Picking the brain of the Korean Zombie
“Oh! It looks like Chan Sung Jung’s right shoulder separated after that last combination,” yells UFC commentator Brian Stann. It was the fourth round of the main event of UFC 163: Aldo vs Korean Zombie. Jose Aldo hadn’t been defeated in ten years and was one of the pound-for-pound greatest fighters in MMA history. Still is. Challenging him for the Featherweight title was “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung from Pohang, South Korea.
After a couple of slow, tentative rounds, the Korean Zombie was starting to open up. “I could feel that he was breathing harder,” Chan said. “He was losing energy and getting weaker. The strategy was to wait for that and then start pouring it on once that happened.” It was an unusually thoughtful strategy for the Korean Zombie, known best for pushing forward and throwing looping hooks while absorbing any and all punishment coming back his way. But Aldo is a killer whose one big weakness is running out of gas in the later rounds. Finally, it was Zombie’s chance to walk Aldo down and try to melt him with pressure.
UFC 163 Main Event
Mike Goldberg: Ninety seconds here on the clock in the third and Jung has got to open up… And there he goes!
Brian Stann: He caught him!
Goldberg: Now Jung is starting to throw.
Stann: He landed a nice right uppercut there on the champ.
Chan Sung Jung is a fan favorite in the UFC for his fearless style of fighting. He made a big first impression fighting Leonard Garcia in World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) in what was called a top five best MMA fight of all time. He won the rematch at UFC Fight Night 24 where he submitted Garcia with a “twister,” a very unusual move where you twist the entire spine of your opponent, with just one second remaining in the round. It was the first twister submission in UFC history, won Submission of the Year, and is still regarded as one of the most impressive submissions in UFC history. He followed that up by facing Mark Hominick, who had just pushed Aldo to the limit in a title fight. Zombie knocked Hominick out in a UFC record 7 seconds. Then he finished off highly ranked Dustin Poirier with a d’arce choke, earning Fight of the Year and Submission of the Year honors for 2012.
Even after those impressive victories and a rapidly growing fanbase, Chan wasn’t prepared for what came next. He was selected to replace an injured Anthony Pettis in the main event title fight against Jose Aldo. “I thought [the UFC brass] were playing a joke on me. But fighting the champion was a thrill.” That was in 2012. Zombie hasn’t fought since.
Chan Sung Jung is so unique as a fighter partly because of his overwhelming plainess. That’s what a zombie is, someone who’s unconsciously acting like everyone else. Watching footage from his WEC days at the start of the decade, he looks much smaller and more ordinary than his opponents. In competitive fighting, there’s strict weight classes. Some guys are tall and long, but slim. Others are short and stocky. Chan is short and slim. Watching those earlier fights, Chan looks like a Korean office worker who got tricked into stepping into the cage.
“The thing that I hear most often [from the general Korean public] is that I don’t look like a fighter.”
It’s mesmerizing to watch this small Korean man constantly push forward against bigger guys: His eyes wide open, never flinching. Sure, he has skill with kickboxing. In his fights he generally dishes more punishment than he receives. But it’s his fearlessness at receiving punishment that makes him the Zombie. “I got the nickname from my teammates at Korean Top Team. I wouldn’t get knocked down. I’d keep moving forward, keep punching.” It’s like watching the slow stalking zombies from The Walking Dead.
But he’s not a zombie. In truth, the Korean Zombie embodies the spirit of Timothy Olyphant’s characters in Deadwood and Justified — the modern day strong, silent type modelled after Clint Eastwood. And he doesn’t realize how extraordinary this is. When asked questions about his toughness he kind of gives plain, matter-of-fact answers because he doesn’t think there’s anything incredible about what he does. There was no “moment” when the Zombie was born; he just always was.
“I was young and I was weak and I wanted to be tougher. I thought if I had a girlfriend I’d want to protect her. If someone talked smack to me I’d want to go defend myself. So that’s really how it started. When you’re young you think that way. You want to be a man.”
But the thing is, most men don’t think that way. Especially not men who are naturally small and weak. Heroes think that way. He’s describing Steve Rogers in the first Captain America movie before he took the super serum. I wanted to know the moment in his life when he knew he was a fighter, but was no one epiphany for Zombie because somehow, deep down, he was always a fighter. And because this isn’t a movie, he had to make his own strength.
His first instinct, as a small and weak teen, was to join martial arts to help correct his weakness. But Taekwondo and Aikido weren’t practical enough. Wanting something with real-world application, he sought out kickboxing. He doesn’t really remember the process of deciding to take amatuer fights. It was just what one does. Only, it isn’t. How many Koreans and expats study Taekwondo as a jumping off point to professional cage fights? It’s the rare few that even think of martial arts as a practical self-defense these days. And his matches in the cage weren’t the only fights Zombie was determined to win.
