Book Review: Cung Le's San Shou: The Complete Fighting System

I've post-poned publishing this review of Cung Le's San Shou: The Complete Fighting System because I kept hoping against hope that he would sign a bout contract and treat us to another MMA fight, but alas, it appears Hollywood has lured him away from MMA for the foreseeable future. 

Cung Le has had a remarkable combat sports career first in sanshou/wushu, then K-1 kickboxing and then in MMA. Per Wikipedia, Le went 16-0 in Sanshou competition, 3-0 for K-1 and 8-1 in MMA under the Strikeforce banner. 

Despite winning the Strikeforce title, Le has never quite garnered the respect from hardcore MMA fans that his abilities and utterly innovative style merit. 

Le's unique style of combining dramatic throws and slams with a variety of flashy kicks -- many of which had never been seen before in pro-level MMA -- made him an instant favorite with fans watching but also consistently drew skepticism from self-appointed "hardcores" who frankly just couldn't believe what they were seeing and accused Le of ducking quality competition and even of engaging in works. 

Frankly that criticism was coming out of utter ignorance. While it's unfortunate that Le came to MMA so late in his athletic career -- he made his pro debut at age 34 -- and he was never able to make a full-time commitment to the cage, his skill and stylistic innovations are undeniable.

His book,  San Shou: The Complete Fighting System, co-authored with Glen Cordoza and published by Victory Belt, goes a long way towards de-mystifying Le's style and explaining how he put it together. 

Start with taekwondo beginning at age 10. Like Anderson Silva, Stephan Bonnar and many other martial artists of his generation, Le started his martial arts journey by studying this kick-based style that is often dismissed as impractical or inapplicable to MMA.

Add a strong foundation in folkstyle, Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling. Le wrestled competitively from the age of 14, culminating in winning the California Junior College championship in 1990. 

Mix in an extensive point-fighting background culminating in three US Open International Martial Arts Championships. Successful as he was, Le felt hampered by the rules banning punches to the face and kicks to the back among many other restrictions. 

Channel all of that background into a decade of competition under Sanshou rules. Sanshou (aka Sanda or Wushu) is the competition martial art of the Chinese military and the rules allow for full contact striking (with a ban on clinch fighting) and throws, but no ground fighting. This rule set was perfect for Le with his taekwondo and wrestling backgrounds.

After a decade of ruling the U.S. Sanshou world and competing internationally, he came to MMA. With the exception of an aging Frank Shamrock, Le never faced truly top-tier competition, but he did prove that his style is effective in the cage. 

San Shou: The Complete Fighting System details the building blocks of Le's style. It's the usual beautiful Victory Belt publication with hundreds of full color photos detailing each move step-by-step and clear explanations from Le for how to execute each move. 

There are sections on Stance, Side Kick Techniques, Striking to the Takedown, Finishing the Takedown, Defensive Tactics, Catching Kicks, Takedown Defense, Clinch Techniques and Drills. This last section may be of the most utility to fighters looking to incorporate Le-style throws and side kicks into their game. 

The book is a remarkable introduction to a style of fighting that is almost completely unique in MMA history. Le's style eschews the Muay Thai or boxing foundation that is the most common MMA striking style. Instead he replaces the round kick to the thigh and the jab with the side kick as his foundational strike. This creates a world of new possibilities for the thinking MMA fighter as the changes in stance and fighting range completely change the fight. 

But it's Le's wrestling that allows his TKD derived striking to work in MMA. The book details how Le combines the two and uses his kicks to set up the dramatic throws and slams that have so electrified MMA fans. While he includes plenty of the single and double leg take downs, trips and arm drags that are the most commonly seen MMA take downs in his repertoire, he adds a dramatic flair by finishing his single legs with flashy moves like "hiking the football" and the "helicopter throw" and a whole range of high impact throws and hip tosses more familiar to judo than MMA.

Clearly Le's game includes very little ground grappling and no submissions, but his wrestling made it so hard for his opponents to take him down that that never proved relevant in his MMA career. 

All in all, this is an excellent book for the student of MMA, especially those bringing extensive TKD experience to the game. I also recommend it for anyone who wants to understand Le's flashy style and just how technically sound it is at its base. It's looking like we'll never know how Le would have fared against the top MMA middleweights of his era, but we do know that he has blazed a path of innovation in MMA that many fighters will follow in the future. 

Thanks to  Victory Belt for the review copy.

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