Cung Le is set to headline Saturday’s bout in China, one of the most significant international expansions for UFC.
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It wasn’t, however, until UFC’s parent company, Zuffa Inc., purchased Stirkeforce — an organization that helped make Le into a star — that Le had even given serious thought to joining the sport’s top promotion.
“I’m a loyal kind of guy,” Le told FOXSports.com. “Once they bought it, I said, `Wow. There is chance now.’ It was like going from Double-A to the major leagues.”
Le (8-2) gets the toughest test of his MMA career — one interrupted by his ventures into Hollywood — in Rich Franklin (26-9-0 with one no-contest) atop the UFC on Fuel TV 6 (9 am ET) at CotaiArena in Macau. It will be the first UFC event in the world’s most populous country.
“For me this is a big-time honor to be part of the biggest promotion on the planet,” Le said of UFC. “I’m grateful for the opportunity. I wouldn’t miss it for the world. It’s a dream come true.”
Strikeforce morphed from a kickboxing promotion into one that focused on MMA in 2006. Le made the move simultaneously himself, leaving behind one of the most spectacular careers in kickboxing history where he went 17-0.
“I was putting on martial arts events and living in San Jose when I first heard about Cung around 1996 or 1997,” Strikeforce CEO Scott Coker said. “I didn’t know who he was. All I had heard was that he was knocking out fighters who had success in K-1. He was hitting guys really hard. I knew I had to meet him. I went to another fight where he knocked another guy out. At that point, I knew I had to sign him.”
Le made his Strikeforce (then spelled “Strike Force”) debut in 1998 and a year later earned the ISKA Light Heavyweight Sanshou title in a Strikeforce-promoted event. That championship fight was held in San Jose, home of Strikeforce, Coker and Le.
Le, 40, was born in Saigon before the fall of South Vietnam and was one of thousands who emigrated from their war-torn country to the San Jose area. He picked up fighting around age 10 and later gravitated to Sanshou, a Chinese martial arts discipline that remains the base of his MMA repertoire.
“Cung is one of four people who have been the pillars of Strikeforce, along with Frank Shamrock, Josh Thomson or Gilbert Melendez,” Coker said. “There’s a lot of passion here (in San Jose) for Cung.”
Coker worked with Le as he pursued acting. (He had a role in the recently released “The Man with the Iron Fists” starring Russell Crowe.) That limited his fighting schedule for years and included a 17-month break, which preceded his UFC debut at UFC 139 — a bout he lost via TKO to Wanderlei Silva. It was his second MMA loss, the other he avenged against Scott Smith at Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum in June 2010.
“I told Cung before he left (to pursue acting) that he’d be part of Strikeforce until he retired,” Coker said. “Now, Strikeforce and UFC are one family now. He has an opportunity to fight in UFC and I’m proud of him. He won his last fight (against Patrick Cote at UFC 148 in July) and he has a big challenge coming this Saturday.”
Much of Le’s fan base, both in San Jose and worldwide, is rooted in the Asian community, which explains why Le was tapped for UFC’s China debut.
“All the Asian people support me,” Le said. “I’m representing the Asian community in UFC and to fight a legend like Rich Franklin is amazing. I’m going to make it epic and I’m going to fight my heart out. The storm is coming.”