No further ado, here's part 2.</whydidijustrhymethat?>
5. Need For Range
If you really crowd Cung Le, you can get him to do this. Click:
There's a specific range Cung likes to work from, and that's kicking range or further out. As a reminder, take a fresh look at how far out he is when he uses his level 3 special move and preferred fight-ender, spinning kick!
In each application seen in the gif above, Cung is well out of punching range, so that he's safe stepping in to initiate the attack. Even without the SBK, Cung is clearly more comfortable outside where he can use all of his varied offense instead of relying on boxing. Most of the Frank Shamrock fight took place at this range, and Cung for the most part picked Frank apart when given the time and space to employ all his offensive talents. Click:
By contrast, Scott Smith pushed the pace and refused to allow Cung space for the first 2 minutes of their second fight. Cung's offense was stifled until he was able to land the check hook we saw in part 1 of our series, which backed Smith off. Long range is also where Cung can best employ feints and put to use the variety he possesses in terms of his strikes, because his opponent is able to see his entire body, and the longer time that strikes take to reach can cause a fighter to think too much. We'll look at this in depth later. Maybe most importantly, Wanderlei Silva does his best work when he's in his opponent's face and doing this:
This is why iron-chinned brawler Chris Leben and technical counterpuncher/brawler Quinton Jackson were such terrible matchups for Silva as an inside swarmer, but why he might be the perfect kryptonite for out-fighter Le. If Silva is smart (and his chin holds up), he'll push the fight against Cung, refuse to let him breathe and do his damndest to test Le's chin, which we have reason to be suspicious of. It will be up to Cung to create space and keep Silva off him.
6. Setup Strikes
Remember how I said it will be up to Le to keep Wanderlei off him? It was like a sentence ago, keep up. Anyway, these strikes will be the ones that will do it for Cung, or not. Power strikes won't be half as important, because for most of those Cung needs to plant his feet, set himself, and begin to work his combinations. These two strikes below will give him the space to do just that, if they're used correctly.
Like I said in part 1, the right hook is an extremely versatile punch for Cung. It's one of his better power strikes, and easily his best from in close, but it's perhaps even more valuable as a setup strike given that it has more power than a jab, yet Cung can still land it with jab-like accuracy and speed. This is a very good thing, since Cung doesn't otherwise have a good (punching) jab.
First, Cung uses the right hook when his opponent is already giving him space as a stepping/leaping in punch to set up his left cross. Click:
Cung uses this punch again and again from kicking range, and it's a great one to use. Being a southpaw, his jab (if he had a good one) would be stuffed by his opponent's lead hand aligning with his, but his hook circling over the opponent's lead shoulder works to Cung's advantage since it hides the punch somewhat. It also has a good chance of forcing the opponent to move his head to Cung's left and straight into the path of the left straight, something a jab doesn't necessarily do. In addition, as we discussed in part 1, the lead hook can be a power punch in its own right. Though Cung doesn't quite have a thunderous flash KO lead hook like Paul Daley, much like his snapping roundhouse kick, his lead hook bridges the gap between jab and hook without being a liability in either direction. There's a more important use of Cung's right hook though, and it's one we've discussed before. Click:
We see here the check hook again, or if you're not into the whole brevity thing, then a lead hook against an advancing opponent, while stepping towards the opponent's blind side. Yes, it's the same punch I wrote about back in part 1 as a power strike, but this is a different usage. Basically, the way Le is using the check hook speaks to his mental state, and how the fight has been progressing so far. When we see him throw it as a single power shot, it tells us that Le feels crowded and somewhat frustrated, and really wants some space because after throwing the single punch, he backs off. When the fight is going well and Cung is able to control range, the check hook is not a single power shot, but an opening to continue the attack, as above. When it lands, this technique puts Le in a fantastic position to continue the attack, and I'd have to consider it a mental lapse when he choses not to follow up. The angle he ends up in against an orthodox fighter means he can use all his limbs to attack an opponent while taking away the power side of his opponent, and his opponent's lead shoulder blinds them to Le's attack. We saw that with the Frkylund knockdown, and we can see it again against Brian Warren below.
This perfectly displays the check hook's utility against a crowding fighter, the perfect angle of attack it gives against a right hander (the 2nd punch especially, through the window between shoulder and chin), and the power Cung possesses in his right hand. Should Cung land the check hook against Wanderlei, he needs to press the attack and swarm the swarmer, at least while he has a better angle of attack. One sustained attack from this position will do more to create range for Cung than 5 singular power shots.
