Becoming a martial arts world champion can be a long road. The blood, sweat and tears that it takes to get to the top of the game can be grueling, but any champion worth his salt will say that staying the champ is even tougher than becoming the champ.
ONE Championship’s featherweight champion Thanh Le has been a martial artist since he was a child. His father, who grew up in Vietnam, started teaching him, and his brother Vinh, Taekwondo at a young age. He has climbed the ranks of the Taekwondo world, teaching and competing for much of his life, which led to a career in mixed martial arts. Le made his pro MMA debut in Nov. 2013, and in only one year, he amassed a 4-1 record with all of his fights ending in the first round. His early successes set him up for a shot on Season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter reality show.
While Le’s run on TUF 22 ended in the elimination round, he made a lifelong friend and training partner in Team USA’s Ryan Hall. Hall, also known as “The Wizard”, is a third-degree black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Felipe Costa and multiple-time world grappling champion in various organizations. With Le’s background in striking and Hall’s grappling prowess, the two started training together and still do today. In fact, it’s that mutual knowledge of martial arts, but in different fighting modalities, that Le believes has ultimately led to his success in MMA.
“I think that’s honestly the understanding of martial arts – of grappling, like jiu-jitsu – an understanding of why you would flow pass, why you would pressure pass, why you would low pass, and why you would transition from those upper body attacks to lower body attacks,” Le told Combat Press. “So that’s a general understanding. That works with striking, grappling, [and] wrestling. If you’re at a certain range, kicks will get that range. If you’re at a different range, punches will hit that range. Your tool selection based on that range may be different. I like to use ‘A’ kick versus ‘B’ kick, based on what I like to do karate-wise or Thai-wise, but understanding what carries over.
“We have a different way to express that art. The science behind it is we go here when this route is blocked. So, we don’t go through the door that is barricaded. We go to the window. If the window is barricaded and the door is barricaded, can we blow a hole through the next wall, or do we enter through the roof? Like we need to understand the approach and problem solving behind grappling. I think that’s where I excel most in my grappling understanding.”
In the three years after TUF 22, Le strung together four more wins, including a Legacy Fighting Alliance interim featherweight title. However, he lost the LFA unification bout against Kevin Aguilar in May 2018. One year later, he made his ONE debut, and after three knockout wins in a row, he challenged ONE featherweight champ Martin Nguyen for the title in Oct. 2020. In Round 3 of their title bout, Le scored a knockout win, and earned the strap. However, a series of events has kept him on the bench since.
“A lot of time and a lot of craziness,” said Le. “We met my daughter, who was born 11 months ago, almost a year. That was awesome. While she was a newborn, we all got COVID a couple times, so that was a little crazy. And then I had three surgeries on my fingers since I fought Martin, because I broke it on his head. So that was a crazy little experience also. So all that happened at the same time. So that was a little hectic. And, all the while, continuing camp and training and all that good shit. So, on the personal side of things, it’s been phenomenal and wonderful, but it’s just been a little fast-paced.”
Le not only trains with Hall at Fifty/50 Jiu-Jitsu in Virginia, but he also trains out of his main gym, Mid City MMA, in his hometown of New Orleans, as well as at the Taekwondo school, Moon College. In addition, he and Hall will travel to places like Jackson-Winkeljohn in Albuquerque, N.M. or the Resistance Fitness Center in Pleasanton, Calif.
A few months back, Le finally got word of his first title defense, which is set to take place tomorrow night, Mar. 11, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. He and grappling ace Garry Tonon – one of the founding soldiers of the famed, and now former, Danaher Death Squad – will be headlining ONE Championship: Lights Out in a bid for the featherweight belt.
Tonon is a second-degree black belt under Tom DeBlass, and a longtime student of John Danaher, who is an enigma on a level most people would not understand. All of them are associated with the Renzo Gracie Academy in New York City. In addition to having a background in karate and kickboxing, the New Zealander Danaher has a PhD, was a professor at Columbia University, and is a sixth-degree black belt in BJJ under Gracie. Now residing in Austin, Tex., Tonon still trains under Danaher with a handful of former DDS members, and Danaher is his coach for all fighting modalities.
Tonon made his pro debut under the ONE banner in Mar. 2018, and he now sits at 6-0 with three submission wins, two TKO victories, and only one fight going the distance. His lone 15-minute fight was his last one in Dec. 2020, when he bested Koyomi Matsushima on all three scorecards. When he faces Le, both fighters will have not been in the ONE Circle in well over a year.
