The fi rst time Cung Le lost a fi ght, he was ten years old. The victor was a bully named Domingo, who along with his gang, constantly picked on the small Vietnamese kid. Today, Cung Le is a far cry from that scrawny kid back in Vietnam. With the Strikeforce Middleweight belt in his hands, he is now seen as the new king of MMA in San Jose.
Cung’s impressive win over Frank Shamrock garnered him much respect within the MMA community. Potential matchups now include the top fi ghters in the middleweight division. Cung has clearly arrived.
I fi rst met Cung at the MAIA Convention in 2006, when I was there with Bas Rutten to shoot a documentary. Bas turned to me and said, “Man, that guy has some vicious kicks.” At the time, Cung was a newbie on the MMA block. So how did he go from being a relative unknown to breaking Frank Shamrock’s arm and garnering feature fi lm offers in less than two years? The answer lies in those ferocious kicks.
Cung provides a Matrix-like performance that gets crowds on their feet. He electrifi es the arena. In fact, after he fought Tony Fryklund, his future manager said, “I hope this guy can speak English, because we can make him a star.”
Burned into America’s collective conscience is the image of the last helicopters fl ying out of Saigon under gunfi re. In one of those helicopters was two-year-old Cung Le, whose grandfather was the Chief of Police in Saigon. He used his political connections to get his family out before the city fell to the North Vietnamese. They traveled from Saigon to the Philippines where the family stayed at a refugee camp. Fortunately, a sponsor afforded the entire family the opportunity to immigrate to Monterey, California. Le’s grandfather began working for the CIA as a translator, and moved the family to San Jose to further pursue the American dream.
Prejudice against Cung was prevalent from the beginning. But the demeaning names the other kids fl ung at him only served to build his inner strength and defi ne his character.
In 1998, Cung met Javier Mendez at a Strikeforce promotion in San Jose. Javier asked Cung to spar with Frank Shamrock so that he could benefi t from Cung’s stand up ability. In 2005, Javier suggested that he should give MMA a shot. Cung told him, “Okay, but only if you take care of me.”
Mendez took Le under his wing. Mendez knew that he had a world class fi ghter in his hands “He listens to me – a lot of fi ghters don’t listen. On top of his natural athletic talent, he is very intelligent. But his greatest strength is his heart. He is just a better fi ghter, and I think he can stand with the best in the world now.”
Cung has four fi ghts left on his Strikeforce contract. Bringing in over $200,000 for the Shamrock fi ght, he is one of the best-paid middleweight fi ghters in the world. “Scott [Coker] is just one of those promoters that earns the loyalty of his fi ghters,” says Le. “I’m a big fi sh in a little pond, and right now I think the best thing for me is Strikeforce.”
Cung is also poised to transition from the ring to the silver screen. “My whole life has changed since the Shamrock fi ght. Offers from movie producers, new sponsors, getting lots of scripts, life is good.”
In his last feature fi lm, Cung had a fi ght scene that nearly cost him the Shamrock fi ght. While shooting Tekken, lead actor John Foo missed his mark and cut Cung’s lip so badly it took 21 stitches to close. In the fi rst round, Frank opened up the recent wound. But the fi ve stitches inside the lip held strong, and Frank never connected with that vulnerable spot again. “I gave him two gifts in the fi rst round, but Frank still couldn’t take me down.” After the fi rst round, Javier told Cung to, “Feed him sidekicks.” The apt pupil followed Javier’s instruction and they were effective. The barrage of kicks from all angles ended up breaking Frank’s arm in the third round.
These days, Cung spends more time in producer’s offi ces and on fi lm sets than in the ring. “I want to do action fi lms. Fighting on fi lm is a lot easier than fi ghting in the cage. When I came out of the tunnel for the Shamrock fi ght, I was like, whoa! It hit me. I got a little nervous and just went ahead.”
Cung left behind a year of tough injuries and relationships, obstacles that could have derailed lesser fi ghters. A diffi cult divorce created a great deal of stress for him. He fought hard and won full custody of his two children, Cung Michael and Anthony. His day starts with feeding his children breakfast, and ends with putting them to sleep. As a single parent, Cung gives his children what he never had. His father remained in Vietnam and has never been to see one of his fi ghts.
Le owns a condo in San Jose, complete with hyperbaric chamber and a wheat grass juicer…something he actually likes to drink. Recently, he opened a new gym, called Cung Le’s Universal Strength Headquarters (USH).
“I’m happy. I went through a lot to get here, but right now my kids are happy, and I’m enjoying the belt while I have it. When the next big fi ght comes, I’m up for it. I’ll fi ght Frank again, if he gives me the chance. I take one day at a time and try to improve my martial arts skills and my skills as an actor. I just kind of put it in God’s hands and go with the fl ow.”
ung’s evolution as a fi ghter was rapid. After the Fryklund fi ght, I asked Gary Shaw if we would ever see a Cung Le/Frank Shamrock bout. Shaw used his hands like a scale and said, “Never, Cung is down here and Frank is up here.” But in less than a year, Cung has certainly smashed that perception.