It seems fitting that Michael "Venom" Page will be fighting at the SAP Center in San Jose on Saturday night, because while physically completely different, there are obvious similarities between Page and the original star of the city's martial arts scene, Cung Le.
Page faces the far more experienced Fernando Gonzalez (25-13) on Saturday night's Bellator show on a day loaded with MMA, as the UFC is hosting two events on its own. Bellator 165, which airs live on Spike TV, is headlined by one of the most significant fights in the promotion’s recent history, with lightweight champion Michael Chandler defending his title against former UFC and WEC champion Benson Henderson.
Page — known simply as “MVP” — started creating interest in himself from his Bellator debut two years ago. His notoriety exploded in his last fight on July 16 in London, when he fractured the skull of veteran Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos with a flying knee. It was one of the scariest moves of the year, and which referee John McCarthy called "absolutely the hardest knee" he'd ever seen thrown in a fight.
That devastating knee became the go-to-highlight clip of the weekend in MMA, but it was par for the course for Page.
"I always put on a show," he says. "Even if I lose, it'll be the talk of the town, that's how I see it. It's because I bring the personality, I bring the character, I bring the showmanship that makes people love or hate me and makes people want to talk about it even more."
Page and Le's similarities extend to the fact that both were champions in more traditional martial arts; Page in Lau Gar Kung Fu and point kickboxing, Le in the Chinese art of San Shou. Both brought in a fighting style that many thought would be exposed if they came into the world of MMA (which can so often double as a world of nullity).
Le didn't even start in MMA until the age of 33, but had a solid career that included holding the Strikeforce middleweight title. Page, on the other hand, entered MMA at the age of 24. Nearly five years later he comes into Saturday's Bellator show with an 11-0 record, with nine first round finishes. He’s only gone the distance once in his career. But up to this point he's been used more as an attraction, and has yet to face anything near championship-caliber competition.
Physically Page and Le are completely different, as Page is 6-foot-3 and lean, fighting at 170, while Le was short and muscular, built more like a wrestler at 5-foot-9, fighting at 185. But what they share in common are showy styles that people were dubious could translate.
"People believe it doesn't work, but their minds will be changed and they'll acknowledge it's an effective style," says Page, who comes from London, England, and is the son of a world kickboxing champion. "That's what I want to do.
"There are people who don't like change. They're used to a certain thing and used to seeing things a certain way, so when someone does it differently, they prefer to write it off. They won't investigate it until it works for a longer period of time and then they have to take it seriously. That's what I want people to do, to look into the style."
Like so many others coming up in MMA, Page came up under the influence of Bruce Lee.
"I started in Lau Gar kung fu, it's like Chinese boxing," he says about his original background. "It's more like self defense, katas, forms, very traditional. In the U.K., all the Chinese films stars were popular, and there used to be Friday night films," he said.
His parents, who watched all the old martial arts movies and both idolized the likes of Jackie Chan and Lee, competed in martial arts. Of their nine children, four — including Michael — captured world championships in traditional martial arts.
"From the age of three, I was in the gym, running around, attempting to do punches, trying to do forms, practicing the forms," he says. "At the age of five, I had my first competition."
Page won an ISKA world martial arts championship at the age of 12, and then started entering adult competitions, where he won many more world titles in point karate tournaments.
Unhappy with what went on behind the scenes in the kickboxing world, he switched to MMA.
"Freestyle kickboxing, it was almost the same way MMA came about," he says. "You need a little bit of everything. It was more sport karate. Then the Tae Kwon Do guys came in. Then the Kung Fu guys came in. Everyone's style was doing different things. I can show you five-year-olds with their hands down doing spin kicks. The general style (that he does) exists already. It's not something I'm trying to put on now. I've been doing it for 20 years. It would be more difficult for me to change and do conventional stuff."
Though they have such similarities, Page wasn't aware of Le until a few years ago.
"When I stated doing MMA, I watched Cung Le," he says. "He prefers kicks. I was a late comer to MMA. When I started in MMA is when I started watching MMA."
Scott Coker, the President of Bellator, was the local promoter behind the rise of Le, first on local kickboxing shows and later on high-profile Strikeforce MMA events that made San Jose one of the early hotbeds of MMA in the U.S.
"We have an eye for people who can be stars and we know how to make stars," says Coker.
Coker noted that Page will be one of the key players in the Bellator welterweight division, which just saw its championship change hands when Douglas Lima upset Andrey Koreshkov in Tel Aviv, Israel last week.
"That 170-pound weight class has a bunch of killers," says Coker. "Some of the best fighters in the world. We've got a new champion, we have an amazing division including Rory MacDonald. We're going to have stuff really special for the fans next year."
Page notes that some people think his style — in which he taunts and undulates — is disrespectful to his opponents, but he said he trains and fights in the gym identically to what people see on television. Still, he's very keen on putting on a show, both during and after his fights.
"I'm very socially aware of what's going on," he says. "I'm trying to create that buzz, draw more eyes and that's what I did. I'm always coming up with ideas of what to do in front of the camera. It's not something I practice, but I have a vision, and it's well thought out."
His hope is to turn that into being nothing short of a household name.
"My goal is dominating the sport,” he says. “I'm talking that if you think about MMA, my name comes straight into your head."