UFC 139 Judo Chop: Cung Le and the Sanshou Spinning Back Kick

At UFC 139 this weekend, UFC fans will be introduced to Cung Le. The former Strikeforce Middleweight champion will face Wanderlei Silva in the night's semi-main event. But between this being his UFC debut and the fact that he has had only one fight in the past two years, Le may be something of an unknown for fans at home (not for fans at the show though - expect Le to receive a hero's welcome in his adopted home of San Jose).

The big word UFC fans will hear throughout Le's fight? "Sanshou." That's the fighting style employed by Cung Le - a style that he has absolutely mastered, but that no one else has used with any degree of effectiveness in MMA. Le is, in many ways, a throwback to the earliest days of MMA, when a practitioner of a somewhat obscure martial art would come in and try to represent his art form against all comers. The big difference is that most of these early arts failed, where Le has found good MMA success with his style.

So what exactly is Sanshou? Well...

Sanshou is a martial art which was originally developed by the Chinese military based upon the intense study and practices of traditional Kung Fu and modern combat fighting techniques; it combines full-contact kickboxing, which include punches and kicks, wrestling, takedowns, throws, sweeps, kick catches, and in some competitions, even elbow and knee strikes.

Amongst martial arts purists, the idea of Sanshou is a bit controversial. The name is, at times, used interchangeably with Sanda and Wushu, though not everyone agrees with lumping these together. There's also the idea that, somewhat like Bruce Le's Jeet Kune Do, Sanshou is not a style unto itself, but rather a system of how to effectively use martial arts. It's a complex and fascinating debate, but it also is a somewhat separate issue. What is more important to the UFC fan is simply this - "How does Cung Le use Sanshou in MMA?"

There are two key aspects of Sanshou that play a part in Le's MMA game: takedowns and kicks. Despite being perceived at times as more of a standing art, Sanshou does use takedowns as one of the primary attacks. Kid Nate already broke down Le's superb use of Sanshou takedowns in MMA in an earlier Judo Chop, and I highly encourage you to check that one out here.

In this edition, we'll break down the other key Sanshou weapon - kicks. And for Cung Le, no Sanshou kick is more effective than the spinning back kick. Let's take a look at the traditional spinning back kick, and see how Le uses Sanshou to adapt it and make it an even more dangerous weapon.

Full breakdown, with gifs, after the jump.

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First up, let's take a look at the traditional spinning back kick, as executed by one of today's best practitioners of this strike - Dennis Siver. To execute the kick, Siver turns his head and body in the direction of his power leg - Siver is standing in orthodox stance, so he rotates to his right. With his back to his opponent, Siver brings the rear leg up, cocking his knee. He completes the rotation, ending with his shoulders perpendicular to his opponent's body, and extends the kick forward and through the opponent's midsection. Done correctly and cleanly, it's a brutal blow that can earn a KO.

Le uses the spinning back kick frequently, but he has added some variations on it that utilize his Sanshou background. I encourage you to first take a look at this great Cung Le spinning back kick highlight video that incorporates footage from Human Weapon:

Those clips give you an idea of some of Le's spinning kicks, but let's take a closer look at some of those back kicks, particularly from his Strikeforce fight with Scott Smith.

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First up, here is what I would call a switch spinning back kick. Le starts in southpaw with his left leg back. He starts by stepping forward with that left leg, switching to orthodox stance. But as he makes that step, he also brings that right foot directly in front of his left and starts his rotation. From there, the rest of the kick is basically the same as Siver's - Le lifts the right leg, rotates through, and blasts it into Smith. Notice how the force of the blow knocks Smith into the cage and down. This is a great kick for two reasons. First, that extra step increases the rotation, which is where the spinning back kick gets its force. With the extra rotation, the kick can be more powerful. Second, look how well Lee extends his leg, getting it perfectly straight as he connects. That sends the force entirely into Smith and knocks him off balance. Interestingly, Le also changes up his target here. Normally this kick targets the midsection, but here Le goes more to the chest. Smith partially blocks it, but the momentum still is enough to drop him. That's also a very dangerous block for Smith, as it can easily result in a fractured arm, as Frank Shamrock can attest.

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Here is another good kick that is similar to the last one. Again, Le starts in south paw, steps forward to switch to orthodox, and with that same motion throws the kick. This time though he goes to the midsection, driving his heel into Smith's stomach and knocking the wind out of him. Notice that on this kick, Le is very close to Smith as the kick lands, and so unlike the previous kick, he keeps the kick more cocked until it is in position, then fires it, again getting good extension. To land this kick so close gives it extra power, and part of the way Le gets so close is again with his switch to orthodox.

One last note here - notice how he uses punches to set up the kick. Cung Le talked about this as one of his strategies for the fight - to get Smith moving back with punches, them chase him down with the kicks. It works beautifully here, as Smith starts to retreat, and also keeps his hands up to avoid more punches, leaving a hole in his defenses to the body.

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This time, Le starts in the orthodox stance, so the spinning back kick begins more traditionally. But at the end, Le adds his own twist by bringing the kick up to the head. You see this move in kickboxing sometimes (Badr Hari famously KO'd Stefan Leko in K-1 with this same kick) but it's very rare in MMA. Smith is unsure how to block and ends up taking it on the side of the head. One small detail I don't love here is the way Le abandons his footwork and stance after the kick in order to chase Smith down. It allows him to close the distance faster and keep up the assault, but I don't love the idea of allowing yourself to be so exposed.

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And finally, one last example. This one again targets the head. Here you can really see how Le's ability to change his target confuses his opponent. Smith does not know where the kick is coming and so actually defends by lifting his leg in what looks like an attempt to check a leg kick. These Sanshou kicks are totally confusing him, leaving him defenseless and very vulnerable. The speed on this kick is incredible too - no set up, just a fast, perfect spinning back kick. Finally, I love how Le gets that right foot immediately down and back into position right after the kick lands. He is right back in stance, ready to continue the fight.

Will Wanderlei Silva see some of these kicks at UFC 139? And if he does, will he have an answer for them? I certainly hope we find out.

Want more Cung Le Sanshou action? Here is a nice Sanshou demonstration:

And here's his MMA debut from the first Strikeforce show:

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