Since leaving Vietnam as a small child just before the fall of Saigon, Cung Le has been fighting for his entire life. For 34 years, the bulk of Le’s battles took place in one martial art or another. After his mother enrolled him in taekwondo when he was 10, Le went on to train in everything from vovinam — Vietnam's traditional martial art — and Russian sambo to kickboxing and Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
But the latest battle for the retired Strikeforce middleweight champion is going on off of the mat and outside of the cage.
“I’m pushing for an association to get behind MMA fighters and ensure that there is fair play for the fighters and to bring the Ali Act — which is what boxers have now — to MMA,” Le told NBC News. “I want the fighters to get paid what they’re worth at a fair market amount. A lot of fighters are very upset with what the UFC pays, but they can’t speak out because they are scared to lose their jobs. It’s an association’s job to step up and speak out for all of the fighters, not just one.”
Le isn’t the only former UFC fighter pushing for a union and fighters’ rights. Other MMA veterans, including Jon Fitch, Jamie Varner, and the late Ryan Jimmo have been pushing for unionization for years, saying that the UFC mistreats its athletes. In an event in July, a former UFC champion took home an event-high $2,500,000 while five fighters on the card walked away with less than $50,000 of disclosed pay. Overall, the UFC paid approximately $7 million in disclosed salary for an event that made approximately $10,700,000 in live attendance and sold reportedly between 1.1 and 1.2 million pay-per-views at between $50 and $60 a piece.
“[The UFC] are going to get by with whatever they could to pay the fighters the lowest they could,” Le said. “Some fighters get paid more than others, but there’s no set pay on which fighters get what. It starts out with a number, and it goes up for the fighters who are big draws, but even they still don’t get paid the amount that they’re worth. The percentage in boxing is like a 50-50 split between fighter and promoter, but the UFC takes like 85 percent of the profit and leaves the fighters 15 percent.”
These days, Le is in a unique position to discuss fighter benefits. With time spent fighting in the UFC, Strikeforce, and several kickboxing promotions, the 44-year-old is well versed in fight sports. At the same time, his movie career and martial arts legacy mean that he’ll likely never have to worry about securing a payday from a mixed martial arts promotion again, although he’s now serving in a promotional role with Bellator MMA while pursuing the expansion of boxing’s Muhammad Ali Boxing Reform Act, which would set federal rules on how fighters are to be treated by promotions, to the cage. Currently, mixed martial arts has no federal governing body, as the sport is ruled by individual state athletic commissions and promotions.
Part of the reason Le’s not afraid to intertwine himself with Bellator while working on fighters’ rights is he believes the promotion is friendlier to fighters than its competitors. Le said he wants to make sure that the fighters who come after him are getting the treatment they deserve, and he believes that current Bellator president and former Strikeforce founder and CEO Scott Coker is helping things move in the right direction.
“Scott has always been super good to me and all of the fighters under his banner,” Le said. “I’m not a part of the fight team for Bellator, but I enjoy being that ambassador because there are not a lot of promoters like Scott Coker.”
In recent weeks, fighters’ rights made the news with sports agent Jeff Borris announced the formation of the Professional Fighters Association (PFA). Although Le doesn’t endorse the PFA, he believes his group, the MMA Fighters Association (MMAFA), is on the cusp of finally bringing the Ali Act to mixed martial arts. The MMAFA has partnered with U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin from Oklahoma, himself a former professional fighter, to push a bill for fighters’ rights through Congress.
“It’s just a matter of time before the Ali Act gets pushed through,” Le said. “Then fighters will have more security than fighting for chump change. They’ll be getting what they should be getting."
Whether or not unionization happens anytime soon, Le’s mark on mixed martial arts is already visible on a regular basis. A sport that used to be dominated by wrestling and Thai kickboxing techniques is beginning to see more flashy strikes mixed in by fighters of all backgrounds and skill levels. As one of the first and biggest names to throw techniques involving spins and diverse angles, the visibility of Le’s style when mixed martial arts was a young sport helped shape the current generation of top fighters, such as Conor McGregor and Anthony Pettis, Le said.
“Before MMA got big, a lot of guys were watching me on ESPN2 — promoted by Scott Coker — and they got the chance to watch me scissor kick guys, throw wheel kicks and pick guys up and throw them on their backs,” Le said. “I think that inspired a lot of martial artists. A couple of weeks ago, [UFC women’s bantamweight contender] Cat Zingano told me I was one of her favorite fighters before she even got started. I think it’s the evolution of martial arts — what I did back in the day, a lot of people are doing now. I’m happy to be a part of it, but I’m not the only reason people are using those techniques now.”
Outside of martial arts competition, Le’s built a name for himself with a 20-year-long career in the film industry. With roles in television series like "Walker, Texas Ranger" and "Hawaii Five-0" to movies such as "Fighting," "Tekken," "The Man with the Iron Fists" and the upcoming "Security," Le is a go-to whenever Hollywood needs a highly skilled martial artist. Fighting and acting have always been in a delicate balance for Le, as he had to vacate his Strikeforce middleweight title — while still keeping an undefeated record — in 2009 to focus on his acting career.
“I started out as a martial artist and because of my training and the way I fight, it’s opened a lot of doors for me,” Le said. “I’ve done a lot of studio-type movies. I’ve done movies where I can say I starred along with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren, Russell Crow, Lucy Liu, Ben Foster, Channing Tatum, so it’s been really good for me. I’m about to leave to go to Ireland and be in multiple episodes with Daniel Wu of 'Into the Badlands' on AMC. It’s been an exciting time for me to not be the fighter. I get to sit in the crowd and watch all of the fights instead of being in the back room and missing all of the fights until I walk out and see who I’m going to fight. It’s the yin and yang balance for me.”
For now, Le’s focused on his next event — the official pre-fight tailgate for Bellator 160 on Aug. 26 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California. He’ll be one of several fighters there to meet fans and promote the event headlined by a lightweight bout between former UFC champion Benson Henderson and former Bellator champion Patricio “Pitbull” Freire. To Le, it’s a chance to make some fans’ day while helping out a promotion he believes in.
“Bellator and Scott Coker always want to take care of their fans, so they treat their fans to special events like meeting certain fighters,” Le said. “It creates awareness of big fights coming up, like this one between Ben Henderson and Pitbull, and it keeps the fans engaged to have direct contact with the fighters.”