MMA fans may remember Thanh Le from The Ultimate Fighter: Team McGregor vs. Team Faber, and later, Dana White’s Contender Series, where Le knocked his opponent out with a Performance of the Night- worthy head kick. Despite such an impressive performance, Thanh Le was overlooked for the contract in favor of Sean O’Malley. Why is that? No one will ever know besides Dana.
However, as a 5th degree Taekwondo black belt, Thanh Le boasts a record of 11-2 with a 100% knockout rate and is one of the most exciting fighters you’ll ever see in the sport of MMA. A former LFA interim featherweight champion, Thanh Le is now signed with the prestigious One Championship, where he is 3-0 and is currently the No.3-ranked featherweight contender.
He is set to take on reigning champion Martin Nguyen tomorrow, October 30, 2020 in One: Enter the Matrix, and KFK had the pleasure of interviewing the up-and-rising title challenger. So without further ado, let’s welcome Thanh Le!
Hello Thanh, first off, it’s great to connect with you, and I hope you’re doing well? Welcome to Kung-Fu Kingdom!
Thanks for having me, I appreciate it!
Our mission is to inspire 100 million people across the world to get into martial arts. What do you think of that mission?
I think that’s a great task, a great mission! I’m biased obviously, I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a child. My family is a martial arts family. My father has been doing various martial arts such as Taekwondo, kung fu, and judo since he was a young boy. It’s amazing how martial arts can touch so many different people in so many different ways and make such a huge impact on fighters, on family members, on moms and dads and having joint efforts in doing tasks as a family.
It’s instilled so many great things into people as far as respect and treating people the way you want to be treated. Martial arts teaches you a ton of different things in its own way, but it carries throughout pretty much every aspect of life.
Most definitely. What do you think of the name Kung Fu Kingdom?
I think that’s really cool! I’m partial to the old kung fu movies and old movies my dad introduced me to as a kid. So I’m definitely partial to anything related to kung fu and anything that relates to that part of my childhood. I really like it.
Alright, now let’s start off with some basics; when and where were you born?
I was born August 28, 1985 in Kentucky. Getting old! I’m 35.
What is your height and weight?
I am right under 5’10” (1.77m) and I walk around at about 166lbs (75kg).
I see. Now your forte is taekwondo, and as of now, you have a 5th-degree black belt. With your father being a Taekwondo instructor, at what age did you begin Taekwondo, can you tell us a bit about that?
I’ve been making jokes and telling people that I’ve been doing it ever since I popped out of the womb! I started at about 4 or 5 years-old, and was introduced to it by my father, and he’s never stopped training.
It was really cool to be around it before I could even grasp what it was, but that was just part of everyday life. It was great to see Taekwondo before I could do it and then begin at such a young age that I don’t know a life without martial arts. It’s hard to know what life would be without it, but I could say that I wouldn’t be as happy.
Main Martial Arts Influences
Definitely. Aside from your father, which people have inspired you most in martial arts?
I also started paying attention to fighters once I started competing in mixed martial arts and taekwondo. A couple of guys that come into mind is Steven Lopez, who is an American gold medalist in taekwondo. He was a big name at the time especially for a young man competing, developing his game, and trying to understand how the higher-level guys were doing it.
Georges St-Pierre, (GSP) is a big one because of his work ethic. He always reached out to get the best guys around to learn from, and Dominick Cruz because of his unique style, his unique leverage of safety and movement throughout fights, and when and how to take those risks to engage your opponent safely.
That’s a really good list there. So, you fought in the Junior Olympics in taekwondo. How did that go for you, and do you have any other accolades like in state, national or regional competition?
Yeah, the taekwondo scene is pretty close-knit here in Louisiana. We did the state championships A LOT, pretty much every year! That was always a great experience with the guys down here. Honestly, I’ve lost track of how many we’ve won, but that was always a great experience, a great learning experience, with tough guys to compete against. And the times that my family and people from my taekwondo school were able to travel to the national tournaments added to the experience too.