Cung Le's side kick is like BJ Penn's jab. It's his range setter, it's a great counter, it sets up his offense, it's the best of its kind in the sport, and it's thrown by a pudgy, bald Hawaiian. Wait, what was I writing?
Anyway, yes, much has been made about Cung's side kick before because it's such an usual technique for MMA, and he uses it so well. There seem to be some misconceptions about it as well. Some people seem to think of the side kick as a bone-crushing fight finisher, or even a weapon against the takedown. Generally speaking, it is neither. It is a foot jab, and Cung Le uses it in exactly this way. Click:
Like a punching jab, Cung often throws the side kick when in doubt to test the range as well as push his opponent out to where he can work his more complete game. This is typical of any push kick, however, and Cung's side kick is more than that. Before we move on, take a moment to admire the technical beauty of the kick. Cung brings his knee and ankle up to chamber while simultaneously pulling his front hip back. Notice the plant foot, Cung rotates it 45º back when in chamber, then in one fluid motion twists his foot an additional 45º back while shooting his front hip out, extending the kick to plant his heel firmly in Fryklund's breadbasket. Rarely do we see technique in the cage that belongs in a textbook, but this certainly does. Even Cung's upper body is perfectly positioned, right shoulder forward to protect his chin, right arm extended to catch punches. After the kick lands, the foot is brought back to chamber with perfect balance. In any case, above is a sequence where Cung uses the side kick to fill an actionless moment. Like a jab, the kick is also used to keep an opponent off balance when he wants to reset. Click:
It's clear that Fryklund is trying to reset from the left straight that Cung lands to begin the gif, so Cung fills that empty mental space by snapping his left heel into Fryklund's body again. This is very similar to how K1 fans have seen Buakaw use the front push kick, though the front kick, being less powerful, can be thrown more quickly and more often. Though it doesn't blind Fryklund like a jab to the face would, the side kick disrupts his breathing, which pays dividends in terms of his endurance later. Le can also throw it from further out, keeping the range he likes so much. Two more uses of the side kick to examine. Click:
Cung's stepping side kick adds range to his already long kick, decreasing the space in the cage where his opponent can feel comfortable resetting and taking a few deep breaths. For a kick-based out-fighter like Le, having a long, accurate, and fast weapon (that's fairly safe defensively) that he can use to pressure his opponent and take away his gas tank is a big help towards keeping his own breathing space and working his opponent into a more stationary target. One more gif of the stepping side kick from above before we move on. Click:
This is a beautiful angle to show us the slick step-slide that Le employs to extend his range an extra foot or two on the side kick, as well as increasing his power a fair amount. Because the rear foot is perfectly behind the lead, it's very hard to see from an opponent's perspective. This means that after Cung has thrown a few side kicks and you're beginning to feel the range, he can suddenly change this range and power without you realizing it. Click:
Finally, here's the side kick as a counter. This will be the most important use against Wanderlei Silva, as Cung will need to have space enough to plant his feet and move forward before employing the side kick as an offensive weapon. Cung's perfect technique is important here. As he tries to cover up Shamrock's jab with his own lead hand, his rear foot steps forward very slightly and his front shoulder turns to cover his chin, but otherwise Cung's upper body barely appears to move at all. This is important because it leaves Frank unprepared, letting the kick land harder, and also because it gives Frank no time to rush in. For fun, compare Cung's side kick counter to B.J. Penn's jab counter from UFC 137. Foot strike vs. hand strike aside, they're very similar in use. Click:
The way to defend against Cung's side kick is to sidestep it or come all the way in, as barreling through before the kick is at full extension will usually knock the kicker off balance. 100% body weight > standing on one leg; this is why the side kick is a bad weapon against the takedown, at least after the opponent has started their forward movement. Therefore, Cung needs to do what he did here; cover up the lead hand to make Wanderlei afraid of a left straight counter, and land the counter side kick again and again until Wanderlei stops crowding. Click:
After discussing the different ways Cung can use his side kick, the gif above shows the effects of half a fight of applying these different methods. What we see from Shamrock is exactly what any out-fighter wants out of an opponent; lots of range to work, and the opponent waiting on the jab. Shamrock really does not want to eat more side kicks here, and he's looking very hard to block them. This reaction, I imagine, makes Le's eyes light up. We'll see exactly why in the next few gifs we look at.
