Pep Talk: Cung Le’s Hollywood Ending

Cung Le came into last night’s main event fight at Strikeforce Evolution against Scott “Hands of Steel” Smith with an unblemished record in combat sports; 17-0 in kickboxing, 6-0 in MMA. Now he’s 23-1.

Le dominated the first two and one half rounds of the action with an amazing array of spinning kicks and backfists mixed with conventional striking techniques that had Smith reeling, flying into the cage and hitting the canvas. In fact, it looked like the end was near when Le connected on a spinning back kick that floored Smith in round one. Over the next minute and change, Le hit Smith with more 50 hammerfists and punches while referee “Big” John McCarthy watched closely to see if Smith was still in the fight. Surviving the onslaught, Smith made it back to his feet only to have his ass handed to him for the next ten minutes of action in the cage. Newer fans of mixed martial arts might have been tempted to leave the room to grab a bite or return a phone call, thinking the conclusion was inevitable.

Big mistake.

As he has done on several occasions in the past, Smith went from ass whoop-ee to ass whoop-er in a flash. He threw a fake right, short left hook combination that his corner told him was there for the taking, immediately staggering Le. The former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion caught a stiff right that put him down for good as Smith pounced and hit him with a few final shots before “Big” John decided it was time to put an end to Le’s pain and perfect record. And unless my eyes are deceiving me, it looks like Le will need a lot of makeup if there are any movie roles coming up soon to hide the broken nose he received as an early Christmas gift from his opponent.

Guys like Scott Smith are exactly why we love MMA. His heart, powerful hands, willingness to trade and “it ain’t over ‘til it’s over” attitude are contagious. Put four ounce gloves on those “Hands of Steel” and anything can, and usually does, happen.

This isn’t the first time he’s used his punching power to put a Rocky-like ending to a fight. At The Ultimate Fighter 4 Finale, he was completely crumpled by a body shot courtesy of Pete Sell and threw a Hail Mary right hand that landed on the hard charging Sell’s chin and knocked him out as Smith hit the ground, unable to muster one more punch. In April of this year he took so much punishment at the hands of Benji Radach at Strikeforce: Shamrock vs. Diaz that he didn’t even realize that it was the third round when he knocked Radach out with a huge right hand to score the come from behind victory, again. He thought it was the second. And then tonight, against all odds, after being kicked around like a heavy bag by the undefeated Le, he did it again. Whether you’re a fan or an opponent, counting Smith out before the final bell rings or the referee is stopping the fight is a mistake. Ask Le.

For his part, Cung looked great in the first two rounds. The questions of whether a movie career that kept away from the cage for a full 21 months would be his undoing seemed to be answered in the negative. Was he driven to still be an MMA fighter? Looked that way. But as the fight wore on into that third round he appeared to be slowing down a bit and breathing heavy.

Maybe the ring rust was setting in. Maybe getting ready for a return to the cage in less than two months after all that time away pursuing other things just wasn’t long enough to be fully cage ready. Or maybe Le is too close to the movies to believe in Hollywood endings.

Closing Shots

Josh Thompson vs. Gilbert Melendez II is exactly why you don’t compile “Best of the Year” lists before the clock strikes Midnight on New Year’s Eve. After dominating “El Nino” in their first fight 18 months ago, “The Punk” showed only slight signs of 15-months of ring rust courtesy of ankle surgery. The two former training partners battled back and forth for 25 action-packed minutes in what should give Jorge Gurgel’s unanimous decision over Conor Huen a run for the money for Fight of the Year in Strikeforce. Melendez takes the decision, setting up a rubber match at some point in 2010.

Is Ronaldo Souza that good or is Matt Lindland a shadow of the dominant fighter he was? With ten of his eleven wins coming by first round submission, including last night’s armbar of Lindland, yes, “Jacare” is that good. It’s hard to say whether Lindland is done, but it is fair to say that he isn’t in the upper echelon at 185 as he once was. “Jacare” vs. Jake Shields sounds like a great way to decide who the better elite grappler is as well as the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship. That is, if Shields survives his bout with Dan Henderson.

Mo Lawal ran his record to 6-0 in MMA by running over 31-fight veteran Mike Whitehead. Lawal looked very comfortable on his feet for someone with a heavy wrestling background and is a superstar in the making for Strikeforce. He’s asking for a fight with Light Heavyweight Strikeforce Champion Gegard Mousasi, but I suspect he’ll have to get a few more fights under his belt before getting a shot at the belt.

Larry Pepe is the host of Pro MMA Radio.

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