Sanshou's Golden Boy
by Martha Burr
The story of Cung Le is the evolution of a fighter. And the rise of a star. Le's own remarkable development may itself be a barometer for the sport of sanshou in America, indicating both possibility and achievement, potential and new horizons. Sanshou is still widely unknown to the general public, and often only a word to many full-contact fans. Though Le has become a role model and something of a cult figure in the small world of the leitai, in the past year he has pushed the boundaries of his fighting skills and broken into new territory. Winning Chicago's Shidokan event, and then astounding a tough LA Draka audience with technique that looks Hollywood but hurts a lot more, Le is the first American sanshou fighter to go professional. And while some may mourn the loss of the circuit's best fighter from the amateur competition scene, Le may actually be able to do more for sanshou by fighting outside of it.
But first,the beginnings.
Cung Le was born in Vietnam in 1972, at the height of the Vietnam war. His family emigrated to America three years later with the fall of Saigon, and the infant Le's existence went from tumultuous war zone to the sleepy, rolling hills of San Jose. As Silicon Valley developed so did Le, and his interest in martial arts took hold when he was ten years old with Tae Kwon Do. He studied the Korean art for about a year. By eighth grade Le was doing freestyle wrestling which he continued throughout high school, becoming the 1988 National Champion in sambo, and in 1989 National Champion in sambo, Greco-Roman and Freestyle wrestling. He went on to become captain of his college wrestling team, two time All-American, and California state champion in 1990.
"I loved wrestling," says Le, "But I was getting restless. I missed the punching and the kicking. So I started looking for a school." He finally found what he wanted at Master Pham?s school in San Jose, and went on to train for two and a half years. "I got the chance to go train with other fighters, and I realized that one system alone was not enough." With Master Pham, Le studied kung fu and tae kwon do, but especially traditional Vietnamese kung fu. Pham had been an instructor in the Vietnamese army in 1968, before he fled the war to come to America. "The kung fu I was learning," says Le, "was like the military in Vietnam would teach. But it?s close to Chinese kung fu, because after all, the Chinese had occupied Vietnam for 1000 years."
Le's goal was to absorb as much knowledge and technique as possible from various systems. He still maintains that one master, or one style, isn't enough to really be well-rounded. "Nowadays people are so competitive," he notes, "that you really have to go out and be complete as a martial artist. You have to stay ahead. I was really training in what I liked - the punching, kicking, sweeping and throwing - the only missing element was the groundwork."
So where did he go? To the Gracies, naturally. "I spent two and a half months with Ralph and Cesar Gracie, and it really helped me see a different side of the art." Le now had a full arsenal of techniques, and he was ready to go out and truly test his skills. After winning grand champion in several smaller local tournaments, Le heard about full-contact sparring in Shawn Liu's U.S. Open tournament in Mobile, Alabama. The full contact sparring was called sanshou, which Le had no familiarity with. "I had never heard of sanshou ? all I knew was that it was full contact. I sent away for the rules, and found out that besides punches and kicks it involved sweeping and throwing - and I said wow, that?s for me." Le went down to Mobile and in his first full-contact fight and won the gold. He also found a new sport just breaking American ground, one that he would come to dominate in the next three years.
Le, Liu and Sanshou
Le, Liu and sanshou would become inextricably entwined. In 1994 Le was not alone in wondering what sanshou was, because it had arrived on the American martial arts scene a year or two earlier. In fact, the sport itself, from China, was relatively young, having been developed by the Chinese Wushu Institute starting in 1979 and only becoming officially sanctioned in 1990. The International Wushu Federation (IWUF) now has 77 member countries, of which a majority participate in sanshou. Next to the Chinese the Russians tend to dominate the sport, but it is also popular in Brazil and of course throughout Southeast Asia where martial arts sparring holds a long tradition of popularity.
