When Cung Le fled Saigon in a helicopter under fire in 1975, perfection was the farthest thing from his mind. An unparalleled fighter who went undefeated in san shou (17-0), K-1 kickboxing (22-0) and mixed martial arts (6-0), San Joseís favorite son will look to stay perfect this Saturday, against UFC veteran and KO artist, Scott ďHands of SteelĒ Smith.
Smith (16-6), became world renowned after two, hard fought slugfestĎs, on CBS with Robbie Lawler early last year. After seeing his last fight end in defeat to Strikeforce superstar, Nick Diaz, Smith is undoubtedly looking for revenge. And if history is an precursor to what is in store, Cung Le is more than obliged to give Smith stand-up war he desires.
Since Leís title winning performance against Frank Shamrock, some 20 months ago, the former Strikeforce middlweight champion has tried his hand at acting. Not only has he succeeded, but much like his fighting career, Le has exceeded expectations--seeing him star in the movie Pandorum, with co-stars Dennis Quaid and Ben Foster. He was also featured in the movie Fighting with GI Joe: Rise of Cobra star, Channing Tatum. And with two blockbuster movies slated in China next year, Cung is not without challenges--both inside and outside of the cage.
In this exclusive Q and A with examiner.com, hear what Cung Le has to say about his fight on December 19th, the future of Strikeforce, and his Bay Area nemesis, Jake Shields.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Well first off Cung, I wanted to say congratulations. I heard you got married not too long ago. I know you have been crazy busy with movies and training for this fight among other things, but I have to ask, how the heck has married life been treating you?
Cung Le: Oh, first off I have to say my wife is great. She is amazingly supportive and really, really smart and intelligent. And she is also my best friend, so it really has been great. You know, jitterbugs are definitely starting to kick in for this fight. Especially since Iíve been gone for so long. But she really has been keeping me calm and reminding me that Iíve done it before and the fight is 50% mental. She really keeps me on track and like I said, Iím just really grateful for her.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Well you kind of touched on it a bit there, but ring rustÖI mean, itís been almost two years since your last fight and that little tinge in the back of your brain has to start kicking in, ďOh crap, what if I forget something? What if I didnít prepare right?Ē I know you were training a bit on the set of your movies, but nothing can prep you for that 9 week training camp.
No way, it definitely doesnít compare, but it does keep things in tune. You know, Iíve been doing martial arts all of my life. Your muscles have memory and if you go out there and are rusty, itís because you second guess yourself. Iíve taken time off before and came back and been very successful--not this long, but still. Iíve also taken very little time off and still come back looking fantastic, and thatís when I thought maybe I didnít have enough time to prepare. What it is, itís just mental. You have to go out there and relax. Just let your techniques and all the things you have done in the past, just let everything fly. If it doesnít hit or it doesnít connect, you know, you just have to go out there and find your rhythm. Once you find your rhythm, itís like you fought two months ago and everything just flows. Thatís what I have to do--I just have to go out and find my rhythm, connect, and things will just click. Iíve been doing martial arts for so long, itís in me. All I have to do is believe in myself, stay calm, and do what I do, and everything will be fine.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): And maybe this is one of those fights where getting hit wouldnít be such a bad thing. I mean, having Scott Smith tag you with a little jab might not be the worst thing to happen! Also, you really are one of the most focused guys in MMA today. You almost have a Zen-like peacefulness when you step into the cage.
Iím a very focused person and come the 19th you will definitely see that. I donít think I need Scott Smith to touch me on the chin to wake me up [laugh]. Iíll make sure I go into that cage woken up already. You know, in every fight you are going to get touched up, but it would be nice not to eat a jab from a guy like Scott Smith. Especially since he has such heavy hands.
Iím going to make sure I go out there andÖwhether we just go out and put on a show orÖyou know, because every fight on this card could be a main event. So, we definitely have our Ďshareí to uphold for the MMA fans. I mean, four fights before our fight could be a main event. So we definitely have a strong standard to live up to.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Well briefly Iíd like to talk about training. Smith is most likely the toughest guy you have fought, so have you switched anything up, especially considering the 20 month layoff?
