I couldn't think of a good title.
With the first UFC on Fox card complete, it is (as always) time to look forward and start preparing for the next big event. So here we are, less than a week away from UFC 139 and Cung Le's triumphant UFC debut. Cung, after completing an undefeated career in San Shou and a moderately successful 7-1 run in Strikeforce, will finally be moving to the largest stage of his career. Most of Cung's career thus far has had a distinct big-fish-in-a-small-pond feel; he dominated in San Shou but mostly competed in the United States against other Americans, some of whom had little grappling background. Cung's best win was over Na Shun Gerile, a supposed undefeated monster and 3-time Chinese Sanda champion. Though I can't find verification for Gerile's record, he was captaining a Chinese competition team, and Cung dominated the fight. After moving to MMA at the tender age of 33, Cung destroyed his mostly overmatched and underskilled opponents in Strikeforce, allowing him to show off his impressive striking. His best win in MMA so far is a toss-up between a Frank Shamrock that was good enough to flatten Phil Baroni and Cesar Gracie (in his only fight), but was dominated by Nick Diaz, and perennial real-life-Rocky-from-Rocky 1 Scott Smith in a do-over after Cung controlled the entire first fight but got careless in the 3rd round. Now Le faces former PRIDE champion and professional skull vaporizer Wanderlei Silva in what will be far and away the biggest test of his career.
Before we start, ***EDITORIALIZING WARNING, SKIP IF YOU WANT*** I have to admit that Cung Le is a fighter I feel very conflicted about in exactly the opposite way that I feel conflicted about that other guy I write about so much. While I dislike the other dude's attitude and personality (and especially how that attitude is just idolized by hordes of wannabe tough guys from the suburbs), I respect him a great deal as a fighter for the heart, skills, and work ethic he shows. Cung is a different story. I like Cung a lot. I like his entertaining fighting style, the story of how he grew up and overcame bullying and oppression, the way he conducts himself personally, his transfer of skills from San Shou and traditional martial arts to expanding MMA in a new way. What I find hard about Cung is the respect part. I find it hard to respect him as a fighter when, time and again, he's chosen to put his career on hold in favor of movies. I don't mind fighters taking advantage of film opportunities, or trying to make extra money or whatever. I wouldn't be offended (though a little sad, yes) if Cung said he were done fighting and wanted to just be a movie star. What burns me is that Cung talks game about being a martial artist and a fighter first, and then turns around and puts his career on hold for months and months meanwhile talking about how things "won't be around forever" when his 39-year-old body limits his remaining fighting career far more than his movie opportunities, and then says stuff like this. After a 1-fight win streak. Over Scott Smith. In a division with Tim Kennedy, Jacare, Luke Rockhold and (at the time) Jason "Mayhem" Miller, he wanted a title shot after beating Scott Smith. Basically, I just want Cung to tell us the truth. If you're gonna just fight every once in a while for fun and in between movies, I'm totally cool with that. Just please, please don't tell us you're a full-time fighter and then disappear for months, especially not when you're holding a championship belt! Even a Strikeforce belt deserves more respect than that. Anyway, you came for the pictures and the breakdown, not my rants. ***END OF EDITORIAL, PRETTY GIFS FOLLOW***
Let's touch on just a tiny portion of Cung's San Shou career. For the uninitiated, San Shou/Sanda/Xanda is basically K1 rules kickboxing plus throws, or shootboxing minus standing submissions. You'd think, given the way he performs in the cage, that Cung would've been a devastating striking machine in San Shou, but that's not so. Le certainly held his own in San Shou striking-wise, but he was primarily a grappler. Drawing on his strong junior college wrestling background, Le's speciality in San Shou was wearing opponents' cardio down and breaking them mentally by ragdolling them with spectacular throws.
Like we see above, Le often used a level change to defend against opponents' punches after baiting them to come forward with strikes of his own, then elevating them with great double-leg technique and excellent core strength, or entering into a clinch to set up a greco-style throw. After making his opponents tired and afraid to come forward, Le would open up with strikes and try to finish his opponent in the later rounds. This is reflected in his San Shou record, as only 1 of his 16 wins came in the first round. In MMA, Cung has used his skills similarly, but in very different proportions. His greco throws and wrestling skills still get used to defend against strikes as well as counters to his opponents' grappling, but he focuses much more heavily on striking to put his opponent away rather than to set them up for throws. This has worked quite well considering 1. The lower level of striking skill in MMA compared with kickboxers, and 2. The lower quality opponents that Cung has faced. So let's see what's happened so far and what is therefore likely to happen come this Saturday.