7. Combinations/Striking Variety
Here's where we talk about Cung Le in his wheelhouse, putting together the setup strikes we just went over with the power strikes mentioned in part 1, at the kicking range he's most comfortable in. Look back at the last sidekick gif once more, then click on this one:
Coming a minute exactly after the last gif, Cung's setup has paid off in spades. Cung fakes the jab, and comes in with the stepping side kick again, which Frank is clearly tired of. Noting this and the reactions above, the next time Cung comes forward, Frank is looking hard for the side kick, and Cung knows it. Frank lowers his hands and raises his shin to block, as well as sticking his chin out in response to the anticipated body kick, opening up a lovely left straight to the body and right hook to the temple. Cung was able to use the threat of his side-kick-as-jab in a similar way the second time round against Scott Smith. Click:
This first gif shows us specifically how the side kick opens up the rest of offense. Much like faking with the right hand opens up Cung's stepping side kick, faking the chamber with the side kick brings both of Smith's hands down and opening up a beauty of a window for Cung's right hook, which is a setup for more of his offense. Click:
Having been fooled by both the sidekick and the right hook now, Smith is totally paralyzed defensively when Cung comes forward again. Smith's only reaction to both the kick feint and right jab feint is to cover up, allowing a left straight to slip through his guard, followed by a crashing right hook to the temple. So we've seen how the side kick can open up Cung's offense, and looked above at how the left hook can set up combos. Even beyond this, however, Cung Le is so dangerous at range because you will see combinations of techniques that he's never shown before. Let's just enjoy a few gifs of Cung Le at his best, when he's given the space and time to work his game and be creative with his striking. Note the stringing together of setup and power shots we've already covered in different ways to confuse opponents. Click and enjoy:
One quick note about the gif above, this demonstrates Cung's preferred counter to an opponent who tries to avoid his side kick by stepping outside Cung's lead foot. Though it's a low percentage move, it means there is a counter ready if an opponent steps to either side of the side kick.
So we've gone through Cung's formidable offense. Even though he doesn't have the 1-punch power of a Chris Leben or Rampage Jackson, there's a reason Cung is known as a human highlight reel, and if he's able to get his offense going it could be a very frustrating and painful night for Wanderlei Silva. So this should be an easy fight for Cung, right?
8. Striking Defense
Not so much. In case you forgot, we were going in order from least to most importance. Yeah.
Punching: Despite Cung being a pretty good offensive boxer, his technique needs plenty of work as far as staying protected from counterstrikes. Click:
Le and Smith both land their punches here, and that's a problem. See below for the still image of where Smith lands his counter.
The problem is clear as day, when throwing the left straight Le leaves his right hand all the way down at his waist. This is not an isolated incident either, scroll back up and look at the thumbnail for the 2nd side kick gif and you'll see Cung reaching way out to land a left cross while leaving his right hand down at Chuck Liddell levels of negligence. And speaking of Chuck, Wanderlei caught him several times during their UFC 79 fight precisely because of Chuck's bad habit of leaving his non-punching hand down. Cung also leaves his left hand down occasionally on right hooks, though it's less pronounced. Cung needs to fix this issue sooner rather than later, his chin won't hold up if he continues to have exchanges like the one with Smith above. Again, Chuck Liddell is the perfect example for why.
We discussed Cung's unusual roundhouse kicking technique, and it was my judgement that it was quite a good fit for Cung in terms of offensive considerations (speed, power, range, etc) and good in terms of avoiding getting a kick caught. You may remember, though, that I had a bone to pick in terms of defense against counterstrikes. Click:
Some of you may be saying, "So what? Frank lined up a good counter and landed it. It happens." Not so. Cung's technique directly leads to Frank being able to land this blistering counterpunch, which nearly lost Cung the fight even though Frank's right arm (which he delivered the punch with, tough SOB) was almost certainly fractured already by this point. Let's go to the technique of the Kyokushin crescent kick as demonstrated by Katsunori Kikuno, which, as we've said before, is very similar to how Cung's TKD-derived roundhouse kicks end up.
Having this is front of us, look down to the next gif of Ryan Gruhn of Central PA Mixed Martial Arts demonstrating proper Muay Thai roundhouse technique.
