Cung Le balances fighting with a burgeoning acting career. | Photo: Dave Mandel
Cung Le has carved out quite a name for himself in martial arts.
It started with his San Shou career, during which he won the International Kickboxing Federation light heavyweight championship in the discipline and compiled a 16-0 kickboxing record over a seven-year period. Le has made a mark in the mixed martial arts world, as well, despite only eight professional appearances to his credit.
The former Strikeforce middleweight champion vacated his title to pursue opportunities in acting, but Le decided he could not delve deeper into a career on the big screen without at least trying to see how far he could go at the highest level of mixed martial arts.
“I’m a fighter first,” Le says. “The opportunity to fight in the UFC -- that’s like a dream come true.”
Javier Mendez, head trainer at the American Kickboxing Academy, recalls having the conversation with Le.
“He said something like, ‘I’ve done everything I’ve wanted to do in fighting, but I have never done one thing: I’ve never fought for the biggest organization in MMA and that’s the UFC, and I don’t know if I just want to drop my career in fighting without at least making an attempt to go to the biggest organization and see how far I can go,’” Mendez recalls. “He’s got movies lined up, but the heart of the fighter is still in him, and he wanted to fulfill that desire to see how far he could go.
“He doesn’t have to fight,” he adds. “He could just focus on his movies, but if you understand Cung Le, he’s a fighter in his heart and he doesn’t want to regret that, while he’s making his movies and being successful there, he didn’t fulfill his potential, and I understand it. And when he asked me the question, ‘What should I do?’ I said, ‘You need to try to get in the UFC, and if you can get in, fantastic, and if not, at least you tried and you can move on with your movies,’ because that’s already there for him.”
Le was originally scheduled to fight Vitor Belfort at UFC 139 on Saturday at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif., but “The Phenom” was scratched due to injury and replaced by Wanderlei Silva.
“I’m happy that the UFC was able to change my opponent and get Wanderlei Silva,” Le says. “I’m just as excited for Wanderlei as I would be for Vitor.”
Mendez describes Silva as having his back up against the wall. The former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder has lost six out of his last eight fights, and the AKA head believes he will get cut if he loses this fight. Mendez also thinks that if Le falters in his debut, his goal of trying to pursue the dream of a UFC title one day will be gone, too.
“Both of them are in the same situation where they can’t lose,” Mendez says. “Wanderlei, if he loses, he’s out. Cung Le, if he loses, then he’s got to restart and work his way back up, and he doesn’t have time to do that because he has too many movie projects that he’s put on the side. He’ll have to have another fight, and he doesn’t have that time allotted to him because he’s got too many projects that he’s put on hold for this.
“So, basically, he needs to be successful just like Wanderlei, who gets cut from the UFC [if he loses],” Mendez adds. “If he loses, Cung Le would have to drop to a lesser opponent and then work his way up to a title shot down the line. If Cung wins this fight, who knows? He may get another fight and then a title shot. Who knows what’s available for him, but if he loses, there’s just another UFC fight, and who knows after that.”
Mendez believes the fact that the two middleweights have so much at stake will lead to an exciting matchup and counsels viewers not to count either guy out.
“The people that are doubting Cung Le -- you should never doubt Cung Le, just like the people that are doubting Wanderlei should never doubt Wanderlei,” he says. “That guy’s a warrior when his back’s up against the wall, so expect a barnburner because they’re both coming out with something to prove, and I expect fireworks.”
Mendez emphasized Le’s desire to climb to the highest rungs of the UFC ladder.
“We fully expected to get somebody real tough right off the bat, and if we didn’t get somebody tough right off the bat, it would’ve been bad for us because we didn’t want to spend the time,” Mendez says. “We want the most compelling matches because that’s going to benefit him the most. He’s either going to crash and burn or he’s going to be successful, one or the other, but he’s going to at least give it his best shot. He’s ready to go out there and give it his best shot.
“If anyone follows Cung Le’s style, it’s climb to the top,” he adds. “He’s been there before, and you know he’ll be there again. He didn’t lose his title in Strikeforce; he let it go for the reason of movie offers coming in. Now’s the opportunity for him to seek the same thing he did in Strikeforce in the UFC. He’s a world-class caliber fighter, so he needs to have a world-class caliber opponent to fulfill what he needs to do. We can’t start from the bottom. We need to start from the very top.”
Despite all the talk about potential title shots from Mendez, it is worth noting that Le’s focus does not seem to extend beyond his showdown with “The Axe Murderer,” especially when asked about what his long-term career goals were and how long he plans on fighting. Le, who will turn 40 in May, describes himself as fortunate to have opportunities in fighting and acting, and he works hard to juggle both pursuits in addition to spending time with his family.
“Everything I do I try to do at 185 percent. If I’m doing one thing, I do it to the best of my abilities, and when I change up and I do something else, I try to do that to best of my abilities,” Le says. “I try not to spread myself out too thin. Right now, with my role in the movies -- if I’m doing a movie -- I’m definitely not training for a fight at the same time. It’s definitely one day at a time right now. I think I’m definitely growing as an actor and my parts are getting bigger and I’m getting recognized by a lot more high-profile producers and directors.
“I’m 39 now, and I’m happy that I’m able to fight at a high level right now,” he adds. “[I am going to] take it one fight at a time. I can’t look too far forward. It’s one fight at a time right now.”
Le will star in the film “Dragon Eyes,” alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme. The movie, slated for an April 2012 release, will have an MMA theme.
“I got a chance to choreograph and be in charge of all the fights, and I feel very proud to be a part of ‘Dragon Eyes’ and be the lead with Jean-Claude Van Damme and really put my style in this movie and choreograph all the fights,” Le says, “so it’s going to be exciting when that movie comes out.”
However, Le’s movie career has been put on hold during his training camp, and he describes his time at AKA as “very, very hard” due to training with so many top quality fighters, including former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal. He sees the hard work as worthwhile, and though he declined to delve into specifics on strategy, it is clear that Le’s strengths lie in his kickboxing and often-overlooked wrestling skills.
“People don’t understand how good of a wrestler he is until they get in there with him,” Mendez says. “And when you realize what a good wrestler he is and while you’re trying to worry about taking him to the ground, he’s kicking you, he spinning back fists you, jump wheel kicks you, spinning back kick … I mean, he’s doing things that nobody does. It’s all stuff you see in the movies that’s choreographed, so it’s kind of difficult to be in there with Cung Le and he’s doing things that nobody has ever done to you. It’s kind of an experience to get back kicked by him and spinning wheel kicked by him and back [fisted] by him. You just don’t know when he’s coming.”
Mendez pointed out that Le’s mentality differs from that of the typical fighter.
“He’s a martial artist, so his is more the respect of a teacher-student type, not the coach-fighter type; it’s more of a yes sir, no sir, don’t talk back to the teacher type of thing, and when he does talk back, he’s very respectful,” he says. “It enhances his training because he generates strength from that mentality.”
Le describes his practices at the American Kickboxing Academy as simply putting in work, listening to his coaches, having an open mind and trying to learn as much as possible.
“I’m improving every day and trying to work on my overall game to be a complete fighter,” says Le, who has won seven of his eight bouts and avenged his only defeat – a December 2009 knockout against Scott Smith.
Although he didn’t throw his hat in the cage until later in life, Le sounds proud of what he has accomplished.
“I’ve definitely put a dent in this MMA world, and a lot of fans like the way I fight,” he says. “I just try to improve every day, to be a better person and a better martial artist, and, hopefully, the fans will keep supporting me.”