In the interest of keeping things interesting, and also finding a coherent system of organization for what will likely be an absolutely massive post, I'll try to progress from the strengths and weaknesses that I think will have the least importance or impact on the fight to those that will have the most when Cung faces Wandy on Nov 19th. None of these points are unimportant per se...but given the style matchup, some will matter more than others. Let me know if you agree on the order in the comments, keep in mind that this is only half the list.
1. Ground Game
Here's a clear weakness for Cung against pretty much any fighter in the UFC today. The fact is, 8 fights into his MMA career, we have very little clue about how Cung's ground game is; this is a very bad thing for both his chances on the ground and this fanpost, because I have almost no interesting gifs to show you. We know Cung has a basic ability to maintain top control and posture, but hasn't shown any sort of progressive top game in terms of guard passing or submission ability. The best top game he's shown was in his fight against Sammy Morgan where Cung held a mounted crucifix and side control for most of the 2nd round and which also contained the only two submissions he's ever attempted, both keylocks which were never deep and were let go almost immediately. Cung's usual preference from a dominant position is to hold it until his opponent can regain guard, when he'll intelligently choose to stand up.
Worse than his top game is Cung Le off his back, which we've never seen in MMA for any length of time. Aside from slipping during spin kicks against Sammy Morgan and Frank Shamrock, and being knocked down and TKO'd by Scott Smith, Cung has never been on his back at all. We have no idea what kind of sweeps or submissions Cung possesses, and while that might hint at an element of (positive) surprise were Cung a 10-year vet, the fact that he's been studying BJJ for only 5 years on and off with breaks for movies means that the surprise is unlikely to be a pleasant one. This is particularly true against a BJJ black belt, even if Wandy has never shown much grappling skill in MMA.
Le's inability to pass guard or apply submissions wouldn't be such a weakness if, given Le's wrestling-derived ability to posture and maintain his base, he had decent ground 'n pound. Unfortunately, and there's no nice way to say this, Cung Le has the most anemic ground and pound of anyone I've ever seen in MMA. I'll spare you the boring gifs. Suffice to say, that in the first Scott Smith fight, Cung was stuck in this position after hurting Smith with a spinning back kick. For a minute and 15 seconds.
Don't be fooled by the posture. Cung failed to break wrist control for all of those 75 seconds and barely landed a single punch. He seems singularly unable to put his body behind shots on the ground and spends too much time trying to set up one big shot (which he muscles rather than throws) instead of flurrying, allowing his opponents to tie him up.
So why is this serious deficiency the least important aspect of Cung's MMA game come this Saturday? Grappling-wise, Cung will have the perogative to choose where the fight takes place. And it's highly unlikely he'll choose to go to the ground.
2. Standing Wrestling/Clinch Grappling
Cung Le has a legit wrestling pedigree, being a high school All-American and a Junior College Champion at 158 lbs. Though Wanderlei Silva would be smart to take the fight to the ground, wrestling has always been his weakest area, and it's a strong area for Cung (not to mention that a non-brawling Wanderlei isn't a Wanderlei at all). We can look back up at the gif from Cung's San Shou days and see that he had a quick level change for offensive and defensive wrestling. Time has not changed this quality much. Click:
Le displays a quick and nimble sprawl against a hurt Scott Smith, despite a nice job of changing levels by Smith. He displayed similar takedown defense against Sam Morgan and Brian Warren, in fact, Frank Shamrock is the only fighter to take Le down at all, and that was off a slip from Le.
Clinching with Le to take him down is an even worse proposition. This was Morgan's primary strategy, and it really didn't go so well for him.
Le used Morgan's overaggression against him all day, tossing him a whopping 7 times over the 2 1/2 rounds of their fight. This would be a great strategy to use against Wanderlei when he crowds Le (as we'll go into later), but there's a lot of danger involved in trying to clinch against Wanderlei. Even if he's successful with his throws, Cung ends up on the ground against a much more experienced grappler.
For more on Cung's throws, check out Kid Nate's 2009 Judo Chop on Cung Le's standing grappling.
3. Size/Clinch Striking Defense
Cung Le has a clear advantage in a wrestling clinch given his strength and wrestling base. Unfortunately, the Thai clinch belongs to Wandy, and there's some reason to believe he can get it there from a wrestling clinch. Out of eight fights, only one person has had success striking in the clinch against Cung Le. Let's take a look.
