SAN JOSE, Calif. – For more than a decade, there has been speculation regarding what would happen if Cung Le, the longtime American face of San Shou, a Chinese martial art, ever stepped foot into the UFC Octagon.
For a number of reasons, it appeared unlikely to ever happen. But on Saturday night, at the age of 39, Le (7-1), now a martial arts movie actor, debuts in UFC to face one of the legends of mixed martial arts, Brazil’s Wanderlei Silva (33-11-1, 1 no contest). The fight is the co-main event at UFC 139 at the HP Pavilion, the site of the biggest fights of his career.
When the match starts, the arena will likely have a different atmosphere than has ever been seen in the UFC. Le has a strong local following, both from among the Vietnamese community, who wave flags during his fights and those who simply have followed his career since his spectacular style made him the star of local kickboxing shows in the city dating back 13 years.
"It’s awesome, it’s like full circle," said Le. "I had my first MMA fight in San Jose and now I have my first UFC fight in San Jose. But there’s a lot more distractions because all your old friends from high school, junior high, they’re definitely hitting you up for a ticket for free. But I’m excited to fight in San Jose."
Long before Scott Coker and Strikeforce became synonymous with being the biggest rivals to UFC on the U.S. scene, Le was the big star for Coker’s kickboxing shows at smaller local arenas, which aired for years as filler programming on ESPN 2.
The early days of Strikeforce was the Cung Le show. Fighting under his specialty San Shou rules, a sport that combines kickboxing with wrestling takedowns, not only did he always win, given he was the expert at this style, but his fights looked more like martial arts movie highlight reels than kickboxing bouts.
Le’s matches featured spinning and flying kicks, one after the other, coming from every angle. It’s the kind of stuff fight fans knowingly talk about how it doesn’t work in real life. Except in his case it did. The Cung Le Show of old also included spectacular arrays of wrestling, with high slams, suplexes and his trademark, the flying scissors takedowns, which he would throw time after time against kickboxers with no wrestling experience.
Given his look, and even his name, most figured Le was a child prodigy who learned crazy kicks from all angles in a dojo. But that wasn’t the case.
"When I was ten years old, I was getting beaten up because I was small and a target for bullies," said Le, who endured problems growing up because he and his family were refugees from South Vietnam, escaping just days before the fall of Saigon in 1975.
"We escaped when they were shooting, escaped by helicopter, spent time in the Philippines before finding a sponsor and moving to Monterey [California] before ending up in San Jose," he said.
"My mom put me in Tae Kwon Do," he said. "But she was working two, sometimes three jobs, and it was hard to find the time for her to get me to class. So I didn’t get enough time to get promoted to higher belts. So I started wrestling from seventh grade until my second year of college."
He did well in wrestling, being one of the best high school wrestlers in the state, and achieved state championship and All-American status at the junior college level at West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif.
After college, Le returned to Tae Kwon Do, and then found San Shou, where his takedown game from wrestling came in handy. He started winning championships in martial arts like Kung Fu, Shidokan Karate and Draka, a Russian fighting style with rules similar to San Shou.
Le’s skill set was perfect for the rules he was fighting. He faced mostly strikers, and his unique kicking style allowed him to come at them with moves and angles they weren’t used to defending, and that would open them up for takedowns. And if he faced someone who could challenge him standing, in those days the kickboxers he faced had little wrestling, so he could throw them around with spectacular moves.
In the late 90s, when Le was at his physical prime, the current sport of MMA wasn’t even allowed in California. Most in the sport were either good strikers trying to learn wrestling and jiu-jitsu, or wrestlers and jiu-jitsu stylists trying to learn the basics of striking. With Le being someone who was skilled with his hands, feet and physically strong and with good wrestling, his skill set was well ahead of most in those primitive days of MMA. But MMA wasn’t legal where he was popular, and he was busy promoting his own style, coaching the U.S. national team, and teaching kids at his gym.
