Respect and honor are two words that have gone hand and hand with martial arts since men first began to train in the art of punching one another in the face. Those are same two words that come to mind when trying to describe the characteristics of one of the most decorated kickboxers of modern times, former Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le.
Honor when it comes to making the right choices for his family regardless of the criticism he should fall under, and respect in stepping down from his position at the top of the Strikeforce middleweight division to allow others to share the same spotlight and have the same opportunity to achieve what has done so much for his career away from the cage.
Whether it has been Kickboxing, Sanshou or Mixed Martial Arts, Le has yet to see defeat in his professional fighting career. Yet Cung knows as well as anyone that no man is invincible, and accordingly, Le is currently deep in training for his upcoming middleweight clash with Scott Smith like it’s the most important bout of his career.
With all things considered, being thirty-seven years of age with a bright movie career in frot of him and coming off of a year and a half layoff to face arguably his toughest opponent to date, it very well be the most important fight of Le’s career in the cage, or ring for that matter. If not the most important, definitely the most pivotal in regards to the future of a man that will likely be considered one of the greatest pure martial artists of our generation in years to come.
This is more than just a fight for Cung. this fight is about proving the critics wrong. This fight is about proving to himself what Le already knows deep in his heart; That he can hang and still belongs banging it out with the top fighters of today. This fight is about an undefeated legacy of accomplishment in the martial arts, ending at the pinnacle of combat sports: Mixed Martial Arts.
FiveOuncesofPain.com recently had the opportunity to speak with Cung about a variety of subjects including his upcoming showdown with “Hands of Stone” at “Strikeforce: Evolution” on December 19th (of course), his boy Anthony Johnson’s performance against Josh Koscheck, along with gathering Le’s reactions to current Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shield’s statements that Cung has been ducking him.
FiveOuncesofPain: The last time I spoke to you was just prior to the release of “Pandorum”, and I wanted to tell you: I’ve seen it, and I loved it. It was kind of like “The Descent” meets any of the “Alien” films for me. Really claustrophobic, and really freaky. Do you have any other movie plans lined up for the near future?
Cung Le: I have a couple projects for next year. Nothing is signed or locked in yet, but they brought me in and talked to me about being interested in a couple of projects.
FiveOuncesofPain: This is kind of a random question but Tony Jaa happens to be one of my favorite martial arts/action stars; What are your thoughts on Mr. Jaa?
Cung Le: I think he’s really fantastic with the action. I haven’t had a chance to see the new “Ong Bak II” but he definitely made a big splash with “Ong Bak” part one.
FiveOuncesofPain: Yeah part two’s pretty awesome man. Maybe one day we’ll be able to see Cung and Tony side by side.
Cung Le: You know, you never know. I’m sure that once I get the chance to choreograph all of my fight scenes that there will be some really cutting edge stuff there too.
FiveOuncesofPain: So is that kind of the idea you have for yourself in the future; Kind of doing the whole Jackie Chan choreographing all of your action scenes type of thing?
Cung Le: Yeah definitely. Like with a lot of “Pandorum” and “Fighting” I had a chance to offer some advice on some of the scenes, and next thing I know they’re using it, so…
FiveOuncesofPain: That’s cool man. Well we’re just a few weeks away, and it seems like such a typical boring question, but it has to be asked; How are you feeling right now, are the reflexes and everything still where they need to be?
Cung Le: I’m feeling good. I’m excited, I’m nervous, and I have the jitterbugs. It’s all part of the game.
FiveOuncesofPain: But being nervous is normal, right?
Cung Le: For me it is.
FiveOuncesofPain: Then I guess that’s a good thing. Everything seems like it’s going according to plan so far.
Cung Le: Yeah, everything seems good. I think the best person to ask would be Javier Mendez though. He’s the most honest about my training. It’s hard for me to tell how I’m doing. I’m just going to push it as hard as I can, and if he pushes me I’m going to push back.
FiveOuncesofPain: So are you going down to the American Kickboxing Academy or is Javier coming over there to train with you?
Cung Le: Actually he’s coming down to my gym and he’s been bringing some guys over. A couple of weeks ago I wrestled with Cain Velasquez, Trevor Prangley and Josh Thomson. I’m really thankful for them coming down to train with me because it makes it a lot easier on me with my schedule.
