There’s no question that 2020 was a huge year for Thanh Le. The Louisiana, United States, native kicked off his campaign with a highlight-reel knockout in January and then became the featherweight king in October.
That crowning moment went down at ONE: INSIDE THE MATRIX, where Le captured the ONE Featherweight World Championship with a stunning knockout of Martin “The Situ-Asian” Nguyen. The exciting conclusion set the mixed martial arts world on fire and ushered in a new era at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
Now that he’s sitting atop the throne, Le has a bullseye on his back. However, he’s ready to defend his belt and take on new challenges.
In this exclusive Q&A, the knockout specialist reflects on his remarkable year and breaks down his plans for 2021.
ONE Championship: 2020 has been a challenging year for everybody. What are your reflections?
Le: To be honest with you, I can’t complain about 2020.
I’ve just been really lucky and blessed to be able to do what I love for my job and continue to take care of my family.
My wife, she’s in the healthcare industry. She’s a nurse. She stayed busy and was constantly working, and it could have been a lot worse for both of us in all situations. We’re expecting [a baby girl] in March. We’re one of the lucky few. It’s worked out really well.
Obviously, in 2020, I’m really happy because of the World Title match and to win the belt. Although I only got to fight twice, I do count that as a blessing because we still got people who haven’t fought at all this year. It’s been nice to be active, climb up the ranks, go for that title shot, and take home the belt. It was cool, to say the least.
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ONE: You also competed in January before the pandemic really hit. Where did you see yourself in the division at the time, and how do you assess that performance?
Le: Going into that fight [against Ryogo Takahashi at ONE: A NEW TOMORROW], I kind of figured it was something that could lead me really close to the title. I knew I had to be within one or two fights.
The closer I get to the fight, the less and less I talk about the title. The less and less I talk about what this could mean for my family and that kind of stuff because the best way I can perform in the cage is to treat it like a regular Tuesday and go spar. That’s the best Thanh Le that’s ever come out, and I’m trying to get “Fight Thanh Le” as close to that guy as humanly possible.
I do this because I want to. I don’t do this because I have to. I’ve got plenty of other options as far as careers go – I just don’t love them like I love fighting. This is the one that called my name, and I can’t live without it, so it’s the one that I’m chasing.
I was very much the way I wanted to be in the fight: relaxed, sharp, and aware of the dangers that he was bringing to the table. It was almost like I was able to see into the future. I could see what’s available. I could see what he was thinking about throwing.
That fight worked out really well. I was happy to get the knockout, but the longer that fight would have went, the more separation you would have seen between Ryogo and me as far as skill sets.
ONE: Shortly after that victory, COVID-19 altered the course of the world. How did that uncertainty play into your preparation for Martin Nguyen and the ONE Featherweight World Title?
Le: That was the entire quarantine – with gold on my mind and training for Martin. He pretty much had two-to-three camps for me by the time we fought. I had maybe the equivalent of two-to-three camps for him leading up to that fight, so it’s nice to have a lot of preparation for one of the biggest fights in my life. I’m glad he got ample time to prepare and know who he was fighting so I could get the best Martin possible.
I don’t want to go and fight for the title if Martin has a stubbed toe. Let him rest and recover. I want the 100 percent, 110 percent Martin Nguyen. It was cool to get all this time, and I knew he had all this time to prepare.
I was very thankful and happy we were allowed to travel and set this fight up. I am very thankful for the Singapore government to take all the precautions they needed to keep all of their citizens and their team safe, but still being able to allow us to get in there and get fighters from other countries set up in the hotel, quarantined, allowing us to train, and ultimately fighting and flying home safely.
It was very, very strict. But it was the right thing to do because otherwise, the other option is not having fights in Singapore, which meant I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to win this belt.
ONE: You began the World Title match very strong, and then Nguyen came on in the third round. What was the importance of participating in such an exciting bout and bringing the gold back to the United States?
Le: It’s huge. I try not to think about it before the fight, but it’s nice to settle down afterward. If I can bring some pleasure and excitement into somebody’s life because they’re watching these fights, I’m grateful for every fan I pick up along the way.
Martin does train over here for his camps, but he’s representing Australia and Vietnam. I represent the U.S. and Vietnam. It was kind of cool to have this Vietnamese-Vietnamese battle, but he’s representing another country, and I’m representing another country. Even though we were the same, we were different also. That was a really cool piece to it – a twist you can’t get with every matchup.
It’s nice to be able to bring that belt back to my family, the city of New Orleans in Louisiana, and give them a good show.
We watched the fight a couple of times now. I haven’t really done any counts or anything like that, but in the first round, he landed like two leg kicks and maybe a punch. In the second round, I’m not sure he made contact with really anything. Through the first two rounds, we were feeling really good. It was a very dominant performance, no matter how you look at it, to be honest with you.
Then in the third, he came out swinging. You can’t be that right-hand heavy without sticking your neck out there a little bit.
It took me a second to get an eyeful of where his openings were during his punches. I tried to stay safe in those times. My face didn’t have a ton of damage, or really any damage after his aggression and lead in the third. So, none of those punches landed super clean or dead-on because if they did, I would still be sleeping probably.
I was getting inside of that right hand and letting some of my own right hands go. I clipped him as he was trying to rotate from right to left, and it just stumbled him. I guess you don’t get a 100 percent finishing rate seeing those things and not pouncing on it.
The ending flurry wasn’t something I was super proud of because it was way messier than I wanted it to be, way sloppier than I wanted it to be. We ended up looking like deer on ice for a second there with both of us on the mat, but I connected with a good left hand to the temple, and a good right uppercut to the side of the face, jaw area, and that was that.
ONE: 2021 promises to be an exciting year for the featherweight division. Where do you project this division going?
Le: I think there’s going to be a lot of movement in the division. We’re at a tipping point right now, I think. We’ve got a lot of up-and-coming talent. Everybody’s hunting for the title.
That’s the most fun time to be a part of something – when things are changing, and you’ve got new, dangerous, hungry talent.
You’ve got the guys who’ve been there for a minute; how are they going to perform based on these new guys? Are they going to hold their spot or give that up? And you’ve got me being at the top. I’m trying to stay there. I’ve got my eyes on these guys and potential matchups. It’s going to be really cool to see how that shakes out.
I’ve also got eyes on the lightweight division and Christian [Lee] and his awesome performance on our card when we both fought. Maybe Christian and I can battle it out at lightweight, while Martin and Garry [Tonon] fight for who’s going to fight for [my featherweight] title.
When that all shakes out, I’ll be able to fight that winner. We can get it on. That sounds like a full 2021.