Tang Kai Captures Featherweight Gold Over Thanh Le at ONE 160

Tang Kai, ONE 160
Tang Kai, ONE 160 Credit: ONE Championship

After getting the job done quickly in his first title defense, a quick KO against elite grappler Garry Tonon, ONE Championship featherweight title holder Thanh Le was set to face off with a different stylistic match-up at ONE 160 in young striker Tang Kai.

Tang’s plan was clear from the start of the fight. He immediately began utilizing low kicks to the outside of the champ’s leg, which were extremely effective due to the severely bladed stance of Thanh Le. It was quickly apparent that this would be trouble and by the end of the round Le’s calf was beat up. The champ was not without his moments however; when he went forward with strikes he was able to land strikes, albeit not cleanly, that caused Tang Kai to use his quick defensive movement to retreat from the punches. In doing so, however, he displayed poor optics, causing the commentary team to speculate that he had been hurt despite likely being fine.

In round two Le already had to start switching stances due to his leg being beaten up. This allowed Kai to open up and start tagging the champ more with his hands, not just his kicks. Le, for his part, went forward and threw much less in the early stages of round two, perhaps due to being uncomfortable in the southpaw stance or just due to wariness of leg kicks. After the commentary booth speculated on whether Le would attempt a takedown, he did so with around two minutes left in the round but failed to finish after grabbing the single leg. Soon after he was able to stagger Tang and make him fall down while running straight backwards away from the blitz of Le, but the challenger was able to recover.

Le got offensive again in the last two minutes of the round and landed some good two punch combinations before Tang dropped him with a massive leg kick. The champion had an opportunity to get up but ignored it because his leg was already so compromised. However Tang smartly let him up after a few leg kicks to force him to stand on that tenderized left leg. Le went back to being somewhat cagey to end the round as the deficit on scorecards grew wider. Fights are scored as a whole in ONE MMA though, so one big round could get it right back.

Le came out southpaw to start the third round and was obviously much less comfortable there as he kept switching back and forth, forced to choose between striking from a stance where he was less adept and from a stance where his left leg would get even more beat up. He appeared slower from either stance and was countered with right straights and left hooks often when trying to press forward, making it hard to win minutes. As the leg kick damage began to mount, even on the right leg, and Tang began to open up more with his hands as well as his kicks, it became apparent that it was almost impossible to win minutes consistently like this and that Le might need a knockout to win the fight. He once again shot an awkward takedown but Tang’s quick movement easily avoided it, as well as most of the now-telegraphed blitzes and looping hooks of the champion who was getting constantly more desperate for the KO. Le did force Tang Kai backwards and land at times, but never cleanly. As the round drew to a close this became the longest fight in Thanh Le’s career, having never been past the halfway point of the third round. Although he was battered, bruised, and behind, his fighting spirit was something to behold and his conditioning held up better than could have been expected.

The champion became almost exclusively southpaw in round four as he pressed forward, having a hard time tracking down his opponent due to the quick movement and beat up leg. Tang Kai rocked Le badly with a left hook, sending him into crouch. Somehow Thanh avoided a true knockdown and shot a desperation takedown that Kai smothered. The challenger pushed Le to his back and gained top position before standing up to force Le to get back up as well. That same lead left hook began to land a lot for Tang Kai in space and when he forced his foe backwards he landed swarming combos. Le survived this onslaught to somehow came back with his own left hook and then power shots with around two minutes left in the round that somewhat hurt Kai. Still beaten up badly, Thanh Le pulled guard, got Tang Kai on top of him, and then attempted to reverse and take the back. The gambit nearly worked but again the challenger avoided being put on the bottom, got up into the clinch, and separated to get back to open space. Both men got hurt this round but Le obviously took more damage again and needed a KO. There is no level of dominance that could take place in the final round that could win the decision, even with ONE’s scoring of the fight as a whole.

Tang still looked fresh in round five and his movement remained as sharp as ever. Even Le did not look tired, though of course he was rather battered and bruised. The check left hook of the challenger still hurt Thanh Le as he telegraphed and looped all of his punches in his desperation to find a knockout. At one point Le caught a kick and landed a punch that pushed Tang to the floor but he could not capitalize as he tried to jump on a front choke. Tang’s flow grew more and more as he began to switch levels with his straight right punches. Le again tried to grab a single leg but takedowns are clearly not his specialty and his right leg, now his rear leg in the southpaw stance, was beaten up to the point where he could not push off of the back foot to get deep on the hips for the takedown. As the bout drew to a close Thanh Le was desperately pressuring and throwing. With twenty seconds left he miraculously landed a big left hook that puts Tang Kai on one knee. The challenger showed his grit as he recovered before getting staggered again. As the champion’s time with the belt ran out he rushed forward with even more reckless abandon, only for his opponent to return the favor and stun Thanh Le one last time to end the fight.

After an amazing five round battle between two warriors the ring announcer made the obvious call of, “And New!” for Tang Kai and the featherweight belt is put on his shoulders, becoming the first male Chinese MMA champion in ONE Championship history.