This sequence takes place just seconds after Cung's been badly rocked by a Shamrock punch, which may explain what happens. Still, Shamrock moves with apparent ease from double underhooks to the plum clinch and lands 2 monstrous right hooks before just missing a fight-ending knee. Silva's skill and control in the Thai clinch are undoubtedly greater than Shamrock's, which may spell trouble for Le. In addition, Cung is a notably small middleweight (that could easily make 170 but dislikes cutting weight), going up against a former light heavyweight. The one time Frank brought the fight to the ground, he tossed Cung against the fence from head and neck control with surprising ease. Click:
The good thing for Cung is that these are both isolated incidents from a single fight. No other fighter has had any time of success with him in the clinch, nor has anyone else been able to push him around. However, as noted before, Wanderlei is a big step up in competition, size, and physicality. The matchup we'll see on Saturday is whether Cung's superior wrestling skill can overcome Wanderlei's size and strength.
4. Power Strikes
Now we get to the meat and potatoes of Cung Le's game: the striking. This will be the bulk of the analysis, finishing part 1 and continuing into 2, and for that reason I'll wait to sum up how I think things will play out until part 2 is over. First, we'll examine Cung's power shots. Cung is in that weird middle space for a striker; with all 7 wins by (T)KO, it's clear he's no pillowfists. At the same time, he's never shown much one-strike power, most of his wins have come from slick combinations rather than big counter shots. It should be noted that Cung almost never throws a strike without some sort of set-up, so there will be some overlap with the second part of our series. We'll focus here on the few times when Cung throws single strikes, or combinations limited to only 2 strikes.
A quick note on Cung's boxing. It might be surprising, from a fighter known first for his kicks and second for his throws, to learn that Cung is actually a pretty good offensive boxer. A southpaw, he tends to stand unusually upright for MMA, with his arms extended out and alternately up high by his head or down by his waist. In addition, Le usually circles the "wrong" way-towards his left, and an orthodox opponent's power side. However, he does this in the manner of Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, rather than in the style of Michael Bisping. This is to say, Le's circling is out and away from his opponent, carefully calculated to allow Cung to step in and to his lead side, initiating attacks from angles that are very hard to see. All of these factors contribute to Le's particularly unpredictable striking, which is the source of much of Cung's power. This lets him stay tight and technical with his punches, initiating short, quick, punches from a short distance out from his opponent. The surprise factor, Le's fast hands, accuracy, and movement behind his punches, all lead to surprising power with little apparent effort. Click:
In a vacuum, this is probably Cung's 2nd-best punch. We can see above its effectiveness in initiating the attack, but this is usually either a one-shot strike or the 2nd punch in a combo for Cung, with a notable exception as we'll see further down below. Above, this is where the left cross is best for Cung: short, accurate, and with his entire weight behind it. It stiffens Smith up and sets him up for the right hook. Click:
Here's Cung looping the left hand into a hook against Scott Smith a minute later, after using the straight left against him for most of the fight. The split-second hesitation throws off Smith's defensive timing since he's preparing for the straight, and the punch lands hard enough to move Smith backwards. This is Cung's strength, he may not have the power to KO Smith even with the punch landing, but his ability to adjust on the fly is paralyzing to his opponent. Click:
Cung also combines his ability to quickly change levels with his left straight every so often to deliver a devastating body shot with the left hand, and follow it up with a right hand or foot to the head. This is a fantastic punch for him, especially after setting it up with lefts to the head and right kicks to the body. We'll see another combination with this punch in part 2. Click:
This isn't a particularly significant moment in the fight, and the punch misses. However, I included it because this is Cung's most typical use of his left straight. Notice again the CroCop-like (also Machida-like) circling out and away, setting up a sudden step towards and outside his opponent's lead foot. It's a devastating punch, but seems to be too easy to see, as it tends to miss more than land. It's use as a singular shot, however, has plenty of value even when it misses. We'll see how when we discuss spinning kicks further down.
