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Cung Le: Modern Day Warrior

Cung Le takes on Wanderlei Silva at UFC 139

By Jillian Bullock

The spirit of a warrior goes far beyond the point when he steps inside a cage to fight. It is also a reflection of how he has come to be the man he is, especially when he isn’t in fight mode. For Cung Le, a Vietnamese American, being a warrior could mean what he had to overcome and endure to become a champion in martial arts and in life.

In 1975, Le and his mother were forced from their home three days before the fall of Saigon, South Vietnam. Amid heavy gunfire, Le, who was only three years old, along with his mother boarded a helicopter to safety. Although Le was young, he remembers the difficult months that followed while living in a refugee camp in the Philippines. Fortunately, an American sponsor made it possible for Le and his mother, along with some of his other family members, to make their way to San Jose, California. Le was able to start over and build a new life, but growing up as a skinny, Vietnamese kid proved to be problematic.

“I was picked on, beat up all the time at school,” Le said.

At age 10, his mother enrolled Le in Tae Kwon Do so he could learn to protect himself.

Eventually Le earned a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and then went on to master Vietnamese Kung-fu, wrestling, Thai boxing, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. He is the former International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) Light Heavyweight, San Shou World Champion and has a professional San Shou record of 16-0. As a kick boxer, Le competed in several tournaments, retiring with a perfect record of 17-0 before moving on to MMA.

Over time, Le built a reputation of being a fighter who constantly develops his skills, techniques and power to excel and raise his game.

“Pound for pound one of the most exciting fighters of all time,” Dave Carter wrote about Le for Inside Kung Fu.

Winning over 35 martial arts awards, titles and championships through the years, Le has graced the covers of several martial arts magazines, including Black Belt Magazine and Inside Kung-Fu Magazine. He has also been the subject of documentaries, including Cung Le, The Making of a Champion and The Discovery Channel documentary titled, On the Inside: Martial Arts.

Due to his athleticism, his grand fight skills, his electrifying kicks, plus his good looks it didn’t take Hollywood long to come knocking. Le has been acting professionally since 1997. He has starred in television shows, as well as films, including Pandorum alongside Dennis Quaid, Fighting, starring Channing Tatum, and Le’s most famous role to date, Marshall Law in the screen adaptation of the fighting video game Tekken.

At the prestigious 2004 Asia Entertainment awards, Le was honored as the most famous Vietnamese Martial Artist in the world.

MMA DEBUT

Le, or The Human Highlight Reel, as he has been called, made his MMA debut in Strikeforce in March 2006 at age 33. Using a dazzling display of kicks and powerful strikes, Le defeated Mike Altman by KO.

Le went on to earn a professional MMA fight record of 7-1. His biggest fight came in 2008 when Le fought Frank Shamrock, who was the Strikeforce Middleweight champion. Le earned a TKO decision when he broke Shamrock’s arm with a deadly kick. Shamrock’s team called a stop to the fight in the third round.

Returning to acting, Le held on to the championship belt for 20 months without ever defending it. Eventually, he was forced to relinquish the Strikeforce title.

RETURNING TO MMA

In December 2009, Le finally returned to Strikeforce to face Scott Smith. During the first two rounds, Le dominated the fight, but in the final minutes of the second round Smith delivered a hook that caught Le. Smith delivered several more punches, which led to Le’s first loss as a MMA fighter. That lost helped Le understand that he couldn’t have two masters – MMA and acting. If he wanted to get back on top in the mixed martial arts community he would have to focus on training and let acting rest for a bit.

During his rematch against Smith in June 2010, Le focused on training only. His determination and discipline paid off in the second round when Le landed a spinning back kick and finished off his opponent with several punches to win the bout.  

Still, it didn’t take long before the Hollywood lights lured Le back to acting. He was recently in China filming the movie The Man With The Iron Fists, which also stars Pam Grier, Rza, Russell Crowe, and Lucy Liu. Le is also starring opposite Jean-Claude Van Damme in an action film called Dragon Eyes. Both films are slated for a 2012 release date. 

STEP INTO THE UFC

Putting acting on hold once again, Le is now training for his next big fight, his first in the UFC octagon. Le was scheduled to fight Vitor Belfort at UFC 139 on November 19, but due to Belfort’s injury during training he had to be replaced. Dana White asked Wanderlei “Axe Murderer” Silva to step in.

At 39-years-old and a significant time away from MMA training, Le’s debut in the UFC may be disappointing. Le could end up on the losing end like he was in his match against Scott Smith. It is difficult to pull off being a full-time actor and a part-time fighter, especially with an opponent like Silva, who is aggressive and has devastating strikes. Plus Silva, who has lost six of his last eight fights, is desperate for win.

FAMILY FIRST

Despite all his success in MMA and in acting, Le says nothing is more important than being a good role model to his young sons.

 “I’m going to support my boys in whatever they want to do in life. I will definitely guide them in the martial arts way, so they can be more focused, disciplined and determined as human beings. I feel martial arts will help them in both their professional careers and private lives”

Le also uses his knowledge, skills and popularity to help other kids lead good, productive lives. He owns the Cung Le Martial Arts Training Center, in San Jose. Roughly 500 students train at the 4800 square foot school, which includes a full size boxing ring, full size weight room, and all sizes of bags. He also runs another school in Santa Clara, CA.

Giving back, Le is dedicated to helping others. As busy as he may be with acting and MMA training, he still makes time to teach classes in his schools several times a week.

Le says he has learned to balance training for MMA matches, acting, family, business, and his martial arts schools. To accomplish all of this takes someone who is focused, disciplined and embodies the spirit of a great warrior.

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