That popularity was what was missing from American kung fu and full-contact was the element Chinese stylists wanted to put back into the circuit. Point sparring tested skills, but many competitors really wanted to fight. Le was one of those, and after Mobile he went on to take the Chinese martial arts circuit by storm. Next was the U.S. Nationals in Orlando. Fresh from his victory at the U.S. Open, Le went on to win the sanshou and become National Champion in his weight class. He now began to train for sanshou exclusively. The next year he won in Dallas at the U.S. team trials, and went back to Liu's U.S. Open and defended his title. Le was also chosen team captain for the U.S. Sanshou team to represent the United States in the 1995 World Wushu Championships in Baltimore.
By this time Le's power had increased substantially, but the real sensation was his scissor kick. "I saw it in a movie first," smiles Le. "Then I revised it, experimented with it, reinvented it. I developed the takedown version, and the knock your wind out version. And," he adds, both proud and wistful, "the knockout version." The scissor kick would prove to be a bittersweet achievement for Le, powerful but lethal. At the U.S. team trials he used it once and shattered his opponent's cheekbone. Then it happened again months later at the U.S. Open. "I felt really bad the first time, and then it happened again, against a Chinese fighter. I just shattered his face. I brought the kick up from body to face like a heel kick, but with the force of the body spinning in mid-air it can really do some damage. After that I thought I would put it away forever, and decided it was too powerful for competitions, and something I would save for a life or death situation only."
Training with Liu and the U.S. team for the World Championships Le did four thousand kicks a day, ran, sparred, and worked tirelessly for over two months straight. When he got to the championship he was ready to fight, but with the luck of the draw was frustrated by forfeits and byes. Says Le, "I fought France in the quarterfinals, and got a little banged up. But he was the guy who woke me up to leg kicks." Next Le was matched against a Russian ex-KGB fighter who was also the defending two-time world champion. He lost the fight, but went on to fight Tajikstan to win bronze for the United States.
Le was disappointed not to get gold, but he went home and started to train all over again the next week. To understand how Le trains is a lesson in fulfilling one?s personal potential. "It's not how long you train," says Le, "It?s the quality of the training." Le looks it from a holistic point of view as well, and carefully considers diet and rest essential to bringing out an athlete?s best performance.
Le clearly felt at that point that sanshou had given him fighting skills that would translate into other martial arts arenas. To test these skills he entered the NBL USA International World Championships in Las Vegas and won the Continuous Sparring World Champion Title. He was then invited to enter Chicago's Shidokan event, a tri-athlon of martial arts full-contact fighting including aspects of bare knuckle fighting, kickboxing, Thai boxing, boxing and grappling, where he fought and closely lost to Tony Otero in the semi-finals. It was one of Le's toughest fights, but one that proved his skills were equal to or superior to other high-level martial arts competitors. Shidokan also marked Le's entry into the doorway of professional fighting.
The fall of '97 brought him back to full-time sanshou. First was the 1997 Kung Fu Championships pay-per-view, held Labor Day weekend in Orlando, Florida. Originally the brainchild of Max Yoffe, who had previously made a little documentary on Chinese martial arts at Jeff Bolt's tournament in 1994, the pay-per-view took on sanshou and a spectrum of Chinese martial arts on a grand scale. Yoffe, together with Bolt and Max Net Entertainment, produced a three-hour show that included eight sanshou fights and a diverse group of traditional kungfu and wushu performers. The Main Event was a five-round sanshou bout between Le and veteran Jason Yee. Though Yee had been retired from fighting for three years, and had recently suffered a case of chickenpox, there was simply no denying Le?s overwhelming power against his opponent. Le took the title with a dazzling display of techniques including scissor kicks and souffles.
On the USAWKF circuit Le has remained the National champion since 1994. Through this circuit he has developed another aspect of his character besides that of fighter, and that has been one of role model and leader. Both in 1995 and 1997 he was chosen team leader of the U.S. Team for the World Championships. During the former he was a young leader who bonded the team together with his enthusiasm; during the latter he helped shape and guide the team with his experience. Le?s own teaching in his school has helped him master the art of guiding less experienced fighters. As a coach of his own team he has helped his fighters bring home numerous gold medals. He trains his women as hard as his men, and one of his strongest continuing ambitions is to have his fighters win at every tournament.
