At its highest level, the fight game allows top competitors to make hundreds of thousands of dollars — even millions when big sponsorships kick in — just for taking on one opponent at a time, under floodlights, in front of an excited arena of spectators. Keep winning and the numbers grow exponentially all around you.
The pressure at this level can be immense, the kind that forms metaphorical diamonds of those who can withstand it and succeed. Few can make it to the top without cracking. Cung Le is one of them — and he’s just getting started.
More than any other Asian male since Bruce Lee, Le has found a way to make the discipline of serious training work for him in any way he pleases. He used it to stop being bullied as a 10-year-old Vietnamese immigrant. He used it to harness his self-determination and athletic prowess and become an undefeated kickboxing and MMA champion. Now he’s applying the principles that made him a great fighter to the notoriously fickle world of acting.
Cung Le’s first sport was taekwondo, but he started wrestling in seventh grade and loved the competition. This primed him for an eventual transition back to the martial arts. He craved the knowledge to be gleaned and the new opportunities to test his abilities. His personal will to demonstrate what he was capable of brought him to the arena of full-contact sports.
“My first fight was at the U.S. Open sanshou championships in Alabama back in 1994,” he says. “I went there and had a chance to do sanshou for the first time.”
He entered many taekwondo and point-sparring tournaments, which are more about touching your opponent than hitting him, then promptly got disqualified at the nationals and the world championship tournaments because of excessive force.
“When I found sanshou, everything clicked,” he says. “I was able to punch, kick and throw at full force. Sanshou became my game. I started studying the art and made the U.S. team. It’s why I’m here today.”
“Here” is a humble word to describe what the Strikeforce middleweight champion has accomplished. For the last 10 years, he’s been a dominant force in the ring with a 17-0 record that speaks volumes about the way he conducts his career. At 37, Le’s reached his professional peak, but he’s acutely aware of what awaits him if he gets caught in the legacy trap, namely an increasingly difficult battle avoiding the doctor’s office. A big factor in not getting seriously injured or defeated in the ring is not hurting yourself during training.
“Injury plays a big part for every athlete,” he says. “No one fighting out there is free of them. I limit injuries by training smarter. I do a lot of everything, except heavy lifting. I rest more and take better care of my body, whether it’s through diet, massage, therapy or a good chiropractor.”
Way of the Iron
Weight training and athletics for Le have always been intertwined, muscle performance and competition dovetailed by his determination. He began lifting seriously in high school when he joined the wrestling team at age 15 — not to bulk up but to increase his strength.
As he puts it, his main goal at the beginning wasn’t looking to add more muscle size so much as achieving a certain look.
“I think I just grew the right way from high school to college, throughout my 20s and then on into my 30s,” he says. “I didn’t see the change in my body as much while it was happening. I just put on a few pounds every year and noticed it later.”
These days, Le aims for a “balanced” workout program. “I like to cross-train a lot; I don’t just lift weights,” he explains. “Very few weightlifters do cardio, and I do a lot of it. I also do my fair share of pad work, sparring and grappling. I do it all, but weight training actually benefits whatever martial arts discipline you practice. I lift for muscle function, athletic build and athletic function. I enjoy working out. I don’t just do it to achieve certain goals; I work out because it makes me feel good.”
By striking a balance between his weight training and martial arts practice, he reaps maximum benefits from both without compromising their core principles.
“Weight training for me is between 30 and 40 minutes in and out, no break,” he says. “When I get to my gym (Universal Strength Headquarters in Milpitas, California, just north of San Jose), I have all the weights and machines that I need, and I can jump from one machine to another.”
Le works out 85 percent of the time and rests the remaining 15 percent. “I don’t do a set and then take a minute,” he says. “I’ll either do (consecutive) sets or a circuit and then take a 30-second to a minute rest. A lot of times, I don’t even take that rest, I just go back to the routine.”
Now that Le is working on his budding film career with the same intensity that he brought to the competitive field, he’s taking his physical training just as seriously.
“I’ve got five movies in the can,” he states in a relaxed tone that reveals casual confidence but also guarded pride. “The first one, Fighting, has already been in theaters, with Channing Tatum and Terrence Howard. The movie that’s about to come out is called Pandorum (set for wide release on Sept. 18, 2009) and it’s my biggest role to date.”
“I got that part not because of my martial arts skills or because I’m good at being physical; it was my acting,” he continues. “I changed the role from a Japanese to a Vietnamese character — the producer and director gave me a chance to read in my native tongue. I must have nailed my audition because I have a speaking part and I’m one of the stars. After that, I did True Legend, the directorial debut of wushu master Yuen Woo-ping, and Bodyguards and Assassins with Donnie Yen.”
The pace of Le’s conversation picks up noticeably. He’s still speaking in a low, calm tone, but he’s talking faster as if trying to cram in every worthy reference he can remember. For the record, he plays Marshall Law in the upcoming Tekken, a gig that almost cost him his title fight with Frank Shamrock. “I did that a month before I fought Frank and got 21 stitches on the set when the lead actor missed his mark and clipped me in the lip,” he says.
He truly enjoys working in front of the camera, but does he find it hard to memorize his lines? “No, but you have to be dedicated at what you do, just like with the martial arts,” Le says, not missing a beat. “You have to remember combos and moves, whether it’s punching, kicking, kneeing or elbowing or whether it’s grappling work, triangles, armbars or omo platas. Your lines are the same, only in a different format.”
Defending the Title
In the meantime, there is the not-so-small matter of Le’s Strikeforce championship belt to deal with. There are a few guys who’d like to earn the right to wear it. Has there been talk of a title defense in the near future?
“I’m sure a lot of people still want me to fight,” he says. “If the opportunity comes up, I’ll fight. But right now, I am striking while the iron’s hot for me in film.
“Scott Coker is a good friend of mine,” Le says of the Strikeforce founder. “I am grateful to him for giving me an opportunity and for promoting the fight between Shamrock and me. After I became the champion, he gave me free rein to explore the acting world.”
However, Le admits, if he doesn’t fight soon, the promotion is going to put an interim belt on the line. “If I’m still busy with the movies after one fight for the interim belt, then I’ll have to vacate,” he says. “I love to fight, but now I’m going as far as I can with my acting. I can’t fight forever, and acting can definitely pay the bills.”
A Round of Lifting
Le’s weight-training routine consists of high reps (above the typical six to 12 of a bodybuilding routine) with few breaks. Fighting rounds are five minutes long, so instead of supersets, he does a five-minute giant set, moving between five machines one after the other with little or no break in between. For instance, an upper-body giant set could consist of two different shoulder exercises with dumbbells and then jump to a variety of push and pull exercises. The key to his approach is keeping his muscles confused, even surprised by the changes in his routine.
“I never go too heavy, but it’s not light, either,” he says of the weights he chooses. “Also, if I need a break in between, I can’t set the weight down; I have to lock it out and hold.” He concentrates on doing as much as he can stand within his five-minute limit. He refuses to break until the five minutes are up. When he does rest, it’s only for one minute, just like in a professional bout.