I just can’t help it.
When I watch Chan Sung Jung fight, I don’t see the “Korean Zombie” character with which he is now synonymous. I can sort of get that—Jung is Korean, he is scary and persistent, it's all sort of there. But what I really see is a Corgi, and a particularly adorable one at that. No small feat given that Corgis, by default, are impossibly adorable.
Maybe it’s the perma-smile Jung and his canine avatar share. You’re never quite sure what it is they’re smiling about, which sort of calls for the Cheshire Cat comparison, but there's something altogether more innocent about this particular grin: it may just be an outward acknowledgement of an eternal bemusement at life and the fact that it’s a real thing we’re all experiencing for real.
The straight physical comparison ends there since a Corgi is short and stubby while Jung is long and lean, but nature has played the same practical joke on both by giving them limbs they’re not quite sure how to handle. Still, they get by with a natural stick-to-it-iveness that screams, “I know I look janky, but this is what I’m working with and I will make it work because I’M A GOOD BOY.”
For a while, that attitude served Jung well, at least insofar as he became a cult figure beloved for creating the sort of shambolic scraps the UFC and a vocal portion of its fans crave. This was a frustrating path to watch Jung take for those who had followed him since his days in the wild east of the Asian MMA circuit. The Korean Zombie was content to remain a zombie, gutting out wins by absorbing punishment until—finally—putting hands on his prey and feasting on sweet, delicious brains. That is until his two ill-fated bouts in the WEC, the UFC’s since-assimilated cousin.
First came a rightly maligned split-decision loss to proto-brawler Leonard Garcia and then came a knockout loss to proto-tall-dude George Roop. Luckily for Jung, his devoted fan base and Korean heritage—the UFC would love to establish a foothold in Asia—guaranteed him a UFC deal post-WEC assimilation. By then, the consensus was that he would chug along as a reliably entertaining fighter with something like a 50/50 shot at clinging onto a roster spot. The zombie would make a living, but probably just that.
What followed and continues to follow is not so much a shocking revival as it is a long overdue confirmation. The gangly Korean kid in the fuzzy pirated videos that built his cult showed not just heart, but undeniable talent and skill. So it's exciting to watch that same kid become what he was meant to be: A fucking kick-ass Corgi.
The Korean Corgi’s renaissance began where it had to begin, with a rematch of his contested loss to Leonard Garcia. While their first fight was on some Roadhouse outtakes slobber-knocker steez, the return encounter provided the first hint of the fighter Jung had resolved to become. That is a fighter who does all sorts of cool shit, e.g. lacing a twister all casual like.
The twister aka guillotine aka spinal lock is a wrestling move as horrifyingly painful as it is impossible to lock up. Once the hold became a chic thing to try on the mats, its applicability in an MMA context has been understandably downplayed, mostly because once you subtract the relative safety of the grappling world and add the very real prospect of getting your face blasted off in MMA, novelty tends to be set aside in favor of reliability. However, Corgi don't care.
The sequence starts with Garcia in turtle position and Jung having secured back control with both hooks secured inside the thighs. What Jung is trying to do here is use his leverage to flatten Garcia out and sit down on his mid-section, which makes for a more dominant position. In response, Garcia rolls over and Jung makes what appears to be a mistake by letting his left hook come loose. However, as Garcia tries to finish the roll and gain top position, Jung deftly figure-fours his left leg and pins it to the mat. Because the figure-four is high and tight, Garcia’s only counter would be to push down on the hold to free his leg, but that would leave his neck exposed to a rear-naked choke. With the round nearing its end, Garcia appears content to wait out either the clock or a more favorable escape opportunity.
He still has no idea how FUBAR this is about to get.
By now, Jung is almost perpendicular to Garcia who is trying to sit up and gain the leverage he needs to bail on the figure-four. In doing so, he leaves his head out there like some nuts … just some nuts on a fuckin’ dresser blissfully unaware of the spiked bat about to crash down on them. Jung slips his left arm behind Garcia’s head, locks up the hold using a palm-on-palm Gable grip and violently twists Garcia’s neck. The pain kicks in when the figure-four keeps Garcia from rolling his hips inward and alleviating the pressure. In effect, Jung is twisting dude’s spine up like the front end of an artisanal blunt.
