There is a lot going on in the world of mixed martial arts right now. Fans have not only seen a lot of titles changing hands, old guard being replaced by young up-and-comers, and successful crossovers with grapplers and strikers seeing success in MMA, but the gaps between top talent in different promotions are shrinking.
Two-time Olympic Judo gold medalist Kayla Harrison is arguably the best female MMA fighter in the world. However, even at 14-0 as a pro with six knockouts and five submissions, she has only fought for the Professional Fighters League, except for one fight in Invicta FC. Former long-reigning GLORY Kickboxing champion Alex Pereira is currently 3-0 in the UFC, but, in kickboxing, he not only beat current UFC middleweight champion Israel Adesanya twice, but he is the only person to ever knock Adesanya out. Another crossover example is Marcus “Buchecha” Almeida. Widely considered one of the best submission grapplers in history, the multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion is now 3-0 as a pro MMA fighter in ONE Championship. Not all of the best fighters in the world are purely MMA fighters, and not all of them are in the UFC.
ONE Championship featherweight champion Thanh Le is currently a fifth-degree black belt in taekwondo. While he primarily trains in the New Orleans area at his family’s martial arts school Moon College and at Mid-City MMA, he also trains with Ryan “The Wizard” Hall in Falls Church, Va. Hall and Le met on The Ultimate Fighter 22, and Le eventually earned his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under Hall, who owns Fifty/50 Jiu-Jitsu. The mix of taekwondo and BJJ has clearly paid off.
In Le’s nine-year, 13-2 pro career, he has never been to decision, winning 12 by knockout and one by submission. He has lost once by TKO, and once by submission, which was in his pro debut. After winning the ONE strap with a knockout of Martin Nguyen in Oct. 2020, Le went almost a year and a half with no title defense, due to cancellations. However, in Mar. 2022, he finally was able to get back in the cage against Garry Tonon.
Tonon, a two-time jiu-jitsu world champion and ADCC bronze medalist, was 6-0 in MMA, all in ONE. While this was set to be a striker-vs.-grappler affair, when Tonon went immediately for the leglock attacks, Le not only defended, but knocked Tonon out cold on the ground only 56 seconds into the fight.
“I’m definitely happy with my performance,” Le told Combat Press. “I’m happy with the way we were in probably one of his best his top two-to-three spots, you know, besides mount and back. It was definitely a top-three spot for him, and I still ended up defending well. Getting the finish, I was really excited about that, but I was glad I got to show a little bit of all the time I put into my grappling that nobody has ever seen, which is kind of cool. I just still have that in the back pocket, so I think it was a surprise for him. I think, you know, he wasn’t aware of how well-versed I am in grappling and on the ground. So, I thought it was really cool that the time that it came out was when it really mattered.”
For a guy that had been long dubbed a striker, it was a serious validation for Le to score a quick and devastating knockout over a guy who was part of the Danaher Death Squad and still trains under John Danaher. In fact, the knockout was so devastating, it actually took Tonon a little while to wake up, which is always scary.
The win over Tonon not only validated Le’s grappling skills, but it also cemented his position as the ONE featherweight champ. Naturally, after such a big gap between his previous two fights, Le was chomping at the bit for his next fight, but more time had passed than he would have liked. However, about a month ago, it finally was confirmed that he will be fighting Kai Tang at ONE 160 on Aug. 26, where they will serve as the co-main event.
“It took a second until the contract came through, and I was looking for a quick turn-around, so I was a little frustrated with not getting a fight that soon,” said Le. “We ended up working everything out, as far as like money and timing goes, so it worked out great. As soon as I got it, I signed it. So, it’s been a few weeks of camp. We kind of knew, coming out of ONE X, that he would probably be the next guy. He talked a little trash, so that’s always good in his favor, as far as getting the build-up to the next fight. So, we we’ve had our eye on it for a little bit they preparing as best as we can.”
At ONE X, only two weeks after Le fought Tonon, Tang beat Korea’s Jae Woong Kim with a first-round TKO, putting him on the collision course with the champ. Tang’s style is a lot closer to Le’s than Tonon’s was. The Chinese fighter, who also trains out of Thailand, is 14-2 as a pro, with 12 wins by knockout and two by decision. He has never been stopped in his pro career, but Le could easily be the one to change that.
“I think he’s really good,” admitted Le. “I mean, there’s a reason I’m going to be fighting all these guys. They’re going to be very good fighters – very skilled in in either MMA in general or a specific skillset. Obviously, Garry’s a ground specialist, and Tang is just more of a striking specialist. I guess I would say he’s a rarity in MMA, because he moves his feet really well. He plays defensive games to where, you know, he doesn’t trade a bunch of punches. He does his best to not get hit and to hit, which is a version of my game. I think he plays a little less safe of a game than I do – you know, younger guy. I guess he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I think that’s a really good show for the fans. It’s going to pop out with his style versus my style.
“But I think the safety difference between being touched and not getting touched, I think, is going make the difference. Obviously, if he lands a clean punch early in the fight, that could be the end of it. And, we know all it takes are one or two punches from me and same So, I think it all boils down to who can remain disciplined and make their skills matter most throughout the early goings of the fight. I think I’ve put a little more time into my defensive positioning and my ability to be touched throughout a fight. I think he’s put a little bit more focus on going offensively to find those contacts. We’ll see how it plays out obviously. He’s got a little more points than me in the offensive, go-get-’em department, and I’ve got a little more points in my defensive, you-can’t-touch-me department. I guess we’ll see how that plays out.”
Another interesting aspect to this match-up is the fact that Le has only been to the second round three times and the third round once in his combined pro and amateur careers. Tang, on the other hand, has had four fights go the distance, and six make it into the second round. So, while both men have a high level of striking prowess, the way they fight is a bit different. This could play into Le’s favor.
