Kickboxing has been having something of a rebirth in Japan over the last few years. The birthplace of K-1 has been slowly returning to the sport with a new wave of spectacular Japanese kickboxers to replace the heavyweight heroes of K-1’s best days. Then there are the lesser Japanese kickboxing organizations like RISE and KNOCK OUT that continue to sell out smaller venues. But the curveball for old time kickboxing fans has been the explosion of interest in China. Kunlun Fight began promoting in 2014 and has hosted many of the best kickboxers in the world. Most recently Glory of Heroes—with their eight sided ring—have put on over 30 events in the space of a couple of years.
Where Kunlun Fight used to be willing to put the attention on novelty acts like the “Shaolin Monk” Yi Long, a decent crop of Chinese kickboxers is now running amuck on the world stage and chief among them is Qiu Jianliang. Jianlang was ranked by LiverKick as the number four featherweight in the world on their last round of rankings back in March, and Combat Press has him at number one in the October 2018 rankings, also including him in their pound-for-pound top ten. There’s a good chance you have heard of some of the featherweights ranked below him such as Robin van Roosmalen and Masaaki Noiri, and yet Qiu Jianliang seems largely unknown even in the niche world of kickboxing. That seems pretty unfair as he is a man who routinely delivers the most spectacular kind of violence, so let us familiarize ourselves with the style of Zhengzhou’s 147-pound "Tank."
Jianliang fights something like the protagonist of a kickboxing anime; all Spike Spiegel wheel kicks and Ippo Makunouchi head movement. Jianliang is known as “Tank” because of his stocky build and terrific strength and if you watch one of the few matches where Jianliang’s opponent doesn’t have some height and reach on him, you will be able to see him simply ragdoll his man. Every inside low kick he hit against Yukihiro Komiya or Sudsakorn had them falling out into the splits and lowering their head onto his uppercut, and every flurry of blows saw them covering ineffectively and swaying back into the ropes like a man in the rigging.
When you cut away the flash, Jianliang is somewhat reminiscent of the Nak Muay turned boxing great, Khaosai Galaxy. He’s a stocky, powerful guy who hits hard in ones and twos, and grinds his man down or turns them passive with the threat of his power. But other times he is more like Alexander Shlemenko, the Bellator old timer who got so famous for spinning techniques that he basically eschewed everything else. Attempting a wheel kick might catch a fighter by surprise, attempting a second when the first fails might catch him laughing about the missed wheel kick. A third wheel kick? Well that’s just the kind of fighter Qiu Jianliang is, for better or worse.
In recent years, Jianliang has actually added some very interesting quirks to his game. We likened him to the protagonist of Hajime no Ippo, but Jianliang might be the only person you will see in high level kickboxing laterally weaving his way in.
It is certainly a confusing look for the kickboxers he fights because bobbing and weaving is not really a part of the kickboxing game to any real degree. The threat of kicks and knees is supposed to make it a high risk/low reward tactic. Yet Jianliang is out there using lateral steps and ducking under returns like it’s no big deal.
In living up to his "Tank" nickname, Jianliang does a lot of walking his opponents down even if they have some size on him. Combining these little lateral steps with a high guard, Jianliang draws and anticipates kicks, then times his own cut kick on the standing leg. While these aren’t devastating strikes, the opponent falling to the mat certainly doesn’t hurt in the eyes of the judges and counter kicks into the standing leg are a great way to put an opponent off kicking as often as they might like.
Jianliang is also a big fan of throwing the right kick immediately off the right straight. Using the right hand to square the shoulders and hips can result in a loss of force, compared to a kick straight out of the stance with the arms fully employed in counterbalancing the motion, but the right straight often draws a defensive reaction from the opponent and hides the kick well. Typically this is less common among Muay Thai purists and more common among traditional martial artists. The simple right straight to the body into the right high kick, so that the knee almost goes over the arm, is spazzy to look at but a Jianliang staple.
I long for the day that we see more fighters with the flexibility and dexterity to do the Anthony Pettis overhead kick, but Jianliang’s ugly, effective effort is close enough.
Generally, Jianliang’s best work comes along the ropes. Mauling in those short infighting combinations, Jianliang will punish the body and then spin out of the clinch.
This is where the tremendous strength of Tank can be seen best. He whips his kick around with such force that he can often knock an opponent down by hitting them on the arm. This kick against Yukihiro was ruled to not be a knockdown because it basically threw Yukihiro off his feet when it hit his guard.
In his recent fights, Jianliang seems to have been hitting the books: his fight IQ is looking substantially higher than just a couple of years ago. Against taller opponents he will now take the pressure off momentarily and draw them forward onto counter right hands before returning to the infight. Against the top ten ranked Kaew Weerasakreck, Jianliang was able to balance aggression and evasion, flash and function, and take a clean decision. Perhaps the best example of a surprisingly sharp fighting mind to leave you with is Qiu’s knockout of the respected Kem Sitsongpeenong. Jianliang got to the inside with the taller fighter and landed a shot to the liver that made the crowd gasp. As the two broke from the clinch, Sitsongpeenong played it off well, but Jianliang drove in from long range with a back kick to the body—something he very rarely does—finding the exact same spot and earning the knockout.
Qiu Jianliang is another one of those fighters who is somewhat obscured not only by being involved in a niche combat sport, but also by a different culture and time zone. If you want to keep up with what he is doing you are going to need to find publications with their ear to the ground on the Chinese kickboxing scene, or simply give his name a search once in a while on YouTube. But on a slow week, or simply a night when you have the bloodlust but there are no good fights on, remembering Jianliang’s name will reward you with some spectacular and unique knockouts.
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.