Everyone in MMA enjoys a good Bruce Lee reference—though even the most playful mention of Bruce will usually devolve into arguing over whether he was just an actor or actually an influential martial artist. This week ONE Championship are going all in on the Bruce Lee references with their heavily yellow and black themed advertisements for Friday’s ONE: Enter the Dragon. Sure, ONE names its events by scrambling up bushido-ey words and we were bound to hit on Enter the Dragon sooner or later, but the event itself is generating buzz because there are some rather interesting fights going down.
The main event pits Christian Lee against reigning lightweight champion, Shinya Aoki in what might be the safest bet of Lee actually winning a ONE title. Nieky Holzken is also on the card and he almost always delivers on quality fisticuffs. But the majority of fan interest focuses on the ONE 70kg kickboxing tournament. Here’s a quick look at the line up:
Phetmorakot Petchyindee Academy
This writer doesn’t follow the Muay Thai scene outside of the obvious names, unless a fight comes on high recommendation, and has been struggling to keep up with kickboxing over recent years with the abundance of MMA events to steal a fight fan’s attention. But I imagine that I am in the same position as a lot of my readers when they look at that line up. Yod versus Petrosyan: that is all I want. But that isn’t what we’re getting just yet, instead we have:
Giorgio Petrosyan vs Phetmorakot
Sasha Moisa vs Jo Nattawut
Yodsanklai Fairtex vs Samy Sana
Dzhabar Askerov vs Enriko Kehl
Meaning that Yod and Petro both have to win two fights before we get to see them against each other in the final of the tournament. Knowing Yod and Giorgio, and having a degree of familiarity with the other fighters in the tournament, that shouldn’t be too difficult. But of course you can’t actually book a tournament final in advance because tournaments are run on sod’s law, and sod’s law says someone gets upset before we get that fight.
Yodsanklai is in the interesting position of having already fought and beaten everyone in his bracket. He met Samy Sana back in 2013, in a fight where he looked to be a little irritated by Sana’s height and reach early, but soon found his confidence and was mercilessly beating Sana up along the ropes in the final round.
Particularly effective in this bout were Yod’s left straight to the body and left straight to the head. The classic southpaw double attack of left round kick and left straight was on full display, but Yod also had good success stepping deep and sliding a left upward elbow straight down the centre of Sana’s guard. In one instance he did this by performing a slight change of levels as he extended his stance—as if to hit the body with the left straight again—then stood up into the left elbow.
Yod’s fights against Dzhabar Askerov and Enriko Kehl are a little closer to what you would consider a standard Yodsanklai performance. Askerov in fact seemed very reluctant to lead against Yod, and Yod set himself up at that perfect range where he could uncork the left kick whenever he wanted but was always in position to sway just back from his man’s punches. There are Nak Muay whose styles don’t adjust well to kickboxing—those who can’t get over the shorter duration of the fights and the need for a faster start, those who specialise in clinch work—but Yod’s brilliant boxing has made him competent under pretty much any rule set you offer him. Kehl actually did a very good job of putting the fight on Yod, but lost out on the scorecards seemingly due to Yod’s more meaningful connections.
If you have never watched Yodsanklai before that’s really all you need to know for now. Beautiful distance control, a left round kick that is thrown brutally hard and with no hesitation, and lovely boxing fundamentals. In fact, his four ounce glove debut was one of the most enjoyable things the fight game has done this year. Another small note would be Yod’s lead hand (right) uppercut. This is a look you won’t see a lot in kickboxing and traditional Muay Thai but he uses it as both a shorter range upward jackhammer, and straighten it out into a Naseem Hamed type corkscrew uppercut at range. John Wayne Parr had a hell of a time with this weapon in particular. In the bout between Yod and Sana, expect Yod to abuse that left straight to the body and chest—because of Sana’s height and lengthy midsection—and for Yod to pile on the pressure to frustrate Sana again.
Giorgio Petrosyan is a man on whom I have already written volumes at Fightland, Vice Sports, and even back at Bleacher Report because he has been making top notch fighters look bad for a long time now. He has never been a big knockout artist but that comes down to him not pushing his advantages as much as he perhaps should, it’s not for lack of chinning opponents with clean blows. That’s the thing about being a defensive genius and a terrific counter puncher—you’re always aware of the openings you’re leaving. But as a technician, and a study of footwork in kickboxing, Petrosyan is second to none.
