Gilbert Yvel and myself met 26 years ago when we were sharing an apartment in the center of Amsterdam. When everybody around him (including myself) was only out clubbing in the fast growing Dutch techno scene, he was completely dedicated to his sport. And it paid off, he was several times European champion as well as world champion in MMA fighting. All his wins are by knock out and it earned him the nickname The Hurricane. He fought at PRIDE, Affliction, UFC, RINGS, M-1 Challenge, Cage Rage and K-1 promotions. On top of all this, he has a purple band in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Our lives went separate ways, but I always followed Gilbert’s career. It was great talking to him again and catching up on our lives a quarter of a century later.
“26 years ago when we met, you were training at Kops and you were doing kickboxing at the time?”
I was training at kickboxing, but my first match was already in free fighting. My trainer at Kops was Lucien Carbin (he is a Surinamese-Dutch former kickboxer (1952), karateka and trainer. He was the first European champion in Kyokushin karate) and he was a kickboxer. My first freefight was somewhere else, but the next 4-5 matches at Kops.
“How did you combine your personal life with training in those days?”
I did have girlfriends then, but no long relationships, that came later. I just did what I had to do, I trained and that’s how it is in normal life, isn’t it? Fighting is your job, you have to give up everything for that. Just like work, one gets up in the morning and gets in his car and goes to work and comes home at 5am. I was at the gym at 9 o’clock, came home for lunch and then I went back to the gym. Not much different from someone going to work.
“Did you want to fight from a very young age?”
I wanted to do this from an early age, it the first thing we learned back then from watching films by Bruce Lee and Jean Claude van Damme. Actually when I was young I saw the movie Bloodsport (1988, American Martial Arts movie with Jean Claude van Damme, Donald Gobb, Leah Ayres and Bolo Yeung), then somebody goes abroad and measures himself against other people. That was actually my dream, to do that too. That was of course a childhood dream, but I loved it. The funny thing is, in my life, if I want something and set my mind on it, that actually always happens. It was meant to be like this.
“Are there people who have been very important in your fighting career?”
Lucien taught me everything back then. He is number one, he taught me the most. My very first trainer was actually a tough guy from Hengelo, Erik Maatmanoonk. There we trained in a room with 10 guys, 1 kick pad and 2 pairs of boxing gloves. You stood in line for the kick pad and every time you could give a low kick, a knee or a kick and then you had to go back to the end of the queue. And then the 2 pairs of gloves, 2 people could go boxing or sparring and that was actually very funny.
I’ve spent some time in the USA and there I learned a lot from John Lewis. He is a real pioneer in MMA ground fighting.
“Looking back, would you have done anything different?”
No, then I wouldn’t have reached the point in life where I am now. It might have gone well or badly, I don’t know. If I would have done something else, when I was with Kops, I would have started wrestling straight away, I would have learned it better, I’ve never been really good at that. Then I would have had a head start right from the start. I would have looked more into opponents and more options about fighting. Lucien was very much like ‘we do it this way and not otherwise’, but now most fighters go from one gym to another to learn things differently. Management wise, money wise, I would have managed my money better, save and maybe buy some properties.
We are literally the forerunners, we didn’t really know how or what. When I fought my first match in Pride I didn’t even know my opponent’s name but he had been training for this fight for 3 months and he had people come over to imitate me. In matches they got a lot ahead and we were not really there yet in the Netherlands. We were just a little behind the times. If you had fought in Japan then a video tape would come with it and now you have internet and now you can literally watch everything.
“When you have a match coming up, how do you prepare? For you it’s all or nothing at such a moment, how do you prepare yourself mentally for that?”