Cung throws 3 roundhouse kicks: Left to the body, left to the head, right to the head. His leg kicks honestly aren't worth mentioning, as they're rare and not very powerful. This is typical of the San Shou style, where the inclusion of throws seems to discourage kicks that don't push your opponents back and prevent a takedown. We'll start with the least powerful of Cung's roundhouse kicks and work our way up. Click:
Cung's right high kick is a thing of beauty, but it's not a fight finisher. It's landed cleanly against Mike Altman, Tony Fryklund, and Frank Shamrock, but managed to rock none of them. Still, the advantage to that kick is that it's fast and very hard to see, which is why it lands cleanly so often. Watch Cung's movement in the gif above, particularly his shoulders and upper body. While Cung's hips swivel a good 90º to deliver the kick, his shoulders only tilt slightly back and there's almost no lean, showing incredible flexibility and core strength. All of this, plus the fact that Le's foot travels over Frank's right shoulder, means that Frank is aware of a kick coming from the right side, but has absolutely no idea where it's aimed until it lands. Should Cung land this Saturday, it's a sign that he's getting comfortable striking, and possibly causing Wanderlei some confusion with the variety of his attack. Click:
The left high kick is always going to be the more powerful one from a left-handed southpaw. This is a kick that Le throws fairly often when at range, in order to keep opponents honest with their defense. Like the right high kick, the left hasn't been a 1-shot fight stopper. To be sure, it has power, but the kick has landed at least partially in a few fights, and it's never rocked an opponent. The technique has less power than it could because of the way Cung throws the kick; his technique is more derived from his taekwondo background than a muay thai or kickboxing base. Compare the above image to a CroCop head kick on Mark Hunt.
There are 4 distinct differences to note. First, Cung's weapon appears to be his foot, rather than the shin. At the range he throws it, his left foot ends up at Shamrock's ear, wheras CroCop's foot appears to be on the other side of Hunt's neck and he's hitting with the lower portion of his shin. This is both safer for the kicker's bones (especially against Hunt's granite skull), and more powerful since the kick can be swung harder and with more weight behind it. The tradeoff is that you need to be closer to your opponent to land clean. Second, notice the knee on the kicking leg. Cung straightens his knee just as the kick lands, while CroCop appears to still have his knee bent. This gives the kick more power, since the leg is following through the intended target, rather than stopping at it. Third and relatedly, watch the upper body. Cung's head stays almost perfectly upright while kicking, and his shoulders turn 90º but do not lean. CroCop, on the other hand, leans way over and has his body nearly horizontal when the kick lands. This counterweight (I think savateurs call it "trebuchet") pulls the kick through with extra force. Finally, note the planted foot. Though both fighters end up with the plant foot facing 90º away from the opponent, CroCop plants his foot there to begin the technique while Cung's rotation is more gradual. Again, CroCop's body and leg are pulled through with extra force with this method, while Cung stays on balance but lands with less weight behind the strike.
All these factors together mean that the difference between CroCop's LHK and Cung's is that CroCop swings though the kick, committing 100% with vicious intent, while Cung snaps his kick out with somewhat less committment, and brings it back quickly. To illustrate the difference, imagine the opponent had not been there in either gif. CroCop's momentum would have spun him clear around, bringing him back to face forward, while Cung's kick likely would have stopped close to where it ended with Frank blocking it, and then been retracted back to the original stance. To clarify, this is not a mistake by Cung, rather it is a difference in technique. My hunch is that this difference is partly due to Cung's comfort with taekwondo, but partly a conscious choice as well. The "snap" on Cung's LHK means that he can throw a decent amount of power (via technique and his tree-trunk legs) shockingly fast, while avoiding the danger of overcommitting and ending up on his back, whether via slip or an opponent catching his leg. Now let's look at the left body kick.
Cung's left roundhouse to the body is quite similar to the headkick we examined above, with a main difference being that he can put more of his body behind it; not having to stretch to reach his opponent's head means he can keep his hip, knee, and ankle closer to being on the same plane. This is especially important since, as we said before, Cung does not trebuchet his upper body back to overbalance and add more weight to his kicks. If anything, Cung's body kicks are even more of a snapping, TKD-esque motion than his head kicks. In fact, some of you may be wondering if this is a roundhouse kick we're seeing above at all. This is definitely Cung's version of the roundhouse, leg angled upwards at 45º, but it's certainly not the Thai style body kick that's usually seen in the octagon.
Cung's roundhouse kick is actually most reminiscent of another unorthodox fighter's favorite technique - Katsunori Kikuno's crescent kick.
The two look remarkably similar, a sort of blend between a roundhouse and the front snap kick that Semmy Schilt is so fond of. Like with the head kick, Cung sacrifices some power by using this method of kicking, but extends his range with the straighter angle of the kick, and increases his speed by relying on the snap of his knee rather than the rotation of his entire upper body for power. The kick gains a power advantage over the front kick, while adding a speed and range advantage over the roundhouse. While the speed and snapping motion is an advantage against takedowns, it does sacrifice strike defense in a significant way, which we'll explore in part 2. Offensively though, and depending on the technician, this kick can inhabit a confusing and deadly middle ground that an opponent has never defended against before, or be a mediocre imitation of two kicks at once, with the advantages of neither. Cung definitely gets the best out of this technique. Watch below for the similarity between his kick and Kikuno's. Even though it's aimed near the head, he's using technique more reminiscent of his body kicks. More importantly, even though Cung is sacrificing power for speed, the Shamrock fight showed that there's plenty of snap in his legs. This is, I feel certain, the moment in the fight when Shamrock's arm first fractured. Click:
There's a sickening and very audible *crack* when that kick lands against Frank's arm, and the arm begins swelling immediately. It takes a few more minutes, but Cung proves that power a second time with another blistering kick that finally breaks the arm clean.