There are two key differences to draw attention to here. First look at the shoulder on the kicking side. In Katsunori's case, it remains largely stationary from beginning to end. In Ryan's kick, by contrast, the rear shoulder rotates a fair amount, coming forward with the kick to cover the right side of his jaw. Combined with his lead hand protecting the left side of his jaw, there's only a tiny window for a straight counterpunch to come through, while on the other hand Katusnori's entire head and jawline are exposed. Second, watch the main weapon of the kick and how it lands. Kikuno is aiming with the foot, while Ryan aims with the shin. Also, Kikuno's foot travels forward, but in an upward and 45º angle. Ryan's kick comes forward while remaining perfectly horizontal. What I'm getting at here is that Katsunori, by extending his foot away from his knee and kicking upward, has a very small weapon area to hit his opponent with, which is fine when his opponent is at range. If he steps in, however, the kick is robbed of its power. Ryan's kick, on the other hand, has the shin, foot, and knee all in a horizontal line and aimed forward, giving a much bigger weapon area. If an opponent steps forward into his kick, the opponent is eating all of that power as opposed to barreling through it. Take a look at Brandon Vera's technique against Randy Couture and then compare it to Rashad Evans' kick on Lyoto Machida to see how these different techniques invite or discourage counterpunches and/or an opponent moving forward on you.
To be clear, I don't think this is a technical flaw per se, rather it is a peculiarity of the difference in technique. By not rolling the shoulder forward and not rotating the entire shin forward as a weapon, Cung decreases the commitment in his strike, which makes it faster and easier to retract to avoid a takedown, all while delivering plenty of power with slightly more range and speed. The tradeoff is that, should an opponent time it right, Cung is wide open for a counterpunch down the middle, both when he initiates the kick, and after an opponent blocks it successfully.
This is a big problem against Wanderlei, because there is definitely precedent for that kind of danger. Wandy has taken advantage of fighters failing to protect themselves while kicking before, and would love to do it again. Kazushi Sakuraba fans, avert your eyes.
Keith Jardine fans, av-oh wait.
Cung is unlikely to radically change his roundhouse technique or use the classical Thai kick as an addition, so he better cover up when he throws a roundhouse kick, or he may find 195 pounds of angry bald Brazilian in his face when he resets his stance.
Cung has some nice San Shou-style defense against straight kicks.
Notice that his arms each move in a half-circle to cover his face and lower abdomen before catching the kick at his solar plexus. It's beautiful San Shou technique and is a serious danger should Wanderlei try a push kick. This is unlikely however, as Wanderlei will want to close distance, not create it. Cung's defense against roundhouse kicks has been much less stellar in the past. Though he caught one of Frank's kicks in their fight and sent him to the floor in the first round, it was off Frank's sole roundhouse from his lead side. Shamrock landed his power side kick all night against Cung. Click:
Cung's stance likely has a lot to do with this. He defends well against head kicks, but a combination of extended arms, standing upright and a fondness for planting his feet make body and leg kicks good weapons to use against him. As far as body kicks go, the upright stance simply gives opponents more body to kick. In addition, in the gif above, we can see that Cung's left arm being slightly extended makes it hard for him to stick his elbow to his side and block the body kick. For the utility that kind of defense offers, we only need scroll up slightly and take another look at how Shamrock sets up his counter to Cung's body kick. Frank exploited this weakness from Cung rather often through the first two rounds, until Cung's side kick started to pay dividends and made Frank uncomfortable kicking at range. Click:
Cung doesn't check leg kicks, generally speaking. Above is one of the two ways he defends against them instead. Above, Cung bends his knees and leans in, causing the kick to slide up his thigh where it's less dangerous and additionally allowing Cung to come forward with a counterpunch from the power side. Cung demonstrates the technique here, without the in-depth explanation. That rationale all sounds well and good, but the fact is that Cung is still taking a leg kick rather than blocking it. Against the Brian Warrens and even Frank Shamrocks of the world, that might work, but Cung is facing a muay thai specialist in Wanderlei. The fact is, even with the kick sliding up higher on the thigh, Cung is essentially gritting his teeth and taking one to give one. The only hope for using this as a long term strategy is that Cung is accurate with his left straight counter, and that Wandy hates it more than he does. Don't count on that happening. The other way Cung defends against leg kicks is even more worrying. Click:
Avoiding the kick is all well and good, since Cung takes no damage. But notice that Cung's feet totally leave the ground when he does this. Notice that his hands stay down at his shoulders. And most of all, notice that his chin sticks forward when he leaps back. All Wanderlei (or any other opponent) need do is time Cung's use of this particular defense. Fake a leg kick, step in with an overhand right, and it's a guaranteed knockdown, if not a KO. If Wanderlei can use leg kicks consistently (while defending against Cung's side kick), he may get Cung to progress from his first style of defense to the second, opening up his swarming windmill hooks.