“At the beginning everyone was against [my desire to fight professionally]. My parents, my family, everyone was against it. But when I was 23 and started fighting in bigger promotions and started making money and got on TV, then everyone was like ‘Oh, we knew you’d succeed!'”
Zombie wasn’t bothered by the criticism or anxiety of his friends and family. He was going to do what he was going to do, and those who knew him well were probably used to that. The hardest part was struggling to work part-time while trying to become a professional fighter.
“After my first fight in the WEC, and I got my big bonus, that’s when I started to realize that I could make a living at this. Up until then I had basically done anything you can do part-time. I worked at McDonald’s, a bar, a beer place, delivering newspapers: I did pretty much anything to make ends meet.”
Chan clawed his way through the ranks as one of the world’s most exciting fighters, got his shot at the title, and then suffered a legendary run of bad luck.
Mike Goldberg: Zombie started to turn it up a bit with his striking in the third, Brian.
Brian Stann: He got here, he got to this point to fight for the title with a go-for-broke style and he’s not done that so far. He needs to.
As Aldo started to gas, Chan finally started to push the pace. He landed some clean shots on Aldo and was swinging the momentum of the fight. Then he threw one of his winging right hooks that went behind Aldo’s head and shoulders, which popped his own shoulder out of joint. The kinds of hooks that had rocked previous opponents were starting to put the champion in trouble had now cost Zombie in the biggest fight of his career. If you watch the replay, you can see Chan trying to pop his shoulder back into place himself, but Aldo had seen what happened.
Brian Stann: “Wow, the challenger separates his shoulder off a combination. Jose Aldo saw it immediately and was relentless with kicks to that shoulder… the Korean Zombie is in obvious, excruciating pain right now…
Mike Goldberg: Well, an unfortunate way for this fight to end with the injury to the challenger Chan Sung Jung. The result will stand as a fourth round finish for Jose Aldo.
With his belt and legacy on the line in front of his fellow countrymen in Rio de Janeiro, Aldo had no intention of playing the sportsman. He immediately kicked Chan his in injured shoulder three times, threw punches, and wrestled Chan to the ground. Chan tried his best to recover but with the shoulder still out of joint, and now under duress, he covered up until the fight was stopped. I asked if he thought Aldo had committed some sort of faux pas in being so ruthless, but Zombie answered with predictable stoicism: “That’s fighting. That’s how it goes. If somebody has a weakness you try to expose it.”
Chan expected to be out for ten months, which is already horrible for an athlete enjoying the best success of his career, but he was actually out for much longer. He suffered another injury before his next fight and then, like so many young Korean men before him, he had to report for his compulsory military duty. Zombie spent about two years in the service, first through basic training and then working at a government community center while he rehabbed his injuries. In total, Zombie lost three years of his athletic prime. When you’re on the cusp of greatness, that’s a disaster no matter how you look at it. Unless, of course, you have to quiet determination of the Korean Zombie.
“Everyone thinks of [their Korean military service] differently. There’s some who dread it and don’t want to go. There’s some guys who go early and want to get it done with. For me, obviously it was a burden, especially in relation to my career. But now that I’m done with it I feel relieved.” He says this with zero trace of emotion or hesitation. It’s just a simple matter-of-fact. The only hint of regret I get, and just the barest hint, is when I ask him about missing out on the UFC’s first and only visit to Seoul in November 2015, headlined by his good friend Benson Henderson.
“I really, really wanted to fight at that event. It was something we had talked about a lot and I had really been looking forward to and anticipating. But I’m sure they’ll be back again and I’ll have to look forward to next time.”
Finally, after all that, the Korean Zombie is making his return this Super Bowl weekend, in Houston, Texas, against Dennis “The Menace” Bermudez. Bermudez is ranked eighth in the featherweight division so a win for Zombie would be huge. “I was really glad that I was matched up with a top ten guy in my first fight back. That means that, if I win, I’m right back in the [title] mix.”
However, the timing of Zombie’s return coincides with a major crisis in the Korean political landscape that no one has been able to avoid: President Park Geun-hye and the massive protests to impeach her. Zombie knows hard times and he wants to tell the Korean people to be like him. To stand up again, to press forward.
“These days things have not been great in Korea. There have been a lot of hard times. Win or lose, I’m going to try my best and I want to make the Korean people proud. I want to show the strength of the Korean spirit.”
And things are looking up for Zombie. At the beginning of 2017 he signed a lucrative contract with the sports management company Lourus, Co., Ltd. “I’m very happy to be working with them as well as Monster Group and I want to thank everyone for all the help and the strength that you’ve given me. [And] I’m going to put on an exciting fight so I hope a lot of people will watch it and enjoy.”