The beautiful thing about mixed martial arts is the diversity. Not ethnically or geographically, although it's always neat when you have to clarify whether or not a fighter from Georgia is going to speak with an outrageous Boris and Natasha accent or an equally outrageous southern drawl.
In this case, the diversity is stylistic. The sport is heading towards homogenization, but it's not there yet. Sure, most guys study the same blend of Thai kickboxing, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and wrestling - but there are enough exceptions to keep things interesting. Case in point? Tonight's semi main event of Cung Le vs. Wanderlei Silva.
Wanderlei Silva is a wrecking ball. He's a cold-eyed murder machine with the setting stuck on "decapitate." My MMA Encyclopedia co-author Kendall Shields did his best to explain the overwhelming power that Silva exudes:
Wanderlei Silva is terrifying. With his tattooed head shaved bare, his dead-eyed stare, and his mouth hanging ever so slightly agape, his presence in the corner before a fight is so threatening that even the most routine movement - his trademark wrist-roll warm-up, for instance - takes on an air of menace. And that's before the bell rings, before the wild-man rush across the ring, the thunderous looping punches, the head kicks, the knees, the soccer kicks, the stomps. Before any of that has even started, Wanderlei Silva is the scariest man in a scary, scary sport.
In recent years Silva's powers in the cage have been slowly diminishing. Maybe he was a step slower. Maybe his opponents were slightly better equipped to deflect his wild charges and reckless attack. Or maybe Silva has simply eschewed some of his best techniques, abandoning his vicious Thai clinch to concentrate on winging punches that hit more arms than chins.
Silva still comes forward until somebody falls down. It's just these days it's more likely to be the Axe Murderer than his foe. He's still a terrifying presence in the opposite corner, a man dead sent on violence of the worst kind.
Across the cage will be a fighter with a different set of tools. Like Silva, Cung Le is a striker par excellence. That's about where the similarities end, though. Le is an artist, employing the maxims of Tae Kwon Do. Unlike Silva, who loves to charge into the fray, Le likes to keep his distance. His extraordinary balance and footwork take him wherever he wants to go in the cage or ring. When he gets close enough, attacks spring as if from thin air. Punches and kicks abound- but mostly kicks.
Oh, those Cung Le kicks. They come from all angles. They come straight ahead like a traditional kickboxer's and they come spinning like a top, spinning in the style of traditional martial arts all over the world. Spinning in a way that isn't supposed to work in the Octagon.
"He's a traditional martial artist," student Elaina Maxwell said. "He's the best San Shou fighter America has ever seen. He's like Machida. He brings the respect and discipline from traditional martial arts into mixed martial arts. There were doubters, but I knew he could do it. I've watched him do it for fifteen years."
Similar to Machida, there are extraordinary circumstances that allow Le to succeed in the cage the way he has. Not just anyone could step from the karate mats to the cage, from breaking boards to breaking bones. Machida balanced his karate with a dangerous mix of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and sumo. Le's incredible striking is only possible because of his strong wrestling base.
A junior college star, Le is a surprisingly good wrestler. If you watch his San Shou matches on YouTube, you might be surprised at what you see. It's not typically the kind of striking exhibition in the ring that we've come to expect from Le in the cage. Instead, it's Le dropping fools on their heads over and over again. Timing their kicks perfectly, Le would toss his opponents with a variety of high angle judo and wrestling throws.
"We learned a lot of judo throws," Maxwell said. "You had three to five seconds to make a throw happen in the clinch, so it had to be fast. We were fast."
When that wasn't possible, he would use single and double legs to have his way. In the San Shou ring, where most fighters were concentrating on striking, he'd use wrestling to win. In the Strikeforce cage, where most fighters have spent years training on the ground, Le would use his striking techniques to build up a 7-1 record.
Like a chameleon, Le adapts to his environment. He takes his opponent to the last place he wants to be. That's why I expect the fight this evening to be so interesting. Silva will be dead set on a brawl. Le will do everything he can to make sure that doesn't happen, to pursue a tactical rather than a visceral fight. It will be a battle of styles and wills. May the better man win.