Definitely. Iíve been upping my cardio and at the same time listening to my body, and making sure I come in with my complete game. If Scott wants to take me to the ground, I have to work on getting back up. Or if he keeps me down, I have to keep fighting him off my back. You canít just go in there and expect to stand up. MMA is a complete game and you have to be a complete fighter to compete at a high level. I believe this is a very high-level fight for me, as well as Scott Smith, and we are going to bring it to the cage. I really think this is going to be an exciting fight.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): You brought up something I wanted to touch on briefly. Up until recently, you really have made your name off of other fighters. Granted, you have been in Martial Arts forever, but not the sport of MMA. You beat Tony Fryklund, then Frank Shamrock, and in each of those fights you were the fighter seeking the recognition. Now, with Scott Smith, who is a UFC vet with many wars under his belt, the script is kind of flipped on you. Smith will be looking to capitalize on your name. How do you see that little drama playing out in the cage?
You know, it doesnít bother me at all. Iíve done what Iíve done in martial arts and in MMA and no one can take that away. I got my title shot against Frank Shamrock and beat him, and I performed at a high level. You look at our records, you know he has a lot more experience and he has a ton of TV time, but he has also taken a lot of damage. For me, Iíve established myself as a martial artist and I just try to carry myself in the best light possible and I try to represent MMA in the best way I can.
In this game you have to train like a champion, fight like a champion, and if some reason I lose, Iíll lose like a champion. For me, I donít have that mentality that I can beat anyone. I just go in there and fight to the best of my abilities. And I truly think, at my best, Iím a difficult fighter to figure out. Thatís why I have this clean record in kickboxing and MMA as an undefeated fighter. I didnít go undefeated for no reason. Iíve fought guys with heavy hands before--from the Russians to the Chinese, so I also have a lot of experience under my belt. Itís two guys with a lot of experience in MMA and martial arts and we are going to go in there and put on a show. And we will see who is left standing after the smoke clears.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): You know, and I donít want to bring this up to embarrass you or anything, but the Bruce Lee comparisonsÖ I mean, you are doing things in the cage that no one thought possible. When I talk to my casual friends about Strikeforce and Cung Le, they always seem to come back to, ďOh thatís the Bruce Lee guy!Ē Much like Anderson Silva and a couple of others, you really are re-writing the books on what we thought was possible in MMA.
You know that gives me a lot of honor to be mentioned in the same name as a Bruce Lee or Anderson Silva. I just try to go out there and do my best and thatís all I can do. I donít predict anything, I just know itís going to be an exciting fight and come December 19th we will definitely see who is the better fighter.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): When you look at a fighter like Scott Smith, if you were coaching one of your students, Anthony Johnson, whoever--what would you tell them to look out for? And what do you see in Scott Smithís game that you could capitalize on?
Well Scott likes to bang, so heís going to come forward. So you canít really hold back with him or push it too much, you just have to be in and out and fight smart. You canít really fear his power but you have to respect it. At the same time, you have to remember he is going to be walking into the same power you will be walking into. For me, if Iím coaching someone to fight Scott Smith, I say fight smart, fight in and out and donít fight his game. He likes to slug it out and if you fight smart, it always works out better. You donít always win, but it works out better because you are fighting your style, not his style.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Alright. Now, getting to the question on everyoneís mind, Jake Shields. As youíve heard, no doubt, Jake has been saying all sorts of stuff in the media about how you are ducking him, how you gave up your belt so you didnít have to fight him, how you are hand-picking your opponents and how you donít want anything to do with him. Jake always has seemed like a quiet and reserved guy to me, but in the last few months it seems like he is really letting loose. What are your thoughts on all this?
You know, Jake Shields and I both come from different backgrounds. I come from a more traditional background, more respect, more honor and Jake comes from his background. You know, for Jake to be all quiet and reserved, to now being what he is, it doesnít bother me at all. Jake is not the first person to use my name for publicity and he wonít be the last. For me, I donít get to say, I want to fight this guy, or I want to fight that guy--itís the promotions job to do that. Scott Coker wouldnít be where he is today, if he didnít know how to match-make and put on a great show.
You know, if the time comes for me to fight Jake for the belt, then wow, thatís great. Because after my movie fell through, I made a deal with Scott that I would come back and fight. Iím just honoring my word with Scott Coker. If Jake wants to talk smack and say I dodged him, then thatís fine. In this sport you have to have a thick skin, and really, itís just his way of getting publicity. I think his team needs to re-think their approach and guide him on how to get better publicity, rather than just throw my name out there. Because at the same time, Jake has a lot of fans, but I have a lot of fans as well. But when you dog someone like that, you lose fans. My fans canít really respect someone like that and other people in the community might feel the same way.
I donít handpick my opponents and after a 20 month layoff, I donít think a fight with Scott Smith is easy by any stretch of the imagination. Theyíre not throwing me a bone or anything. The promotion knows how to put on a fight and put butts in the seats. They arenít just catering to the hardcore fans, but they are saying, OK letís really bring MMA to another level and lets get some new fans. Because if they are going to watch, they have a wrestler in Matt Lindland, and they have Jacare, the top Jiu-Jitsu fighter in the world. Look at the line-up, you have Josh Thomson vs. Gilbert Melendez, itís just amazing. If people who have never really watched MMA, watch these fights, then they are going to be a new fan for sure.
Thatís what Strikeforce is doing, they are focused on putting on truly amazing cards and allowing for new fans to grow. If they think a fight between Jake and I is going to be good for them and make new fans, they are going to make it happen. Thatís not my job though, my job is to be in the gym training for whoever they put in front of me. Also, lets see how long Jake holds onto that belt. Look at all the talent coming in, you have Dan Henderson, Jacare, Melvin Manhoef--itís not like Iím at the top of that list. If the promotion takes a chance on me and I beat Jake, what happens when I have to go and do 3 or 4 more movies? What happens to the belt then? It goes back to what happened this last time, and Scott Coker has to make a tough decision.
You know, Scott is all for me doing these movies, as well, because when Iím out there Iím promoting and bringing new fans to the sport. So they have a lot of things to look at and a lot of things to worry about as is. Right now, I just have to be focused on Scott Smith and this fight as a Ďsuper fight.í If Scott Coker wants me to keep taking these super fightís once in a while, thatís fine. If I want to compete for a belt and be a champion, I canít do movies. And with a couple of films lined up for next year, I have to strike while the iron is hot.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Well thatís what I kind of wanted to ask you. What do you want out of Mixed Martial Arts, Cung? Do you want to be a champion who defends his belt a couple times a year, or are you content being a movie star and just doing super fights every once in a while? I know you are 37 and you arenít getting any younger, so I completely understand, but where do you stand on the juggling act?
You know, right now, like I said, Iím a martial artist first and I love to compete. Iíll compete when I have the opportunity to compete, but like you said, Iím 37 years old and I canít do this forever. I guarantee you that any other fighter given the opportunity I have, would do the exact same thing. Iím talking big budget, Hollywood movies, that go straight to the theater. Iíve had at least a half dozen offers for straight to DVD movies, but my management, on the Hollywood side, passes on all of them. Why would I do those when Iíve done movies with Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, and Channing Tatum? Channing and I became good friends while working on our movie, Fighting, and we are working on a project for 2010 or 2011. Itís like a buddy-buddy action type flick, so things are really moving. But at the same time, I love to compete and that is where my roots are, and for all the people who thought I wouldnít come back, because they thought I was just going to do movies, I just hope they are happy. Iím sure they were surprised, but I had a little time and I wanted to come back and compete.
Just like Herschel Walker, I mean, he doesnít have to compete. Heís a legend in football, but he wants to try it out and test himself. You know, this is what I want to do, I want to do both, kind of like Bo Jackson. I want to do movies and I want to fight. My time is limited in fighting and I have to do what I can for my future, and it is what it is. I can only do my best and at the end of the day I have to make sure that food is on the table. I have two boys, a wife, and a mortgage. I canít fight forever, so I have to ask what happens when I canít fight anymore?
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): What do you think about the recent signings? Dan Henderson, Jacare, Melvin Manhoef, etcÖ I mean, I canít think of a more exciting, stand-up war, then a fight with you and Melvin Manhoef.
Definitely. I think thatís the reason Strikeforce signed these fighters, but at the same time there are some things these fighters have to do. I mean, Melvin Manhoef is known to the hardcore fans but now they have to build him to the casual fans. The general fans push for these fights and thatís how the promotion works. They have to build these fighters so the general public is like, ďWow! What a great fight that will be.Ē Because if they donít, no one may tune in.
For me, I really canít look past Scott Smith, because he is going to be tough for all 3 rounds and anything can happen with 4 oz. gloves. Iím just really happy to be back in there and Iíll be really happy after the fight so I can eat a large pizza, and some chicken wings and milk chocolate bars. It may suck after, but itíll be great going down! You know, Iím really just living great, Iím loving every second. Iím in the movies, Iím coaching fighters, Iím a fan, Iím fighting again, it really is great and I feel very blessed. So like I said, one fight at a time and one day at a time, because tomorrow isnít guaranteed for anyone.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Definitely. So you mentioned junk food, is there a little fat kid inside Cung Le trying to get out [laugh]?
Oh yeah, well you know, I usually have one or two cheat days a year. Lately Iíve just been cleaning up my diet and feeling good, but when I put that junk food in my body it doesnít react too well with training. But I definitely feel it calling me right now.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Um, I think youíll be just fine. Two cheat days a year doesnít sound too bad. So what do you think about the Dan Henderson signing? Is the possibility of a match-up between you two have you excited?
Well like I said, I canít really think about anything other than Scott Smith. As far as Dan Henderson goes, he is an amazing fighter. Dan Henderson will certainly put butts in the seats and he is also one of those fighters that doesnít really need a tune-up fight. He can come in right away and compete at a high level. And Iíll tell you what, Jake Shields can talk all he wants now, but he is going to have to go through Dan Henderson and thatís no favorable match-up for anyone. Iíd rather fight Jake before I fought Dan.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): [laugh] I donít know if I can blame you man. Like you said, he comes in right away and he can contend for the belt. The name says it all, Dan Henderson.
Yeah, Iíve always been a big fan of Randy Couture and Dan Henderson. What those guys have been able to do at their age is really remarkable. They perform at such a high level and it shows me that if I take care of my body and do the right things, Iíll hopefully be able to do the same type of things. It really is a great signing by Strikeforce and the exposure that both Dan and Strikeforce will get is great. I mean, look at the last CBS card with Fedor, what did that do, 5.8 million views?
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Yup.
Yeah, so that will be great for Dan and Clinch Gear and everything else. Also, look at Herschel Walker. I mean hereís a guy who doesnít need the money, heís a legend in football. And he just wants to get in there and fight because heís a fan and wants to try it out. Itís going to spark a lot of interest for a lot of different people. Itís signings like Dan and Herschel that will take MMA to the level of the NFL. You know fantasy football, Iím liking that right now. How about fantasy MMA?
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Thatís interesting you brought up Herschel. I had a friend who was over at AKA doing a story on some of their fighters, and he told me that when he arrived he noticed a guy in the back corner of the gym working out. He was hitting the pads and working his footwork, and my friend told me after about 15 minutes he realized it was Herschel. He said up until that point, he thought he was just some young twenty-something upstart just working out. He said he looked in great shape and he had some real skill. I know we canít expect too much from Herschel, but at the same time I think he could surprise some people.
You know, when you are at the top of a sport--especially the position he played in the NFL, you have that workers mentality. What you put into something is what you will get out. And heís bringing that same work ethic into the gym.
Actually Javier Mendez (American Kickboxing Academy coach) brought him to my gym on Saturday, along with a bunch of other wrestlerís to wrestle with me. And let me tell you, Herschel really is an awesome athlete. I mean, heís so open to instruction. I show him one thing and heís got it, I show him one tip and heís using the tip on me. Heís an awesome athlete with amazing strength and I think heís going to surprise some people.
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): Well thatís good. I think everyone likes a success story. And I think the whole MMA world is wishing him well. After all, you have to start somewhere right?
Ryan McKinnell (Examiner.com): OK Cung, last question. When itís all said and done, what do you want people to say about you? How do you want to be remembered?
I want people to say, Cung Le is a true Martial Artist and one heck of an exciting fighter.