But one might call Le's interest in sanshou competition organic, because his concerns go out not just to his own fights, or to his students', but genuinely to all the fighters in a tournament. And in turn he has won the respect and friendship, both large and small, of those who meet on the leitai. Whether it's offering subtle tips to his veteran fighter friends, like Aaron Hunnicutt or Mike Altman, or simple encouragement to nervous first-time fighters, Le has that singular star quality that attracts most everyone around him. Last winter at the Nationals in Baltimore Le TKO'd his opponent, giving him a split lip in the process. After the fight two little boys, about nine-years-old, came up to him for autographs. One exclaimed in admiration, "You were great! You really busted 'em up!" Le looked at the boys sternly and replied, "Busting 'em up isn?t good. Ever. You fight to win, not to bust 'em up." He pointed a finger. "You got it?" The boys nodded, and the vocal one answered, "Yeah, fight to win, not to bust 'em up!" Le nodded again. "Okay." Then he smiled.
World Championships ? Rome 1997
As a leader of the sanshou, and wider wushu community as well, Le had tremendous hope riding on him for the 4th World Wushu Championships held in Rome, Italy last November. Le was clearly the best hope for a gold medal, something the American team had never one. Once in the arena and fighting against several tough opponents, it became clear to all the international teams - and to the audience ? that Le was likely the best fighter there. Watching his first two fights against Brazil and Belarus was sanshou candy. Tough opponents only make Le's polish shine harder, and his signature techniques such as the scissor kick and the souffle delighted spectators.
Le is an experienced fighter, and his constant changing of strategies makes his game fascinating to watch. Besides his gorgeous techniques, his strength and endurance, Le is a thinking fighter, and he takes it one step beyond that to be a creative thinking fighter. Watching him gives you a sense of drama, a sense of dance, of choreography; like a chess player Le acts both on instinct and strategy that evolves in every round. "Cung Le," says Liu, "uses angles, he avoids and absorbs heavy punches, he's quick at intercepting kicks, and he's a smart fighter."
When Le fights it's easy to become mesmerized. The Italians were excited, saying, "This guy's like a fighting machine! We want to see the fighting machine!" In three days Le won over fans and fighters alike, becoming the best and favorite fighter in Rome. Then, during his third fight against Iran, after winning the first round and dominating the second, Le kicked to the inner thigh of his opponent. The kick was very close to the groin. Hit or miss? It was hard to tell, though later on the videotape it appeared to be a close miss. In any case, the Iranian jumped up and down and fell to his knees howling, pitched forward and banged the platform with his fists. His coach, as witnessed by the British team, motioned the fighter to stay down. He did. He was carried off on a stretcher, and Le was disqualified.
The memories of Rome are bittersweet, as the American flag failed to rise on the center podium. Yet, the support Le and the American team received from the other teams and spectators after the disappointment was heartfelt, and many left the event knowing they had seen sanshou's best.
Shidokan and Draka
Le went back into training a week after he got back to San Jose. His eye was on a number of things, but one of them was the Shidokan title which had eluded him the year before. When April rolled around he was back in Chicago, and back in the ring. And back on pay-per-view. There he faced some of his strongest opponents ever pursuing the middleweight title. With steely determination he knocked his first opponent out in the second round, and beat his second opponent by submission. Le then went on for a third grueling match against Arne Soldwedel, who he knocked out in the seventh round.
They say nothing succeeds like success. Only weeks later Le was invited to fight in another pay-per-view full-contact event when he got a call from the man who now manages him, Mike Nolte. This time it was Draka. Draka is, essentially, sanshou with a Russian accent. Sanshou in the Gulag, if you like, since unlike sanshou there is no safety gear and continuous punching to the head is allowed. The Draka promoters set cards of between three and nine rounds. Le was to fight a five-rounder against one of the tougher Armenians on the block, Gaik Israelyan.
