The world’s top-ranked kickboxer, Sitthichai Sitsongpeenong, earned the opportunity to battle China’s most popular fighter, Yi Long, after winning the eight-man challenge tournament this year.
Sitthichai’s journey to victory in the tournament final was like a walk in the park. The current GLORY lightweight titleholder made it look easy against Hassan Toy in the quarterfinals. He breezed past 2014 K-1 MAX champ Enriko Kehl in the semis, and out-classed former top-10 fighter Dzhabar Askerov, who had stepped in for an injured Chingiz Allazov, in the finale.
While Sitthichai had to fight three times in the course of four months to earn his shot at Long, the “Shaolin Monk” had his last fight almost 10 months ago at the big New Year’s show in January. The Chinese combat-sports icon will make his return against the consensus top fighter in the sport on Saturday, Nov. 4, in Kunming, China, at Wu Lin Feng: Dragon King Challenge. The event airs live at 9:15 a.m. ET on Henan TV (China). Combat Press kickboxing gurus Zach Aittama and Rob Tatum break down the fight below in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Let’s not beat around the bush, should combat-sports fans care about this fight?
Tatum: Anytime a fighter regarded as the pound-for-pound best is competing, fight fans should pay attention. Sitthichai took over the top spot in the sport in April 2016 and, 18 months later, he still stands atop the Combat Press rankings. Whether it’s his success as the GLORY lightweight champion or his success in the Chinese market, the Thai fighter is the sport’s most consistent and talented fighter.
The strangest part of this fight is that it was Sitthichai who had to win an eight-man tournament to earn the right to fight Long. The whole thing feels a little backwards. Long is unranked and his biggest wins have been subject to controversy (more on that below). But you know what? Long puts butts in seats in his native China and has captured the interest of casual kickboxing fans throughout his homeland.
On paper, this fight is a tremendous mismatch. Does that sounds familiar to anyone? There was a boxing match in August that pitted one of the sport’s all-time greats against the product of a hype machine. And you know what? That fight was $99.95 on pay-per-view, had four million buys, and had everyone and their mothers talking about boxing. It’s easy to see where Wu Lin Feng is coming from by putting this fight together, even if it draws a fraction of the attention that Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor did.
The promotion has a chance to sell a homegrown star against a future legend of the sport. Meanwhile, fight fans can sit back and enjoy Sitthichai’s beautiful brand of striking against someone willing to stand in front of him and take it. How can you go wrong in that regard?
Aittama: It’s always a treat to watch a master put their craft on display, especially when that skill is punching and kicking other people. Sitthichai is truly one of the great combat-sport athletes of the past five years. His resume and long list of top-level opponents is enough to speak for itself, if you follow the sport. Unfortunately for many of the casual combat-sport observers, kickboxing is not the easiest sport to follow, so they may have never heard of him.
Sitthichai is truly a sight to behold. He won’t leave fans in awe with incredible knockouts and he rarely throws caution to the wind, but that is what makes Sitthichai’s work so great. He doesn’t rely on one shot to win fights. Instead, he often dominates the fight in every phase with his breadth of skill and knowledge of the game.
That’s why this fight is so intriguing. It’s a battle of supreme talent against a fighter with an iron will and heavy hands. Long’s popularity in China is due to his ability to entertain. He brings in viewers on television, sells out arenas, and is one of the higher-paid athletes in his homeland. Long’s character, as we’ll call it, has brought fans to the kickboxing realm that might not have been there if he wasn’t willing to put his health on the line every time he steps foot into a ring. If you’ve never watched him fight, just Google “take punches” and one of his viral videos will be the top result. Long is willing to eat a few punches and fire back with a relentless barrage of his own. How could you not be entertained by a fighter like this?
As my colleague suggested, this fight should catch the eyeball of the causal combat-sport observer, but it likely won’t click with many of the western fans of combat sports. It’s an unfortunate reality of the lack of popularity of kickboxing in the United States. However, this fight is massive in China, where the sport is just a few years into its meteoric rise. Over the past five years, the kickboxing and MMA scene in China has grown exponentially. There is rarely a weekend without an event.
Wu Lin Feng has had plenty of controversy in the past due to some highly suspect judging. If this fight goes the distance, is there any way to avoid casting doubt on the scorecards?
Aittama: Ultimately, it should be pretty clear who wins this fight if it does indeed go the three-round distance. If the fight is razor close, it can be difficult to separate the winner from the loser. However, watch enough combat sports and it’s easy to begin to develop a sense for what is effective, scoring offense, and what strikes are missing, blocked, or don’t land clean. Now, figuring out who won a fight in three-minute segments can be difficult if both fighters are landing equal amounts of effective offense, but it’s usually not too hard to surmise who should have their hand raised. Yet, there are still plenty of blatantly awful decisions made throughout the world in every combat sport.
