In the world of MMA, few names have achieved such legendary status in the sport as Cung Le. Arriving in the United States with his mother as Vietnamese refugees in the mid 70’s, Cung would become well-versed in numerous martial art disciplines but is arguably best known as the face of Sanda or Sanshou (Kung Fu in the form of full-contact kickboxing) winning numerous full-contact competitions before popularizing the art through his careers in professional kickboxing and MMA.
A man of many talents, Cung would soon take his skills to the silver screen as well. From “Dragon Eyes” and “Bodyguards and Assassins” to “The Grandmaster” and “Into the Badlands”, he’s proven himself to be as much of a Human Highlight Reel in front of the camera as he is in The Octagon!
Cung Le recently sat down with KFK to share his incredible journey to becoming both a champion of full-contact fighting and charismatic action star, achievements that would each be impressive enough individually, but together create a formidable force…
Hi there, Cung. Thanks so much for taking time out to check in with us! Hope you’re doing well?
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks.
Great to hear that. What do you think of the name of our site, Kung Fu Kingdom?
I think it’s cool and a great name for a martial arts site!
Awesome. Thank you! Well, let’s kick off with some basics, like when and where you were born?
I was born in Saigon, Vietnam on May 25th, 1972.
What’s your height and weight?
I’m 5’10” (1.78m) tall and weigh 14st (89.8kg).
Thanks. So, let’s go ahead and talk about your beginnings in martial arts, what various disciplines have you studied?
Well, my family left Vietnam a week before the fall of Saigon. My grandfather was chief of police for five different cities and he had a choice of either stay and be executed, or the U.S. Government fly us to the Philippines. We spent three months there in a refugee camp, and then flew to Guam and spent a month in a refugee camp there before coming to the States. I started out in Taekwondo when I was 10-years old because I was getting bullied. My teacher actually taught both Taekwondo and Kung Fu at his school. After that, I took up wrestling in high school, and 1993 was when I began training in Sanda. Two years after that, I was competing for the U.S. Team in the World Kung Fu Championship.
Thanks for sharing that. So, who would you credit as some of your heroes or inspirational figures in martial arts?
Bruce Lee would definitely be at the top of the list. After him, I’d say Gordon Liu, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li.
Great choices! So, what originally made you want to compete as a professional fighter?
Well, I started as an amateur, and I was paying for all the tournaments I was going to. When I competed at the World Kung Fu Championships, I got to meet a lot of the top fighters from around the world, and they’d tell me they were paid by their governments and I thought, “Well, what’s wrong with this picture?” (both laugh) So, I looked into how to go pro and tournaments that paid, and finally, I fought Shawn Liu in one of his tournaments where the grand prize was $1,000, which was a lot to me, at the time. After I won that, I heard about a tournament called Shidokan with a $5,000 grand prize. At my first time at Shidokan, I lost to Tony Otero, but I went back and whole the whole tournament the following year. After that, I was contacted by an organization called Draka, and I went and fought for them and won $10,000, and Scott Coker, who’s now the president of Bellator MMA, saw my first fight and contacted me. We came to a deal, and I fought for him in 1998 and the rest is history!
Great story about the rise of Cung Le! On that note, one of your more famous fights was in China against Na Shun, “The Mongolian King”. What interesting stories can you share about this fight?
We were originally supposed to fight for a world title in Hawaii, and the promoter didn’t come through, but he was China’s best at the time and we were committed to fighting. He was King of Sanda at the time, he’d won a lot of his fights by knockout. I did a lot of research on his previous fights to prepare, and saw that he was fighting southpaw, and up to that point, I’d been training to fight him orthodox. The day before the fight, I saw the USA Women’s Soccer Team against the powerful Chinese team, and that really inspired me to represent the U.S. and bring home a win from the homeland of Kung Fu. So, I said “I know I’m gonna get hit, so I’m just gonna stay in his face and pressure him.”
You guys certainly did plenty of that! You also fought Jason Yee in the first televised Sanda fight at the 1997 U.S. Kung Fu Championship, what can you tell us about that?
We’d already sparred a few times before at the 1995 World Championships while the lighter weight classes fought and I was waiting for my upcoming fights in the tournament. We were always cool, and he was the only other American fighter at the time to bring home a medal in Sanda, so we’d always kind of wanted to really go at it in the ring.
You definitely had a great fight. Who would you consider the toughest opponent you faced in your MMA career?
There’s so many different elements to every opponent you face. Michael Bisping cut me pretty bad and I couldn’t see him for a lot of our fight, so that meant my game plan going into the fight was out, so I just tried to keep him in front of me, knock him out. I lost that fight, but I went out on my shield! I would also have to say Frank Shamrock was a really big deal for me, because he was already a legend in MMA and that was the biggest fight of my career at the time.
