After 20 years competing in combat sports, 40-year-old Cung Le is searching for his first Octagon victory against Rich Franklin at UFC 148 on July 7 in Las Vegas. There should be a packed house for Le’s second UFC appearance sold out audiences are something that he’s accustomed to.
A short, post-workout drive down the scenic streets near Cung Le’s American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose, California, leads past a non-descript Asian bistro that Le frequents. Once inside, Le orders the hot Vietnamese specialty soup Pho in his native language while he taps away at his smart phone and pulls up Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) along with his 500,000 followers. The former Strikeforce Middleweight Champion’s regular Twitter account currently inches toward 26,000 followers. His profi le from fighting and films is increasing in both the East and the West.
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Less than a month before his third birthday in 1975 (and three days before the Fall of Saigon), Le and his mother fl ed Vietnam in an under-fi re military helicopter secured by his grandfather’s status in the government. They settled in the Bay Area, where his mother’s mentions of struggle and dedication helped positively shape his character, in spite of an estranged father. She enrolled her shy and bullied son in martial arts at 10-years-old. Discipline and poise helped transform Le into a both a San Shou champion, an MMA champion, and (if he has his way) a champion of the big screen.
“For the people who feel that fighters should completely focus on fi ghting, they could be right,” says Le, who vacated his Strikeforce 185-pound strap to focus on a motion-picture deal for 21 months. “For me, I feel like I can do both. If I wasn’t booking any jobs, I should stick to just fighting. Luckily for me, I’m able to fi ght and make movies.”
Amid discussions of his established fi ght career, his growing presence in Tinsel Town, and this modest restaurant he frequents, it becomes clear how appreciative Le is of each moment he’s been given since leaving a war-torn country and becoming a combat sports star. He credits his confidence in such vulnerable professions to the lessons of martial arts—understanding how to stand out without drawing attention to oneself, and doing so through achievement, not arrogance.
“Everything I do,” he says, “whether it’s
making a fi lm or being a dad, I want to be
a black belt at it.”
Le came to MMA in 2006 at the behest of trainer Javier Mendez. AKA’s head coach advised Le that there was nothing left for him to accomplish in San Shou. Strikeforce, Le’s former kickboxing promotion, was venturing into MMA that same year with Strikeforce: Shamrock vs. Gracie. Le secured himself a spot on the card, knocking out Mike Altman in the first round. Adapting with the romotion’s
evolution allowed Le to further serve the large Vietnamese population of San Jose as a linchpin star in the second stage of his martial arts career. Le reeled off four more (T)KO victories before he was offered a shot at the Strikeforce Middleweight Championship.
A classic 15-minute TKO of Frank Shamrock—who left with a broken arm for his troubles—crowned Le the Strikeforce Middleweight Champion in March 2008. Impressive striking displays—even in defeat—and a retributive victory against Scott Smith gave way to his UFC 139 debut in November 2011. On a night where Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua arguably delivered the greatest MMA
contest of all-time, Le’s two-round standup battle with Wanderlei Silva earned a rare co-Fight of the Night honors worth
Le accepts the loss then entertains the idea of a rematch with Silva, noting that he is comfortable with his current legacy in MMA. “I feel that what I proved in mixed martial arts is that I can do it,” says the father of three. “A traditional martial artist can step in there and compete at a high level and win a belt.”
Gunning for his first Octagon victory against an opponent of Rich Franklin’s caliber is a “blessing.” Not many fighters enter the UFC and meet former champions back-to-back. Le intends to stay in the UFC long enough to provide fans with memorable fi ghts, which is why he’s willing to accept these pressure-cooker contests. In the unpredictable world of MMA, Le has been reliable—all nine of his contests finished via strikes before the final bell. After all these years, he still relishes the wild, unscripted environment of prizefi ghting, even while pushing into the scripted world of Hollywood.
“I couldn’t think of a better post-fight career than movies. I still love to do what I do, which is martial arts,” he says, offering up parallels between his two passions. “In a way, you’re competing with the camera. You’re competing against yourself. In order to bring out that character—what that director wants with your scene—you have to challenge yourself. When you step into the cage, it’s a challenge with yourself and your opponent.”
Le has three acting coaches, much like a fighter has one for striking, BJJ, and wrestling. Choreographing fight scenes in his latest film, Dragon Eyes, co-starring action staple Jean-Claude Van Damme, highlights talents that landed him an associate producer’s credit. He intends to be every bit as dynamic in Hollywood as he is in the cage. Le knows Hollywood is not just about “how good”—it’s about “how lucky.” The never-ending learning process of fi lm and fi ghting drives Le to be a voracious student.
“The way I train for a fi ght is the way I prepare for a movie,” he says. “I think that same philosophy will help take me very far in the movie industry.”
Le feels at home in the movie business. He keeps in touch with Fighting co-star Channing Tatum, while they await the right opportunity to collaborate again. Le’s latest movie The Man With the Iron Fists, which hits theaters in the fall, finds a villainous Le starring alongside Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, and Pam Grier and under the direction of RZA. This movie is just one more reason for him to be confident that his action shouldn’t be limited to the cage.
He recalls a scene with former opponent and current training partner Scott Sheely in which Le was swept off his feet and came crashing down against the unforgiving cement. “It was dangerous,” says Le, inadvertently echoing the sentiment behind his fi ght career, “but it was good for the cameras.”
For actor/mixed martial artist Cung Le, there’s at least word that translates from the set to the cage—“action.” Here’s a look at some of his best work outside of the Octagon.
Pandorum, 2009: Manh
Fighting, 2009: Dragon Le
Tekken, 2010: Marshall Law
Dragon Eyes, 2012: Mr. Hong
The Man With the Iron Fists, 2012: Bronze Lion
Check out Cung Le’s entire filmography on imdb.com. If you look closely, you’ll notice he was in an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger in 2001—now, that’s acting.
Also be sure to visit YouTube.com/fightmagazine for an exclusive indepth video profi le on Cung Le.