The Wu Lin Feng umbrella is wide-reaching, with appearances all over the world, including Europe, North America and Asia. As a whole, the number of decisions that tend to inspire conspiracy talk aren’t happening across every single event. This criticism cannot be placed on every official and shouldn’t be a blanket statement for the judging in China. There are some consistent, transparent scores from many of the Chinese kickboxing promotions. However, based on the evidence presented over the past few years, this trend of decisions being awarded to the fighter who conceivably lost the contest has come to light under certain circumstances. Namely, when one of the promotion’s top fighters faces adversity against a foreign opponent.
As one of the biggest stars in the Chinese kickboxing world, Long’s resume has been put under a microscope. The criticism of the promotion’s handling of a few of his fights — most notably Long’s outing against Buakaw Banchamek — and others, like Fang Bian’s bouts with Cedric Doumbe and Berat Aliu, has brought criticism from both western kickboxing fans and the Chinese faithful. The flood of messages and feedback following what this site deemed the “Robbery of the Year” in 2016 was overwhelming, to say the least.
We studied Long’s bout against Buakaw extensively to try to justify the judges’ scorecards. Unfortunately, every conclusion pointed to the wrong fighter taking the win. Buakaw was awarded the decision after the first bout, but he was robbed of a victory in the second fight. At the very least, Buakaw controlled the first two rounds of the rematch with his kicks to the body, effective counter strikes, and an ability to minimize Long’s offense. Long turned up the aggression in the third round, but he was swinging at air more often than not. After three rounds, the decision should have been clear for Buakaw. Instead, one judge gave Long all three rounds.
If this fight between Sitthichai and Long does happen to make it to the final bell, it should be obvious who won the contest, even if the judges get it wrong once again.
Tatum: My fellow panelist hit the nail on the head regarding this topic. Yes, there have been some highly suspect results in fights featuring fighters like Long. However, for those that have a familiarity with the sport and how it should be scored, we will know who the real winner is.
It’s not hard to understand that combat sports is a business and that promotions would like to build stars, especially ones that are homegrown. However, as soon as those homegrown stars start winning fights that industry experts and fans see very differently, it’s impossible not to question the integrity of everyone involved.
In an ideal world, there wouldn’t even be consideration for a “Robbery of the Year” award. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Scoring three-minute rounds seems simple on paper, but it takes years of practice. I have no idea who is brought in to judge fights in China, but for the sake of the fighters and the sport, one can only hope they are competent and as objective as possible. Should Long win another controversial decision in this match-up, it’ll not only harm Wu Lin Feng’s reputation, but Long’s reputation and the reputation of the sport as well.
I just hope that if this fight sees the final bell, the judges get it right.
Hypothetically, if Long dethrones the sport’s pound-for-pound best, does he enter the lightweight rankings?
Tatum: As my colleague can attest, this is a question that we’ve been asked dozens of times since the possibility of this fight arose. Now that it’s a reality, we have witnessed firsthand the passion of the Chinese kickboxing fans and media.
So let me clear the air a bit on this one: rankings are subjective. No matter how much effort we put into being objective with our rankings at Combat Press, the reality is that we are human and not everyone is going to agree with our opinions. We do our best to consider a fighter’s body of work, their current winning (or losing) streak, level of competition and, finally, recent performances.
What makes rankings the most difficult are controversial decisions or questionable results. Unfortunately, this is common problem across all combat sports and is hardly isolated to a single promotion or country. After Long fought Buakaw, we collectively watched the fight about a dozen times. Never, in any of those replays, did we score the fight in favor of Long. As such, we did not penalize Buakaw for a “loss,” nor reward Long for a “win.”
Back to the question at hand, the answer is maybe. The lightweight division is one of the sport’s deepest. Currently, Long doesn’t even crack our top 20. As I mentioned above, there are a lot of factors that go into determining a fighter’s ranking. The bizarre nature of Long’s victories of Buakaw and Jomthong leave a seed of doubt over almost any result in his favor. However, if he legitimately defeats the sport’s current pound-for-pound king, it would be impossible for us to ignore that fact. Just don’t expect to see Long’s name atop the pound-for-pound rankings or anything if he wins.
Aittama: Over the past six years, Sitthichai has put together the best resume in kickboxing. With 54 wins and just four losses — all four of which Sitthichai has avenged — it will be nearly impossible to unseat him as the pound-for-pound best in the world, even if he loses to Long on Saturday.