I hit him with everything I had and the kitchen sink and he was still there, but when I saw that he was blocking my kicks like you would block punches, with one hand, I just kept kicking away because I knew that eventually that would hurt his arm, and it ended up broken in the third round. He was the toughest dude, because it wasn’t just a fracture, his arm was broken, and I came at him to try to finish him and he was still punching me with that arm. He was one tough dude, and he went out like a warrior! (Check out more by viewingCung’s Top 5 MMA Finishes
Ouch! Yes, he most definitely was. On that note, what interesting stories can you share about coaching The Ultimate Fighter: China?
I was the Dana White of TUF: China, so I got the opportunity to oversee the training of both teams. It was a great experience, and I still keep in touch with a few of the fighters.
Awesome! Well, that leads nicely into your career in martial arts movies. One of your first roles was in the as-yet unreleased film “Blizhniy Boy: The Ultimate Fighter”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with Bolo Yeung and the late David Carradine? Do you know why it hasn’t been released yet?
Well, I don’t have 100% of the details, but the original director got fired after finishing about a quarter of the movie, and the producer finished it up about two years later, but the director still had the rights to it, so they had some kind of legal dispute over it.
The way I came into the movie was interesting, because I was coaching the US Sanda team at the time with six people in the semi-finals. My mother called me and told me “These guys want to cast you in this movie”, and I said, “Mom, that’s not gonna work, I’m coaching the US team right now”, but she really pressed me to call the producer – she knew I was already thinking of entering MMA then and she didn’t want me to fight anymore! So I called the producer up and he said “Okay, I need you come right now”, and I told him I was busy coaching the US Sanda team. He kept talking and said “I want to put you in the biggest fight scene in the movie and I’ll pay you $20,000!” and that sounded really good, so I was on a plane three days later. Long story short, I get to the set and found out I’m actually the star of the movie! (both laugh)
So I stuck around, did my part and I’d had a few other opportunities in the business before – I’d already been taking acting classes and I actually had been close to being cast as the lead in the TV series “Mortal Kombat: Conquest” – but this my was first real taste of filmmaking, and I realized, “Okay, this is cool. It’s long hours, but you don’t really get beat up, I can do this!”
Working with Bolo and David was such a surreal experience after growing up seeing them in “Enter the Dragon” and “Kung Fu”. When I met Bolo, he asked me what I was making on the film, and I said $20,000, and he said “What?! You need to get an agent! I flew here first class, and I’m getting a lot more than $20,000!” (laughs) David I actually met when I did my first scene on the first day and at the beginning of the day. He gave me kind of a crash course in acting, and he said, “Don’t worry about this dialogue in the script, I didn’t bother learning my lines either.” (both laugh)
Such an interesting experience! Another one of your early roles was in the movie “Dark Assassin”, which reunited you with Jason Yee, which he also directed. What interesting stories can you share about making this film?
I played the main villain and it came out of my prior contact with Jason. I basically killed people in the movie and between that, “Blizhniy Boy”, and the “Mortal Kombat” audition, I decided I needed to brush up my acting, so I have two different acting coaches now. I really flubbed the “Mortal Kombat” audition because my coach said “You need to act like you’ve just fallen through a time warp!”, and of course, I had no idea what it feels like to fall through a time warp!
(Both laugh) That’s a challenging one for sure. Going back a little bit, you actually appeared as yourself in an episode of “Walker: Texas Ranger”. What interesting stories can you share about being on the show with the legendary Chuck Norris?
Chuck was a super humble guy. He took everyone out for steak one night while we were doing the episode, and my steak hadn’t come out yet, and he actually waited until it had before he started eating his and then said a little prayer to himself, and I thought that was just the coolest thing.
What a true gent, that’s real classy. You also appeared as the character Marshall Law in the movie “Tekken”, based on the video game series. What interesting stories can you share about making the film and your fight scene with Jon Foo?
That was quite an experience. I had auditioned for my favorite character, Marshall Law, but the start date kept getting delayed, and it was getting about a month out from my world title fight with Frank Shamrock and I told them I was going to have to pull out. So, they flew me out right away, and a lot didn’t go well. I was going to have just three weeks left before the Frank Shamrock fight, which was the biggest fight of my life at the time. It was a late night shoot, and about three-quarters of the way into the fight with Jon Foo, he clipped me right above my lip. I was bleeding, and everyone was saying to get a doctor and I said, “No, we’re just gonna finish the scene and wrap me out, and then I’ll go get stitched up. It’s real blood, so we don’t have to worry about makeup.” I ended up with twenty one stitches, and after that, a few guys on the set saw me fighting with a split lip and were like, “Man, Cung’s gangsta!” (both laugh)
Definitely! Well, a little after “Tekken”, you also appeared in “Bodyguards and Assassins” where you have a big fight scene with Donnie Yen. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with such a legend of martial arts films?