I did the Junior Nationals, got bronze there. I did the AAU Junior Nationals as well, which was a smaller organization. I got double gold there. I got bronze at the USTA when I was 16 or 17, I believe since I got invited to the junior Olympic facility in Colorado to train with the national team, but I didn’t end up going because I wanted to go through my high school senior year and graduation.
Kind of regret that decision – who knows where that would’ve taken me. I’m happy with the path that I follow now though, so I can’t complain.
Some solid accomplishments there. So, aside from taekwondo, did you practice any other styles before you transitioned into MMA? We’ve seen that you’ve done a snake form back in the day, which clearly resembles kung fu or wushu.
Yes. Well, I never had a day-to-day kung fu regimen so to say. Everything was focused on taekwondo, but I did learn a few forms, a few techniques, a few of the animal styles from my father. Snake was one of the them. We touched a little bit on leopard and crane.
It’s a lot of fun to touch on different martial arts, especially things that my dad learned as a child, but the snake form is actually pretty interesting to me. That form actually took me three years to learn, and I guess it carried over into how I train today, but my dad would give me a piece to learn at a time, to practice and perfect.
I would go do it on my free time and practice, practice, practice. I would show it to my dad so that I would get a thumbs up, thumbs down, and then the next piece would come my way. A lot of times, I would get a thumbs down, so I would have to go work on some things, make sure I fix the holes and come back, show him again. If he approves, you get the next piece of the puzzle. That was 3 years, but it was a huge piece of my childhood. The memories will stick with me forever, and the way he did things as a father/coach, I hope to do the same for my kids in the future. He did it the right way.
Making the Leap to MMA
An ideal a role model. What made you decide to make the move to MMA?
I don’t know. It was an interesting story where we were kind of on the back end of competing in taekwondo. I was working full-time and kind of into my career at the time.
A friend of mine, Carlos Vera, my brother Vinh, and my mom and dad all went to a local MMA show in Louisiana. We saw some local fights. We liked what we saw. It looked like it was a lot of fun. We’re used to competing on a pretty regular basis. So we saw that as the opportunity to take the next step in martial arts and expand on what we know and try to use what we spent a lot of time getting good at and see if we could incorporate it into this type of fighting, which also includes a lot of more than what we’re used to, such as hands and punches to the face, a lot of grappling, wrestling, all these different things that we had no idea how to do.
So we saw it as an opportunity to learn, grow and get better. We ended signing up for fights without any training, 2 or 3 months down the road. We went to our local MMA gym, ran into a really good friend of ours, Huy Tran, and he introduced us to my current training partner, coach and gym affiliation that I deal with now, Shawn Gayton. I’ve been training with him ever since and it’s been a crazy ride.
Amateur Career Highlights
I see. What standout highlights come to mind from your amateur career before turning pro, like your training back then and how you got the title shot so quickly?
Well, I had 15 amateur fights, won 14 of those by knockout, with 1 in the third round and the rest in the first round, so they were relatively quick fights. We had to get a lot of fights in under our belts because I happened to not spend a ton of time going through the full three rounds, three minutes, to get the experience.
I wanted to take as many fights as possible as long as I kept staying healthy. I happened to knock a bunch of guys out. It worked out. I’m not complaining, but we needed to get more experience in the cage with our skills put to the test.
A couple of wins that stood out in my amateur career: I did fight a guy up a weight class and a half. I ended up fighting him at 165lbs, I believe. I weighed in with pants and keys in my pocket and my cell phone so I could get to the 165 mark. I was probably 163 with everything stacked in my pockets, but he was a large man who was undefeated at the time, I think he was 7-0, something like that. I might have been close to the same as far as records go. I did have a loss, so that was a tough fight.
We went into the third round, and it was the only fight, pro or ammy where I went into the third round, I ended up knocking him out 20 seconds into the third round, but man I remember after that fight, I was exhausted. He was really hard to get out there, and the bigger guys are tougher to put down so you probably want to stay in your weight class. So I was at 155lbs for a lot of my career and obviously, went down to featherweight for the last local piece of my career.
Cool stories there! You appeared in The Ultimate Fighter: Team McGregor vs. Team Faber. How was it fighting professionally in the smaller promotions prior to your moment on TUF?
Yeah, definitely had some interesting fights. Up to the point of getting into The Ultimate Fighter, I believe I was 4-1. My first pro fight was a loss, and I ended up winning the 4 after that.
On Cracking His Jaw
In my last fight before The Ultimate Fighter, I ended up breaking my jaw in 2 different places. I threw a big spinning kick, ended up missing, and he threw an overhand right that cracked my jaw. I pressed my tongue next to my teeth, and I felt nothing but gum, and I thought, “Man, there’s no way he knocked out all of my teeth. I would feel it in my mouth or feel it on the floor or something.” So my game plan went out the window and I thought I better knock this guy out because they’re not going to let me fight the next round if they see that. It wasn’t just a traditional broken jaw, it was really messed up.
I ended up knocking him out after that, luckily. Hit him with a one-two. He went to sleep. I got on top, hit him with the ground-and-pound and it was over. That was a rough fight, but great learning experience, and I got 3 plates, and 6 to 8 screws. We’re all good now! (laughs)
On the Ultimate Fighter (TUF)
Huge comeback right there. When you had your first fight on TUF, you put up a very impressive performance that amazed everyone. What memorable story can you share about your time with The Ultimate Fighter?
TUF was a great experience! It was my first transition from fighting locally, getting a little bit of steam rolling, and doing a good job of building momentum. Conor McGregor, Urijah Faber, and Cody Garbrandt were on the show, T.J. Dillashaw came in for a little bit, all those guys that are now doing well now in the UFC, obviously from Team Alpha Male. I had closer experiences with them since I was on that team and built great friendships and relationships from the show.
On Ryan Hall as His Training Partner in Grappling
Ryan Hall, who ended up winning the show, became my regular training partner. He helped me so much with everything fighting-related, especially grappling. I try to help him as much as I can with striking. That’s a wonderful relationship that came out of that, which has made me become such a better fighter. The whole experience was great, but being exposed to those high-level guys that are doing so well in the UFC made me see that I do belong there, I have the skills, I have the mindset. Now I just gotta do the right things on a daily basis, and I could be a world champ one day.
You came back on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series a few years later. Did you make any adjustments to your training to prepare for your second shot at a UFC contract since then?
Yes. We’re definitely trying to get better as fighters mentally, physically, skillset-wise, to approach the game with a lot of strategy, with the correct tactics and selecting the right tools to use against different opponents. So, it’s a very, very big turn after that loss on the show against Martin Svensson, and I put a huge focus on using the right things against the right guys and building skills in areas where you can’t get victimized, and guys can’t just take me to the ground and do what they want. It’s a great feeling and it builds confidence in all aspects of fighting, and it made my striking so much better being able to grapple at a high level.
Fantastic adjustments. When you were on Dana White’s Contender Series, you had one of the most impressive performances on the show at the time, but somehow you got overlooked for the contract for Sean O’Malley. Have you ever figured out why that was the case?
No. I would like to know, not that I care. though! That would be interesting to hear, but honestly, you can make some assumptions. Sean O’Malley’s doing really well. He’s coming off a tough loss right now, but the kid’s doing a great job in the UFC. I think he won 4 or 5 in a row. So he’s doing a great job, talks a lot of smack, so he definitely gets a lot of attention.
That’s just not my style. That’s not the way I carry myself, not the way I do business, but more power to him. There’s no hard feelings or anything towards him or the UFC. It’s just that I’m really happy with the way my career played out and where I’ve landed with One Championship and the amount, as well as level, of competition that’s there. I couldn’t be happier.
There are a lot of ‘killers’ in One Championship as Joe Rogan put it. You’re currently 3-0 in One Championship, 3 knockouts, and you’re now ranked #3 in the featherweight rankings.
ONE: INSIDE THE MATRIX: Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen vs Thanh Le (Tomorrow, October 30)
You’re fighting Martin Nguyen tomorrow, 30th October, for the ONE Featherweight World Title, what are your thoughts on Martin Nguyen as an opponent, and how do you think this fight will play out?
I’m not looking anywhere besides that belt that’s wrapped around his waist. So that’s what’s next in line and nothing else takes that spot, but yeah, Martin’s a skilled, experienced, well-rounded fighter, a well-deserved champion.
Obviously, he’s carried two belts, close to having a third. That’s unheard of in a sport. That’s a great feat for him. He’s got a ton of skills. I think it’s gonna be a striking bout. I think if he’s gonna take the fight to the ground, he’ll be in for a rude awakening. I know he’s gonna try to make his right hand count. He does such a great job with making that power hand count and connecting, but I don’t think he’s ever faced a guy like me as far as skillset goes, as far as fight IQ goes, as far as experience in facing that type of guy.
I’m kind of a perfect storm in a bad way for him, and I think it’s gonna play out really well. We just gotta be smart, fight our fight and we gotta make the fight happen in the realms we know we could win in. We’ll fight at our long range, we’ll fight in our close range, we’ll just take his right hand out of the picture. Then I’m gonna touch him over and over again, and we’ll see if he’s still standing in the end. The thing is, he knows this, his coaches know this, and we all know this, but I only got to touch this guy once. So if he could make it past five rounds, he deserves to keep the belt, but I don’t see it playing it out that way, and obviously, we’re going in there to take it away from him.
Thanh Le’s Toughest Opponents So Far…
Well strategized. Who were among your toughest opponents in One Championship so far?
That’s a tough one! They keep getting tougher and tougher. These guys don’t quit.
Yusup had a different skillset that he brought to the table than the other two guys. Tough, tough opponent, great grappler, does a great job of transitioning to the ground safely. He was a huge danger there.
Kotetsu had his own game that he was continuing to try to run. His interceptions towards his right hand, his baits and his counter fighting. His stalking pressure was different.
Ryogo had his aggressive power, was scary with both hands, and does a really good job of catching kicks.
He caught two of mine. None of those guys were gonna leave with a loss. They leave everything in the cage and you gotta put these guys out in order to win. I happened to do that, and it worked out well. I’m grateful for that opportunity. One little change in the way the punches connect and the fight may play out differently. So we gotta continue to evolve, continue to get slick and smart in the way we approach these guys because they are so dangerous, so skilled.
I see. What plans do you have for your MMA future? It seems like you feel content staying with One Championship. Do you intend on keeping it that way or do you think you would take a third shot at the UFC at some point?
You know, I never cancel out any opportunity. I think a smart man will always leave options open as far as what’s on the table, but I’m very very happy with One Championship and the way they treat their guys, the way they promote their guys and the way their promotion is run, the level of competition, most importantly.
Their featherweight division has some of the best guys in the world. That’s hard to do on a consistent level and these guys have done it. As far as plans go, obviously I want to win this belt. I want defend this belt. I want to start looking up to maybe lightweight, see what Martin has done. We’ll see if we can chase that same path and see what we can do with the lightweight belt, see if we can get an opportunity there.
After that, I think a big thing on my agenda would be cross-promotion like champion-vs.-champion bouts. I want to establish my dominance in One Championship, and then look at other organizations and see if we could go champ vs champ and see how that plays out. My whole goal in MMA is to be the best, fight the best, to show myself and my family that I’m the best in the world no matter what promotion we’re doing.
So let’s take the best from each group and test that out. I think it would be phenomenal to go against the likes of Alexander Volkanovski, Max Holloway, and Patricio Freire, from Bellator. There are so many champions, but that would be a dream come true to be at the top of the ladder, at the top of this organization and take out the rest of the top guys.
Those are some really great ambitions! So, tell us, what’s a day in the life of Thanh Le like? Please walk us through!
Not super interesting, I’ll tell you that, haha. Wake up in the morning, have some breakfast, train for a couple of hours, get some rest in the middle of the day, play some Call of Duty, train at night for a few hours and teach a class at the end of that, and do it all over again.
Mondays through Fridays are pretty regularly scheduled like that. I’ve got to sprinkle some time in to spend with my family, my wife, and soon-to-be one on the way. That’s always going to throw some good things into the schedule. Other than that, it’s pretty regular Monday through Friday. Saturday, we have one long training session in the afternoon.
Sundays, depending on how the body is, maybe we need to rest some joints and muscles or go out for some sprints, depends on the day. But that’s a January through December type of regimen. I don’t really change much for camps. I do train in between fights. I mean, it’s definitely a lifestyle and definitely something that I enjoy doing. That’s why we don’t really need to take time off.
Training Around COVID-19
Got it. So how has your training been during these days? What was your training schedule like, both before and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic?
To be honest, it hasn’t changed a ton. I travel a lot less to train with different high-level guys. So training at home has been very similar. I have my group of guys that are in each other’s bubble anyway. We continue to keep that circle tight. We get tested on a regular basis, but we don’t bring in a ton of new guys as far as this situation goes. And then, when camp ramps up and we get closer and closer to the actual fight, then we’ll bring in some different training partners and travel a little more to get training in, but really, training hasn’t changed much at all.
Thanh Le’s Diet & Nutrition
Great system to maintain training there! So, what is your diet like leading up to fights; which foods help you stay strong and energetic for training and life? What is your diet like when you have to cut weight? And how is your diet like when you went to One Championship, where there’s no weight-cutting at all, but you still have to pass the hydration tests?
That experience is actually really cool. I diet down the same level, whether I’m cutting water weight or not, so that’s pretty consistent with me. I poop out and cut a ton of calories throughout the day, but right before morning and evening session training, that’s when I get most of my protein and carbs, and I keep it simple.
We do a lot of white rice, traditional Vietnamese food like grilled pork chops, roast chicken, grilled chicken, steak on the grill, the basic protein that I’ve grown up eating and still tastes wonderful, as well as carbs beforehand. But the closer and closer we get to the fight and based on how the weight is, we’ll just cut that down so that instead of a full portion of carbs, we’ll have a half portion.
Instead of a full portion of protein, we’ll cut that down to two-thirds or a half. Then there’s my fillers, all my vegetables like cauliflower and asparagus. It’s interesting. We keep it basic but change our recipe a ton. You can’t go wrong with throwing some meat or fish on the grill, but the closer I get to fights, the less red meat I’ll eat and have some more seafood and stuff like that.
White meat as well, like chicken?
Oh yes, 100%, a ton of chicken! That’s the primary meat. My red meat will come secondary and that’s more like a treat, but a ton of seafood, a ton of white meat like chicken, and then a lot of fillers.
Thanh Le’s Favourite Martial Arts Movies & Fights
Interesting, thanks for sharing that! What are your Top 5 favourite martial-arts movies of all time?
Ah, let’s see. We’ll go with Jackie Chan’s “Drunken Master”, “Kickboxer” (JCVD) Jet Li’s “Kiss of the Dragon”, Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” and the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” with Ernie Reyes Jr.
Solid! And your top 3 movie fights?
“Drunken Master 2”
The final fight scene in the coal mine, where Jackie Chan drinks gasoline and spits fire. That’s a good one!
The fight scene on the roof where he fights one Asian guy with hands and the English or American guy who wears glasses and has the kicks. That was a good one.
“Enter the Dragon”
The final fight where Bruce Lee licked the blood because of Han’s claw wound.
Great. What would you say are your Top 3 MMA Fights?
It’s a challenge to narrow them down but I’d say the Whittaker vs Romero fights have always been super-interesting to me and awesome to see. Wonderboy vs. Masvidal or Till were great fights too, and GSP vs. Hendricks was a great one. Those are my three at the top of the list.
What about your own Top 3 MMA Fights?