FiveOuncesofPain: What are your thoughts on Scott Smith and what he brings to the table? Obviously he’s a bit of a striker like yourself. How do you feel you guys match up?
Cung Le: I think we match up great. I think it’s going to be an exciting fight, Scott Smith is going to be dangerous from round one to round three. I’ve obviously seen quite a few of his fights in the past, and he’s dangerous. He’s got that really big punch. I’m just going to go in there and blank out my mind and just react.
FiveOuncesofPain: Right, and I was going to say that I’m sure you’ve studied quite a bit of tape on Scott and have seen his ability to remain dangerous at all times; Will it be a situation where if you hurt him, you’re going to have to be just a little more cautious due to history of coming back out of nowhere?
Cung Le: Yeah, definitely. You know, a lot of people rush in, but I’ve been in situations where I’ve hurt guys and I’m very really smart about it. Also when I do smell blood I’m able to stay very controlled.
FiveOuncesofPain: Neither of you guys are known for your flying armbars or gogoplatas; Is there pretty much no question in your mind this will turn into a slugfest or are you anticipating Scott trying to take you out of your strong point, and maybe trying to take you to the mat?
Cung Le: Yeah, well me and my team are always preparing for the worst so I’ve been working a lot on my ground game, just in case. I’ve been working my ground game for a while now, so I just have to maintain it. You have to stay a complete fighter and not just work the stand-up because you think it’s going to be a stand-up fight. You never know what to expect from Scott Smith. I’m sure he has a good camp, and I’m sure that if he gets into a little trouble standing that he’s going to try to take the fight to the ground, and you know, I’m comfortable there too.
FiveOuncesofPain: Right, for sure.
Cung Le: You won’t see a gogoplata, but you might see something (laughs).
FiveOuncesofPain: Would you say that it’s safe to say that Scott is the most dangerous striker in MMA that you have faced up until this point?
Cung Le: Ummm, yeah I guess so. I would have to say that Scott Smith is the most dangerous MMA fighter I have fought, but during my time in Sanshou I faced many very dangerous strikers. So I’ve been in there with the best of the best in Sanshou, but I have to realize that those fights were with 10 oz. gloves and these are with 4 oz. gloves. It’s a different sport. Anyone can get knocked out with these gloves. You get hit right and it’s goodnight.
FiveOuncesofPain: Now obviously you have Scott in front of you right now so I’m sure you have tunnel-vision on him, but are you thinking about getting back into the title fray in a matter of time, or are you more just taking things one fight at a time right now?
Cung Le: Just one fight at a time. Scott Smith is definitely at the end of that tunnel right now, and I have to get past him before I even think about anything else. It’s good to be back and train hard . Well it’s good and bad I guess because some things can linger and (laughs) sometimes I’m like, ‘Man, now I know why I enjoy making the movies’, (laughs) because you’re not always sore. But you have to keep with it. I’m enjoying what I’m doing as a fighter and a martial artist, and it’s because of MMA that I’m able to do all of these other things. It’s pretty cool to be able to do both.
FiveOuncesofPain: But there’s pros and cons to both I’m sure. I mean when you’re fighting, you probably want to be acting, and when you’re acting, you probably want to be fighting. I guess it’s just the way it works…
Cung Le: Yeah (laughs), you can’t win.
FiveOuncesofPain: I have to ask you your thoughts on Anthony Johnson’s performance; At just 25 yrs old, do you feel like he will learn more from that recent loss to Koscheck than if he had won?
Cung Le: You know, when we took this fight we knew that he had more to gain whether he won or lost because even if he did lose, which he did, he would gain experience. I thought he was controlling the fight pretty well, but at such a high level of fighting, it’s all about momentum. If the momentum changes and you can’t just switch it back on, then you’re going to lose the fight. Unforunately there were a few things like Johnson getting a little overexcitied with that knee, and Koscheck not closing his hand when he threw a jab. I think that he just got caught in the eye and the whole momentum changed. It is what it is, you know.
FiveOuncesofPain: Oh yeah, but does Anthony seem to be taking it pretty well, like a learning experience?