The Olympic Auditorium in downtown LA is an historic landmark for boxing. Just walking in you feel a sense of history, under the dark rafters and worn cement floor, and even today the boxing nights continue there. This was no gymnasium or stadium with upright sanshou judges marching crisply in to Chinese band music. Instead, fat Russians with diamond pinky rings and cigars mingled with tatttooed bikers. If you were there, it was likely less for the aesthetics of the sport; you wanted to see them fight.
And fight they did. From Muay Thai to American kickboxing to sanshou, styles were matched and mixed under the name of Draka. After more than half the fights were over it was Cung Le's turn. From the balcony his students cheered and screamed, and closer to the stage, Le's wife Patty could not sit down from the moment Le paraded into the ring.
The Armenian had a strong set of fists, and Le did not escape some punishment. But he had plenty of his own to dole out, especially in the form of scissor kicks and souffles and beautiful spinning heel kicks. Precious little grappling had been seen all night until then, but by the end of the first round the whole auditorium was focused on the ring. High drama was added to the third round when Le took a really hard hook behind the head. He wobbled for a second, and put up his hands to ward off more blows. In the fourth he was hurting more, and after a standing eight the ref called for the doctor to take a look, and with the light shining into his eyes Le said, "I can fight." The doctor concurred, and anticipation welled up once again as the fight continued.
Hard blows kept coming from both sides, but Le's techniques soon managed to do two things. First, they entirely seduced the crowd, who began to join his small crowd of friends and cheer for him with each point won. Second, the Armenian started to get worn down. Well, Le was picking him up like a sack of potatoes and tossing him over his head to the floor. Or jumping and landing that perfect scissor kick that made the crowd roar, and actually brought the tuxedoed promoter Igor to his feet in glee, raising his fist and grabbing at his red silk bowtie, unable to resist roaring along with the crowd. Although Le was still being handed some rough treatment from the strong hands of the Armenian, he just kept on dropping the guy to the mat, mixing up the sweeps and throws. As commentator Blinky Rodriguez said, "After tonight, Israelyan is going to be able to tell you how many tiles are in the ceiling of the Olympic Auditorium."
Igor looked ready to cry with happiness after the fifth round was over - and the announcer bellowed, "Ladies and gentlemen, this is Draka!" The Le entourage immediately responded among itself, nooo, this is sanshou. The ref raised Le's hand as they announced the unanimous judges' decision, and the audience roared once again for their new darling. Afterwards the stage was mobbed with kids seeking autographs. Benny the Jet was grinning. And Cung Le wanted to sit down and watch the Russian fighter Ramazon, on next. He was the opponent Le had lost to in '95 at the Worlds in Baltimore.
Thus marked the passage of Le from one world to the next. Suddenly three years seemed like a very long time ago. And, in full-contact years, it was. Le has grown so enormously as a fighter, and making the move from amateur sanshou to professional fighting is, perhaps, inevitable for someone of his talents and abilities. Sadly, the amateur competition world holds few opponents for Le anymore, especially nationally. "Cung," says Liu, "is technically the best (sanshou) fighter in the world. Maybe some are tougher, but his techniques are cleaner. In China they train for scores. Better scores, bigger house. But Cung trains for technique. And he has the bravery to use them. I hope Cung stays to support the amateurs. Sanshou is the future - it will be professional in the future - and that?s his future too. Everybody looks up to Cung. But in other sports they use him. In the sanshou community people really love him, they really care about him. I?m always proud to say I trained him once. I hope he remembers the past, and supports our future."
A transition into professional fighting may be poignant for Le too, but he remains steadfast about supporting sanshou and helping to promote it to the outside world. "Everywhere I go now," he says, "I tell them I'm a sanshou fighter. They say what do you train? And I say sanshou. At Shidokan, at Draka. They have promoters, money behind their sports, they're on TV. And when they interview me, and ask me where I'm from, I tell them, I'm from sanshou."
Written by Martha Burr for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM