In a continued effort to extend its global reach, Zuffa announced intentions in mid-2013 to transplant its signature reality TV show, The Ultimate Fighter, halfway across the world to the vast untapped market that is China.
The show recently filmed and aired to little fanfare out west, with 24-year-old Zhang Lipeng taking the season's welterweight tournament crown, and Vietnamese-American veteran Cung Le assuming a leadership role on the season, overseeing production much in the same vein as UFC President Dana White does in western versions.
Though in an appearance on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour, Le explained that while he thoroughly enjoyed what he called the "really good experience" of imparting his knowledge to the up-and-coming Chinese fighters, life behind the scenes was a bit more turbulent than the middleweight expected.
"Just working with the camera crew from China, which never shot a reality TV show before, it was almost like... I literally, there were a few times where I picked up the camera and was trying to find where the ‘on' button was to film what was going on. It was that bad," Le revealed.
"It seemed like every 15 minutes someone was sitting down taking a break, and it was very frustrating."
According to Le, the season's continuous production issues hampered much of the final product, as an inexperienced crew missed a significant amount of good footage. However, crew problems were only the first hurdle.
"There's a lot of good talent (in China). There's just not that many good coaches. They're only going to go as far as what they're being taught, so they don't know any better," Le explained. "All these guys are really strong, they have really good stand-up, but they just don't understand the game. How they hit their pads and how they spar with each other is not how they look during a fight because they're so worried about getting taken down, getting submitted. They don't know what to do when they're on the fence, so it was a lot of work.
"I'm glad I brought along my trainer Scott Sheeley," Le continued. "Because at one point he took over as, like, the behind the scenes head coach, because the television station wanted a Chinese coach. And the Chinese coach on the yellow team (Hailin Ao) never had MMA experience, didn't know anything about the ground game. He was more of, like, a sanda coach, and when the guys got taken down, he didn't know what to do."
Prior to filming the show, Le said White readied him for the role by reviewing a list of things to watch out for, such as potential problems White encountered in past seasons and how to handle them if need be. Even still, Le never anticipated that the root of his biggest headache would come from drama with the Chinese network rather than the fighters themselves.
"I went over to Canada (for TUF Nations) and it was like day and night," Le said with a chuckle. "I was almost jealous with the crew that they had compared to what we had. But you know what, it's not the UFC's fault at all. It's actually the Chinese television (station), LRTV, they didn't want any camera crews from the UFC. They wanted to do it all themselves, so the UFC kind of had their hands tied. Basically everyone from (producer) Dan Farmer to everyone who was working, our hands were tied.
"But the show turned out decent at least. It wasn't a bomb. A lot of people watched it and a lot of people enjoyed it because they'd never seen a reality show. I think the next time around, if there's another one, people will be more excited and I guarantee you there's going to be 10 times as many fighters trying out."
Despite all the issues, Le said that he believed the final outcome of TUF China achieved its purpose and exposed the world's most populous country to mixed martial arts in a whole new light. Though he didn't know exact figures, Le estimated a viewership total of 17 million eyeballs for specific episodes. In addition, Le guessed that must have received "hundreds and hundreds" of messages on Weibo -- a Chinese social media property similar to Twitter -- from prospective fighters asking when the next season is going to film and proclaiming their desire to tryout.
Of course, now with the experience behind him, the 41-year-old has begun turning his sights back towards his own return to the UFC Octagon, as it's been nearly 16 months since Le brutally knocked out Rich Franklin at the UFC's debut in Macau, China.
"I'm planning to comeback this year," Le said. "I had three elbow surgeries. I'm all healed up now.
"If some reason Chael (Sonnen) gets hurt or decides that he's not ready for the Wanderlei (Silva) fight, I'll throw in my hat. ... I would love another shot (at Silva). I have a lot of respect for him. I grew up watching all his fights in Pride. To fight him (at UFC 139), I feel like I didn't fight a good fight and I could do a lot better."
It's no secret that window of opportunity is closing for the former Strikeforce champion. Father Time waits for no man, and with three fights left on his UFC contract, and his 42nd birthday just a few months away, Le knows that the end of his fighting days is near. Nonetheless, if all goes well, Le hopes to give fight fans a few more memorable performances before he calls it quits.
"I know I'm getting up there," he acknowledged. "I don't recover the same, so I definitely want to do it before I get any older. But I don't know, I'm going to take it one fight at a time.
"If it doesn't work out, I'm doing really good in the entertainment world, doing movies and stuff, now starring in movies, so I'm pretty happy. Just, in my heart, I'm a fighter. I grew up as a martial artist, so it's always going to be in my blood. I feel like if I can squeeze one or two (more fights), or even finish out my contract and fight at a high level and perform well and give the crowd what they want, my crazy spin strikes, then I'll keep doing it until it's time to step back."