It probably didn't shock people too much when Cung Le announced his retirement recently.
Le, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion, who has held national and world championships in sports like Sanshou, Tae Kwon Do, Draka and Shidokan, is now 42. He just came out of a fight with Michael Bisping where he took more punishment than he had in his entire MMA career combined. He's been mixing fighting with action movies for years and at his age, there's clearly more of a future in one career than the other.
Still, make no mistake about it, while he acknowledges being close to the end of his career, the retirement, in his mind, is not because this was the time to stop fighting.
It all started shortly before the Bisping fight. Le posted a photo on social media where he was shredded. Given his age, and what he looked like the previous few years, people freaked out. Le put out the photo because he was proud of his physique. He'd had elbow injuries taken care of through surgeries. His training was going great. He'd been following a diet for about a year designed by a friend who was a physique specialist,. For a year he had dieted, and for the four months or so leading to that photo, he'd gotten strict. He ate six small meals a day of lean meat, salmon, white fish, vegetables and sweet potatoes. After two weeks on the diet, the lack of variety was driving him crazy and he wanted to quit. Then his body started changing, and he was getting back the muscular body of his youth when he was able to look like that on a diet of eating whatever he wanted except pizza and chocolate.
In July, while wearing a tight T-shirt at a UFC Q&A session, he looked closer to bodybuilder than a fighter. Then he lifted up his shirt to show tight abs, four weeks away from his fight, looking younger physically than he had in years. He was feeling great, and considering cutting down to fight at 170 pounds.
In a sport where PED use is significant, it was natural that people would come up with their conclusion. Then the UFC announced he had failed a drug test for human growth hormone (HGH) after his loss to Bisping. Le, who immediately denied the results, said that before the story broke, when UFC told him about the results, he knew he hadn't used HGH. Because of that, it scared him -- and not about failing a drug test.
"I thought maybe I had a pituitary tumor," he says about the period right after being informed of the test results. "So not only was I stressed about what the UFC was going to announce, I was scared. I had all the blood work done, I was tested for IGF-1, I had all these other tests. All my tests came back normal."
He was scared of a pituitary tumor because he thought maybe that had caused an oversecretion of HGH, the beginnings of giantism that people like Antonio "Bigfoot" Silva, Hong-man Choi, and most famously, wrestler Andre the Giant suffered from.
The UFC suspended him for nine months. At least initially. Hours later, that suspension was extended to one year. At his age, that alone could have been a career death sentence.
Then there was the fallout. Questions arose about the testing process, as the lab had gotten rid of his blood sample so it couldn't be retested, and the B sample was never tested to begin with. As such, the UFC dropped the suspension when it was clear that the positive test couldn't hold up to scrutiny due to the lab mistakes and lack of follow-up. Le wanted an apology from UFC. He didn't get it. In the wake of the situation, some will say that he was innocent and the UFC mistreated him. Others will say he slid through on a procedural error.
Because of that, Le decided there was no way he could fight again for the UFC, where he had two fights remaining on his contract, When he asked for a release, he was denied. He has since been the lead name in a class action suit against the organization, that he said has nothing to do with that specific situation.
He's not totally uncomplimentary of the UFC, but there is bitterness in the feeling he worked hard to help establish UFC in the difficult-to-reach Chinese market. He was the lead star, and he handled most of the publicity for the first season of that country's version of The Ultimate Fighter, which was a ratings success.
"I just felt after what I've done for the UFC, and they put me on a great platform, I got to fight some of the best fighters in the world and I appreciate that, but from what I've done in China and Asia for them and they threw me under the bus," he says. "For me to put that kind of hard work in, four months of super strict dieting and a year of dieting, it's not like one of these gimmicks on TV. Finally after that, I got in my best shape. It got to where I felt guilty if I ate something wrong because I didn't want my love handles to come back."
Worse, he sees what happened with Jon Jones and his failed cocaine test, and it makes him even madder that Dana White went all over the media defending his light heavyweight champion. It irks him that he was buried after adamantly denying any wrongdoing and helping the UFC put down roots in a new part of the world.
Le said despite his age and the punishment he'd taken in the past, he felt great throughout his training for Bisping and in the fight until he got bloodied up. At that point, things fell apart because of all he blood obscuring his vision. He said his game plan -- as well as his backup game plan -- had to be abandoned because he was bleeding so badly he had no depth perception.
"After the second round, I couldn't see well. I could have said, `I'm done.' But I said, 'I'm going out on my shield,'" he said. "I thought that's what the UFC wants and that's how I want my character to be remembered."
