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)