A few times a year for the past decade, a live action movie fight scene comes to San Jose, Calif. Unlike in the movies, however, this scene is done in one take. And unlike a staged fight, it only looks choreographed.
It's known as "The Cung Le Show." Le, for those unfamiliar with the Strikeforce promotion, is a human highlight reel of mixed martial arts. Le proves that those flashy spinning kicks that you see in the movies really work when he's inside the cage. At 4-0, with three spectacular knockouts and one blood stoppage win that lasted 43 seconds, he is the sport's closest thing to a hometown superstar. He's also the prime reason that Strikeforce, from a live attendance perspective, is the second most successful MMA promotion in the country, trailing only the UFC.
In his last fight, on June 22, at the HP Pavilion on the combined Strikeforce/Elite XC pay-per-view show, the rest of the country got to see "The Cung Le Show." It starts with thousands of fans waving Vietnamese flags, and chanting the trademark "Ush!" The fight begins with a smorgasbord of kicks with a few punches thrown in. Tony Fryklund, a veteran fighter, tried to take Le out of his game by going to the ground, but got nowhere.
A decade ago, Le was the king of San Shou, a Chinese sport that combines kickboxing with takedowns. A takedown scores points, and the two fighters get up and start a standing fight again. Le has never lost in San Jose. He's either steamrolled people standing up – when he faced kickboxers he would take them out with flying scissors takedowns to their knees – or he has thrown them in every direction with Greco-Roman and pro wrestling moves.
The pay-per-view audience was largely amazed, including some in Hollywood. His performance against Fryklund led to a role in the just completed movie, "Fighting," his second film, and a management deal with the Gersch agency, which also handles former UFC superstar Randy Couture. But there were also skeptics, who pointed out that he used techniques that aren't supposed to work in a caged fight.
Le considers the criticism of his fighting style looking like a choreographed movie as a compliment. There are legitimate questions as to what happens when Le faces a great stand-up fighter, or a wrestler good enough to take him to the ground, a place he's never been in a professional fight. While most viewers thought he was a young fighter with plenty of potential, he's actually 35, but with just two years of MMA experience after retiring from San Shou. As long as he doesn't stumble against Sam Morgan on Friday, he has ample opportunity to quiet his critics next year.
He readily admits his weakness is on the ground.
"If I was to fight myself, the first thing I'd do is try and take it to the ground," he said.
But getting there isn't as easy as it sounds. In four fights, nobody has come close, and before long, every opponent had given up trying. Le came from a strong wrestling background, placing fourth in the nation in Greco-Roman at the Espoir (teenage) nationals in 1991, along with winning the AAU freestyle and Greco-Roman junior (high school age) nationals. He was a state junior college champion at West Valley (Calif.) College. Because San Shou involved takedowns and blocking takedowns, he never stopped his wrestling training. And a trademark of his San Shou fights were flashy flying scissors takedowns, and overhead suplexes.
Former UFC fighter Sam Morgan (19-8) is the supporting player in Friday night's main event of an eight-fight show that will be livestreamed on Yahoo! Sports starting at 11 p.m. ET. Morgan is good enough standing to have a knockout win over Duane "Bang" Ludwig, one of the country's best kickboxers. But he is coming off losses to Josh Burkman and Forrest Petz in UFC competition.
Le, who weighed in at 181 pounds, to 177 3/4 for Morgan, bristles at the criticism regarding his opponents, noting that he wanted to face Frank Shamrock on this show. Shamrock has verbally agreed to fight Le in mid-to-late 2008, but wants Le to get more of a national name first, to make the match viable on pay-per-view. The match would likely be box office gold in San Jose, where the two were the top draws, against separate opponents, for what is still the North American record for paid attendance (17,465 out of a sellout 18,265 fans) for an MMA event set on March 10, 2005 at the HP Pavilion.
If Le gets by Morgan, Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker has talked about Le vs. Phil Baroni for the next show on March 29, with the winner facing Shamrock later in the year for the company's middleweight title.