“It’s been a long camp,” said Le. “There’s been a lot of skill development and skill building, and, you know, everybody’s been asking me about the time layoff, like pushing back the fight. Is that an issue? If it’s an issue, it’s an issue for the bad guys. It’s an issue for the other guy, you know? The more time I get in there to skill-build is dangerous, man. It’s been great to have the time to prepare for somebody with such a high level of grappling. It’s that guy – that imaginary opponent that I’ve had since the beginning of my career – the high-level grappler that can, you know, get past the strikes, take you down and choke you out. I’ve been working on that since I started MMA, and it’s in my biggest focus.
“It’s a happy coincidence that I’ve matched up and partnered up with one of the best grapplers in the world in Ryan Hall. Ever since The Ultimate Fighter, I’ve been training with him. It just happened to work out that I’ve done a lot of training with him – understanding grappling and development. I’ve been able to be very dangerous on top, very dangerous on the back, very dangerous guillotine, very dangerous on the legs. It’s something that that I’ve seen day-in and day-out. Whether or not I’m going to be able to just shuck him off and get him off my back, or whatever attack he’s doing, no matter what the case is, I’m definitely in a better situation thanks to being able to be associated with Ryan and getting his understanding of grappling and his excellent, excellent, like, strategic teaching and tactical approach to things.”
More than most high-profile fights in modern history, the battle between Le and Tonon is the most classic example of striker versus grappler. However, Le has spent a ton of time tweaking his grappling, and Tonon has been working a great deal on his striking. So, the champ understands the importance of being ready for anything.
“We prepared for every possible option,” Le explained. “You know that has to be understood from the coaching side of things and from the fighter side of things. This fight 100-percent could possibly go anywhere. How I see it playing out when I visualize it in my head, and based on our skills mismatch, this fight doesn’t go to the ground. He gets starched. But, obviously, we’re prepared for it all, and that’s why I’ve spent more of my time grappling, and, I mean, I’m focused on me and how I will win this fight.
“That’s what really sells the fight. That’s why people are going to tune in. You’ve got this huge grappling base that loves grappling and understands that, if you could get a striker to the ground, and they’re not a competent grappler, they’re going to win. And, I agree. Then, you have this other side of things going, ‘Man, we start on the feet, so if you can’t get me down, you’re dead.’ That’s right, too. And then we have two very specific expressions of those things in Garry and I. So it’s really cool, because the reason I like this specific match-up is because Garry comes from a very, very smart camp, he’s a smart dude. He’s not just a good grappler. He’s a thinker. He’s a problem solver. He talks about concepts and theory, rather than just techniques. His coach – we all know who the hell that is and how good he is. So, that’s an extreme thinking version of that archetype. And, I think I’m on the other side of that same exact coin.”
There are no secrets leading into the ONE Championship: Lights Out main event. Both men know what to expect from their opponent, and have likely prepared accordingly. However, as Mike Tyson once told a reporter, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Never before has this statement rang more true than it does in MMA, and especially this fight. Anyone can get knocked out or submitted in a sport this chaotic. So, even after all the preparation in the world, it’s important for any fighter to understand they are going into a fight.
“There’s got to be some of that, right?” said Le. “Like, there’s got to be some of that in a fight. I’m just going to go out there and fuck this dude up. But, when you do those things, what can he do? Now, once we can get those things canceled out of the equation, then what can you do? Like in math, if it’s four-times-eight on one side of the equation, you divide by eight on the other side, and it cancels it out. When you can cancel all those things out, and the remaining pieces – my advantage versus his nothing – I think that’s where we’re at.”
Le has had a long, crazy road leading up to his first title win, and now defense. However, he is still only 36 years old and could have a long title reign ahead of him. He is not overlooking Tonon by any means, but he definitely has some big plans moving forward.
“I want a quick turnaround so if I get out of this fight unscathed, and get a nice little finish – uninjured, God willing – we’re going to get a quick, quick turnaround,” Le expressed. “I’ll stay in Singapore and send another dude up here, so I can knock his ass out too. I want to look at the lightweight division – go collect that belt – and then start working on these cross-promotion fights that I’ve been bitching about for a year. Since I got this belt, I can beat up these other champions as well.”
The ONE Championship: Lights Out lead card kicks off on YouTube, Facebook and the ONE Super app starting at 6 a.m. ET. The main card follows on YouTube and the ONE Super app at 7:30 a.m. ET.
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