This has been a very busy summer for the UFC and MMA, more so outside the cage than in it. Long time owners Zuffa have sold the promotion for an eye-popping $4 billion to a group led by WME/IMG. Top stars Brock Lesnar, Jon Jones, and Chad Mendes have all ran afoul of the company’s USADA run drug testing policy and have been or are looking at suspensions of two years in length. Congressman Markwayne Mullin has introduced the Muhammad Ali Expansion Act in Congress to expand the protections of the Muhammad Ali Reform Boxing Act to MMA and other combat sports. And more and more fighters are openly calling for the organization of a fighters association, most recently and most vocally Jose Aldo and Mark Hunt.
One person with a strong opinion and personal connection to all of these issues is Cung Le. The former UFC fighter hasn’t fought since he tested for elevated hGH levels back in 2014, the result of a test that had been so poorly conducted that some believe it led to the UFC contracting USADA. Since then, he has continued to be active in MMA, albeit not by fighting. He was one of the three original plaintiffs in the class action antitrust lawsuit filed against the UFC that continues to proceed through discovery. He is also a member of the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association and has been a vocal proponent of extending the Muhammad Ali Reform Boxing Act to MMA.
Recently I spoke to Le about the many issues currently facing MMA, what he would like to see changed, and if he plans to ever return to the cage.
First off, I heard that the UFC released you from your contract and you’re a free agent now. Is that true?
Yes, I am free agent now. It’s a long story. It’s been over a year but I have a good team and my wife helped me out with a lot of stuff.
It took a year when I should have been fighting but since they had me under contract I could only fight for them. But after what happened – with what they accused me of – they didn’t give me an apology or clear my name. I wasn’t going to [return to fight] for them, But it’s crazy how they can lock you down.
I still get a lot of stupid comments. It’s been difficult dealing with, being held under a contract that if we had the Ali Act never would have happened.
To be clear this is your fight contract they released you from, right? They gave you the right to do promotional appearances with Bellator before.
Yes. I got to do a few appearances with Bellator.
I have to thank my wife Suzanne Le for that. And more. She wrote [the UFC] several good letters. She has been my support and backbone through this. Also she was raised by a lawyer and was instrumental in so many ways – like me being able to work for Bellator.
Were you surprised they released you? Looking back in the past they’ve kept the contractual rights to other fighters much longer. I’m thinking Randy Couture and Heath Herring, who left the UFC but they claimed promotional rights over them for years afterwards.
I think I also got a little help when Congressman Mullin did interviews and – he didn’t mention my name – mentioned how they were mistreating some of the fighters. I think that helped.
So now that you have your full release do you plan to keep fighting?
I don’t know right now. It’s been awhile since my last fight. Almost 2 years. Before I would take a year, 18 months off but when you’re working on a film you’re not training like a real fighter. It’s like another career. I’m very happy acting but it is something I always think about, that maybe if I focused more on fighting I would have got a lot better. But then what do you do after? You don’t make enough fighting to take care of the rest of your life. You have to think about what you’ll do afterwards.
So when a great opportunity came up and I got a chance to break into the Chinese market [with acting] I took it. And my film career worked out great for the UFC. Our first press conference, for the Rich Franklin fight, people knew me from my fight scene with Donnie Yen. It helped out when it came to having TUF on TV in China. The press knew who I was. They were interested in me there. More than if I had been only some UFC fighter.
They knew it too. I was originally in talks to fight Michael Bisping in Manchester and Dana said I need you in China. And when Dana says he needs you in China that means you got to go or you’re not being a company man.
So you don’t get a choice in the matter? It’s not something you get to negotiate on?
I didn’t get a chance to negotiate. They tell you this is what [your pay is] going to be for doing the show. When I call them about what I can do for the UFC they answer the phone. But if you need something they don’t answer. They don’t call you back.