"I don't want to think about anything but Morgan right now," Le said.
At Thursday night's weigh-ins, the four middleweight competitors drew numbers, and in that order, they put their names on a large billboard that showed blank bracketing.
Yuki Sasaki (21-13-1), a star from Pancrase in Japan, drew the first number. Sasaki's participation in the tournament, however, is up in the air, as there is a neurological issue that has to be cleared in the hours before the show. Promoter Scott Coker said if Sasaki is out, he would be replaced by Dennis Hallman (37-12-2), whose claim to fame is getting two submissions wins in less than 21 seconds, one in 1998 and the other in 2000, both over legend Matt Hughes.
Jorge Santiago (14-7), coming off wins over Andrei Semenov and Jeremy Horn, drew No. 2, and put his name next to Sasaki.
By default, this made the other first-round match between tournament favorite Trevor Prangley (16-4), the current Bodog middleweight champion, and Falaniko Vitale (24-7), who holds wins over ranked stars Yushin Okami and Matt Lindland.
If Sasaki is cleared, Hallman faces Sean Salmon (14-4). This is Salmon's ninth fight of the year. Salmon would likely want to erase the most well-known moment of his career, being on the wrong end of a knockout kick from Rashad Evans on the Jan. 25 Ultimate Fight Night TV special. Hallman-Salmon is scheduled as a preshow match beginning at 6:15 p.m. ET. If either winner of the first round matches is injured, the Hallman-Salmon (or Salmon-Jeremiah Metcalf) winner will go into the tournament final.
All tournament matches will be two five-minute rounds. If the fighters split rounds and the judges rule it a draw, the fight will officially be called a draw. However, the referee will then become the tie-breaker judge and pick who advances to the finals.
The other headline match will crown Strikeforce's first heavyweight champion. Paul Buentello (23-9), will battle international star Alistair Overeem (25-11) of the Netherlands in a five-round fight. Buentello, who came in at 250 pounds, is 10-1 over the past four years. In the past year, he has knockout wins over Carter Williams and Tank Abbott. His only loss was a UFC heavyweight championship match with Andrei Arlovski that ended in a one-punch knockout.
Overeem, who at a muscular 6-foot-5, still can cut to 205, was one of the top light heavyweights in the world when fighting for the Pride organization in Japan. He's 2-5 of late, but the losses have all been to major name fighters – Fabricio Werdum and Sergey Kharitonov at heavyweight and Maurcio "Shogun" Rua, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Ricardo Arona, at light heavyweight. He came in at 224 pounds, and will have a reach advantage, but Overeem's stamina has been his biggest problem. Overeem is the master of the guillotine submission. He would appear to have more physical tools, but that might be a moot point if Buentello can get the match to Round 2 or 3.
THREE OTHER MATCHES
There are three other matches on the livesteam.
• A lightweight battle of former kickboxing champions who are making their pro MMA debuts pits Brian "The Stork" Schwartz, who is 6-3 and 167 pounds, against Lemont Davis, at 171 3/4 pounds. Schwartz has never fought MMA before after specializing in full-contact kickboxing, which means no low kicks, where he was at one-time an ISKA world champion.
Davis, who has fought amateur MMA and is considered the stronger of the two if it goes to the ground, recently fought in Chuck Norris' World Combat League, a kickboxing team promotion.
• Bobby Southworth (8-4), infamous for being one of the villains on the first season of "The Ultimate Fighter", faces Anthony Ruiz (17-10). Southworth is the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, but this is a three-round non-title match. The current plan is for Southworth to defend his title on March 29th against Renato "Babalu" Sobral. Both men weighed in at 204 pounds.
• Luke Stewart (4-0), a San Francisco based fighter and Ralph Gracie black belt, faces Bryson Kamaka (5-8), a Hawaiian based stand-up fighter. Stewart weighed in at 171 to 169 for Kamaka.