I’d go with the broken jaw story. I’d go with my first fight, which was a loss. Definitely one of my favorite ones since I learned so much, and I am the fighter I am today because of that fight. It made me a much better martial artist. And then, we’ll group all 3 of my One Championship fights into one because of the experience I gained from those high-level guys! They were some of the best guys I ever fought. The experience of being in those other countries like Indonesia and Thailand are memories that I’ll never forget.
Advice & Reflections
Poignant ones indeed. What suggestions would you give those looking to pursue an MMA career, especially people who might be a bit older, say in their 30’s?
You’re still young being in that age group. It might not be a point where you want to pick fighting as a career, but I wouldn’t blink an eye at being able to start training MMA, even at that age. I would recommend it no matter what your age is.
You don’t have to go in there, put on a mouthpiece and bang it out every week, or bang at all. But you should experience martial arts as a whole, learn all these different arts and find where you have a passion, whether it be in striking or jiu-jitsu, and carry that through.
I think it’s a great thing to start and experience because it teaches you so much about being an adult, being a man, being a woman. All the lessons you learn in martial arts also carry over in life, such as learning about hard work, discipline, consequences, some of these things that the younger generation don’t experience all the time.
As for the young fighters, do the boring things day in and day out that everybody else won’t do, so you can do and achieve the things that they can’t. It’s really about the little details and staying on the right track and keeping your mind focused on the prize, whether it’s being the best fighter in the world, or winning the belt…
Fun & Leisure
Stick with the basics and grow strong! Do you have any hobbies outside of martial arts?
Spending time with my family, playing Call of Duty, and martial arts – it’s all I have. That’s about it, haha! I’m a big family guy. I like to have weekly dinners, spend time at mom and dad’s house, have them come over to our house, watch scary movies with my wife on the couch, play tag with my son. It’s all those little things that keeps me happy.
Most definitely! What’s a couple of geeky or funny things that people don’t know about you aside from playing Call of Duty?
Well, I used to collect a ton of comic books, comic cards, baseball cards, things like that. I would also sit in front of my parents in my home in Dexter, Louisiana and play what I think is called ‘Pongs’, trade baseball cards, comic books, comic cards. That was always a cool experience growing up, but I think that’s about it!
If you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most want to have?
That’s a good question. We made a joke about being a ghost with a hammer as far as the style of fighting that we do. So I would say Nightcrawler. Some teleportation powers would be really cool. Being able to disappear and end up being behind somebody. We try to do the equivalent with our fighting movements and head movement.
Favorite superhero, I like Wolverine because of the fight in him, Superman because of how he chooses to wield his power, Batman because of his intellect and fight IQ and the way he makes his tactics, strategy, and body just as effective as Superman. Those are some really cool ones.
Thanh Le’s Warrior-Wisdom
Superb analysis. Which warrior-wisdom quotes or philosophy has helped shape you into who you are today?
I learned a lot from the way my dad operates. For the last thirty-something years, he worked 12-hour shifts during the day, doing hard labor and construction at the refineries. After work he takes a shower, eats, fuels up and goes teaching taekwondo at night because he loves it. He doesn’t make a ton of money from the taekwondo school, but he loves what he does. He loves passing on the knowledge. He loves teaching and seeing people grow as humans and martial artists.
That’s not easy. It takes a lot of hard work and dedication. I never saw my dad cut corners on any little or small job at all. It’s always been a big thing for me. He’s a guy that does it right, does it the hard way and puts in a lot of hard work. He’s dedicated, very disciplined and I think growing up, watching him do that and figuring out that’s who he is. That’s not a show he puts on. That’s not what he wants other people to see. He does it because it’s the right thing to do. He doesn’t do it for other people to see.
Thanh Le’s Message to Kung Fu Kingdom Followers & Fans
We need more such role models. What message would you like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom followers and your fans around the world right now?
We’ve got to stay safe. We’ve got to do the right things to make sure we all return to our normal lives. Treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s it.
Can’t fight that, good advice there. Thanks so much Thanh! It’s been an honour and a privilege to interview you and we wish you all the best of success tomorrow with your fight against Martin Nguyen!
Thank you guys so much, I really appreciate it!