It originally appeared in the December 2004 issue of Black Belt.
“Kick high for show, but kick low in real life.”
If you’re a student, you’ve no doubt heard that bit of advice, and if you’re an instructor with a sense of realism, you’ve probably given it on more than a few occasions.
In many situations, high kicks are more dangerous to the kicker than the kicked. The reasons are simple, and there are plenty of them.
High kicks tend to require more time to get to their target, thus allowing more time for your opponent to evade and/or counterattack. A vigilant foe could potentially plant a stop-kick into your thigh, then follow the technique’s momentum forward and launch a barrage of attacks. High kicks also tend to leave huge openings in your defenses. For example, if you initiate a round kick to the head, you may leave yourself exposed to a vicious low sweep aimed at your supporting leg, a front kick to your hip, a low round kick to your groin or a shooting tackle to your rear leg.
Lastly, high kicks tend to leave your kicking leg up in the air too long, and that can be all the opportunity an experienced fighter needs to grab your attacking limb and dump you on the ground.
With so many reasons not to kick above the waist, it’s obvious why certain martial sports have adopted rules that prohibit stop-kicks, grabbing an opponent’s leg and kicking below the belt. With the advent of some of the newer competitions, the vast majority of fighters are kicking low and kicking hard to prevent their adversaries from grabbing their legs. Low kicks are clearly a solid choice for the serious combatant.
But not for Cung Le.
Jumping side kick: Cung Le (left) confronts Mark Cheng (1). Le rushes forward and controls his opponent’s lead hand (2), then grabs at his lead leg to force him to direct his attention down low (3). He immediately shoves the man backward (4) to create enough space for a side kick to the chest (5). (Photos by Rick Hustead)
As a san shou fighter, Le has been called the “human highlight reel of competitive martial arts.”
In his bouts, he’s anything but reluctant to let his feet fly into the stratosphere and send his opponents’ heads into orbit. Having trained in a variety of systems, he’s no stranger to leg attacks and knows exactly how to use them.
Having studied taekwondo at the beginning of his martial arts education, a young Cung Le learned how to execute high kicks early on. He was clearly fascinated with using his legs and feet to attack in ways and from angles that most other fighters could only do with their hands. As time went on, he developed a wider and deeper arsenal of impressive leg techniques. In reminiscing about those formative years, he lets out part of the secret to his ability: “In those days, I loved doing the flashy kicks so much that if people were practicing them for an hour, I’d train for two. If they were able to kick someone in sparring cleanly on the chest, I’d aim to kick them right in the head. If they did 50 reps, I’d do 100.
“Real ability is the child of God-given talent and rock-solid diligence. Nobody maintains ability without hard work. Nobody.”
That work ethic has helped Le maintain his monopoly on the san shou title. The rest of his formula for executing high and exciting kicks is surprisingly methodical. In fact, it can be broken down into the following four parts.
Ax kick: San shou champ Cung Le (left) and his opponent square off (1). Le launches a low round kick, causing the opponent to execute a shin block (2). Le recovers quickly (3) and ensures the man’s lead arm is out of the way before he swings his leg upward (4) and chops down onto his shoulder (5). (Photos by Rick Hustead)
The first prerequisite for any attempt at high kicking is flexibility. “Woe is the beginner who tries to pull off an ax kick with a cold hamstring,” Le says. “Stretching is so important, not only to be able to kick high, but also for the longevity of your career.”
Stretching allows the martial artist to feel where his safe limits are as far as kicking. It also gives him a better idea of how to go to the limit and, eventually, transcend it. Furthermore, proper stretching decreases the chance of injury by allowing the muscles an opportunity to warm up and open gradually, instead of creating inflammation and scar tissue by repeatedly tearing them open with each leg movement.
The next key to Le’s airborne attacks is strength. While many martial artists and their instructors disdain weightlifting, Le isn’t one of them. Keeping in sync with the many advances in exercise science, the 1998 Shidokan champion has elected to employ plyometrics, free weights and any other method that will boost the power of his legs. In both of his gyms, he keeps a weight room and rows of medicine balls to meet the needs of any student who’s out to increase his strength.
