UFC Macao: Rich Franklin vs. Cung Le Dissection

Is Cung Le's phenomenal and unorthodox striking just an over-sold myth?

The featured attraction at UFC on Fuel TV 6 in Macao, China, is a salivating match up between former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin and Sanshou master Cung Le. The main card goes live at 9 a.m. Saturday morning on Fuel TV after the Facebook preliminary card stream at 7:40 a.m. ET.

As far as MMA goes, I guess the jury is still out on Cung Le (8-2). Preceding each of his performances, comments from the peanut gallery include discrediting his reputation as a star striker, purporting that his status is widely overblown, that he'll get bullied around by well-rounded fighters and that he's just not fit for MMA.

I can begrudgingly get on board with the latter sentiment, as he's clearly sputtered out in later rounds and doesn't train around the clock because of his theatrical aspirations. I'm unsure how anyone can question his striking prowess or reputation with credentials like this:

  • 2005 Strikeforce Light Heavyweight San Shou Champion
  • 2004 ISKA Light Heavyweight K-1 Super Fight Champion
  • 2001 IKF Light Heavyweight World Champion
  • 2000 ISKA North American Light Heavyweight Champion
  • 2000 ISKA Light Heavyweight K-1 Super fight Champion
  • 1999 Art of War Light Heavyweight Champion
  • 1999 ISKA Light Heavyweight Sanshou Champion
  • 1998 ISKA Light Cruzer weight Champion
  • 1998 Shidokan Team USA Champion

And that's not even his full list of accolades, which require too much bandwidth to list. Is it possible to have accomplished all that but really not be an amazing striker? Sure, none of that pertains to MMA, but it's not like Le is unproven in that realm either. He handily out-struck Wanderlei Silva, one of the most feared and devastating strikers in face-punching history, in the 1st round of their UFC 139 match. He punted Frank Shamrock around the Strikeforce cage, who fractured his arm blocking the onslaught of kicks. He also coolly dismantled a respected veteran in Patrick Cote in his last appearance at UFC 148.

I'm not saying he's the second coming of Jesus or the greatest thing since parachute pants, but I am saying that it's virtually impossible for an over-rated or over-hyped striker to pull those things off.

It's not uncommon to hear fans profess that Le will get tossed to and fro by well-rounded, mid-level fighters and/or exposed as a one-dimensional striker with no ground game. Yet Le took up freestyle wrestling in 8th grade and, before he reached age 20, had already become a 2-time National Champion in Sambo, an AAU National Champion in both freestyle and Greco Roman wrestling, a California high school state champion and a National Champion and 2-time All American at the Junior College level.

Now, factor in that his extraordinary specialty, Sanshou, is unique in that it's a striking competition that allows takedowns, trips and throws (though no subsequent ground work), and that Le excelled almost as much with the takedown aspect as he did in striking, and the assumption that he'll fall over and die against any half-assed wrestler seems pretty ludicrous.

Extremely perceptive and astute readers might be able to detect a slight bias for Cung Le here. It's true. However, I'd like to consider myself realistic at both confronting the common criticism and acknowledging his flaws, which are undoubtedly his cardio/durability and his in-cage experience. Despite an impressive 1st round, what matters is that Silva flattened him -- just like Scott Smith did, who's not even an A-level striker.

To summarize: Le's exemplary background can't be refuted and thus far, for a guy who doesn't train full time with 10 fights to his name, he has enormous potential but a lot to prove. Fair?

Such cantankerous bickering is entirely unnecessary for a guy like Rich Franklin (29-6). Everyone loves "Ace" and respects him immensely as both a fighter and a person. The sheepishly smiling, four-eyed schoolteacher from Cincy won the fans over during his reign as the UFC middleweight champion from 2004-2006. He's a technical kickboxer, but one who torques out looping punches that have a tendency to sail around or in between an opponent's defense, which also allows him to generate good power.

Franklin's kicks are crisp and unforgiving, his clinch game is rock-solid against anyone not named Anderson Silva, he's a deceivingly adept grappler, he has one of the best Fight I.Q.'s in the game and his heart is well proven. Catapulted into a catch-weight limbo somewhere between 185 and 205 pounds after "The Spider" dethroned him, Franklin has sustained his reputation through consistently game and entertaining performances against big-name opposition.

Getting to the brass tacks of the match up: the overshadowing factor is Cung Le's gas tank and longevity. The greatest and most unstoppable fighter on earth, in any aspect of combat, becomes a dribbling amateur when their cardio flat-lines. So that factor trumps every other because, if it occurs, any and every other skill or advantage goes down the drain. (And that's such an odd influence to have hanging over this fight, because Le is a cold-blooded killer when he's on and a sitting duck when he's not.)

Striking

I think it's acceptable to consider the striking comparison as vaguely even. Franklin is easily the more proven kickboxer in MMA, but Le's credentials are better and the way he's attuned his stand up to MMA has been sound so far. I would give the edge to the full-power, exuberant Le but can't entirely discount his trend of sputtering out.

Franklin will have a few inches on Le in height (6'1" vs. 5'10") and several in reach (76" vs. 69"), which would normally indicate a significant advantage in distance striking. However, the panache of Le's electric kickboxing arsenal mostly pertains to atypical range weapons, specifically his chambered side kick, his front kick and his spinning wheel kicks. In fact, kicks are the gist of Le's striking offense -- he's not a poor boxer but his flying feet account for all the highlight-reel footage and havoc he wreaks on opponents from the fringe.

Under normal circumstances I would assume Le can compensate for Franklin's physical measurements with his astounding and effective use of distance kicks, which might be the best in MMA (again, only when he's "on") ... but there are legit arguments both ways and I prefer to write this off as "even" and "can't wait to find out for sure on Saturday."

My Assessment: even

Clinch

If Franklin hopes to impose his submission grappling against Le, a blue belt in BJJ, he'll likely have to do it through the clinch. We haven't seen a ton of Le in the clinch, as he typically uses the position defensively to stave off takedowns, extract himself from contact range and reset out in open space.

Franklin isn't a sheer killer in the clinch, but he's extremely intelligent, has the height to impose stifling head control with the double neck tie and the ability to alternate between enforcing control, mounting offense with dirty boxing and knees or attacking with takedown attempts, be it dropping for a double leg or finagling a trip with underhooks.

I would give the nod to Franklin by a hair, based strictly on his more consistent application at the top level, but I think Cung will be super slippery and refuse to hang out with Rich in a tie up. Le has a low center of gravity, stellar footwork and absolutely incredible balance, which I feel he'll implement to escape rather than assault.

My Assessment: even

Grappling

After being non-committal in the prior categories, this one is easy. I can't recall Le ever even attempting an offensive takedown and if Rich can engage him on the mat, the deficit is monumental. Even though Franklin isn't a dominant wrestler and I think he'll seriously struggle to take Le down, the grappling department represents nothing but danger and risk for the life-long striker.

Cung should be able to contest Franklin wholeheartedly on the feet and in the clinch, but he can't in a grappling match.

My Assessment: Franklin

After a pro-Le intro, I tried to be fairly objective in the analysis. The idea with these articles is to lay out the rough guidelines that allow you, the reader, to form a definitive opinion. Considering Franklin's diversity, durability and huge experience advantage, it's easy to understand why he's the -335 favorite on the betting lines. Personally, I think Le is the better striker and will frustrate Franklin with unorthodox fringe-striking, uncanny timing and unparalleled balance and footwork. I also believe that Franklin will have a much tougher time taking Le down than most seem to think.

I realize it's a long-shot and probably a defensive reaction to Le's detractors, but it'll be much more fun this way:

My Prediction: Cung Le by TKO.


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