“Fools rush in…”
– Johnny Mercer
A lot can change in 21 months.
In March 2008, a gallon of gas cost $3.27. Barack Obama was battling Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary race. The New York Giants were a month removed from stunning the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. And Cung Le was breaking the arm of MMA legend Frank Shamrock en route to becoming the Strikeforce Middleweight Champion.
In the 21 months since beating Shamrock, Le led the way for Mixed Martial Artists transitioning to acting, appearing in four films. If you’re keeping score, that’s four more films than fights since he won the title.
To say that Strikeforce’s Middleweight division has improved since Le won the title would be the understatement of this nearly-concluded decade. Le’s pursuit of an acting career coupled with the influx of Middleweight talent made it reasonable to strip him of his title. But the decision to have Le relinquish his title was delayed. And delayed. And then, after 18 months of inactivity in the cage, the title was vacated. Then, just two months after being stripped of the title, Le announced, on the same event on which the vacant Middleweight title was contested, that he would return to action in December.
That should tell you all you need to know about Cung Le’s current position in Strikeforce. Despite being one of several champions to spend months away from Strikeforce, Le was the first and only fighter in the promotion’s history to be stripped of his title. Josh Thomson, who also returns on Saturday’s card, was on the shelf for eight months. While an interim Lightweight Champion was crowned, Thomson remained the recognized Champion. Strikeforce Heavyweight Champion Alistair Overeem has not fought in America, let alone defended his Strikeforce title since winning it over two years ago, yet Overeem remains the champion. The Saigon-born superstar, however, finds himself not just a former champion, but out of the title picture all together.
There’s a reason why Le is no longer in the title picture. He’s so far removed at this point that he’s not even on the outside looking in. Le is quite literally looking outward towards Hollywood.
That may be for the best. Despite Le’s undefeated record, competing at the top of Strikeforce’s Middleweight division today would be an enormous step up for Le to take. When he was the champion, Strikeforce’s Middleweight division consisted of Le, Shamrock, and nobody else.
There are a lot of “nevers” for Le. He’s never fought outside of San Jose, CA in his MMA career. He’s never been forced to fight off of his back. Neither circumstance should change when Le returns to action in the Bay Area, home to America’s second-largest Vietnamese population amongst whom Le is extremely popular, to face Scott Smith.
It will be interesting to see how the time away from the cage will affect Le, who will face his toughest test to date. Smith has the power and experience to be troublesome to a lot of fighters, and the ring rust will do Le no favors. Unfortunately for Smith, he’s keen to live up to his nickname. If Smith chooses to rush in and pit his “Hands of Stone” with Le’s kicks, he may suffer the same fate as Frank Shamrock.
Le’s buzzsaw-like kicks have cut each of his opponents down. It’s a good thing, too, because Le’s glaring weakness is on the ground. In the Shamrock fight, we saw Le’s reluctance to engage his opponent on the ground, even after knocking him down. If Smith is so inclined, he should be able to take Le down, and in that position it would be a matter of time until Le suffered his first defeat.
That’s what makes Smith a great opponent for Le. Baring a great departure from his typical style, Smith is likely to do his best impression of a heavy bag upon which Le will unleash hell. In that case, there will be arguments that Le has taken the next step up the proverbial Middleweight ladder. Those arguments won’t be entirely off base, but until Le defeats a fighter both willing and able to make Le fight off of his back, it will be difficult consider him amongst the top Middleweights in the world.
That may be fine for Le. After all, how concerned could he really be with his position in the division if he’s only fighting between films?