“There are many people who are flexible, but they can’t kick high,” Le says. “Why? Because they don’t have the leg strength to capitalize on that flexibility. It takes strength to kick high at will, so you can’t afford to overlook that aspect of development.”
According to Le’s experience, the third component of high-kick training is speed. Once a fighter has developed the flexibility to kick high and the strength to use the full range of motion in his legs and hips, he must make his feet lightning-fast.
The reason is based on defense as well as offense. As stated above, a slow high kick can lead to the kicker’s being subjected to a brutal takedown or counterattack. Thus, whenever a seasoned fighter opts to kick high, he must ensure it’s with full power and full speed.
Flying knee: Cung Le (left) faces Mark Cheng (1). Cheng initiates the action with a left jab, which Le blocks (2). The san shou stylist then pushes his opponent’s left arm downward and to the side (3), clearing a path for an aerial knee thrust to the face (4). (Photos by Rick Hustead)
“The pundits are right,” says Le, who in 2000 defended his International Sport Karate Association light-cruiserweight title by finishing Mike Altman with a double-round-kick-to-the-head KO. “If you throw a slow high kick, you’re wide open for a counter or some other disaster to happen to you. You have to take your time, set up the distance, create the opening and then let the guy hear ush when your foot sends him breakdancing across the ring.
“Some guys throw high kicks for no reason at all, and that’s when it’s dangerous. But if you set it up correctly, you can do almost anything you want.”
The final key to Le’s leg-lashing science is endurance. While a fresh fighter might be able to kick high with relatively little strain, his opponent will be fresh as well, and chances are he’ll be ready, willing and able to detect and avoid an incoming high kick.
“The element of surprise makes for a great high kick,” says Le, who has used the techniques in all his fights, several of which have ended with “kick knockouts” (KKOs). “Traditionally, most full-contact fights, especially in muay Thai or san shou, will begin with low kicks as the fighters feel each other out. If you catch a fighter unaware or with his guard down mentally, you might be able to plant an ax kick on his face before the 30-second mark.
“But most of the time, the best time to start head hunting is a little later on, after you start seeing signs of fatigue. That’s where your conditioning and endurance come in. After three hard-fought rounds, the guy who can summon it up from the depths of his soul and bring out a blitz of viciousness is the guy who’ll land the KKO. Anyone can kick high when he’s fresh and rested. The KKO artist will work hard enough to throw those high bombs fast and furious when everyone else is sucking wind.”
The final key to success with high kicks is the same as for any other set of techniques in the martial arts: real experience. Le has devoted his life to it, and it explains why he’s at the top of his game in the san shou world. It enables him to continue to employ leg attacks in the ring and more often than not score with them.
Flying-scissor-kick takedown: Cung Le (right) distracts his adversary with a mid-level side kick (1-2). When he chambers his leg for what appears to be another such technique, the opponent reacts the same way (3-4). Le then leaps forward, placing his right leg in front of the man’s abdomen and his left leg behind his thighs (5). As he drops, he forces his foe to fall backward (6). (Photos by Rick Hustead)
During his most recent K-1 bout, his high side kicks bloodied the face of opponent Brian Warren. And his trademark flying-scissor-kick takedown, a flashy technique normally reserved for Hollywood action flicks, still shows up in almost every one of his fights. He’s knocked out opponents with spinning hook kicks, landed heavy ax kicks on the head and shoulders of others and skewered still others with jump spinning back kicks.
“I’ve always taken my work as a fighter seriously,” Le says. “But as a professional fighter in venues like the K-1 Superfights, I realize that I have a responsibility that’s more than just to win, and that’s to entertain. The world has to see that ring fighting and full-contact martial arts don’t have to be just brutal or dull. They have to see that the format of san shou allows for some of the most exciting action you’re going to see out there. San shou is high-flying kicks, hard punches, vicious throws and fast takedowns. We’ve got it all, and I’m going to bring it to the world with maximum excitement.”