While Petrosyan has slips, pulls, weaves, dips, and every other defensive look you could ask for, there are a few interesting principles at work whenever he fights that go beyond these single defensive movements. The first the idea of turning his opponent. Sometimes this will be by firing a couple of punches and performing a hopping shift out into another stance:
Other times it will be by using his pivot to turn himself outside of his opponent’s lead leg. On the one hand this allows Petrosyan to control his ring position. You have to get up pretty early in the morning to catch Petrosyan on the ropes.
But the pivot works to create openings on orthodox fighters and you will be surprised how many of his opponents will pivot to face Petrosyan and immediately get kicked in the liver. Just forcing a little bit of movement can create cracks in the tightest of guards. Here Petrosyan turns Albert Krauss and hammers his rear leg with a low kick. But he’ll just as often turn his man and then step straight up the centre with a left knee—probably his best hurting shot.
The easiest piece of Petrosyan’s game to miss, however, is his constant pushing of his opponent. This is illegal in boxing, but completely permissable in kickboxing and Petrosyan uses it relentlessly. The secret to evading counter punches is to get out of range after all. Normally that is done by retreating or sliding out the side door and moving yourself out of the opponent’s reach. But it works the opposite way as well: Petrosyan moves his opponent away from him immediately after scoring with his knees or combinations.
Interestingly, Petrosyan’s last couple of fights have shown a more aggressive style. Petro has always stepped things up a little bit when taking on less notable fighters in small Italian promotions, but it always looked like something he was less than comfortable doing. But anyone who saw Petrosyan fight for the first time in his ONE debut could easily have been convinced that his whole game was offence: he moved forward from the opening bell, clipping off combinations, evading returns and trying to land good counters. There wasn’t as much dancing around the ring and looking like a matador but he still managed to evade almost all damage from his opponent. If Petrosyan can begin to apply that sort of style consistently while keeping his head defensively, I would expect to see some finishes and knockdowns against top level competition from the man known as a decision machine.
One interesting aspect of this card is that Petrosyan’s opponent is Phetmorakot Petchyindee Academy—who ONE have been billing as Petchmorrakot. Petrosyan and Petchmorrakot have never met in the ring before and he is by no means a joke.
While Petchmorrakot’s appearances in ONE haven’t blown many fans away, he holds one extremely notable win from the Rajadmnern Stadium: Petchmorrakot is the last man to have defeated the great Saenchai. If you haven’t seen that fight I highly recommend it because it was an absolute barn burner and Petchmorrakot did an excellent job of bringing his height and length to lever over Saenchai while also remaining on the front foot the entire time.
Coming in behind faked teeps and stepping down into slick one-twos, Petchmorrakot was able to keep pressing into the buffer zone that Saenchai likes to counter kick from. Saenchai was kept on the back foot and couldn’t get away from Petchmorrakot’s jab. Soon Petchmorrakot began scoring good knees and elbows in the long clinch—where I am told he does his best work in most of his Muay Thai rules matches. Saenchai fought valiantly but much of the later rounds was Saenchai seeking the clinch to pause the relentless forward movement and volume striking of Petchmorrakot.
In ONE it also seems as though the close range game is Petchmorrakot’s speciality. In the first round of his fight with the shorter Liam Harrison, Petchmorrakot came off worse in the long distance kickboxing exchanges as Harrison counter punched and kicked beautifully. In the second round Petchmorrakot immediately marched after his man, chasing knees and elbows and soon put Harrison down for the count.
Similarly against Fabrice Delannon, Petchmorrakot had his best success by moving in to crowd his man, and ultimately won off a cut caused by this marching elbow.
Petchmorrakot is a long, gangly southpaw and, as evidenced in his fight with Saenchai, can do good work with his straight hitting and teeps—but most of his success in ONE has come from techniques that might not even be legal in this tournament. I’m struggling to nail down the actual rules—because in the course of researching the participants I have seen them in ONE bouts with full Thai rules in kickboxing gloves, in ONE kickboxing bouts that allow limited clinchwork, in ONE kickboxing bouts that allow elbows but no clinch work, and in K-1 rules style bouts.