Cung Le: Actually he’s been taking it fantastic. It was on Sunday, just the next day, that he called me and said that he wanted to come back and start training on Monday, and I’m like, ‘Man, take a couple days off’. Of course he’s like, “Well I can come in and hold pads for the guys”, because there’s a couple of our guys with fights coming up, and I told him, ‘Just take the week off’. So he’s taking the week off and he’ll be back in on Monday.
FiveOuncesofPain: I know you guys are in separate weight classes and fighting for different promotions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on Lyoto Machida? He seems to have a similar style to you in the aspect of taking little damage while dishing out a bunch?
Cung Le: I think his traditional background gives him a lot of different angles and a lot of tricks that a lot of other fighters aren’t really familiar with. I think he represents his style and mixed martial arts really well, and I think he’s a good champion.
FiveOuncesofPain: What were your thoughts on Jake Shields performance in his win over Mayhem?
Cung Le: I thought it was a good performance on the ground for Jake Shields. I thought “Mayhem” Miller had awesome defense against Shleds submissions, and I also thought that if there was ten more seconds in the third round that Jake Shields would have been asleep.
FiveOuncesofPain: Now I have to ask you; Jake Shields has been making statements that you have been ducking him in some way? What are your thoughts on those statements? Do you think he’s just trying to hype an eventual fight between you guys, or do you feel like there’s any bad blood there?
Cung Le: You know, it’s not the first time that guys like Jake Shields have used my name for publicity, and it’s not going to be the last. Jake and I come from different backgrounds. I’m more respectful due to my traditional roots in martial arts, and Jake has to promote himself the way he promotes himself. It doesn’t bother me at all. I have really thick skin and I’ve been through a lot so something that Jake says is not going to bother me at all to be honest. He’s the champion now but he has to use my name all the time, so ‘Thanks Jake’, for all of the free publicity. It doesn’t bother me at all. For me, whether you have the belt or not, you just have to have the championship attitude. I hope he understands how to promote himself better and has more of a champion’s attitude now that he’s the belt holder.
FiveOuncesofPain: And as far as you ducking him goes; If they were to offer you that fight on down the road, there’s no reason for you to turn down a fight against Jake Shields, correct?
Cung Le: Why would I? The worst that could happen to me is if he takes me to the ground and submits me. But then the worst thing that could happen for him would be for him to run into my shin or some vicious strikes. The thing is that on the ground I can tap, but there’s no tapping when you’re standing up.
FiveOuncesofPain: Well I think it’s kind of apparent that Jake’s stand up isn’t exactly his strong point.
Cung Le: No. Mayhem got the better of the striking in their bout.
FiveOuncesofPain: I think that bout kind of showed what we’ve seen in the past from Shields in bouts with guys like Paul Daley. If the other guy is a better striker, he’s not going to invest a lot of time standing up with the him. And no disrespect to Jake, he’s a heck of a fighter, but he’s not what I’d consider to be a high level striker. In a fight with someone like you I fel like he’d have no choice but to rely on that one dimension; I guess it’s just a case of: Can Jake Shields get you to the ground? I feel like your takedown defense is really underrated, but at the same time we haven’t had a chance to see that much of it yet.
Cung Le: Yeah, you know, me and Jake sparred in practice and I landed a lot of kicks, and he took me to the ground a few times, but that’s practice, you know. In a fight it’s not going to be like everytime he shoots in he takes me down.
FiveOuncesofPain: Right, and you’re not exactly trying to kick him in the head as hard as you can during sparring by a longshot.
Cung Le: Yeah, I feel like a have really good control during sparring. A lot of the times the reason I’m being taken down is because I’m pulling my kicks to the head and they’re just running me down with my foot on their face and getting the takedown. If I let things go, I don’t think that the other fighters would have that much respect for me because they’re preparing for a fight too, and I don’t want to hurt anyone during training. Training is training, and when you’re in a fight, it’s a fight.
FiveOuncesofPain: Cool, thanks Cung, anyone you want to thank?
Cung Le: Yeah absolutely, I want to thank my promoter Scott Coker and my trainer Javier Mendez. I also want to thank all of my sponsors, Zebra Mats, ADX, Knox Fight Gear, BR Flooring and High Octane Energy. I also want to thank the Oush! Fight Team and Team AKA.