I can go into it very deeply, I was always told that I was worth nothing and could do nothing, but let’s leave it at that. When I started training, Lucien believed in me, I did well, and I got all the confidence, I would show the world how it was. Lucien was completely behind me, I didn’t know any better back then, only that I was going to win. So I had no nerves, I trained so hard, I was so good and I just knew, that opponent can’t do what I do. I didn’t have to prepare, I was just eager to fight and I wanted to show the whole world how good I was. It was like that for the first 6-8 years, I went to a match like that, I was never nervous, I just went, I was ready and I was going to win. My opponent knew this, the crowd knew this, everyone knew this, there was no doubt in my mind. So what I usually did, the night before a match, I just couldn’t wait to go to bed, my entrance song was ready and my clothes were laid out.
At some point, the reality of the real world catches up with you and you understand that this is not all. I could live on a victory for 3 months, but eventually no more. Eventually you realize it’s basically hot air, they’re happy with you when you win, but when you lose, they all look at you differently and then you’re not good enough. And when I realized that, I looked at a match differently. Then I started to be nervous and anxious, like most people.
Because yes, what you say, it’s all or nothing and the ring is the most honest place there is. You can’t make mistakes, everything has to be right. If you play soccer and you play a little weak, you still have 10 other players on your team who can carry you a bit. But you can’t do that with fighting. And then the nerves came, the preparation was less pleasant.
But I also fight against my demons. That’s what I usually call them: Pre-fight demons. The fear of losing, the fear of failing, the fear of not performing well. And that’s just a process you have to go through. One time you have complete confidence in yourself, the other time you doubt yourself. There’s just nothing you can do about it, I just had to win the battle against myself every time.
“Did you do anything special the day before a match?”
At one point it was Thursday and you had finished your training. I would still go to the gym, a little boxing, a little sparring, still moving, but then it was just done. It depended also if I had a match abroad or if I was lucky enough to fight in the Netherlands. Then I could stay at home, watch a movie, nothing very special. I don’t have any pre-fight rituals or anything. But what I did, was put on my right glove first!
“Did you have any special food? You are in the heavy weight class, did you use things like vitamins or magnesium? You burn so many calories and energy in the time you fight.”
In my fighting time it was very different than it is now, you eat pasta the night before the match or maybe a banana and that was it. What supplements, what shake?! You didn’t need that at all.
Now you have fighters doing fitness. But at that time: What about fitness?! We went to fight. A sip of water? Maybe a red bull and that’s it! Maybe a multi vitamin once because you had heard that from someone, but it didn’t make me fight better. But now it is normal, you know that you can get a lot through your diet and supplements. But back then we did not know any better and then it made no difference at all.
“Then you come out of a very tough fight, the adrenaline is gone, how do you handle pain and injuries? Recovery, how do you deal with that?”
Blue skin will go away on its own. Fighting used to be open hands, free fight style and after the match you had blue palms. Speaking of supplements, we had a bottle of AA-drink, but the you could barely open it! (laughs). You had to ice after a match, but you were feeling tough to do so. Around that time, when I was between 19 and 26, you went to sleep and the next day you were already healed. Now you sneeze and you are upset for 3 weeks. It was ice on it and no squeaking! A sore hand from hitting, that was it really.
“Do you have a higher pain threshold than other people?”
That’s hard to say about yourself, but I seem to have a fighter’s character and a real fighter’s heart, I keep going whether I get hit or not. But you’re used to being hit, a bang at your ears, a blow to your head. That, a bit of character, a bit of perseverance. People who fight and then lose because they break and then give up. A good example was the fight between Rico Verhoeven and Jamal Ben Saddik on October 23, 2021, they were both broken, Rico had more perseverance than Jamal, but that last piece, it broke and then he gave up . I’m still at Mike’s in Oostzaan, where Jamal also trains. It was a very good fight, it could have gone either way. Rico showed that he was made of the right stuff. You have to be able to take it, it’s a bit of character, a bit of fighter’s heart and a bit of being used to being hit.
“What kind of gear do you need?”
You get the groin protector and the rest when you fight. For training you need boxing gloves and shin guards and that’s it. The gloves we use are measured in ounces, the thickness of the padding, we used 16 ounces, now we fight with 10 or 8 ounces, then you also have thinner padding.
