Photo via Sherdog
Cung Le is a very controversial figure with MMA fans. Judging by the comments here and at Sherdog and the UG, he's not that well liked. Some of the hate is understandable. He has definitely put his MMA career on the back burner for the past couple of years to focus on a burgeoning b-movie career. He did it to the point that Strikeforce had to strip him of his middleweight title.
But a lot of the hate is less well founded and seems to come from a misunderstanding of Cung Le and the style he brings to MMA. I frequently read commenters saying things like, "if he fights a wrestler he's going to get put on his back in a hurry" or "that fight was fake, (insert name of Cung opponent here) didn't even try to take him down."
Here's the problem with that, Cung Le is really really good at take downs and take down defense. Not only does he have a decent amateur wrestling background, but he competed in San Shou for many years. And that's the thing about San Shou, not only does it focus on striking -- especially the fancy kicks Le is famous for -- it also focuses on take downs, more specifically throws.
Here's a little bit about the rules of San Shou when practiced as a competitive sport:
As a sport, San Shou/San Da is practiced in tournaments and is normally held alongside taolu events in wushu competition. For safety reasons, some techniques from the self-defense form such as elbow strikes, chokes, and joint locks, are not allowed during tournaments. Competitors can win by knockout or points which are earned by landing strikes to the body or head, throwing an opponent, or when competition is held on a raised lei tai platform, pushing them off the platform. Fighters are only allowed to clinch for a few seconds. If the clinch is not broken by the fighters, and if neither succeeds in throwing his opponent within the time limit, the referee will break the clinch.
As you can see, this rule set is not inclined to favor fighters who have poor take down defense. Cung Le went 17-0 in San Shou competition.
In the full entry we look at nearly a half-dozen sweet throws that Cung Le busted out on Sam Morgan at Strikeforce in November, 2007.
Up first, on the right we see Morgan and Le tie up in a classic wrestling position -- both men have "over-under" grips on the other (meaning one arm is hooked under the arm pit of the opponent and the other arm is hooked over the arm of the opponent.) Le twists to his left, steps across with his right leg and sweeps Morgan's right foot out from under him.
In Judo parlance I believe this is most similar to a Osoto Gari but judo players please correct me in the comments if I'm off. Note that Le comes down in Morgan's guard. Le generally lands in better position as we'll see in the other gifs below. But one thing won't change -- Le doesn't have the ground game to do anything with a good position when he gets it.
Here on the left, Morgan is pushing Le up against the cage and this time he has double unders, meaning both of his arms are hooked under Le's armpits. In wrestling, having double underhooks is usually an advantageous position. But as we see here, not always. Le uses his right arm which is hooked over Morgan's left arm in a whizzer position to set up this beautiful hip toss. He turns to his left and when Morgan drives forward he pulls up with the whizzer, pushes down with his left arm and uses his hip as a fulcrum to send Morgan first airborne then crashing to the mat.
I couldn't resist including this lovely and very very hurtful side kick we see on the right. Le just flat out kicks like a mule. At the range he's attacking from and the speed he's attacking, that kick just murders and you'd have to walk through the kick to get the take down while he's standing on one leg. This is a technique I expect to see a great deal more of in MMA in the future.
Ok, back to the throws. At this point, Morgan is pretty dazed and confused and it swinging wildly, desperately trying to score with something, anything. That's not a good position to be in in a professional fight and Le is quick to capitalize.
Morgan wings a wild looping overhand right and Le ducks it and quickly gets the clinch. He's got over-unders again and it's Osoto Gari time but now Morgan isn't able to react and blunt the impact and he lands hard on his back and Le is in side control. Le doesn't do anything from here, but I have a feeling that somewhere out there is a teenage kid who's already trained in San Shou for a few years but he's seen enough MMA that as soon as a BJJ gym opens up in Shanghai he's going to join. That kid will be a handful.
On the right we've got another hip toss but this time Le struggles a little bit and you can really see him using the whizzer he's got with his right arm to finish the throw and drive Morgan to his back. It looks like Morgan was fairly close to getting the better of this exchange and ending up on Le's back, but Le's wrestling background served him well and he gutted it out.
This last one is really lovely. Morgan shoots in, gets double unders and Le has to sprawl backwards 3/4 of the way across the cage with his wrists locked together to lock in the double overhooks he's using to keep Morgan from locking his own hands together behind Le's back.
But then he spins around, gives up his double over hooks and gets an over under grip and tosses Morgan hard to the canvas. Nice!
The moral of the story: taking down Cung Le is going to be easier said than done.
As always, these Judo Chops are a vehicle for furthering my own MMA education so those of you who are more knowledgeable (especially in Judo, wrestling or San Shou/Sanda) please speak up in the comments and correct my errors.