Strikeforce: Fedor vs Werdum Preview: Cung Le, Sanshou, Kicks, Take Downs and Scott Smith

Photo by Esther Lin via Showtime Sports

It's no secret I'm a massive Cung Le mark. I love what the man brings to MMA. The secret sauce is Sanshou, a Chinese military fighting system that incorporates a ton of flashy kicks and sweet throws and take downs combining the most fun aspects of Judo and wrestling. 

Head Kick Legend's Fraser Cofeen has a really awesome break down of Cung's fighting style, some tasty nuggets:

Watch one of Le's old Sanshou fights, and you will not see many differences from his MMA bouts.  A very proud Sanshou representative, Le has stayed true to his Sanshou roots, utilizing elements from that sport to achieve positive results in MMA.  Specifically, Le uses certain Sanshou techniques to his advantage:

  • Striking variety - This is probably Cung Le's greatest strength.  The man simply has a huge arsenal of kicks at his disposal.  As a result, you can never be sure exactly what he is throwing.  Most fighters stick to the basics with kicks, but Le will throw from both legs, and at targets all up and down his opponent's body.  A great example of this is seen twice in round 1 of the first Smith bout.  Early on, Le hits a gorgeous spinning back kick that Smith sees coming, but just can not figure out how to block.  Later in the round, he surprises Smith again by using a quick head kick thrown off his lead leg - a very rare kick, but executed beautifully.  Which brings us to...
  • Striking accuracy - All the kicks in the world would mean nothing if they didn't land.  But they do.  Just ask Frank Shamrock and his shattered arm.
  • Incorporating punches - While all the attention is put on Le's kicks (and rightly so), he uses his hands very well.  Check out his MMA debut against Mike Altman, where he ends Altman's night with a nice punch.
  • Takedown defense - It's no secret that Le wants to keep his fights standing.  He usually gets his way, thanks to his Sanshou-inspired takedown defense.  In Sanshou, takedowns score highly, and Le used them well.  Although he does not use takedowns much himself in MMA, he has maintained the use of his Sanshou defense in order to stop others.  Shamrock attempted to bring their fight to the ground on a few occasions, and never once succeeded.  When Le does use his throws, he typically keeps on his own feet, again nullifying the ground game.  This is another holdover from his Sanshou training, where a takedown scores higher if you maintain your feet while performing the throw. Le uses this skill to keep the fight in his comfort zone at all times.
  • Volume of strikes - Sanshou can be won by knockout, but it is largely a point-based style, which means that a higher volume of effective strikes leads to victory.  Le keeps up that volume in MMA, keeping his opponent on the defense.

And for those who want to learn more about Le's arsenal of throws and take down defense, may I refer you to my Judo Chop of December 2009: The San Shou Take Downs of Cung Le excerpt in the full entry.

The knock on Le and his application of Sanshou to MMA is of course the way he got KTFO'd by Scott Smith after two and a quarter rounds of utterly dominating the gritty UFC vet. Smith is the sport's preeminent come back artist. Thus I'm not inclined to damn Le's style because of one fateful mistake.

However, I do think that Le is too small to be fighting at 185lbs and he's too old to compete for very much longer. He also has a glaring void where 1/3 of his mma game should be -- I'm speaking of submissions. But his wrestling has so far been adequate to keep his fights on the feet. His roster of hand picked opponents might have helped too.

We'll find out Saturday if he's got enough left in the tank to beat (maybe even finish) Scott Smith. If Smith works him over and beats him out again, we can only appreciate the fights that Le was able to give us and bitterly regret that he didn't enter MMA ten years earlier, in his athletic peak. But the prospect of Le entering the stacked Strikeforce middleweight tournament is one to keep a geek like me up at night.

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Here's an animated gif of Le landing a series of flashly kicks on Smith:

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Fraser's analysis of these kicks is spot on. And if watching Le in action doesn't tickle your fancy I don't know what to say. All I know is nothing has made me more excited than the prospect of a few million Sanshou trained Chinese fighters taking up MMA in the next couple of decades. 

From the Judo Chop I did on Le:

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.

Click through to see all the animated gif goodness.

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