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Tang: I'll KO any doubt over division's 'true king'

Chinese fighter vows to reclaim belt in rematch of knockout specialists

By SUN XIAOCHEN | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2024-02-28 09:15
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Tang Kai goes on the attack during his victory over Thanh Le in August 2022. CHINA DAILY

China's first men's MMA world champion Tang Kai is out to prove he is the "true king" of the ONE Championship's featherweight division as he shapes up for a high-stakes rematch against interim belt holder Thanh Le.

A rightful champion, yet constantly doubted by some fans, Tang is keen on letting the world know who really rules the fiercely competitive 155-pound (70-kilogram) division of the Singapore-based promotion when he locks horns again with Le, a veteran Vietnamese-American fighter, on Friday in Qatar.

Sticking to a methodical game plan of evading to counterattack, Tang, as the underdog, dethroned Le via a five-round unanimous decision in August 2022 to become the first Chinese man to win a major MMA world title.

An initial rematch between the two knockout specialists scheduled for last summer was put on hold after Tang was sidelined by a knee injury sustained at his pre-fight camp, while the talent-laden weight class moved on in his absence.

Le soon took over by submitting Russian phenom Ilya Freymanov in an interim world-title clash as an alternative in October, setting himself on a collision course with Tang again.

Tang has returned from a knee injury and will bid to reclaim his belt against Le on Friday in Qatar. CHINA DAILY

Despite his lengthy layoff, Tang is brimming with confidence that he can finish off Le quicker than their first encounter.

"His belt is just temporary, while mine is the true title," Tang said of the unification bout as a co-main event of ONE165 at the Lusail Sports Arena.

"However he fights this time, the belt stays in China. I have the utmost respect for Le but I will finish him in the first round," said the 27-year-old, who joined female compatriot Xiong Jingnan, ONE's reigning strawweight queen, as the only two Chinese champions in the promotion.

Although making history for Chinese men's MMA, Tang has been questioned by some skeptical fans overseas for his conservative fighting strategy in the first bout, which went the full length of 25 minutes despite being billed as a "battle of KO artists".

Tang, however, is baffled by the narrative that Le holds the mental edge in the rematch coming off a convincing win over Freymanov.

"My goal is to knock him out. Even though I haven't fought in over a year and a half, I haven't rested a bit since I came back from the injury," said Tang, who flew to Qatar on Sunday from his training base at Tiger Muay Thai in Phuket, Thailand.

"His Brazilian jiujitsu is better than mine. Yes, I will give him that. But I am a better and faster striker than him on the stand and I've improved my grappling as well.

"His last win didn't surprise me. The focus is to defend the title whatever the cost," said Tang, who fights out of Sunkin International Fight Club in Hunan province.

Boasting 13 KOs out of his 17 career wins, Tang is a feared finisher, but Le only sees the rematch going one way.

The 38-year-old Louisiana native promises he has more surprises up his sleeve as he seeks redemption from his only defeat under the ONE banner since signing with the promotion in 2019.

"It's going to be a finish. I'm not doing another decision for my entire career. Whether he is happy with it or not," said Le, who holds a 14-3 pro record and has knocked out or submitted opponents in every one of his wins.

"We're going to come in hot, press the action, and he's gonna feel my power early. I'll be honest with you — if we make it out of the first round, I'll be surprised. He's going to sleep, and he's going to sleep early," he told

However, the self-proclaimed "more complete" fighter said he won't be caught up in the emotion of his revenge mission.

"I think the last fight was a good combination of a really great and well-prepared game plan from Tang and his team, and probably the worst performance and decision-making that I've made in a really, really long time," he said.

"Those things happen sometimes, and you've gotta roll with the punches. You've gotta get better. And that's what I did."

The rematch has been the primary motivation for Le, and will be a weight off his shoulders should he prevail this time. However, until the job is done and the undisputed gold is back in his hands, the veteran won't allow himself to be distracted at all.

"I don't know what's next, but I'm 38, so I'm older, toward the end of my career, so it's gotta be exciting, and it's gotta take care of me and my family, or I'm not doing it, honestly," he said.

"It's something that I haven't thought about because Tang is so important to me and I'm not in a position to call any shots because I need to get my belt back."

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