At this time my wife was in the hospital. Two days before I left she had surgery. So I’m calling them asking for another week and no call back. Nothing. And then my wife told me to go, that she’d be fine. And she spent another week in the hospital after I left. And then when I get there they’re not ready. “Oh, your wife is in the hospital? You should have taken another week.” You could have told me that before I got on the plane.
It all goes back to the contracts. The contract you sign with them, they’re free to ignore you but you have to do certain things and when you don’t you hear about it from them.
And everyone heard what happened to Jon Fitch. He’s the best example of what happens. Jon Fitch and I are friends. So when I heard what happened to him and AKA when he didn’t sign…
This is the contract you signed with them after they bought Strikeforce?
Yes. They ripped up my old contract and gave me a new one. They gave me a better contract pay wise but it still had all these things in the contract locking me down. It was the better choice than not taking it because it was the only choice. Strikeforce was gone and Coker wasn’t at Bellator yet. There weren’t a lot of options.
So having to go to China, it sounds a little like what McGregor was complaining about. About having to do press obligations you have no say in.
It wasn’t like McGregor at all. Maybe, okay, with them deciding what you were going to do, but not close with what was being asked. McGregor didn’t want to do a press event, which I understand, but they had me go to China not for a few days but for seven weeks to shoot a reality show. With a crew that never shot one before. Everything that could go wrong did.
I didn’t want to quit my training, which I had been doing to get ready for Bisping, to take a break and work on a show. But I did because they asked me to. And then as soon as we were done shooting instead of going back to training, which is what I wanted to do, they tell me “now we need you to go on a ten day promotional tour for the show.” Then after that I got a call from Dana, “we need you to fight in New Zealand.” And then two days later I get a call back, “no we’re going to have you fight in China instead, in Macau. And guess what we’re going to have you fight Bisping.” Who I was supposed to fight before all this and who I wanted to train for.
And then, after the fight, someone says I was on something but they destroyed my blood test. So I was going to be punished until Dr.Caitlin says the test should be ignored. “You can’t test someone after they exercise and Cung just fought and is bleeding so of course his levels are up.”
What it was is that my results after the fight came back and showed my hGH levels were elevated. Everything else was all clear. I didn’t test positive for any foreign substances. That was it, my hGH levels were elevated. If anyone works out, If Dana or Lorenzo workout theirs is going to be elevated. I think those guys are pretty smart they should Google that stuff. If you stay in a sauna for 30 minutes your levels get elevated. It’s on Google. They should have known it doesn’t mean anything.
So after the test came back they sentence me to nine months suspension. But then they say that’s not enough and they make it a year because of course they want to tack on three more months because they want to keep me on the shelf as long as possible. So I’ve been handcuffed for two years now.
So you think they added time to your suspension just to keep you off the market longer?
Yes definitely. This is how I see it. Two weeks before I was going to leave for Vietnam and finish out my training – in Vietnam because I can adjust to the time there – [former UFC VP of business and legal affairs] Mike Mersch called me and said “Cung did you see my email?” And I said yeah, and there was an email with an 18-month extension to my contract. And I told him I can’t sign it until my lawyers look at it and I can’t remember exactly why my lawyer couldn’t look at it. He was either on vacation or on a case. I can’t remember but he couldn’t look at it for at least a week.
So I said I could get back to them as soon as he looked at it in a week or so. And Mersch said “No, We need it now. Send it before you leave.” I told him I definitely wasn’t going to sign something before my lawyer looked it over and he said suit yourself and hung up on me. They’ve never hung up on me. I’ve always worked my ass off for them. And then what do you know, [the test] happened.
So wait, are you saying the UFC faked the test or something like that?
No. I’m not saying that. But they were quick to move on suspending me, keeping me on the shelf after I wouldn’t sign and the lab results came back. Correct me if I’m wrong but when Belfort’s test rests came back showing he had elevated [Testosterone] levels they never reported it? They weren’t in a rush to announce that. They were quick to announce mine before all the facts were in and to add three months to the suspension.