A final note from this card is Christian Lee’s bout against Shinya Aoki. Christian, being the brother of Angela Lee and a Singaporean representative of Team Evolve, is a company favourite. There is no denying that Lee is exceptionally talented and exciting to watch. ONE recently put up a full fifty minute video of all his victories in the company and it makes for riveting viewing.
In going through those fights you will notice that Lee is excellent at tying up off his wild kicks and punches, and this leads him into clinches with opponents who are off balance, allowing him to drive right through them or pick them up for slams (as Kotetsu Boku and a couple of others have found out). His ground game is creative and scramble heavy, his pace is relentless, and as a tall fighter for his class Lee does especially well with his front headlock game—he has finished opponents with anacondas, D’arces, and even that seated arm triangle that Jack Hermansson is making famous. Lee is gangly enough that he, like Brian Ortega, can punch through to the anaconda grip while he and his opponent are still on their feet and will actually knee his opponent from there. Additionally, knees to the head of a grounded opponent are legal in ONE and Christian Lee might be the best fighter to watch if you want to be reminded of just how much we’re missing out on under the Unified Rules. But he is also one of the most frequent fence grabbers I have ever seen and I have never seen him warned for it in ONE.
Something that really stood out in Lee’s losses to Martin Nguyen was that he has that all-rounders curse: when everything is working he looks unbelievably varied and effective, but when one thing stops working everything else suffers too. When he lost his confidence striking with Nguyen he was suddenly attempting long, laboured shots which just didn’t work nearly as well as his berserker rushes straight through flustered opponents. Additionally, Lee’s habit of keeping his head high in the air made him an easy mark for Nguyen’s overhands and shifting overhands in their first fight. When the second fight came, Lee was lower in his stance and a bit less vulnerable to this blow.
While he went the distance in a five rounder with Nguyen in their rematch, he is most assuredly a strong starter who slows down as a fight progresses. This is especially interesting because ONE have thrown him into a title fight with perhaps the only greater front runner than him in the entire organisation, Shinya Aoki. You have to go back to 2013 to see Aoki’s last win after the end of the first round and it’s pretty obvious why. Aoki’s success hinges on surprising opponents with his strength and ability on the ground, and he uses a good deal of effort in doing so—always pursuing the finish as early as it is possible. Survive for a round or two, as Eduard Foylang did in their first fight, and suddenly Aoki’s lack of set ups for his takedowns and completely non-existent striking game become the hindrance they always were on paper.
Aoki’s last couple have been great fun from a pure grappling perspective. Those who remember Aoki’s Shooto days will remember that he took the Shooto middleweight title from Akira Kikuchi and in his pair of matches with Kikuchi, Aoki played an overhook guard on Kikuchi for lengthy periods, while Kikuchi was standing upright along the ropes. In Aoki’s 2018 return to ONE following the Askren loss, the grandmaster of flying submissions demonstrated much the same idea against Rasul Yakhyaev. Typically against a grappler, if you get the underhooks and push them to the fence in a clinch, you’re largely safe from their takedown attempts. Aoki didn’t try to take Rasul down, he jumped and threw up an omaplata on the overhooked arm and used it to sweep into top position.
And Aoki’s passing has always a staple of his success—there are very few men who can prevent him from systematically smashing his way to mount. Below Aoki shows an old B.J. Penn favourite from the butterfly half guard—his right leg grapevines the bottom man’s trapping leg and extends it, keeping the bottom man on his back and unable to sweep effectively with his butterfly hook. Aoki then pushes down on the butterfly hook and steps directly over it to mount the legs.
Shinya Aoki’s days at the top of the sport are long gone, and he is now considered one of the top 100 rather than top 10 fighters in the world at his weight, but as a one trick pony he is still as interesting and dangerous as any that ever competed. Christian Lee genuinely has potential as a modern all around mixed martial artist and this fight gives him the opportunity to test himself against an old time top-level guy, with the added bonus of a good shot at some silverware. Perhaps he will inspire some children to become doctors in the process.