Cung Le and Rich Franklin are two fairly exciting fighters who are decent finishers and pretty competent in most areas of the game. They also represent an underwhelming main event for the UFC's first card in China; in fact the main selling point seems to be that Cung Le is of Asian descent. That is a gripe with the card, however, which is exceptionally weak. As a stand alone fight this bout is full of interesting possibilities and exciting variables. Le's kicks are some of the best in the sport and certainly the most varied and dynamic, meanwhile Franklin is one of the few of an era of champions to cling to near relevancy having protected his jawline far better than his peers; Chuck Liddell and Wanderlei Silva.
Today we'll look at some of the features of both men's styles and how they match up.
The Goofy Style of Rich Franklin
Rich Franklin has done a marvelous job of staying in shape and staying conscious throughout recent years where his three most recent opponents and peers for a large part of his career; Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin and Wanderlei Silva have all shown a marked deterioration in physical durability. Franklin's job has always been to fight smart - he has never had one skill which has overshadowed all the others, he's just a guy who is slightly above average in all disciplines but not particularly amazing in any one.
Recently Franklin has focused on his striking which has certainly improved technically since his physical prime. Any time I am asked to illustrate how striking in mixed martial arts has improved I reference Rich Franklin's bouts with Evan Tanner - where both men circle the cage for some time, crossing their back foot behind their front. That's a day one kickboxing error and it was happening in a world middleweight title bout as recently as 2005!
The only words I can think of to accurately capture the style of Rich Franklin are "awkward" or "goofy". Franklin's muscled physique looks awkward and wooden when he moves to punch or kick, but he still manages to get decent power on his punches when he tries. A great example of Franklin's herky jerk style is his long lead hook which extends almost straight. This clumsy punch rarely has much power, but he was able to clip Anderson Silva several times with it. In the still below Franklin jabbed and hooked off of the same hand - it was clumsy but it wasn't the left - right - left offense that Silva is so used to.
Franklin doesn't have great form in any of his punches and rarely throws combinations exceeding two punches, but Franklin's love of lunging into his punches means he can severely hurt his opponents if he connects. It also means that he is in turn very easy to:
1) Tie up, as Anderson Silva and Forrest Griffin did so successfully.
2) Stun with strikes; as Wanderlei Silva and Chuck Liddell both managed to do as Franklin lunged at them.
Franklin's tendency to overcommit is not so obvious when he is connecting and ducking out again, but any time he misses a punch it is clear how out of position his attempts to power punch leave him. Rich Franklin's constant leading with his chin and hunched stance are indicative of a largely self taught striker, but his savvy in mixing up his set ups and picking his spots is undeniable.
Franklin's passion for chasing opponents with his lunging punches may work either for or against him in a bout with Cung Le. Wanderlei Silva's attempts to pressure Le were greeted with a spinning backfist which dropped him early, but Silva ultimately caught up to Le late in the bout.
A more recent addition to Rich Franklin's game which may enable him to hold his own at range with Cung Le is his powerful left roundhouse kick. This technique folded Matt Hammill in half and made frequent appearances in all of Franklin's recent matches. What Franklin benefits from enormously in all of his matches, however, is the alien nature of being a southpaw. Franklin's go to techniques, the lunging left straight and the left roundhouse kick, are just not as easily applied against a fellow southpaw. Where in most of his matches all Rich needs to do is step his lead foot outside of his opponent's and he has a dominant angle, against a southpaw he is forced to actually box and it is just not something he is used to.
The Sanshou of Cung Le
Cung Le is well known for his beautiful kicks and exciting throws - he is also known for having a pretty mediocre UFC run so far. Defeating Franklin would be a large feather in Le's hat and would certainly make his fights and his movies even more marketable. The staple of Le's game is his kicking ability - more accurately the variety of kicks which he uses. Where Franklin uses only the left roundhouse kick to the legs or body, Le has used the side kick, roundhouse kick, spinning back kick and spinning back roundhouse kick with equal flair and is competent at most of these kicks with both legs from his southpaw stance.
Aside from the flashy techniques, however, Le's main method of grinding opponents down is the same as Franklin's and most hard kicking southpaws (Yodsanklai and Giorgio Petrosyan for example) - stepping outside of the opponent's lead leg and throwing a hard left roundhouse kick at the rib cage or whatever gets in the way. This is how Cung Le was able to break Frank Shamrock's arm and win his Strikeforce title. Le commented afterward that it was Frank's attempts to absorb the kicks with one arm rather than both which cost him the fight, and that MMA fighters simply aren't used to defending truly hard kicks. (G)
Frank Shamrock vs Cung Le Highlights (via lifeisgood1234)
Le's hands are fairly mediocre and he cannot hit hard consistently throughout a bout - occasionally he will land a hard shot but most of his punches seem of little concern to his opponents. This and a long suspected weakness for the ground game have meant that Le's entire job in the cage is to keep his opponent on the end of his legs. This is where Le can do most damage and avoid opponents investigating the question marks of his boxing, ground game and chin. Unfortunately kicks which are missed often give an easy path to a fighter's back. Cung Le avoids this by using spinning backfists liberally throughout his bouts.
Notice how as Wanderlei Silva parries Cung Le's side kick and attempts to close the distance to work his hands on Cung Le, Le spins with a hammerfist which stuns Silva. This type of technique is frequently used in Cung Le's fights. For more on this read my piece from earlier in the week on the Side Kick.
The secret to beating Cung Le has never been all that well guarded, however. One dimensional kickers are difficult to fight but once things start going against them the energy consuming kicking game and lack of other skills really start to punish them. Against a great kicker one must always be at a range where it is easy to jump back so that kicks miss, or a a close range where kicks are muffled and the kicker is forced to throw punches or cover. Wanderlei Silva demonstrated how even a very badly worn down veteran can still apply this gameplan with success.
Silva continued to back up until Le had missed a kick and then Wanderlei would rush him. As the bout progressed the missed kicks and the constant backpeddling every time Wanderlei came close began to wear on Le. Furthermore despite years of competing in MMA Le's go to defense is still to "put on the earmuffs" with his gloves up by his ears. This does not work with small gloves on. Every time Silva charged Le he was able to connect his wild swings through the massive gaps in Le's guard. Frank Shamrock was able to hurt Le in a similar way but was too stubborn to back up when Cung Le kicked and consequently was savagely beaten into retiring at the end of the third round.
What to Expect
Both of these men have the power to hurt each other but the obvious area where Rich Franklin edges Cung Le is in durability and conditioning. Franklin will likely get beaten up at range by the better kicks of Cung Le (Franklin was even having trouble with some of Forrest Griffin's slow kicks at range). But as the bout continues you can expect Franklin to the do the smart thing and give Cung ground only to take it away again and pour on the pressure with punches. If Franklin can get to punching range against Le, particularly after the second round when Cung typically begins to slow down, this fight is very much his to lose.
Of course the venom with which Cung Le kicks, this match could end in a knockout in his favour at any time, but the blueprint to hurt Cung Le is very clear, and his bout with Patrick Cote didn't suggest that he's done much to ammend this.