Long has won his last 10 fights, controversy aside, and his last loss came at the hands of Buakaw. The “Shaolin Monk” holds victories over former top-10 fighter Enriko Kehl, but, to reiterate, some of his top wins have come into question. If we break down Buakaw’s place in the top 10, the last man to beat the two-time K-1 MAX champ was Khayal Dzhaniev, who currently resides outside of the top 20. Dzhaniev was able to damage Buakaw far more than Long in their two meetings, yet the Russian’s body of work wasn’t enough to crack the top 10.
The 70-kilogram division is unquestionably the deepest division in the sport of kickboxing. Some of the reason behind the talent pool residing in that range has to do with the sheer amount of participants from all over the globe, but it also has much to do with the sport’s rich history of the K-1 MAX tournaments in the golden era of K-1. There are plenty of talented and highly skilled fighters who have never cracked the top 10 and may never find their way in.
As for Long’s chances of breaking into the top 10 with a victory over Sitthichai, it just really depends on how the fight unfolds.
Aittama: Long has experience fighting top-level fighters, as well as plenty of mid-tier and poor fighters. One glaring attribute that Long possesses is his incredible durability. His fame is partly due to his ability to absorb unblocked and unanswered punishment. Long has been floored and knocked down in fights before, though. Hell, he’s even been knocked out cold by little-known fighters Adrien Grotte and Josh Pickthall. However, when he doesn’t give up his chin on a silver platter, Long actually has some decent head movement and evasive ability.
Long can fight on the outside and use his kicks to keep his opponents off balance. He’ll throw kicks to the head and body, but his most used tool is his chopping low kick to the inside and outside. He will pair the kick with a throw or trip, depending on the damage done to his opponent. In general, Long uses his Sanshou techniques to frustrate his opponents. He usually finds success against low-level competition. He forces his opponent to expend more energy than they want by dumping and tripping them to the canvas from the clinch, an area where Long really likes to work. Typically, Long will fight on the outside and crash in with his strikes. The Chinese fighter has put this approach to great use throughout his career.
Sitthichai’s abilities are well known. The brilliant southpaw striker has dismantled many of his foes with just a few simple tools: the middle kick, the left straight-right hook combination, and his teep. The Thai fighter utilizes his left kick to set up much of his offense. He also uses his left middle kick to nullify his opponent’s offense and to shut down the lead right hand of an orthodox opponent. His boxing continues to improve as he trains for a potential career in the sweet science following his kickboxing campaign. His list of victims is simply incredible. Sitthichai has dismantled bigger and stronger opponents, including fighters like Murthel Groenhart that are at the top of the sport.
Long’s weaknesses play into Sitthichai’s strengths. Long will look to land his heavy right hand throughout the bout, but Sitthichai’s left middle kick will likely batter Long’s shoulder and arms. Eventually, this will drain the power from Long’s punches. Long operates either on the outside or in the clinch. When he’s in punching range, he is usually winging punches at his opponent without regard for his own defensive positioning. The exchanges in the boxing range will be most deadly for Long. Sitthichai is an expert counter striker with an ability to slip, block or parry a punch to land his own devastating striking combinations. If Long sits on the outside, Sitthichai will pick him apart with kicks and make it a long night for the Chinese fighter. Even if Long tries to work out of the clinch, Sitthichai is excellent at finding and creating angles to score effective offense.
Sitthichai’s depth of knowledge, level of skill, and athletic advantages will earn him the nod in this fight.
Tatum: It’s hard to argue with that analysis. No matter how this fight and tournament were marketed, the truth is that Sitthichai is why combat-sport fans should be watching this fight.
Long is certainly an entertaining fighter. He’s beloved in his homeland for his iron will and his “iron” chin. He has the ability to pressure fighters with flurries and frustrate them in the clinch. What he lacks in technique, he largely makes up for in aggression and heart. However, he has struggled against faster fighters who can fight at range and counter. That’s where this fight is going to be the most challenging for the Chinese kickboxer.
If there’s a fighter who embodies the beauty of the striking arts, it’s Sitthichai. Although he has been on top of the kickboxing rankings for quite some time, he’s still getting better. Already armed with a lethal Muay Thai base, he has focused heavily on his boxing in recent years. This has resulted in footwork and head movement that few in the lightweight division have been able to handle. His use of angles to create openings for his punches and, more importantly, kicks has made many of the world’s top fighters look amateur at best.
In reality, Long’s chances at victory are very limited. As a power puncher, he’s going to need to land a perfect punch against a fighter whose chin has held up to so many of the sport’s best. And the whole time he’s trying to land a perfect punch? He’s going to be battered with an onslaught of kicks to the liver, ribs and forearm from the southpaw Sitthichai. If there’s a positive outcome for Long, it’s that he’s likely to make it to the final bell. Sitthichai’s knockout ratio hovers around 25 percent, so Long should hang around to entertain his fans and prove his toughness. Just don’t expect an upset.
I’ll echo my colleague’s prediction: Sitthichai by decision.