Le figured he had to let Bisping fire away from in close, because if he did, he'd regain his bearings and see his target better. And if he did that he could maybe, just possibly, knock Bisping out, which at that point Le saw as his only chance to win.
"I knew if I didn't knock him out, I'd probably be knocked out because I wouldn't see what was coming," he says. "I put my life on the line and they threw me under the bus. I'd have fought for [Bellator CEO] Scott [Coker] if they had let me out of my contract."
Le says that Dana White's description of his situation was not accurate. With the UFC acting as its own athletic commission in Macao for that Aug. 23 fight, White had said at the time that Le agreed to the nine-month suspension that the UFC handed down. That Le only grew angry when that suspension was extended to one year by UFC CEO Lorenzo Fertitta.
"I never agreed to anything," he says. "What they didn't realize and what people don't realize -- and maybe what Dana doesn't realize because he only hears what he wants to hear, and he speaks freely, loosely, and he believes what he says -- the truth is when I was told my HGH levels weren't normal, me, my wife and my team, we started researching HGH. We did our research."
He heard from Dr. Don Catlin, the best and most well-known drug testing doctor in the U.S.
"And Dr. Catlin said, 'This is stupid, throw it out [about the test results].' You can't test someone for HGH if they haven't fasted or had a good night sleep. You can't test after a workout, and a fight is more than a workout, and I was bleeding all over the place. If anything, my HGH levels should have been higher -- 18 [his reading] was in the normal level, 40 would have been abnormal. Even looking on Google you can see that if you got into a sauna, your HGH levels go up 120 percent. For him to say that, he didn't even take the effort to look it up. I was normal."
But Le's not complaining that he's no longer fighting, and knows his timing to leave the sport isn't bad. Problem is, his retirement wasn't on his terms. It wasn't the way he wanted to go out.
"Sometimes the fairy tale endings don't happen," he says. "But it's not the end of my career. It's just the end of my MMA path. That's all.
"The only reason I'd fight now would be for a mega fight or if Scott Coker asked me to do a retirement fight. I'm not getting any younger. If I don't focus on my next career, that ship might sail without me."
Le is now working on producing his own action movies, where he'll star and take his character in the direction he wants. He recently produced a movie with Jean-Claude Van Damme that was lauded at an Action Film Festival. The reality is, his life itself may make the most interesting movie of all.
He was born in what was then known as Saigon -- now Ho Chi Minh City -- in Vietnam. At the age of 2, Le and his mother, Anne, fled Saigon as the Communists were taking over. They were able to get on a U.S. military plane, but had to wait 10 hours at the airport before they were given permission to board. It was a half-mile between the building they were staying at and the airplane. His mother had to run and carry him, with bullets flying in their direction. Bullets were aimed at the plane as they took off. He spent time in a refugee camp. Eventually, he and his mother ended up in San Jose, Calif.
"I was always getting picked on and bullied," he remembers about his childhood. "When I was 10, my mom put me in Tae Kwon Do. But it was inconsistent because my mom was working three jobs."
The highest rank he reached was yellow belt, because he couldn't remember his forms. But things changed in seventh grade. He started wrestling, and was very good at it. There was no more bullying by that point. As a high school senior, he won the AAU National Championship in both freestyle and Greco-Roman (the style he preferred) in his age group. He won the state championship at West Valley Junior College, in Saratoga, Calif., just outside of San Jose, but left school during his second year to work and help the family.
It was at that point he reconnected with martial arts.
"I started out where I was an amateur, paying to go to tournaments," he says.
This was the early-'90s, and things like the UFC and MMA didn't exist. He competed in a number of martial arts, from Tae Kwon Do to Wushu, but his specialty became Sanshou, which is also called San Da, a Chinese martial art and sport.
The sport was a combination of kickboxing and wrestling. There are takedowns and throws from Greco-Roman wrestling and judo allowed, but there is no ground work. You get points for the throw, based on the height of the throw, but then restart standing.
Le dominated that sport for years, with a spectacular style of kicks coming from angles and directions that made him look more like a choreographed fighter in a martial arts movie than anyone you would see in a real fight. But his wrestling was often more impressive than his kicks, particularly his trademark moves like a flying scissors takedown and high-angle suplexes that you wouldn't think could work in actual competition, let alone work over-and-over again.
