Thanh Le's Road from TUF to ONE Championship Title Fight

Haris KruskicContributor IOctober 26, 2020

ONE Championship

Thanh Le faces Martin Nguyen for the ONE featherweight world championship Oct. 30 at Inside the Matrix. Watch for free on B/R Live and the B/R app.

Thanh Le has had an unconventional route to his ONE Championship title fight against featherweight world champion Martin Nguyen on Friday, Oct. 30, at Inside the Matrix. The well-traveled Le, who has competed for seven different promotions in seven years, will soon step under the largest spotlight of his professional career.

However, it won't be the first time the 35-year-old is surrounded by lights and cameras. In fact, Le's experience on Season 22 of The Ultimate Fighter prepared him for this moment.

"It was my first experience being exposed to high-level athletes at the top who do this for a job and nothing else," Le told Bleacher Report. "They've dedicated their life to it. It was really nice to be exposed to that."

The Ultimate Fighter, or TUF, is a reality television series that features professional fighters living together and follows them as they train and compete against each other for a six-figure contract with the UFC.

At the time of his open tryout for TUF five years ago, Le had a 4-1 record and was less than two years into his pro career. He told Bleacher Report that the tryout was his way to prove to himself and to his dad—who exposed him to martial arts as a child—that he belonged with some of the best up-and-coming fighters the world had to offer.

After impressing at the casting call, Le joined 31 other fighters in Las Vegas in hopes of becoming The Ultimate Fighter. It was there that he met UFC legend Urijah Faber, who coached the American fighters for that season.

Much of the early storylines of this season revolved around the coaching styles of Faber and the notorious Conor McGregor, coach of the European fighters. McGregor took a more hands-off approach, saying he didn't feel a responsibility to coach anyone but rather provide the team with the best mental and physical conditions possible to win fights.

Faber, on the other hand, was very hands-on and felt everyone on the team had to contribute in order to get the desired results. To this day, Faber's work ethic is Le's biggest takeaway from his former TUF coach.

"He's gotten this far in the sport for a reason," Le said. "It was really cool to see him be the general of his team but still be part of the team and lead by example by being completely engulfed in training."

On the first episode, Le fought in the preliminary round in hopes of officially joining Team Faber. What followed was a spectacular performance against Andres Quintana punctuated by a knockout punch.

"Andres was tough, but Thanh definitely had the advantage and caught him with some crazy kicks," Faber said after his pupil's preliminary round win. "It was flashy stuff that worked."

UFC president Dana White, who was also in attendance for Le's win, gushed over his performance.

"Thanh Le looked awesome in this fight," White said. "This kid has unbelievable striking, great kicks and great punches. This kid is a very exciting fighter, and he's going to be fun to watch this season."

Le stayed on the show for seven episodes before losing his elimination-round match to Martin Svensson, but that didn't mark the end of the road for Le at UFC. The Metairie, Louisiana, native would return to the Octagon two years later as part of Dana White's Contender Series, another platform the UFC uses to scout prospective talent. Le impressed once again, knocking out Lazar Stojadinovic.

"You know it's time," Le said to White post-fight, hinting at negotiations for a more long-term contract. "Let's go."

The UFC was eager to sign him afterwards, but as Le told B/R, they just never got the timing right.

"They reached out to me for two fights," Le said. "One was on five- or six-day's notice, and I didn't want my first outing to be me missing weight. They couldn't get me a different weight class fight so I couldn't make weight and didn't even attempt to do it. That's something that's really important to me. If I make a commitment, I want to make sure I'll be able to do my job to the best of my ability.

"The other time, they wanted me to fight out of the country, but my passport needed to be renewed and I couldn't do that because it was another short-notice fight."

Instead, Le went on to win the interim LFA featherweight championship and catch the attention of ONE Championship. Since signing with the Singapore-based promotion last year, he's won all three of his fights by knockout and fast-tracked himself to a title shot against ONE featherweight world champion Martin Nguyen on Friday, Oct. 30.

Le looks back fondly on his time with TUF as the stepping stone he needed to get to this point.

"It was a little surprising to go out there to perform and realize you belong there, too," Le said. "It gives you some comfort. I met quite a few friends, was exposed to Team Alpha Male and Conor McGregor and got a feel for big cameras in your face and a lot of hype behind your fights.

"At the end of the day, though, signing with ONE was the best thing that could've happened to me," Le said ahead of the biggest fight of his career.

He'll take on another knockout artist in Nguyen who's earned the finish in all but one of his 10 wins at ONE. Le's eager for the "chess match" that him and Nguyen are going to have inside the cage.

"He's really good at counter fighting," Le said. "He times his counters in different ways so you can't really get a beat on when he's going to drop that right hand on you. It's cool to see from the outside, and it's going to be really cool to problem-solve that in the cage in front of him, but another thing he likes to do is set up camp in front of you, and one thing I like to do is not hang out in one spot. Those two things are going to battle each other.

"I like to move a lot and dance around the cage and walk him into my shots and traps. I don't know that he's faced someone who's tried to do things like that on the grand scale that I'm going to do it. We'll find out on Oct. 30 if he'll be able to handle the cadence and complications I bring."

There is another unexpected positive from TUF that Le is only just now learning to appreciate.

"A big plus that just came to be because of the pandemic was fighting in an empty room. I'm definitely used to that at this point."

We'll soon find out if Le's long path to a world championship title shot ends with gold around his waist.