So you’re saying they took advantage of the test results? That they jumped on it too quickly when the results came back?
That’s what I think. When you look at what happened: Coker took over Bellator, me not signing right away. I’m sure If I was signed right away they would have been fine and dandy. We would have been working out those lab results privately.
I was disappointed too. If I had resigned I was planning to start cutting down to 170 pounds because these 185 pounders were too huge. I thought I could have done well at 170 pounds.
So you’ve been heavily involved in the class action antitrust lawsuit against the UFC and the push to get the Ali Act extended to MMA. What made you decide to get involved with the lawsuit?
I can’t talk too much about the lawsuit but with the Ali Act; mostly it was what happened to me and all the other fighters’ careers.
Why was there an Ali Act implemented for boxing? Because the same thing happened to boxers back in the day that is happening to MMA fighters today. The people that own the UFC are making as much money, more even, than what we thought was too corrupt in boxing so that they needed an Ali Act to try and level the playing field.
The split shouldn’t be only 1/10th for the fighters. The way I see it if there were no fighters the UFC would be bankrupt. All promoters would be broke. Everything rides on the shoulders of the fighters. Yes, there’s the promotion, but the promotion is about the fighters. And the fighters are the one that put in the hard work, putting in the countless hours of work, the ones bleeding. They’re the ones that have to go to the hospital afterwards and have to do rehab for months after a fight. They should be the ones making the money too not just the promoters. So why should the promoters be the only ones that make money?
And for promoters to fight the Ali Act, it’s just greed. Share the wealth. You make more than enough. You’re not the one fighting. Instead of using some of your profit margins to fight the Ali act, you can maybe use that to pay more.
How would your career have been affected if the Ali Act were in place 10 years ago?
I definitely believe I would have been more focused on fighting because I would have been making a lot more. Because now instead of only the promoters making money there would be a lot more promoters bidding for you. More competition for you means more money. It would open up the market; make it more of a free market. You would have a lot more promoters bidding for big fights, and more people getting into promoting because they’d have access to the fighters that they could make big fights with.
And I wouldn’t have had to worry as much about what I would doing after my fighting career was over. I would have been focused on getting big fights that would have paid me so much better that I would have been thinking only of fighting.
What do you think the general feeling from other fighters is?
The majority of the fighters it’s high five. Thank you.
What about fans that are worried it will “ruin the sport”?
Try being a fighter. It’s not a great sport for us. It’s not a good business right now. Let’s do something for the fighters for once.
The fans are watching the fights, so most don’t care what the fighters or the promoters are making. Hopefully they will get behind the fighters because they are the ones that they are watching. And the promoters aren’t just making good money. You know how much they are making. They make more than enough.
We just saw that they sold the UFC for around $4 billion.
Well the four billion the UFC made is off the fighters’ blood and sweat. I wonder what the percentage of all the fighters’ earnings put together was out of that?
It is what it is. The sooner we can get that fighters association the better.
I know you’ve also been heavily involved with organizing the Mixed Martial Arts Fighters Association and have even been talking to Mark Hunt lately. How has your work on that front been going?
There are a lot of things that need to be done and without a fighters association it’s not going to get done. And it’s not only money. We need to make sure the commissions are doing their job. That we fighters have a say in how things work. That the judging is better or that the testing is fair. And that we are more worried about fighters’ health. We should have a say in all that. Fair is fair.
Fighting takes a lot of focus. It takes razor sharp focus to be a successful fighter. So with all these other things, I think some fighters can handle the pressure, but it’s hard for some people when you are so focused on training and fighting to think about an association or the Ali Act. And I will say that the majority of the fighters that are under these ridiculous contracts are worried about putting food on their table. And we totally understand that. But when fighters see something that benefits them like the Ali act or an association they understand it. Those that can stand up will. And those that can’t, well we are going to do it with or without you. But if we all stood up we wouldn’t even have to be speaking about these things because they’d be fixed.
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