In fact, when he reminisces about his career -- while he will always mention his win over Frank Shamrock in San Jose, Calif., in 2008 where he won the Strikeforce middleweight title and his knockout of Rich Franklin in 2012 as highlights -- the fight etched into his mind the most, because it almost made him quit the sport, was in an August 29, 1998 Shidokan tournament in Chicago. He faced Arne Soldwedel, a training partner of the legendary kickboxer, the late Andy Hug.
The tournament was crazy. Each fight consisted of six rounds under different rules. The first round was bare knuckle karate, wearing a gi, where punches to the face were illegal but punching the body was fine, while kicks to the head were legal. The second round was Thai boxing, with gloves and punches and kicks to the face allowed. The third round was essentially anything goes fighting, with small gloves, similar to what are now used in MMA. Then they repeated the cycle.
Le described his first fight in the tournament as a tough fight, where he caught his opponent, Ben Harris, with a spinning heel kick in the second round. His second fight went five rounds. He busted his lip and needed stitches, but he couldn't get them because he had one more fight. There were submissions allowed in the "anything goes" rounds, and Le had little submission training, past learning a rudimentary footlock.
"In the fifth round, I took my opponent down and the foot was right there and I jumped on the foot and he tapped," Le remembers. "Before that, I was suplexing him all over the place."
The finals were against Soldwedel. It was scheduled to be an eight-round fight, after he'd already gone seven rounds that night. Le described Soldwedel as the kind of guy who backstage would try to intimidate you, noting he threw his shoulder at him backstage when they walked past each other.
"It was just a war," Le says. "I didn't think I'd be able to go into the eighth (round). I had two tough fights to get there and he knocked out everyone to get there. The longest he went was the second round or third round.
"He did those Andy Hug spinning heel kicks to the leg and caught me with that twice. I didn't have much feeling left in my leg. I remember right at the end of the seventh round, he slipped and I threw a punch and as soon as my punch connected, he nearly flew out of the ring. He hit the top rope and it knocked him out. The next day, I was ready to retire because I felt like I just got hit by a train."
He got paid $5,000 for winning the tournament.
A few months earlier he had his first pay-per-view fight, competing in a tournament in a sport called Draka, a Russian combination of kickboxing and wrestling, very similar to Sanshou, held at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. He went six rounds in two fights, winning the tournament. Coker, who had been promoting kickboxing shows in San Jose for years, was watching that event on television.
"That's the first time I saw him," Coker, who ended up being Le's main promoter from 1998 to 2010, remembers. "I thought, 'Who is this kid?' He was good looking, marketable, and I thought, 'He should be fighting for us.' I tracked him down. I didn't even know he was from San Jose."
"After my Draka debut, Scott Coker contacted me and asked me if I wanted to fight on ESPN," Le said.
Le became San Jose's star fighter instantly. San Jose had the country's second-largest Vietnamese population base at the time, and the city didn't have a sports hero. Le would fight in his Sanshou rules fights with his wild kicks and even wilder takedowns, stealing the show almost every time out. His fights would pack smaller arenas in San Jose with fans, both Vietnamese and not, waving small Vietnamese flags in the air and cheering him on. The San Jose fights were used as filler programming on ESPN in no specific time slot, repeated frequently, so sports fans could see Le regularly from 1998 to 2005.
"He had a real successful school here, and big community support," Coker says. "It worked out great for both of us."
"I was his biggest ticket seller," says Le. "I sold a couple of hundred thousand dollars of tickets. I would have sold more, but as soon as I'd get a block of tickets at the gym, they'd be gone two days later. I'd just go on the Vietnamese radio station and say I've got tickets at my gym."
Coker said when he signed Le it wasn't about looking for a Vietnamese hero to appeal to that community and sell tickets at his gym.
"That wasn't the motivation at all. The motivation was, here is this great fighter who is really marketable, speaks English, and he could do some big things for us," says Coker. "He was good for ticket sales, good for ratings on ESPN, the rest was icing on the cake that came on top. We'd give him 1,000 tickets and he'd call me a few days later and say, `We're all sold out.' He understood the business of fighting."
Le never lost in San Jose because of his dual skills. Some guys were good enough to block his takedowns, but couldn't stand with him. Others could stay with him standing, so he'd just take them down repeatedly and break them that way. His toughest and most well remembered fight came in 2005 against current UFC fighter Brian Ebersole. Ebersole stayed with him standing, and some say got the better of him. But Le took the former Division I wrestler down repeatedly to win a close decision.