Again we'll explore Le's defensive boxing abilities. Click:
First, blocking. Having your arms outstretched really isn't a good strategy, defensively speaking. It means you have less time to react and catch punches with your hands since your hands start out closer to where they need to be to meet punches. Your elbows are out of position to catch body punches, like I mentioned when discussing body kicks. You're also showing your defense in advance a little, allowing your opponent to punch around your defense, much like Cung did against Tony Fryklund. Even though he stands with his arms out, Cung did a pretty good job of blocking punches with his hands in his first few fights, but this has decreased as of late. It's possible this is due to ring rust or Cung's skills decreasing, but I think it more likely due to the increase in competition quality, as well as opponents realizing that crowding Cung lessens his ability to avoid punches.
Now, head movement. Cung moves his head in 3 directions: straight back, back and to the left, and ducking down. It's a toss-up which is best between moving straight back and back and to the left. While moving straight back Cung retains the ability to strike back, but is easier to bully, while moving back and left he loses counterstrikes but usually circles while leaning, making him harder to follow. Both of these are undoubtedly superior to Cung's duck, however, because while moving his head in the other 2 ways, Cung can keep his feet moving and keep his eyes on his opponent. Ducking is usually an escape of desperation, and he does neither.
Smith times this duck and catches Cung with a left hook standing flat-footed, with his eyes and hands down, leading to his come-from-behind TKO win. Click:
This is ominous, because it's from the second fight with Smith. Cung is still making this mistake after being knocked out as a result. Cung at least moves immediately after ducking, but looks at the floor and drops his hands while avoiding the overhand right. Had Scott been on balance, he could have followed up with that same left hook to the temple. Notably, this sequence as well as the TKO from the first Smith fight came as a direct result of Cung being bullied and having his range invaded. Now when and were does Wanderlei do his best work?
Silva at his best. If he can get Cung running and/or ducking, his power is more than enough to put him away. So, technique-wise, what this fight will likely come down to will be Cung's ability to keep range with his sidekick and left hook (or clinch throws if he gets desperate and wants to risk the ground game) to keep himself safe defensively and set up his best offense. Wanderlei will need to try and take advantage of Cung's spotty boxing defense, or get the Thai clinch, by crowding Cung and refusing to give him space to kick. Should that fail, Wanderlei should work leg and body kicks, trying to get Cung to drop his hands and/or leap out of the way, opening the door for Wandy to rush him again. The opening of the fight will be telling, as I don't believe Wanderlei being patient will pay him dividends. Though Le's defense is far from impenetrable, his offense is more than good enough to keep Silva at bay if he's able to work.
The two biggest factors in this fight, though, I can't provide any breakdown for. Those factors? How Cung Le comes back from his 16-month layoff, and how Silva has recovered from his knockout at the hands of Chris Leben. Cung's previous track record with layoffs does not inspire optimism, though he came into MMA off a 2-year layoff from San Shou, his more recent 21-month break between the Shamrock and Scott Smith fight showed clear signs of ring rust with cardio issues and sloppy boxing. At 39 years old, I'm worried Cung's return will be more like the first Smith fight than the second. The even bigger question mark, though, is Silva. He's shown clear and worrying muscle stiffness as the years have gone on, undoubtedly as a result of 4 KTFO losses in his past 8 fights (including the Leben loss). He appears to be somewhat less coordinated compared with the lithe and loose Wanderlei of the early PRIDE days, and his stance has gotten wider and lower at the same time. It may make a nice target for side kicks to have Wandy standing tense and spread out in his stance. Confidence also comes into play. After coming out overly aggressive against Chris Leben, Wanderlei paid for it dearly. Wanderlei showed tentativeness against Chuck Liddell coming off of 2 knockouts in PRIDE, and again against Rich Franklin after the Rampage knockout. He'll have to break this pattern and come out aggressive against Cung Le. The really real for real question, though, is Wanderlei's chin. Even tense and less coordinated than in the past, Wandy definitely possesses the skills necessary to bully Cung into playing his game, which gives Wandy the best chance to win. In order to do that, however, Wanderlei's chin will have to hold up if he gets what he wants and Cung punches with him on the inside.
I, for one, am very nervous and excited for the fight at UFC 139. Nervous especially, because there's no predicting what will happen in the matchup I'm most interested in. In any case, we'll either see a resurgence of the Wanderlei of old, or learn that maybe Cung Le really does have what it takes to hang in the UFC. I can't wait to find out. Till next time!