Interview With WGP Director Paulinho Zorello: The Man Behind Latin America’s Biggest Kickboxing Promotion

Dec 15, 2023
Paulinho Zorello with Featherweight champion Tomas Aguirre. Photo: WGP
WGP has brought names like Alex Pereira, Cesar Almeida and Felipe Micheletti into the limelight.

Beyond Kickboxing sat down with Executive Director Paulinho Zorello to talk about the past, the present, and the future of Latin America's biggest kickboxing organization. 

It is safe to say that Paulo Zorello Senior, Paulinho's father, is one of the most influential figures in South American kickboxing. In the 80s Zorello Senior won WAKO world titles in both Full Contact and Low Kick kickboxing. During his time, fighting in Europe, he grew closer to WAKO founder Ennio Falsoni and that brought him into the organizational side of the sport. He founded the Brazilian kickboxing federation CBKB. Today, Zorello Senior fulfills the position of President of the Pan-American branch of WAKO.


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With this in mind, it seems obvious Paulinho would find his way to the ring. However, he didn’t feel that his calling was between the ropes.

No, no, I never fought. As teenagers, me and my brother trained a lot. Not only kickboxing, but also boxing and kung fu. My father liked that we did martial arts when you were young. So, we were always involved somehow with the sport. But I never felt that I should fight myself. It wasn't something that I thought was for me. But I always liked the sport and when I left college, I started to work with my father at the federation.


That was at the CBKB, when did WGP come into the picture?

Yeah so, a couple of years later I felt that we were missing a professional league in Brazil. At that time MMA was already widely popular in Brazil because of Anderson Silva and Shogun and all those fighters at that time. They were very famous here in Brazil. But in kickboxing, we didn't have professional leagues. We just had not so frequent events and titles. There wasn’t a clear leading organization. So that's why we first created WGP.


I guess that succeeded because many talents found their way via WGP to bigger organizations and there is even UFC champion Alex Pereira among the WGP veterans.

Yeah. It's an honor for us to form this amount of fighters that are fighting in, in major events throughout the world. And not only in the UFC, but we also have fighters in ONE Championship and GLORY, of course, I think almost all Brazilians that fought in GLORY came from WGP, apart from Braddock Silva.


Are there any new stars coming up that we should look out for?

Tomas Aguirre defends his title against Ignacio el Fino. Photo: WGP

Forgive me if I forget someone, but I think there are already many well-established fighters in our region who can face the best in the world. Ignacio El Fino, Gustavo Jones, Jonas Salsicha, Tomas Chacal, Petros Cabelinho are some of them.

Another one will fight at WGP 72 [happening tonight in Brasilia, Brazil]. There's this guy from Brazil in the Featherweight division, Vinicius Mestrinier. He's a rising star and had a great performance at the WAKO World Championships. They compete against all the guys from Europe. Many professional fighters actually represent their country there and that's a very good experience for our fighters. In July of this year Vinicius fought in our GP and he won. So that's one to watch!


Looking forward to the plans for 2024, what can we expect from WGP?

For 2024 we are holding 10 events in South America. We'll have events in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Bolivia. Further, we also want to do some qualifiers here in Brazil and in other countries too. At the moment we are broadcasting our events through direct TV here in Brazil and through Combate. 

But since we have recently signed a deal with Clash TV in the United States, we also want to bring some fighters from Mexico and maybe from the U.S. We want to reach the Spanish speaking population in the U.S too.


That sounds very exciting. Many have tried to bring kickboxing to the U.S. with little success. How is WGP going to approach this difficult market?

Yeah, that's why I think we need to focus on the Spanish speaking audience. I know the Hispanic audience loves martial arts and inside that community, they have a lot of good, good fighters. We are looking to find some prospects and bring them to Brazil to try them. That's one of our objectives, to find some fighters in Mexico and the United States. I think that will be very important for us.


So those are new markets, what would you say are currently the hotspots in South America for kickboxing?

I think besides Brazil, Argentina and Chile will be the leading countries. I mean the thing is that in the lower weight categories, there are many places that have a lot of prospects. But the thing that is lacking here is the heavier weights and I don't mean only heavyweights. For the categories above 70 and 77 kilos, it's an issue to find good prospects. Maybe Uruguay and Colombia are up there as well. Peru has some good fighters as well, but as I can see, they are more focused on MMA right now.


MMA has surpassed kickboxing by far in terms of numbers, do you see the popularity of MMA as a competitor for WGP?

Well, if you look at the UFC, they have a market share way above the rest. But I don't see MMA organizations as competitors. I think the audience is becoming more segmented. The categories in martial arts sports are becoming more specialized and I feel like the audience will follow this trend. Kickboxing overall is growing a lot, for me stand up fighting is more appealing. There is a charm to it. But MMA has it's appeal too.

I don't know if what I'm going to say next is controversial. But I think we have an advantage over MMA in the sense that the grassroots origin of kickboxing is much more developed. It's very important to form new athletes, new idols. And this is one thing kickboxing has been doing around the world. Two years ago, we were recognized by the IOC, this is very important for the sport to grow. Unfortunately, we didn't make it to the Olympics but maybe in the future.


Talking about the grassroot sports, an often heard complaint is that the many federations make it difficult to follow the sport, what do you think about that?

I think now with the IOC recognition, things tend to be more organized. Because there are a lot of criteria that countries and federations need to meet for them to be under the IOC umbrella. I think some of them will focus only on professional kickboxing, and I think this will continue to be a problem there. I see a scenario that will see amateur kickboxing be ruled and sanctioned by WAKO in all countries. And professional kickboxing will be sanctioned by a lot of other federations and managed by the big promoters like us here in South America, Glory and K-1.


Are there opportunities for WGP to collaborate with other promoters?

From a professional point of view, I like working with other promoters. Like, in the beginning we did that. One of our first shows we did a collaboration with It's Showtime in 2012 I think.


It's Showtime later became GLORY. Has there been talks with GLORY about the possibility to organize a GLORY event in Brazil?

Before the pandemic, we were talking about doing a GLORY show here in Brazil. A couple of times we visited some venues, and we went to Rio de Janeiro to talk to [the TV station] Globo but in the end, they didn't think it would be viable.

Maybe it was for the best. I think their strategy now is better.


WGP's name was linked to the presentation of K-1's plans to reintroduce their Grand Prix system. What can we expect on that front?

It is true that Ariel Machado represented us at K-1 ReBIRTH. But at this moment I can not really talk about any coorperation with K-1 in the future.


How do you see the new rebranded K-1 unfold?

Now they have Ishii, the founder of K-1, Daisuke and Carlos, the guys that were there when they were huge. They set up a great team and this is different from the past, as far as I can see. So, I hope it'll be different this time. And I hope that K-1 comes back stronger, because it'll be good for kickboxing.


Lastly, this Friday, WGP 72, the last event of the year, will go down. What can fans expect?

This event we're not going to do our usual Grand Prix, but we'll have two title belts on the line. Gustavo Jones will be facing Jonas Salsicha in a rematch for the 78.1 KG belt. And our only Argentinian champion Tomas Aguirre will be facing Vinicius Mestrinier for the 64.5 KG title. Also, we’ll be reintroducing the Brazilian belt. We don't do that anymore, but since we're bringing in more fighters from abroad. I think it is important for the guys that are growing in the ring to have a national title too. 

Gustavo Jones and Jonas Salsicha. Photo: WGP