That was some great timing, because I was up-and-coming at the time, and he had just blown up after “Ip Man”. When we started out, originally about 80% of the fight was in the fish market, and I said to Donnie, “We’ve got two blocks of 1905 Hong Kong, let’s do some parkour and let’s get savage out here.” So the producer Peter Chan called me in, and I thought I was about to get fired for butting in, and he asked what I was suggesting, I told him my ideas and he liked them, so the whole fight scene was based around my ideas. Later on, I found out that that was the fight scene was the main thing used to promote the film in China.
Didn’t know that and it is a superb fight sequence, for sure! Looking ahead now, in 2012 you appeared in the film “Dragon Eyes” alongside Jean-Claude Van Damme and Peter Weller. What interesting stories can you share about being involved in this film?
I give my agent a lot of credit for that. He really believed that I could become the next Jackie Chan, Jet Li, or Donnie Yen, so he really made an effort to break me in over in Hong Kong so that I could have more of a draw in the states. So then, he got me my first starring role in “Dragon Eyes”, and I was also the fight coordinator on the film. It was part of the “After Dark” action series, and it was the most successful film in the series. It was awesome to be able to work with Van Damme after growing up watching him in “Bloodsport” and “Kickboxer“, and it was great working with a seasoned actor like Peter Weller. A lot of people don’t realize that I take my acting as seriously as fighting, so it really had a blast doing dialogue scenes with Peter Weller.
No doubt! 2012 also saw you appear as the villainous Bronze Lion in “The Man with the Iron Fists“. What stories can you share about making the film with RZA of Wu-Tang Clan fame?
I met RZA in his recording studio and offered me the part. He likened it to the Toad from “The Five Deadly Venoms”, so I came aboard and the rest was history. He’d actually seen me fight before the Frank Shamrock fight, and he’d said “This guy’s gonna beat Frank Shamrock”, but he used a very different word than “guy”. (both laugh)
Well, going off of that, another really memorable appearance you had was in the opening fight scene in “The Grandmaster“. What interesting stories can you share about the film and your fight scene with Tony Leung?
When I had the meeting with the director, Wong Kar-wai, he actually didn’t say a word the whole time, his assistant did all the talking. Then finally, at the end of the meeting, he said, “I like you, so I’m going to add more to your part in the film.” I learned a lot from him filming the fight scene in the rain and my part in the movie was actually a lot bigger originally. We did this whole other fight scene in the middle of the film, then there was going to be a scene at the end of the film where my character is with his son, and it looks like I’m going to challenge Ip Man again, but I’m actually bringing my son to study with him. Before we could do that scene, however, Wong’s son got sick, and since I was actually working on that film and “The Man with the Iron Fists” at kind of the same time, I went back to work on that one. Then when I was filming the fight with Lucy Liu and she had two days left, they wanted to bring me back to film that dialogue scene, but we weren’t able to make it work so my second and final scene ended-up being cut, unfortunately.
It would’ve been great to see that second fight…and if there’s ever a chance! On that note, you were more recently seen in the first season of the AMC series “Into the Badlands” and you’re in the final fight. What interesting stories can you share about the making of the show and working with Daniel Wu? What can you share about the making of season two?
Yes, I appear in several episodes of season two. Daniel called me and told me he had this really great part for me on the show as a monk. I asked if I had to shave my head and he said no, so I came aboard. Originally, I was going to die but they decided to keep my character around and put me in the second season. It’s more of an acting role in the beginning, so I get to show my range and acting ability but it builds up to a crazy fight scene!
Awesome, we’re definitely looking forward to it! Another exciting movie coming out soon is “Savage Dog”. What interesting stories can you share about making the film with such amazing martial artists as Scott Adkins, Marko Zaror and director Jesse Johnson?
Jesse and I had another project originally, but it hadn’t gotten off the ground, so he decided to move on to “Savage Dog”, and he had a part in it that he thought I’d be great for. I read for it, and really liked it and I’d been wanting to work with Scott Adkins for a while. He’s just an incredible martial artist, I thought he could’ve been Batman! The film is going to be really different; it’s very emotional and dramatic, but because all of us making it were high level martial artists, it has some incredible action as well.
“Savage Dog” sounds great! So what are some other big projects you have coming up in the future?
I have a reality show coming up called “Fight or Flight” that’s about educating people from being a soft target to a hard target. The world today is quite dangerous, from ISIS to shooters in a movie theater and the show is meant to prepare people if they’re in those kinds of situations. I also have “Code Name: Dragon” coming up, where my character becomes the Asian James Bond. I’ll also be in “Security” later this year and I have a crazy fight scene with Antonio Banderas.