Whether Le could have been an MMA champion in the late 1990s is an unknown, but he’d have undoubtedly been one of the most popular fighters in the country if afforded the kind of national exposure modern fighters get, just based on his entertaining style.
It wasn’t until 2005 when Le started training in MMA, after being talked into it on the advice of noted trainer Javier Mendez, as California had just agreed to legalize and regulate it.
"He told me it was about to take off," remembered Le.
From the start, Le could strike with anyone, and he could throw people around, but he was a beginner in the submission game. At San Jose’s American Kickboxing Academy gym, he got a crash course in armbars and triangles. He’s used his wrestling to keep most of his fights standing, and has yet to be taken down, as those who have wanted to do so have either failed miserably, or been unable to get close enough because the kicks keep them too far out.
[ Related: Who will win at UFC 139? See our staff picks ]
Coker switched from promoting kickboxing to MMA, and Le and Shamrock became his local drawing cards, ultimately leading to their fight on March 29, 2008. In the high point of Le’s fighting career, he captured the Strikeforce middleweight title with a win at the end of the third round.
His hard kicks broke Shamrock’s arm in the second round, and destroyed the arm even worse in the third.
But he’s only fought twice since then, the last being 17 months ago. Le has moved to acting, figuring that to be his future. He’s appeared in eight movies in the past three-and-a-half years, most notably "Pandorum" and "Tekken." He notes that Silva is going to face a "Tekken" style offense on Saturday. Le has worked alongside people like Russell Crowe and Lucy Liu.
Acting had seemingly become his priority, as he vacated the Strikeforce title because he couldn’t devote the time to defend it.
UFC had long been aware of Le. As a frequent martial arts magazine cover star, Le was always at the top of the list of traditional martial arts stars people would speculate about as to what would happen if they tried to cross over to the UFC. But he was under a fighting contract to Strikeforce dating back to 1998.
Even with the long-term change in career plans, a bout in the UFC was something Le couldn’t pass up.
"I figured I would just end my career with Scott Coker and Strikeforce, but when UFC bought it, I was excited, and there was an opportunity for me to be able to fight for UFC. And then it happened."
Given his age and his Hollywood commitments, one has to ask whether Le’s UFC opportunity came too late. Le noted that after suffering his only career loss to Scott Smith in Dec. 2009, a fight he dominated until Smith won in one of the great comeback knockouts of all-time, he’s taken training very seriously. Le came back and avenged that loss in impressive fashion in his last bout, in June 2010. "People ask me if this is going to be my last fight," he said. "If I thought it was, I would have signed a one-fight contract. I signed a six-fight contract. I’m taking them one at a time, but if all goes well I’m looking at making that decision after finishing the contract."
Saturday’s bout doesn’t figure to spend much time on the ground. Silva, one of the sport’s biggest stars from 1999-2007, including five-and-a-half years as the PRIDE 205-pound champion, made his reputation for being as aggressive as any striker in the sport.
But Silva has lost six of his last eight fights, and is likely fighting to stay in the UFC. Silva’s offense hasn’t slowed down much, but his chin is suspect, particularly after going down in just 27 seconds to Chris Leben in his most recent fight on July 2. At 35, he’s younger than Le, but appears to have considerably more mileage on him.
Silva has never faced anyone with Le’s style, nor has anyone in UFC, because he’s like nobody else in the sport. Because of that, he’s difficult to train for.
"He is a really good fighter," said Silva. "I saw his fights. I study his tapes and it’s so hard to find some guys to fight like him. But we’ll bring in some guys from Tae Kwon Do, from all the other martial arts and try to make a game plan for the fight with him."
As for Le, he’s just trying to enjoy the moment.
"I’m not thinking about the future, just enjoying this moment of fighting in the UFC," he said. "After my last fight, I got put on hold for a while with fighting even though I wanted to fight right away. I got busy with movies, but then I had the chance to fight in the UFC. Everything happens for a reason. I could have hung up my gloves and done movies, but I am a fighter first and an actor second."
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