With a recent history defined by imperialistic colonization, foreign occupation and war, South Korea very easily could have ended up a country in the same niche as Vietnam, Cuba, Sri Lanka or Somalia. Remarkably, it did not. The “Soul of Asia” is a thriving first-world nation that, in spite of its humble geographical size (it measures just a hair larger than New England), has as much to offer as any other country in the world.
They want to make damn sure you know it, too.
Korea throws its support behind its homegrown heroes that achieve international repute like few other cultures. Whether it's a political figure like Ban Ki-moon or a pop culture icon like PSY, when one of their own reaches the top of the proverbial mountain, they achieve a level of celebrity that is hard for a westerner to wrap their head around.
This is the case even more so with sports, as the nation heavily lauds its Olympic medalists and other athletes who distinguish themselves on the world stage (the most recent person to achieve super-stardom in that way is Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu).
Poised to enter that lot is UFC featherweight contender Chan Sung Jung, who will be facing off with long-time champion Jose Aldo at UFC 163. “The Korean Zombie” has a chance to single-handedly lift the sport in a way never before seen in MMA.
“My title shot will have a huge impact on the popularity of MMA in Korea,” he said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “For Koreans to get into something, there needs to be a Korean star in that sport, and I used to dream some day that star could be me.”
While Jung has been a steady presence among the rapidly shifting upper echelon of the 145-pound division, the details of his rise remain largely a mystery to fans in both Asia and the Americas.
As is the case with many fighters, the beginning of the featherweight contender's odyssey starts on the schoolyard, where he found himself at the mercy of local bullies. “Originally, I began learning the Korean martial art of Hapkido. I was very weak and small as a child, so one of my aunts who wanted me to become stronger and more confident signed me up for lessons, but I felt like it wasn't really practical.” He continued, “Eventually, I found a kickboxing gym near my house and I went and signed up there.”
After honing his striking, he went to Daegu Gyeongbuk Institute of Science and Technology and majored in Mixed Martial Arts (numerous colleges across Korea offer educational programs in various martial arts). Shortly after, he began his career as a professional fighter, “I fought in Korea six times, then I went to Japan to fight for DEEP and Sengoku,” he said. Between the two countries, Jung racked up a strong 10-1 record and cemented himself as one of the top fighters in East Asia.
It was during this time that MMA's popularity in Korea peaked. However, this was not due to the promising crop of prospects developing at the regional level.
While it is regarded as one of the biggest “freakshow” fights of all time in the West, the bout between MMA's top heavyweight of all time, Fedor Emelianenko, and Korean giant Hong-Man Choi was when people were most excited about the sport in Korea. “There was a bubble back when Hong-Man Choi fought Fedor. [Choi] was a big star and a recognizable fighter. Because of that, the popularity of MMA in Korea was at its peak then.”
Jung labeling it a “bubble” is entirely accurate, and Emelianenko popped it with ease, scoring a first-round submission victory over the gigantic kickboxer. This instantly killed a great deal of the interest in MMA among Koreans and could not have come at a worse time for Jung.
At this point, he had caught the eye of Zuffa, who had signed him and slotted him to debut at WEC 48 opposite popular brawler Leonard Garcia. The match would prove to be a major boon for both fighters, as their 2009 Fight of the Year effort quickly made them as popular as anyone in the WEC, save poster boy Urijah Faber.
While Jung became an MMA darling with 20 minutes of work in America, he was still unknown by the majority of Koreans, even among fight fans. While Garcia briefly became a star of the Greg Jackson camp and one of the most popular fighters under 155 pounds, the only boost the on-paper loser of the fight received was a Fight of the Night bonus check. “It didn't really affect me that much. I was glad to put on an entertaining fight...but it wasn't like I became a millionaire overnight.” He continued, “I got the bonus, which was nice, but it's not like everything changed.”
While Jung received the “L” in his fight with Garcia, it remains among the most memorable fights of his career. His next fight, a shocking knockout loss at the hands of George Roop, is something most Korean Zombie fans would rather forget. The brutal defeat caused Jung to sit down and honestly reflect on who he was as both a person and a fighter.
“When you make a big change, you have to feel it in your bones. It can't be something you just do lightly,” he said. “The George Roop loss was a huge shock to me, and it really got me thinking about how I fight, and about life and everything else. As a fighter, you could literally die out there. Thinking about that, I decided I had to change the way that I fight.”
That skeleton-deep change paid huge dividends for Jung. His first fight after this epiphany was his rematch with Leonard Garcia. That fight ended with one of the craftiest submissions in UFC history. “I would have to say the twister is the favorite win of my career....After the loss and the change that I went through, it was a real challenge to me to do something different and add some different elements to my game.”
That incredible submission was then followed up by an equally incredible knockout in the form of a seven-second demolition of Mark Hominick. After that came his first main event fight in the UFC against Dustin Poirier. The four-round affair ended with an unconscious Poirier, two bonus checks and several Fight of the Year awards.
With these huge victories, Jung was now one of the most identifiable fighters in the UFC's lower weight classes. However, Jung still lagged mightily in popularity throughout his homeland.
The best-known fighter in the UFC in Korea, by a substantial margin, was welterweight ground-and-pounder Dong-Hyun Kim. Though Kim is a downright fearsome welterweight who most recently mauled Siyar Bahadurzada, he has stayed a safe distance away from most top-10 rankings.
As stated, though, South Koreans love proving themselves to be the best. Sport provides an objective measuring stick, and when word broke that a Korean had the opportunity to prove himself to be the greatest featherweight mixed martial artist in the world, the overnight celebrity he found in America after WEC 48 had finally come home for Jung.
“Just the announcement of my fight with Jose Aldo got way more attention from the mass media than I expecting it to, so I definitely think we'll see the popularity of MMA in Korea continue to grow. I think [my title shot] will have a huge impact,” he says.
While pundits are heavily favoring the champ, Jung likes his chances. “I'm going to win. That's definite.”
That said, he has nothing but praise when it comes to his opponent. “This fight has been my dream for a long time. Jose Aldo was the champion even before I came into the WEC. Obviously, my main goal is to become champion, but part of my dream has always been to beat Jose Aldo.”
An entire country will be watching to see if “The Korean Zombie” can do just that. If he does, it's very possible there will be 50 million more MMA fans come August 4.