So, Cung's roundhouses have power, but not the 1-time power we've come to associate with other dangerous strikers. Interesting note, during the broadcast of this fight, Quadros predicts Frank breaking his arm beginning with 3:05 left on the clock in the 1st round.
Without question, these are Cung's home run hitters. He's landed them on most of the opponents he's faced, and they're usually knockdowns when he does. Very, very few fighters can lay claim to spinning kicks that even approach Cung's level of technique and power.
You can see the genius of Cung's setup above. This is from the 2nd Scott Smith fight, and is the kick that leads directly to the TKO stoppage. By this point in their history, Cung has landed something like 4 spinning back kicks on Smith, and knocked him down with all but 1 of them. And he still lands this one with ease. The setup is the reason, Le has only once ever thrown a SBK without any setup, and that was immediately after rocking Smith in the 3rd round of their 1st fight. To see the genius, compare the above gif with the last one in the "left cross" section (or click here if you don't wanna scroll). Both gifs, up until the very moment Le extends his left arm fully and starts to spin in the SBK one, are nearly identical. Le circles away from Smith in the same way, does the same forward step outside Smith's lead leg, and fakes the left straight, and Smith's counter left hook tells us that he's sure the cross is coming for real. The only giveaway for the kick is a subtle shuffle forward with Cung's left foot. Even after seeing the spinning back kick time and again, Cung's setup is so good (and, yes, Smith's defense is so terrible) that he lands it without effort.
Here we see more of Cung's creativity. Even though he almost always takes the step through with his left leg, we can see him change up the cross fake for a roundhouse kick fake during the one that lands on Smith's arms. In addition, though the SBK is his most common spinning kick, Cung can easily change up to a spinning wheel kick, which he knocks Scott momentarily senseless with in the gif above. And lest you think he can only kick off that forward step or only with the right leg, click:
He's just as capable of changing up and hitting with his power leg too. Bottom line, if Cung can get the distance and time he needs (something we'll discuss more in part 2) to uncork a few of these beauties, any fighter in front of him will likely crumble.
This punch is a strange one, because although it's usually a power punch, and Cung certainly uses it as such, it's also a big setup punch for Cung. Partly because of its versatility, it's Cung's #1 punch.
Cung Le doesn't really have much of a jab (more on this in part 2). He showed flashes of one in the 2nd fight against Scott Smith to go with his much improved boxing overall, but his main punch is the left hook. Next time we'll talk about it as a setup or combination punch, let's talk about its use as a single shot time time. The gif above shows some punching power for sure, but Altman practically leaps face-first onto Le's fist. Instead, he's a more typical use from the Scott Smith 2 fight. Click:
Well Floyd Mayweather he ain't, but it appears that our man Cung actually has a decent check hook. His circling to the "wrong" side is actually part of this. As a southpaw, and one that fights with his arms unusually outstretched, Cung is able to sneak his right hook over an orthodox opponent's lead shoulder with ease. So, Cung will circle to his left for awhile, then suddenly step back in and to his right. This hides his right hand from view and makes opponents think that left cross, or maybe a spin kick is coming again, only to see the right hook for the first time when it's already crashing into their jaw.
We can see Cung do exactly this against Tony Fryklund. Moving right hides the hand even more than Tony's shoulder already does, and (especially in the 2nd punch) it takes very, very little effort to produce monumental results when your opponent can't see your strikes coming. Like I say above, Cung's boxing footwork isn't Mayweather-esque, but it's good enough to escape a charging opponent while delivering some power with that lead hand. Notably, this is by far the best of his power strikes to use against an opponent trying to crowd him, and the only one he's shown he can land reliably in that situation. With Wanderlei's habit of swinging wide and his difficulty against counter hooks, Le's tight punching and fast hands might be a game-changer when he throws the right hook.
That's it for the first half of our list. Come back Wednesday night to see the second half. We'll break down Le's need for and use of range, his setup strikes, deadly combination striking, and defensive abilities.