Traditional martial arts specialist and burgeoning Hollywood actor Cung Le will make his second appearance in the Octagon this Saturday at UFC 148, where he faces durable Canadian Patrick Cote in a middleweight bout. The pay-per-view event is highlighted by the middleweight championship rematch between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen and begins at 10:00 p.m. ET.
Cung Le (7-2) is a true martial artist and the bio that Kung Fu Magazine did on him is a must read. He's a Vietnamese-American who took up Taekwondo at a young age and presciently complemented that trade with wrestling before the term "hybrid fighter" existed as we know it today. While still in high school, Le won the National Sambo Championships in 1988 and 1989, went to become a state champion and an All-American high school wrestler and a Junior College wrestling champion at West Valley College in California.
After spending a few months training with the Gracies in California, Le's unorthodox blend of takedown prowess and striking in the pre-MMA boom led to a marquee career as a San Shou practitioner, which is a kickboxing-based sport that allows takedowns and throws but no grappling. Le was a world champion in San Shou, finishing with a flawless 16-0 journey, and also notched a 3-0 clip in K-1, captained the US team in the World Wushu Championships (losing by controversial disqualification for a debatable groin kick) and won a handful of titles in the US Open Martial Arts Championships (both national and international).
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Le made his MMA debut in 2006 under the Strikeforce banner and his meteoric rise began. His level of competition gradually increased and each bout was replete with highlight-reel moments and ended by TKO. Tony Fryklund and Sam Morgan represented a significant step up in Le's 4th and 5th outings, and his 6th was contested against Frank Shamrock for the Strikeforce championship -- but even the MMA legend and former UFC champion couldn't avoid Le's wrath and fell by 3rd-round TKO due to a broken arm from blocking a barrage of kicks. Le vacated the title to pursue his acting career and has since shown that he's not invincible with a 1-2 pace, though the victors, Wanderlei Silva and Scott Smith, struggled with Le's whirlwind of violence early.
While he doesn't come with such a grand introduction, veteran Patrick Cote (17-7) has the ideal set of characteristics to unhinge the San Shou phenom. The Canadian's durability and toughness is off the charts, having just a single TKO loss to the infallible Anderson Silva (via knee injury) and moment of concussive vulnerability after a brutal Alan Belcher slam. Clearly dazed from Belcher's quasi-piledriver, Cote could not stave off the rear-naked choke that followed, yet those instances mark the only times that Cote has been finished in the last 6 years.
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Cote has been hot and cold in the UFC: he opened up with a mediocre 2-3 streak before accumulating 5-straight wins over respectable opposition to earn a crack at Silva's legacy. A torqued knee in that UFC 90 title fight and the Belcher loss preceded a decision defeat against Tom Lawlor and the 3-loss curse caused his release. Outside the Octagon, Cote scored wins over 3 former UFC fighters and shellacked Gustavo Machado to justify his return.
I think the variables of Le vs. Cote are obvious: Le has been unstoppable in the first round throughout his career and will dazzle the audience by uncorking a Kung-Fu masterpiece with uncanny timing, footwork, balance and use of angles. Cote's clear path forward is to survive the first, stay in the fight and keep things simple with vigilant defense and his scorching straight right to keep Le at bay.
Cote is a capable boxer with good power, wrestling and submission defense to form a diverse package. His hands are quick but his foot-speed and cage motion is average. Silva, another elaborate kickboxer with strong takedown defense and true mastery of timing and angles, had his way with Cote on the feet and Le can probably replicate that extraordinary level of striking better than anyone else. In that match, Cote's movement made the difference and he was rendered almost helpless in the face of Silva's kickboxing ballet, all of which was facilitated by striking finesse and shocking agility.
Opponents have come at Le aggressively or played it cautious by counter punching, but he doesn't seem to have an Achilles Heel besides his eventual decline in pace and susceptibility to power shots late in the fight ... but that's only occurred twice against a pair of the grittiest power-punchers in the 185-pound landscape. The fighters that unloaded on him and kept the pressure on with continuous attacks have fared better than those who flurried hard and reset, and that's probably Cote's best bet, but it takes more than the mindset of a brawler to beat a world class striker.
Let me assure you -- Cung Le is not a fan-fabricated novelty or an over-hyped fallacy and his potential and natural instincts are immeasurable. The problem is that MMA isn't his sole focus and he's 40-years-old but still young in the sport with only 9 fights scattered sparsely along his 6-year tenure. Cote exudes the characteristics that have caused Le problems in the past: his chin is virtually unbreakable, he's got a big heart, he's a gamer to the core and his quick and precise boxing is the ideal tool to plug through the tiny openings that accompany Le's showtime arsenal.
Le deserves credit for evolving as a true fighter before the early UFCs laid out the blueprint and I suspect that he's too smart not to compensate for his past patterns in defeat. What's worked brilliantly is the way his unparalleled striking is delivered with excellent balance from his wrestling and I think he can tone down the highlight-reel charades in order to pace himself for 15-minutes of a more traditional strategy. Then again, Le might be accepting that his future is limited and decide to please the crowd with spinning back-fists, axe kicks and wheel kicks, or perhaps he'll finally unveil his scissors kick or scissors takedown, which was somewhat of his signature move in kickboxing.
I've gone back and forth but have decided that Le's intelligence should compensate for his past mental lapses. I think he can tone things down to out-work Cote for a decision or be a little more judicious and pick the right spot to do damage or finish -- as long as it doesn't drain his gas tank.
My Prediction: Cung Le by decision.