In March of 2006, Strikeforce debuted and featured a wide array of talent which included the likes of Frank Shamrock, Cesar Gracie, Clay Guida, Gilbert Melendez and a Vietnamese Sanshou specialist by the name of Cung Le. Armed with a style that few at the time had ever seen before in mixed martial arts, Le established himself as a force in the middleweight division by not only winning his pro debut fight against Mike Altman, but also going undefeated in the promotion en route to a title fight with Shamrock.

Le would break Shamrock’s arm in round three of that fight to win the title, then vacate the belt, embark on a Hollywood acting career, and come back to Strikeforce to first lose—and then later avenge that loss—to Scott Smith. Now, Le stands at 3-2 in his last five, having lost his UFC debut to Wanderlei Silva at UFC 139 while taking a unanimous decision over Patrick Cote at UFC 148.

His most recent outing—a first-round knockout of Rich Franklin at UFC on Fuel TV 6—knocks a question out of us, the denizens of the MMA world. Normally, we would ask if the now-40-year-old Le can realistically shoot for a step up in competition and a potential title run, or if he simply remains on the roster because of the fun that comes with his fights. However, another question arises—one that nobody asked until now.

So now, we ask ourselves: had Le made his pro MMA debut in 2002, instead of 2006, would he go down as one of the greatest of all-time?

The thought seems easy to fathom—perhaps even more so than the thought of Le debuting in 1996, when the sport didn’t even have weight classes. Had Le gone to MMA, his competition would’ve depended on which organization he chose to sign with.

While Pride took until 2005 to crown a champion in its welterweight (161-183 lb.) division, Murilo Bustamante earned the UFC’s title by beating inaugural champion Dave Menne and defending it successfully against Matt Lindland. When Bustamente jumped to Pride,  the UFC never crowned a champion until Evan Tanner came along.

Imagine Le working his Sanshou against the likes of David Loiseau and Ricardo Almeida in the UFC. Le would present a style of striking that nobody had seen before at that time to the UFC middleweights as well as the Pride welterweights. Obviously, presenting “a style that nobody has seen before” will not equate to beating the 2002 version of Dan Henderson or out-grappling the Bustamante who beat Menne.

As Le does incorporate takedowns and a respectable wrestling game into his arsenal now, though, one can’t help but find intrigue in seeing how Le would have worked a skill set reminiscent of what he currently possesses if he had debuted a decade ago.

As he evolved, fights with Chris Leben, Evan Tanner, Rich Franklin and others would grow to make sense, provided he kept a nice streak alive. In fact, the possibilities would stand as endless as to what could have gone down if Le signed on to welcome now-champ Anderson Silva into the Octagon, or if Le vs. Cote went down at UFC 90. Perhaps even a potential bout with Michael Bisping might turn heads in a world where Le had gotten his start in 2002.

The bottom line remains that Le would possibly find himself on a different path now if he started out a decade earlier. He would be a legend who had seen the best come and go in the sport, and while we cannot say for sure, we can venture a guess as to whether or not a 2002 start for Le’s MMA career would result in Le beating any of the best.

That said, nobody can say he couldn’t beat the best of those times and earn his status as the greatest of all-time, and if he evolved throughout that decade, few would argue with his position as one of the greatest of all-time.

Photo: Cung Le (left), who knocked Rich Franklin out two weeks ago at UFC on Fuel TV 6 (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

About The Author

Dale De Souza
Staff Writer

Dale De Souza is a 22-year-old kid straight out of Texas, who grew up around Professional Wrestling but embraced the beauty of Mixed Martial Arts and Combat Sports at a young age. Dale is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report MMA, a writer at The MMA Corner, and by his own admission, he prides himself as "The Human Torch of MMA Journalism". Stalk him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter if you think you can stand the heat he throws or the hot fire he spits about MMA, sports, and everyday life!

  • Ronin777

    Hi,

    I think he would have been ready far earlier than 2002. Maybe even the late 1990′s, where he might have been able to fight in the 170lb weight class.

    Look at the schooling he handed down to Shonie Carter in Dec 2001 in San Shou. How much different would the outcome have been if it were a MMA bout in the UFC?

    See link:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xbm0ABH_v2k

    Note that 2001 was the same year Shonie KTFO’d Matt Sera @ UFC 31 & lost to Pat Militich in UFC 32.

    Imagine Cung Le going up against the likes of Pat Militich, Matt Sera, Carlos Newton, Renzo Gracie, Matt Hughes???

    If he crossed over to Pride, he could have tangled with Sakuraba or even Royce Gracie and his BJJ Gi!

    Back then, who in MMA was truely a complete fighter in the standards of 2012?
    No one.

    If Cung had entered into the MMA scene in say 1999, I have no doubt he would be in the UFC Hall of Fame by now.

    Regards,

  • Ronin777

    The what if scenarios can go on forever…

    At welterweight, could Cung Le beat Matt Hughes? Could he have been the first to KO Matt Hughes?

    Welterweight title holder in the UFC?

    What of BJ Penn or dare I say GSP?

    Could there have been Matt Hughes vs Cung Le 1,2,&3?
    A GSP vs Cung Le 1,2,&3? Even BJ Penn vs Cung Le 1,2,&3