Cung Le has been the butt of a lot of jokes this year. If he wants to lay blame, he need look no further than Gus Johnson, the much reviled Showtime MMA announcer who suggested that a potential bout between Le and UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva was a dream fight fans had been craving. But the laughs at Le's expense mask a truth worth exploring - Cung Le absolutely belongs in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Sometimes we lose track of the bigger picture. As mixed martial arts fans, we are quick to dismiss almost any fighter based on perceived weaknesses. Even the greats like Georges St. Pierre and Anderson Silva aren't immune - if the best fighters in history are under constant fan attack, of course Cung Le takes his fair share of criticism. He's a little old to be starting a career in mixed martial arts. He's been carefully matched by Strikeforce to avoid ground fighters. He never really devoted himself to the sport.
In part, those things are all true. Le was carefully booked and focused intently on a movie career that's produced most 'straight to DVD', but also some modest success. At 39, he is absolutely ancient by any athletic standard. Despite these issues, he was the premiere action fighter in a promotion built on action fighters. Imagine how good he might be with full training camps. What will he do when challenged by the best?
Le, one of the stars that helped propel Strikeforce into a national promotion, will get a chance to put his best foot forward in his UFC debut. He'll be fighting in his hometown of San Jose, California, where he's a legitimate star and box office draw. Le has faced some tough fighters in his career. Frank Shamrock is an all-time great and Scott Smith double tough. Neither, however, were among the sport's best at the time. In the UFC, we'll see what Le is made of. His opponent, former UFC light heavyweight champion Vitor Belfort is the perfect opponent to see what Le has.
"I think Vitor's an awesome athlete and an awesome fighter," Le told USA Today's Sergio Non. "I'm very honored to fight Vitor, and I'm very grateful for the opportunity. I'm going to go out there and give it my 185% and put all my hard work and all my dedication that I've put in for so many years and try to shine that night...they put me against a very big name, and it's definitely more exciting. There's definitely a difference between getting put against a big name against someone who's challenging for your spot. There's more motivation. I like these kinds of fights because they motivate me more. The other fights, you go with the flow."
Every fight matters, but for Le, his UFC debut is integral. He's not a prospect that can be slowly built up. Close to 40, his time is now, if ever. Belfort is a legitimate test for Le. And who knows? Maybe Gus Johnson was prescient - it seems likely a win would propel Le immediately into title contention. That dream match with Anderson Silva may be closer than anyone imagined.