Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we preview the weekend's combat sports action and discuss the relevant news of the day. Ready? Let us proceed.
B/R Exclusive: Korean Zombie Talks Fans, Fireworks and Saturday's Main Event with Dan Ige
Chan Sung Jung has resigned himself.
"Way more people call me Zombie than my real name," Jung told me this week through an interpreter. "Korean names are usually like three syllables. In America, most people mess it up and all different things. So when people ask me what I prefer to be called, I just say Zombie."
Jung (16-6), known far and wide as the Korean Zombie, should and does consider the nickname a compliment—a homage to the toughness that keeps him rising off the mat and lurching forward long after he has any earthly business doing so.
His birth name and stage name may be interchangeable at this point, but Zombie is firmly entrenched as one of the most popular action fighters in the UFC. Although he's "only" 3-2 since returning to the UFC in 2017 after a mandatory stint in the South Korean military, he's earned four performance bonuses in that time, with one of those defeats an all-time classic with Yair Rodriguez that literally ended in a last-second knockout.
On the precipice of his main event Saturday with Dan Ige (15-3) on UFC on ESPN 25, Zombie says he "for sure" has another title run in him at age 34. The 29-year-old Ige, himself a rising fan favorite, is a stiff test and a tempting dance partner.
"Ige likes his brawls," Zombie said. "I feel the same way. There's gonna be fireworks, it's gonna be a war, and if Ige wants to fight that way, then I more than welcome it."
That's about as much trash talk as anyone's going to get from Zombie, a fighter in the classic mold of those who let their actions speak for them. Fighting is not an emotional pursuit or outlet for the Zombie. In fact, to hear him tell it, he and Ige are downright chummy—right up until Ige becomes the chum. That's the hope in Zombieland, anyway, even as Jung is a razor-thin +105 underdog as of Thursday, according to DraftKings.
"We actually ran into Dan Ige earlier," Zombie said. "We saw him outside the hotel here. He seemed like a super nice guy. We shook hands and introduced ourselves, and I didn't have any qualms about it.
"I'll be gunning for him on Saturday night, though."
Ariel Helwani's Complicated Legacy as Leading MMA Reporter
Monday marked the final day of reporter and broadcaster Ariel Helwani's tenure with ESPN, which of course is the primary broadcast home for the UFC. According to the New York Post's Andrew Marchand, Helwani's departure comes as the Worldwide Leader continues to slash payroll. (ESPN's financial and ratings woes are well-documented.) Another casualty, the great Kenny Mayne, recently left after 27 years with the company.
Helwani has been an MMA insider for a long time, coming up with countless scoops on fight announcements and the like. I've followed his career, and his work ethic is undeniable.
But there's a flip side. Helwani never consistently covered the sport with much of a critical eye. Like most things, MMA has its problems, from low fighter pay to fighter legal troubles, but you'd never know it from listening to Helwani. Every event was amazing, every fighter transcendent, with the UFC an unassailable pillar of society. He typically spent his interviews genuflecting before whoever was in front of him. (Imagine something similar to this on a loop: "How does it feel to get such a thrilling win, my friend?" "It feels great, Ariel.")
That made him a popular landing spot for many a fighter, further cementing him as the MMA reporter of record, for better or worse.
That status gave him a veneer of credibility that helped him to position himself as the self-styled Howard Cosell of MMA. It's an easy tagline his one of his now former ESPN colleagues were only too happy to reinforce.
The comparison breaks down under scrutiny. Cosell is a broadcasting legend known for a sharp wit and a willingness to challenge interview subjects. Helwani is more of a "Mean" Gene Okerlund, the WWE sideline personality who passed along predigested announcements and offered wrestlers a microphone for their promos.
Don't forget: Helwani once tearfully admitted on his own airwaves that he received a paycheck from UFC then-parent company Zuffa. I mean, isn't that a crucial part of Helwani's career narrative?
(And even though he's been a loyal UFC hype man for years, UFC prez Dana White and Helwani haven't had a good working relationship.)
Make no mistake: Helwani, who was reportedly making $500,000 per year at ESPN, will land on his feet. As you might expect, he's having a field day teasing his next move on social media. Marchand predicted a position with a betting site. Who knows?
Not as Bad as it Looked, Jamahal Hill? I Don't Know About That
Someone call B-Dubs, because Jamahal Hill (8-1, 1 NC) has a boneless wing.
That was sure how it looked last weekend at UFC 263, where a gnarly Paul Craig armbar, a sleepy-eyed ref named Al Guinee, and Hill's adrenaline and toughness left him with an arm that was, to employ technical jargon, floppity-flooping around after the fight. Everyone was relieved to learn later that the injury was somehow a dislocation and not a break, though it looked like his lower arm bones had magically disappeared.
Earlier this week, Hill told TMZ Sports the injury "was not as bad as it looked." How is that possible? It was flapping and thrashing around like an eel out of water.
Hill deserves respect for gutting through it, with an assist to Guinee, who was remarkably slow on the uptake. I just have a hard time expecting Hill to return at full strength anytime soon. Playing down what looked like a serious injury might be another case of Hill being too tough for his own good.
Fresh Off Making History, Brandon Moreno Might Get Henry Cejudo Next
Brandon Moreno (19-5-2) became an overnight sensation last weekend when he upended Deiveson Figueiredo (20-2-1) to become the first Mexican-born champion in UFC history and just the company's fourth flyweight belt holder.
The excitement continued after the bout when Moreno told MMA Junkie that he would be open to fighting Henry Cejudo (16-2). As you'll recall, Cejudo held the flyweight and bantamweight titles when he retired last year. An American-born son of Mexican immigrants, Cejudo would generate instant buzz should he come out of retirement, and a Cejudo-Moreno blockbuster would surely draw massive interest in the Mexican fanbase, which has been relatively slow to embrace MMA despite a rich tradition in boxing.
Moreno is a likable new entrant on the scene, and even at age 27, he is a good presence for the sport. We'll see if a bout with Cejudo is more than just a dream, and if it is, I'm here for it.
Stone Cold Lead Pipe Lock of the Week
Record to date: 11-4
There are lots of close matchups on Saturday's card. Give me Marlon Vera (16-7-1), who as of Thursday was a -215 favorite on DraftKings to defeat likeable Brit Davey Grant (13-4). At age 35, Grant is beginning to wear the wars on his face. Vera is seven years his junior and has a power-striking game that should overwhelm Grant's more volume-based attack. His jiu-jitsu black belt also should give him a ground edge over Grant. Lock it in.