Because of his look and flashy style, he was frequently on the cover of martial arts magazines. He was 17-0 as a professional in various forms of fighting, mostly Sanshou. This led to some resentment in MMA because he fought a specialty style. While some of his opponents were known kickboxers, with the exception of Shonie Carter, he had never faced a UFC fighter. There were people who were waiting for him to be "exposed" against MMA fighters. But it wasn't going to be as easy as his critics thought. He trained with all the area fighters and his reputation was that he was no paper champion. At one time Javier Mendez ranked him with Cain Velasquez, Shamrock and B.J. Penn as the most talented fighters to ever come through the doors of the original American Kickboxing Academy gym, which is high praise when you consider the talent that had trained there.
Few outside of the area knew how good of a wrestler Le was, and how the crazy kicks that aren't supposed to work in a real MMA fight were difficult to compete against, particularly because it was next to impossible to take him down.
"I made sure I kept up with what people were saying, because it motivated me," he says. "I have real thick skin, from growing up being bullied, being in two refugee camps, not knowing the language, it all motivated me."
Le was just shy of his 34th birthday before he ever fought MMA. Coker's contract with ESPN wasn't renewed, and after becoming friends with Frank Shamrock he decided to convert Strikeforce from a kickboxing promotion into an MMA promotion. That was in 2006, when the sport was legalized in California.
If Le had come along 10 years later, and had he started under these rules at a younger age, it's difficult to say whether he'd have become a welterweight or middleweight champion. But he would have done well, and his style and excitement would have made him one of the biggest stars, champion or not, in the MMA world.
"The first time I saw MMA, it was crazy," Le remembers. "It was light guys against heavy guys. It wasn't until they established weight classes, and then Scott said he was doing his first event in San Jose, that I started training for it at AKA and learned enough to defend against submissions. I was picking everyone up and slamming them, but I had to fight the armbars, chokes and triangles. So I decided I wasn't going to go down to the ground because I'm underwater when I go down."
His MMA style was different than his Sanshou style because of the threat of submissions. Unless he was tired or facing someone who wasn't good with submissions, Le kept the fights standing, leaving perhaps the most entertaining part of his game in the past. He went 7-1 in Strikeforce, with all seven wins coming via knockout or TKO, the most notable of which as came against his former training partner Frank Shamrock, whose arm he broke with a kick en-route to a third-round stoppage. He calls that fight the highlight of his MMA career. His lone loss was a fight he was dominating against Scott Smith, but he got tired and was caught in the third round. He destroyed Smith in a rematch.
Even though the fight was nearly seven years ago, Shamrock vs. Le may still be the most remembered MMA fight ever held in San Jose because of the local ties, and this is a city that housed such memorable MMA classics as the first Dan Henderson vs. Shogun Rua fight at UFC 139, as well as Fabricio Werdum's upset victory over Fedor Emelianenko and the Gina Carano vs. Cris Cyborg fight.
But Le still remembers post-fight knocks from MMA's pool of critics.
"People say, `Frank should have taken me down,"' he remembers. "Well, if you watched the fight, he tried several times."
Le vacated the Strikeforce title because he got roles in films like Pandorum and Tekken.
He first had interest from producers to play a martial artist, because he had the right look and skill set for the role, when he was spotted doing scissors kicks on late-night ESPN broadcasts in the '90s. But he admits he fell short the first time around because he was given significant roles, but his acting wasn't up to snuff. So he took acting classes.
He says it was nearly a decade later, in 2007, when he started getting interest, after his win over Tony Fryklund aired on Showtime.
"It was the Strikeforce show they did with ProElite, where I was the co-main event and Frank [Shamrock] was the main event," he says. "That's when some managers called me and met me. I met Hollywood managers and two weeks later I got into Channing Tatum's movie, Fighting."
By the time he got to UFC he was 39 years old and operating as a part-time fighter, part-time actor. He suffered a broken rib in training and wasn't in his best shape for a fight with Wanderlei Silva at UFC 139. He says he made a decision not to pull out, even with the grim realization that he only had one round worth of gas in the tank. He came out strong in that round and nearly finished Silva, but when he didn't, Silva came back to finish him in the second round. That was the semifinal of the Henderson vs. Rua fight, and was one of the best fights of the year in its own right. Many consider UFC 139 as one of the three best shows in company history.
While some would say in dividing his attention between acting and fighting he never realized his full potential in MMA, Le sees things differently.
"A lot of people don't realize that's why I was able to fight for so long," he says. "By taking time off, I let the body fully heal. I didn't break my body down fighting and fighting. That's why I had so much longevity. Except for Dan Henderson, I was the second-oldest [main event star], and I felt I was fighting at a pretty high level."