Well this sounds really exciting, thanks for sharing that. Now, we’ve got to do this, what are some of Cung Le’s definitive, favorite martial arts movies?
Number one and two for me are “Enter the Dragon” and “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin“, and they’re actually about tied for me! I also loved “The Five Deadly Venoms”, “Drunken Master“, “Fist of Legend“, there’s a lot of ties there. I couldn’t do them all justice!
Some stellar choices there. So, what other martial artists or actors would you be interested in working with in the future?
I just want to work with great, hungry talent. I don’t want to think of myself above anyone on set. If a grip needs help moving something, hey, that’s a free workout!
Brilliant way to see it, especially translatable when doing the laundry or the dishes! Well, that ties in nicely with our next questions about training; what’s a typical workout like for Cung Le?
Now that I’m retired from MMA, I think of myself as a part-time fighter. I work on my diet and my physique more these days so I can look the part. Outside of that, I train to be really explosive and stay fight-ready. With the amount I travel, I’ve seen a lot of stuff, so I train to be fight-ready whether it’s for myself, my wife, my kids, or even anyone else. If I see someone in trouble, I’m not going to be the car that passes by and just records a video.
That’s really inspiring, staying ‘fight-ready’ to help your fellow man in a spot of trouble. A ‘real world’ practically-applied martial arts mentality is the mark of a true warrior. So what are some training techniques that you feel really bring out the best in you?
I do a lot of what I like to call “flow sparring”. Neither I nor my opponent goes full contact, but whatever’s open, we take and focus in more on the flow. I do a lot of that with defending against firearms and different kinds of scenario training with my guys as well.
A great way to stay sharp. So, going off of that, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
Put it this way – if you look at the call sheet for “Into the Badlands”, I’m the only person in the cast, from top to bottom, without a stunt man. I did all of my own stunts on “Dragon Eyes” too, and in “Pandorum”, I did 95%. There was one major stunt that involved falling over a ledge that they had to hide from me because they knew I wanted to do all of my own stunts and the stunt man who did it split open his elbow!
Ouch. Well, that segues nicely into our next question; what was your most serious injury both in fighting and movies so far?
In fighting, my most serious injury was from the Michael Bisping fight. He cracked a bone in my face behind my eye, the bone that actually holds up your eyeball. I think the fight could’ve gone differently if that hadn’t happened. I’d have to say my worst injury on a movie set was the twenty stitches on “Tekken” that John Foo gave me.
A couple of major ones there! On that topic, what do you like to do to de-stress from really strenuous physical activity?
I like to go to the spa and just hang out with my wife and kids.
How did things usually go with your diet and such?
Well, I was usually the lightest guy in my weight class, so I didn’t have to monitor my diet as much getting ready for a fight because I could make weight just dieting for one or two days. I went really strict on my diet for the Michael Bisping fight though.
Well, moving now onto fun and leisure, what’s one geeky thing about you that people don’t really know?
I really like the game “Clash of Clans”, I love how strategic it is. I have four bases on “Clash of Clans” and like forty guys in my Clan.
Cool! If you could be a superhero or have a particular superpower, which would it be?
I would have to combine a few of them, there’s too many powers I’d want to choose from, I couldn’t boil it down to one!
(Laughs) Can be tough trying to choose! So, what are some of your other hobbies outside of martial arts?
I like going to the gun range and shooting. I shoot and train with guns a lot with some high-level Special Ops and Navy SEALs guys.
Rock, rap, all kinds, just depends on my mood.
Favorite movies (non-martial arts)?
For action, I loved “Casino Royale”. For drama, the one that’s stuck with me the most was “A Time to Kill”. For comedy, it has to be “The Hangover”. For horror, it’s gotta be “The Conjuring” and “Annabelle”.
Great choices! So what are some things in life you really like or dislike?
I just like integrity in people and I dislike shady people.
What would you say are your proudest accomplishments so far?
Winning the Strikeforce Middleweight title and standing for other MMA fighters in the UFC lawsuit.
Definitely things to be proud of. So, what are you really keen to achieve in the next five years?
Having a lot of projects under my belt that I’m able to produce or star in, or just helping friends out with their projects.
Very cool. So, are there any warrior wisdom quotes that have shaped you into who you are today?
Yes. “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
Great and profound words to live by! What special message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?
I’d like to say thank you for all the support and love over my years of fighting, and I hope you’ll enjoy my journey as it continues in the entertainment world.
Awesome! As we sadly wrap up and sign off, where’s the best place for people to go find out more about you, and keep up to date with your work?
They are welcome to visit Cung Le Official
Perfect. Thank you so much Cung for giving us this brilliant opportunity and interview it’s truly been riveting and an honor.
And thank you for having me here on Kung Fu Kingdom!