“If he doesn’t give me the opportunity to counter, I think you guys will see a little bit of a different approach from me towards the second or third round, but it just depends on his approach to the fight in the first,” said Le. “I’ve heard him mention that he wanted to get me out of there early, so we’ll see how that goes. I think that’s really my strongest attribute is, if you come at me early in the fight, all my fights have ended early. So, we’ll see if he plays it patient or if he comes out guns-a-blazing. We’re definitely ready for both.”
As mentioned, Le’s training has been spread out among a few different gyms in two different states. However, he has really dialed it in, so he can spend plenty of time training, while also spending time with his wife and two kids.
“I feel like I’ve had the best balance so far,” Le explained. “Obviously, I enjoy spending time at home with my family and my close training partners and all that good stuff – and, obviously, my coaches at Moon College and Mid-City. I split time between them when I’m here, and, then, I try to make a week-long trip every month. And then, for fight camps, we’re looking at maybe two times a month we’re out there at Fifty/50, and a buddy of mine, [UFC bantamweight] Cory Sandhagen, has met me out there. I’ve gotten a ton of training in with Ryan and his guys. My buddy Carlos Vera – who lives out there – we’ve been training with a ton. Then, I’ll have Carlos here in town in New Orleans next week. I have Cory Sandhagen and Ryan Hall the week after. And then, I’m going to Fifty/50 after that. So, it’s a busy camp, but that’s the way we like it – making sure we get the correct work at the right times. And. we’re in that game-plan strategy – almost like progress reports with the high-level guys that we train with.”
And, Le’s training regimen is typically the same all year round. Even when he had a long layoff between Oct. 2020 and Mar. 2022, he still got his work in.
“So, I’m in there six-to-seven days a week – morning sessions, evening sessions – still doing our normal live work,” said Le. “Maybe during those times, if we don’t have a fight lined up, we’re doing different skill development, and I think that’s what’s allowed me to become a good grappler throughout the years, even though we’ve had fights that I haven’t been able to just consistently game plan grappling-style strategies.
“So, in between fights, we’re building skills, we’re adding to the complete game plan, and whatever that final timely picture looks like in my head, we’re just trying to get closer and closer to those missing puzzle pieces. And then, during camps, we’re just taking what we have, and what we have developed, and, once fight-ready, I guess sculpting, in our eyes, a perfect strategy and a perfect tool belt, so we can whip out the right things at the right time and make sure we’re safe.”
So, what is the end game for Le? Obviously, defending and retaining his title for as long as possible is a huge goal, in and of itself. However, he’s been on The Ultimate Fighter, he’s undefeated in ONE, and he is a titleholder. Even at 36 years old, he still looks young and in shape, and, with every performance, he keeps looking better and better. Well, with ONE’s new broadcasting deal with Amazon Prime Video for one event per month during U.S. primetime, he sees a ton of opportunity in his future.
“I would really like to get on an Amazon Prime card towards the end of the year,” expressed Le. “I know I’ve heard whispers of trying to get shows in the States from ONE. So, obviously, when that comes, I want to be one of the guys on that card, defending the belt. I would love a quick turn-around, and I don’t know whether we’re going to do, like, moving up to lightweight or defending the belt again. You know, the top five has kind of been active, and I’ve run through a few of those guys. And, the guys that I didn’t fight lost to the guys that I did fight, so it’s a little mix-up there. They’ve got to figure that order out, and I think they’re going to have to have a fight or two before we can figure out who’s the next clear-cut contender. If I do end up keeping this belt – which we’re going to do everything in our power to – now we’re looking at expanding what we can do in the sport and what we can do with this game, whether that’s going the lightweight route.
“Now, we’ve got all these U.S. media outlets – like the guys you see interviewing Bellator, the UFC guys and the PFL guys. ONE Championship, in my opinion, is an elite-level organization, and we should be up there with talks with the UFC and Bellator and these guys. The champs from these other organizations are getting a lot of hype over here in the States. I expect some of that attention to come my way, and I think we can end up talking our way into these cross-promotion fights, now that we’re bringing everything over here to the States, along with these other top-three guys.
“I lost a little bit of hope, because it wasn’t getting much following, and it wasn’t getting much buzz. The other champs weren’t really talking much about it, because I don’t think they like the matchups. But I really do like these matchups, and I think, whether we do it with or without the UFC, I think that’s one of the next things in line. Obviously, I would never ever, not for a second, look past Tang, but, as a guy who tries to approach things in a well-thought-out fashion, you have to at least have some plans for if this does go your way, and I think that’s where we’re headed.”
Considering that ONE has a solid footing in Singapore, where the organization is headquartered, it makes it easy for some of their highest-level athletes and champs to fight close to home – China, Thailand, etc. But, for other champions and contenders from the North America, South America and Europe, there can be a lot of travel involved, not to mention adjusting to the time change. In fact, there are multiple ONE champions and top contenders from different parts of the Western hemisphere who would welcome a chance to fight closer to home – not to mention the fans that can’t make that jump to view live events. Is that in the cards? Fans and fighters will likely find out sooner than later.
However, ONE 160 will take place Friday, Aug. 26, at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, with the lead card scheduled to kick off at 6:30 a.m. ET. Le and Tang will be the co-main event, just before the lightweight title rematch between Rae Yoon Ok and Christian Lee. The featherweights will meet head-to-head in a much-anticipated war, and Le has a prediction.
“It’s finish-rate time. Now, stats matter. I’m not letting this fight go to a decision. We are not seeing decisions. This is not going to be my first decision. Y’all can bring that to the bank. Somebody is getting knocked out, or somebody is getting choked. Might be him, and it might be me, but I just want it to be a hell of a show.”
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