For as long as Thanh Le has been a mixed martial artist, his goal has been to eventually reach the Ultimate Fighting Championship. In that pursuit, he followed a path that often leads to a deal with the promotion. However, a few offers for short-notice bouts were as close as Le came to securing an opportunity inside the Octagon. It appears to have worked out for the best, as the Vietnamese-American fighter has found a home with One Championship.
“Really, I couldn’t be happier,” Le told Sherdog.com. “I’m just ecstatic it turned out like this. Maybe [joining One Championship] wasn’t my original plan, but the way it’s [happened], I’m extremely happy.”
After losing his professional debut in 2013, Le rung up eight straight victories. During that hot streak, he made a concerted effort to draw the attention of UFC decision makers. This included competing on Season 22 of “The Ultimate Fighter” -- he submitted to a Martin Svensson rear-naked choke in the opening round of the competition -- and a 2017 appearance on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series. He knocked out Lazar Stojadinovic with a second-round head kick, but the UFC offered the Moon College Taekwondo export something less guaranteed.
“I was called for a couple of last-minute fights,” Le said. “The timing of the situations didn’t work out.”
He received the first of those opportunities in 2015, not long after his appearance on “The Ultimate Fighter.” Although he was in fighting shape, Le was too far away from the featherweight limit to make weight in time. The following year, he was offered another short-notice bout at UFC Fight Night 87 in Holland. However, his passport had expired and he could not renew it in time.
At the height of his success, Le captured the interim Legacy Fighting Alliance featherweight championship at LFA 31. Nevertheless, his technical knockout of Bobby Moffett did not result in a call from the UFC. The Professional Fighters League contacted Le about joining the promotion for its first season, but he passed on the offer and instead fought Kevin Aguilar four months later in a battle to unify the LFA featherweight crown. He lost by knockout in the first round.
Le understood the loss likely closed the book on landing a deal with the UFC, at least for the time being. However, another door opened: He was offered a multi-fight contract with One Championship, the top MMA promotion in Asia. The experience has taught Le much about the sport and the idea that there are many elements involved over which the athlete has no control.
“It’s not like graduating high school with [a certain] GPA and [you can] get this scholarship and go to this school,” Le said. “It’s based on judgments, the fans’ views and the UFC’s views and perception. Things play out for a reason, [and] I am really happy where I’m at now.”
When One Championship called, Le was enthusiastic about signing because of the key differences between the Singapore-based organization and the UFC. The Louisiana native always wanted to compete inside the Octagon, but there are facets to the promotion with which he disagrees, specifically related to how it books and promotes fights.
“One stood out because of the way they handle their business [and] the way they approach martial arts in general,” Le said. “I think [the people who run One Championship] do a really good job of working fighters up the rankings and giving fighters fights that they deserve. You don’t see guys talking a lot of crap and talking their way into fights. I can’t talk my way into a title shot, and I think that’s wonderful.”
Le’s father shares his views.
“He’s not a huge fan of [trash talk], and neither am I,” he said. “He’s happy that this organization is so focused on the martial arts of [MMA] and less on the show. I think it’s awesome.”
Le made his promotional debut at One Championship “For Honor” on May 3. A fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo, he was matched with Dagestani grappler Yusup Saadulaev, who at 16-5 was viewed as a legitimate test. The Absolute Championship Berkut veteran tested Le’s ground skills in the first round. Despite being grounded for a significant portion of the period, Le managed to keep his counterpart at bay and avoided becoming Saadulaev’s 12th submission victim.
“He definitely controlled that second half of the round but really couldn’t do much as far as damage and submissions,” Le said. “I was pleased with that, and it kind of gave me a boost in confidence.”
Le rode that confidence into the second round and, at the urging of his father and brother, came out with more aggression. He grazed Saadulaev with a head kick 10 seconds into the stanza, and although the strike did not land flush, Le knew “Maestro” was wary of the close call and would soon shoot for a takedown. He did so mere seconds later and ran into a perfectly timed kick from Le, who drove his knee into the Dagestani’s face. The impact instantly knocked out Saadulaev.
“After that big toe touched his head, I knew something was going to come,” Le said, “so I wanted to fake high and go to the body, and he ended up taking a shot at the same time.”
Le’s father and sensei had always taught him to throw his roundhouse kicks in a straight line. Those lifelong teachings paid serious dividends.
“[Straight] up the middle,” Le said. “That’s why we kick like that, so when some s--- like that goes down, we can intercept that straight line.”
A successful debut in One Championship has re-energized the 34-year-old.
“This last fight with One has been phenomenal,” he said. “It’s opened my eyes to how an organization can be run and treat their fighters.”
After taking a long overdue honeymoon with his wife of three years in Bali, Indonesia, Le wants to get back in the cage as soon as possible. He has his eyes set on the organization’s September event in Vietnam. For the son of a Vietnamese immigrant, he would take pride in performing in the nation of his father’s birth: “I think that would just be amazing.”