StrikeFarce: Cung Le & the Importance of Legitimacy

For as outrageous and hypocritical as promoters and personalities in a given sport can be, so can the folks that cover the sport for a living.

Take, for example, the recent signing of James Toney to the UFC. Yes, Toney is past his prime and will most likely be used as a sideshow attraction and/or to prove some sort of point (as Freddie Roach has alluded to). And yes, Dana White now looks foolish for spending so much time and energy condemning promotions such as Strikeforce that put on what he terms as “freak show fights,” a term he did not invent but never the less made his own via ad nauseum usage.

However, there’s another fighter who continues to receive an inordinate amount of coverage and attention despite the fact that he clearly thinks of and treats Mixed Martial Arts as a secondary career. This fighter is anything from a complete fighter and has openly demonstrated his aversion to fighting anybody with any legitimacy in his weight division. He’s a passerby in sport despite the insistence of his fight promotion. He never has, and likely never will, agree to face someone that poses any threat to him. Yet the MMA media rarely calls him, or the promotion, out on it.

I’m talking about Cung Le.

Le became Strikeforce’s Middleweight Champion after he beat Frank Shamrock in March of 2008. He vacated the title last Fall citing a commitment to and desire to expand upon his film career, which consists of schlocky B-level Hong Kong action flicks to be specific. Jake Shields won the vacant title in November and on the very same broadcast, it was announced that Cung Le was returning to Strikeforce to face Scott Smith three weeks later on Showtime.

At a press conference after the event, a reporter half-jokingly asked Shields he thought Cung Le was ducking him. Shields surprised the room by saying yes, and saying that obviously his former colleague had absolutely no interest in fighting someone at a higher level of competition than he was used to. He offered the timing of Le’s respective announcements as proof.

Cung Le has the fans' interest, but for how long?

Immediately, Le went on the defensive. He claimed Shields was using Le’s name to get publicity, even though by that point Jake Shields had fought in front of a national audience on broadcast television twice while Le had all but disappeared from the minds of MMA fans and is a complete unknown to casual fans. Le’s fans and apologists, however, went on the defensive and accused Shields of ducking opponents and tougher competition in the past, even citing his decision to sign with the fledging EliteXC instead of the UFC as proof of his bitch-assedness.

Time proved them wrong in a big way. Shields is scheduled to face Dan Henderson next month, fighting a guy with a lot more experience, arguably more skill, and a significant size advantage. Cung Le, in the meanwhile, has re-iterated his desire to fight Scott Smith or Frank Shamrock in a rematch, and no one else.

To put things in a clearer perspective, let’s look at the two men he’s interested in fighting.

The first is Frank Shamrock. As I mentioned earlier in this blog, the two fought in March of 2008. He’s eager to fight and is arguably one of the greatest fighters at 205 pounds that the sport ever saw, but Frank’s best days are far behind him. This isn’t just a fighter that’s past his prime: his physical peak was over a decade ago. To put things in perspective, the last time Frank Shamrock was competitive in the world of Mixed Martial Arts, we were still referring to 205 pounds as Middleweight and William Jefferson Clinton was the President of the United States.

The other potential opponent, Scott Smith, is a former UFC washout whose highest profile win in the last three years was over Benji Radach, who is hardly a world-beater himself. Smith defeated Le in a shocking come-from-behind third round knockout last December. Le was handily beating Smith up to that point, and while Smith proved once again that he’s a fighter with an abundance of perseverance and heart, he is still sorely lacking in skill and depth as a fighter. I have to admit that I’m always intrigued by Scott Smith’s fights, but it’s not entirely unfair to say that he’s a one-dimensional fighter at best.

These are the only two men Cung Le will consider fighting: the has-been and the plucky never-was. How anyone can, with this knowledge, give Cung Le any serious consideration or attention in this sport is beyond my understanding or patience level.

I get that to an extent, he’s an attractive fighter for Strikeforce due to his unique and entertaining striking style, but that alone can’t and won’t make him a main event draw. It was enough for Strikeforce to pull in a strong live gate a few years back, but outside of San Jose – and on pay-per-view – Le is not going to draw a dime.

MMA still has a lot of room to grow and a lot of work to do when it comes to educating the mainstream. However, fans of the sport have come to appreciate and understand the sport. In other words, you can have a fighter like Le that can generate buzz and interest, but people also have to believe that he’s a legitimate threat in his division before they invest money specifically to see him.

As far as I’m concerned, Le is a flashy and entertaining striker to watch. In the end, however, he’s no different than Herschel Walker and Bobby Lashley. Like them, Le is a fighter that generates some talk and interest from a fanbase that might not normally seek out Strikeforce or MMA in general, but is barely a complete mixed martial artist, let alone a competitor.

If that comparison is unfair to anyone, it’s not Le. It might be unfair to Herschel Walker, who has shown the utmost respect for the sport, seems to legitimately love doing it, and actually has the name recognition with the casual fan that Cung Le seems to think he has. It might even be unfair to Bobby Lashley, who at least has presented some upside and potential to eventually be able to compete with the more skilled fighters in the heavyweight division. Cung Le, through both his choice of opponents and statements, has made it clear that he possesses neither the inclination nor the desire to better himself as a fighter.

He belongs in entertainment, not in sport.

I’m sure analysts and journalists more in the know can say with more confidence who Le will fight next. I would think smart money would be on Frank Shamrock, who knows how to promote himself and a fight despite the fact that nobody thinks h has a realistic chance, so that Le can go into a second bout with Scott Smith coming off a win.

Then, if he won’t fight Shields, let him go. Dana White may seem to be talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to signing fighters that draw mainstream chatter and little else, but he is right about one thing: Strikeforce is able to get mileage out of Cung Le and Herschel Walker now, but if they want to be taken seriously beyond that they’re going to have to distance themselves from that sort of thing, and it’s going to have to be sooner rather than later.

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