The Ultimate Fighter
The official record will only show four UFC bouts from 2011 to 2014, but the impact Cung Le had on fight fans over that period of time goes far beyond that, and they will certainly remember the middleweight action hero fondly in the future as he enjoys a retirement that he announced Tuesday.
“After several months of thought and discussion with my wife and family we realize our future includes many things, but active competition in mixed martial arts is no longer one of them therefore I am officially announcing my retirement from active competition,” the 42-year-old Le wrote in a statement.
Said UFC Chairman and CEO Lorenzo Fertitta, “Cung Le was a great ambassador of the sport for us in Asia and one of the most exciting middleweights to step foot in the Octagon. We wish him well in his retirement and future endeavors.”
“Cung Le was awesome and would take any fight,” UFC President Dana White added. “He was such a huge piece of the success of The Ultimate Fighter China. I loved working with him and wish him well in the future.”
Le's journey began on May 25, 1972 in Saigon. Three years later, in 1975, Le and his mother left the war-torn nation and started fresh in the United States. The transition wasn’t particularly easy on the youngster, as he noted in a 2003 interview.
“I think the biggest adjustment was learning the language,” Le told me. “I was a skinny kid and when we first came over, everyone was mad at what happened in Vietnam so it wasn’t a great childhood growing up and being part of being with the regular kids. I was always being put down and I was just trying to be like every other kid.”
Eventually, Le would find his niche in the wrestling room, where he won several titles and accolades.
“I was really competitive in high school and college,” he said. “I was a high school and college All-American and after I was done with wrestling in junior college I had to help the family. My mom had a travel agency and it wasn’t doing too good so I had to back off from going full time at school or going to a University with a wrestling program just to help out the family. After about six months without any contact, I said, ‘since I can’t wrestle at a university, I’ll at least get into martial arts so there’s some kind of contact.’ I got into martial arts at the end of ’92 and I did some local tournaments. But I didn’t get serious about training until 93. In 94, I went on to the amateur San Shou circuit and just dominated.”
The pro kickboxing circuit followed, with Le becoming one of the most exciting and successful fighters in that realm, compiling a 17-0 record with 12 knockouts. Needless to say, with his striking prowess – especially with his trademark scissor kick – and his wrestling background, Le was a natural for mixed martial arts, and after some convincing, he put the four-ounce gloves on for the first time in March of 2006, knocking out Mike Altman in a single round.
Le became a star almost instantly in the San Jose-based Strikeforce promotion based in his adopted hometown on San Jose, California, winning six of seven bouts over the likes of Frank Shamrock, Jason Von Flue, Tony Fryklund and Scott Smith. Le also picked up the Strikeforce middleweight title in 2008, but in 2011, he began his quest for UFC gold, and he didn’t get an easy mark in his Octagon debut at UFC 139, as he squared off with former PRIDE great Wanderlei Silva.
What resulted was a war that won Fight of the Night honors along with the headlining matchup between Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, a bout considered to be one of the greatest battles of all-time. And though Le lost to Silva via second-round TKO, he had made quite an entrance into the UFC. That was little consolation to such a competitor though.
“For me, it’s really hard to lose,” Le said in 2012. “It hurt just as much as when I lost the first time against Scott Smith, but it happens, and you can’t change it, so you’ve just gotta take from it. What I took from it was that I definitely know what I’m made of, because even though when I felt my nose get broken, I thought ‘I’ve got a good nose doctor and I can continue.’ If the round would have ended and if they would have let it continue, I would have gone back to my corner and said I’m gonna finish it. I definitely would not want to stop, and I would go out on my shield or have one of the greatest comebacks. It’s not the first time I broke my nose. My second MMA fight was the first time I broke my nose, and actually the bone popped out, but I finished the fight and ended up knocking the guy out. So it is what it is, I learned from it, and it’s definitely character building.”
Le bounced back in July of 2012, earning his first UFC victory with a decision win over Patrick Cote. Four months later he added another clip to his highlight reel with a first round knockout of former middleweight champion Rich Franklin in the UFC’s first visit to China. It was an important time for Le, as he became an ambassador of the sport in Asia, and someone pivotal in the filming of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter. It wasn’t easy to expose new fans to the sport, but with Le’s background not just as a martial artist but as an action film star, it made the transition a bit smoother.
“Before I fought Rich (Franklin), we went on the press tour, and our first stop was Hong Kong,” Le recalled. “Ninety percent of the questions were ‘how was it to do this amazing fight scene with Donnie Yen.’ (Laughs) I had to push everyone to talk about the fight with me and Rich instead of talking about the movies I’m doing in Asia. I was popular in Asia more from what I did in that movie (Bodyguards and Assassins) with Donnie Yen, but then when people put one and one together, they’re like ‘hey, you’re fighting too?’”
Returning to the Octagon in August of 2014, Le gave a courageous effort before losing to Michael Bisping, and while martial arts will remain a part of his life, he decided that his active career in MMA is now something for the history books.
“Fighting will never be far from my heart and martial arts will always continue to be a part of my daily life,” Le wrote in Tuesday’s statement. “I have thoroughly enjoyed the career that I have been blessed with due in large part to all my fans and the many people who have helped me on my journey.
“I want to personally thank my wife, Suzanne, my three Little Ninjas, my Mother, Sister and the rest of my incredible family for their support, prayers and inspiration. I’d like to take this opportunity to personally thank Scott Coker for his long-time friendship and support of my career, Gary Ibarra for your tenacity, to Khoa Do for everything, Scott Sheeley, you know, and to Jane Estioko, thank you for your loyalty. I’d also like to thank all of my past and present USH Team Family members, I am grateful for every round.
“I'd like to recognize the UFC for the opportunity they have provided me, the sport of mixed martial arts, and more importantly the fans who love it, you will never be far from my heart. It has truly been my honor and my privilege to entertain you.”
Le retires from MMA with a 9-3 record.