Cung Le talks San Shou in MMA

Les shin introduces itself to Frank Shamrocks ribs. (Photo by Paul Thatcher)
Le's shin introduces itself to Frank Shamrock's ribs. (Photo by Paul Thatcher)

Several years ago kickboxing legend Joe Lewis was asked about the relevance of kickboxing in self defense and mixed martial arts and he said that while 90% of fights end up on the ground, they all start on the feet.

In spite of this, wrestling has become the de facto base for most American mixed martial artists. The sport demands fanatical conditioning, develops functional strength, and provides competitors with a solid grappling game from which to add submission fighting. It also, according to many participants and pundits, allows competitors to dictate where the fight takes place by taking a stand-up fighter off his feet.

But what happens when that stand-up fighter stuffs every takedown and uses each of his or her opponents attempts to unlease a flurry of punches and kicks before slipping out of reach?

Ousmane Thomas Diagne did just that in his professional mixed martial arts debut at Strikeforce Challengers’ first installment on Showtime on May 15. Diagne faced 16-fight MMA veteran Kaleo Kwan and earned a unanimous decision victory with the techniques and strategies of San Shou.

A combat sports synthesis of various elements of Chinese martial arts, San Shou emphasizes striking with the hands and feet, throws, and takedowns. The style is widely associated in the United States with Strikeforce middleweight champion Cung Le, a champion San Shou fighter before he began his MMA career and the Frenchman Diagne, a San Shou champion himself, came to Le for the purpose of transitioning to professional MMA.

“I wouldn’t take anything from muay Thai or anything, but [San Shou] incorporates the best of each style where there’s the hands of boxing, the kicks of muay Thai, the kicks of tae kwon do, the kicks of different martial arts styles,” said Le. “I think its a very good compliment for mixed martial fighters–a discipline where you have a different arsenal of weapons that you can use in your repertoire.”

What Le neglects to mention is that unlike other forms of standing combat sports, San Shou incorporates elements of wrestling. And unlike folkstyle wrestlers, San Shou fighters shoot without touching their knees on the ground, which Le said makes it easier to get out of a stuffed shot.

“I just started using my punch-kick combinations with my takedowns as a wrestler,” he said, “but I started implementing different techniques that San Shou offers…In San Shou, you have two or three seconds to get the guy down or the referee will break it, so there’s no slowing down the pace of the fight.”

San Shou develops fluidity between striking and grappling that eludes so many fighters that come to MMA from arts that focus on either stand up fighting or groundwork, but never both. Le attributes the in-and-out style, as well as an emphasis on defensive wrestling, to San Shou’s fight arena, a raised platform called the “Lei Tai.”

“During that the time that [wrestlers] have to set [up takedowns], that’s when we take our opportunity and strike with them and we’re out and we don’t give them that option either to setup the takedown,” said Le.

Le is the first to admit that San Shou fighters need to learn the submission fighting game but doesn’t buy the idea that the primarily stand-up style puts its practitioners at a disadvantage in MMA. Diagne may never have a Nick Diaz-like game off his back, but he’ll win a lot of fights if he keeps landing body kicks like he did against Kwan, kicks so hard they could be heard on mute.

“You hurt them with your strikes, then the game’s even when it comes to the ground because they’re gonna be focusing on what different shot they just got hit with, and what’s hurting them,” said Le.

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