Back then there was always someone who wanted to sponsor us or gave us a pair of gloves back then. You didn’t earn as much then as they get now and you just used what you got. Now you know better, you buy gloves of which know many of the top players use, but at the time it didn’t matter at all. Just gloves that fit well, as long as you could box it was fine. And shin guards that fit well, soft and then you’re done.
“Are there other sports you really enjoy?”
I love motorcycling, I don’t know if it’s a sport, I just love it. Wakeboarding, snowboarding. I’m boxing a lot now, I like to watch motorbike GP, because of Max (Verstappen) I’m watching now formula 1, but also tennis. I really love snowboarding. I used to think winter, cold, now I can’t think of anything nicer than going down the mountain in the cold, the silence, fantastic.
“What can you pass on to the new generation if they want to do something like you?”
Don’t squeak! The millennials are a bit mushy. You have to give up everything, if you want to become the best, train hard 2-3 times a day, put your sport first, don’t enter into a relationship, be selfish, only think about yourself, think for yourself ‘what is good for me’, not leave everything to others, think for yourself, believe in yourself. If you put your mind to something, anything is possible. Keep believing in yourself.
“You also train children, have you ever met someone you recognize yourself in?”
Not yet, but some kids are very good. Fighting is made more difficult for children these days, the fighting and training has become commercial. Children like kickboxing, but not sparring. And if you have 30 kids and only 2 who want to spar and the rest don’t, then it is very difficult to start sparring. Besides that, it has now decided that children up to 18 years old should not be hit on the head. You fall behind internationally, if you don’t have to learn to deal with blows on the head until you are 18. Most kids want heavy bag training and they don’t want to get tired! (laughs). I don’t see that many talented people walking around.
I’m getting into a fight here now, my wife is sitting next to me (laughs), but when it rains my wife takes her son away by car, I say get on your bike, go through the rain, the child is 16 , that makes you a guy. Of course she not the only one doing this, a lot of parents do this as well. They’re too protective of their kids.
“Will we see you in action again?”
Until 3 months ago I was preparing for a match, I was ready for it. But that didn’t happen and now that I think about it, I actually kind of like it that way. But I have to be honest, if they call me and offer me a large amount of money for another fight, I will give it some serious thought. Especially this time, during the corona, there has been little to earn.
But I might just be a bit done with it. Last Saturday I went with some young guys to a competition and I was nervous for them. That feeling is there when you have a match yourself, it was so bad, I don’t know if I still want to go through that.
You just asked, how do you do it when you get hit hard, it’s kind of getting used to, but I don’t know if I want to deal with it anymore. The nerves, what’s happening around the fight, what is depending on it. I’d be scared to lose, have to come home, look at my girl and the kids that you have to put into words: I didn’t win. I don’t know if I can still do that.
“Sponsorship in the past, what was that like?”
Once, and I thought it was really cool that I had done that, I grabbed the microphone and I challenged people to sponsor me. Then got a money every month, that was the main sponsor. I don’t know the amount, but new clothes, new glove, if I needed anything it was bought for me. But nowadays, and then too, it was: Here you have a pair of shoes, a pair of gloves, you can use them and that was really all they did.
Through that sponsor, Mark de Weer and mister Rozenboom, I received a certain amount per month. I got everything from them. But before that, I worked as a doorman when I wasn’t making enough fighting to make it my job. Then I just had to work, which is a shame.
In the Netherlands you have to be a skater or footballer and then you will be better guided or helped by the government, but if you are a fighter or boxer it is more difficult. This should change, if you can represent the Netherlands on a very large platform, why not get paid for it? They do it with football players, tennis players and skaters too, right? It’s just hard. What I still want to give the youth as advice: Finish your school, get your diplomas and if you don’t succeed, if you’re not lucky enough to get a sponsor, or someone to help you, or you break your leg, or it doesn’t go the way you want, then you have something to fall back on.
It’s too bad when boy’s and girl’s fighters dreams didn’t come true because they didn’t have the right resources or the right help to pursue their career, their dreams.