has dangerous, fight-ending power. The 26-year-old Moroccan brawler has shut the lights off on several opponents thus far in his career. And Verhoeven is well aware of that fact.

“The bombs,” said Verhoeven, when asked what part of Lazaar’s game he has to be mindful of. “He’s short. He has the power, so we gotta watch out for that. If you watch his fights, you definitely have to give him credit for that because he’s knocked some big guys out. He knocked out Daniel Sam and some big, tall, heavy guys.”

An interesting note on this upcoming fight is that it will be a five-round, non-title affair. The champion was asked why that is?

“That’s on GLORY, man,” he said. “For me, it doesn’t matter. I’m always ready to defend my title or just to fight. I just enjoy this so much. I think the thing was the top fighters in GLORY had injuries or whatever, they didn’t want to fight me. So GLORY took somebody outside of the organization. So, yeah, they probably couldn’t work with it to put him right away for the title. That would be strange.”

With the Badr Hari rematch on the shelf for the time being due to Hari’s current legal issues, there have been several names bandied about as possible opponents for Verhoeven. Top-ranked contenders Ismael Londt (No.2) and Jamal Ben Saddik (No.4) are both dealing with injuries, so they weren’t available to fight. And Verhoeven has twice defeated the No.1-ranked heavyweight contender and current training partner, Benjamin Adegbuyi. There was also talk of Remy Bonjasky making a comeback, and a ton of trash talk by Gokhan Saki, who hasn’t fought for the promotion since 2014, but neither of those two came to fruition, either. So with a thin list of names, GLORY looked outside the promotion and signed Lazaar.

“In the end, for me, I just stay focused because we have a lot of people in line that want to fight or they are talking about wanting to fight me,” said Verhoeven, on potential opponents. “Even old stars that want to come back and fight me. Let’s see what they come up with. For me, I’m ready to fight anybody. I don’t dodge anybody. I”m willing to fight anybody. Yeah, whoever comes, comes.”

The rematch with Hari, whom Verhoeven defeated at GLORY: COLLISION this past December is something the champion still wants to happen but for now, he has to put that on the back burner and just deal with what is right in front of him.

“Yeah, I’m just dealing with what’s coming first,” said Verhoeven, who is now 13-1 in GLORY all time. “Badr, first has to deal with his other issues. After that, I hope he jumps back into the gym and gets back to work because people want to see the rematch. I would love a rematch. Probably, he would love the rematch as well. Let’s do it. First, let him handle his business and then afterwards we will go to work again.”

GLORY has swapped the time slots for the GLORY 41 main card and the Superfight Series for Saturday, with Verhoeven headlining the latter, which will be shown on UFC Fight Pass after the main card airs earlier in the day on ESPN3. The idea, obviously, was to get the heavyweight champion some exposure on the UFC’s highly successful streaming platform. And although the card that the heavyweight champion is headlining–which will also feature a featherweight title fight between Robin van Roosmalen and Petchpanomrung Kiatmookao–may not be the main card in name, for all intents and purposes, it’s the main card.

Does he agree he’s really headlining the main card, even though it’s the Superfight Series?

“I don’t know,” he said, downplaying the question, but unable to avoid smiling.

After being pressed a little further, he came clean on the matter.

“Yeah, of course, it’s the main thing” he admitted. “But for me its just another fight. Whatever it is. Even if it’s the first fight of the night it doesn’t matter. I’m always ready to fight. Whatever GLORY puts on to promote it, everything is good. People are looking forward to seeing me fight here. I’m looking forward to headline the first, for me, the first UFC Fight Pass, and make kickboxing even bigger than it already is.”

“I just love to put our beautiful sport of kickboxing on the map in whatever way possible. So, yeah, with now being live on UFC Fight Pass is just another step. It’s just another step of making our sport even bigger than it already is.”

Saturday’s fight against Lazaar takes place in Brabanthallen Exhibition Centre in Den Bosch, Holland, which marks only the second time Verhoeven has fought on a GLORY card in his native country. The last time he fought in the Netherlands was at GLORY 26 in December of 2014, where he knocked out Adegbuyi in the opening round and sent the Dutch crowd into a frenzy. While he’s glad to be fighting in his own backyard, the champion is not placing any added pressure on himself because of it.

“No, not really because I’ve been working so hard and I’ve been fighting everywhere,” he said. “Of course, it’s that extra thing that makes it even more special. But in the end, for me, it stays the same. If it’s 10 people that are watching or 100,00 people that are watching, it doesn’t matter because my performance needs to be that same. It needs to be flawless.”

So regardless of what city the GLORY ring is set up in, or what opponent he is going to face, Verhoeven maintains he will continue to do exactly what he’s continued to do over the last several years en route to becoming the best heavyweight kickboxing in the world: “keep the focus.”

“I’m always focused. It doesn’t matter who is in front of me. I just make sure I do everything to the point where it’s perfect. So the preparation, the food, the rest, the training, everything needs to be on point. And, yeah, I enjoy that. When I’m in preparation I like to be focused. And In the end it doesn’t matter, for me, who is in front of me because I need to perform.”

Correction: The first version of this article misstated that the fight was a three-round non-title fight. It is a five-round non-title fight.