That Jung had the good sense to rediscover his grappling chops was one thing. That he did it against someone who so readily indulges his love affair with the Backyard Juggalo Fights aesthetic was another altogether. The hope was that this stylistic pivot would continue against nonpareil rib-roaster Mark Hominick. This was hope rooted in good reason, since Hominick’s vaunted mid-range boxing game is especially devastating when delivered via 4 oz. gloves.
So Jung's fans prayed, they hoped, they begged and they pleaded with whatever deities they could to ensure Jung would chase the takedown and expose Hominick’s routinely faulty grappling game. Unfortunately for those fans, Jung never got a chance to answer their prayers. He knocked Hominick out in seven seconds flat.
A seven-second knockout typically involves one fighter making a dumbass mistake and the other fighter responding with the physical equivalent of “Dude, that was a dumbass mistake and, I’m sorry, but I kinda have to do this to you now.” Here, Hominick goes for the somewhat underhanded tactic of a quick glove-tap followed by a scythe of a left hook. Besides the karmic debt inherent in that tactic, Hominick fails in an area where he usually excels: measuring his punches. By blindly stepping in with no setup, he’s utterly defenseless when his hook flies past Jung and sends a calming breeze into the crowd.
More important than Hominick’s whiff is Jung’s anticipation of said whiff. He knows the left hook is Hominick’s money punch and stays out of its range. By calmly giving ground while keeping his right hand cocked, Jung is ready to counter as soon as the anticipated left hook whizzes by. He does so by planting on his rear foot and jamming a coffin nail into the point where Hominick’s jaw and ear meet.
The constant back-and-forth from defense to offense and back again is one of the most challenging aspects of MMA, but Jung handles it beautifully by anticipating his opponent’s actions, preparing a counter and setting it loose at the perfect moment; this knockout is that whole slow pendulum swing rendered in brutal miniature. Beyond the cerebral aspect, bonus dap is due to Jung’s display of raw athleticism in reversing his body’s momentum from full retreat to forward assault with nothing more than a shift of the hips and a plant of the foot.
Now, the matter of finishing off a dude already imitating a failed field sobriety test seems simple enough at first blush. However, it’s an area where MMA fighters consistently fail—mostly because they tend to turn into finely calibrated flail-bots at the first sight of a possible finish. Jung ain’t about that life though. He’s all about flexing the cocaine biceps and cracking the galaxy knuckles and other cool-sounding Ghostface-ian word jumbles.
With Hominick dazed and supine, Jung flexes some legit finishing instincts by avoiding the guard and instead sitting down on Hominick’s right leg. What this does is provide a base for Jung’s hips while robbing Hominick of the ability to push off or establish a defensive guard. By keeping the center of his body balanced on the leg, Jung is able to swivel into his punches—thus generating more power without losing his balance. This is fancy talk for Jung hurt him real bad with physics.
So: our dude was doing all right for himself. However, the good vibes got curb-stomped when news broke that he was lined up to face Dustin Poirier. The response from the MMA world was uniform. Fans noted Poirier’s undefeated record at featherweight. Media pointed to his versatility and cage smarts. Bookies tabbed him a -350 favorite.
One important fact that was forgotten in all this pre-fight hypothesizing and oddsmaking was that Jung had run out of fucks to give. Telling him he’s an underdog in a fight is no different than telling a Corgi that an especially steep set of stairs is favored to keep it down. All you’ll get is a quizzical look before it’s off to face down that windmill. Corgis don't understand what you're saying.
And so Jung posted a dominating first two rounds laden with general “Oh, DIP" pyrotechnics. However, the third round saw Poirier putting together his punches while containing the Korean Corgi’s previously brilliant offense. With neither fighter having ever competed in a five round fight, no one had a clue what to expect. Mostly because no one could have predicted just how much Jung had left to give.
Poirier opened the door to his own defeat by repeating a mistake he made all night long. By surrendering the center of the cage, Poirier allowed Jung to measure and time the unpredictable power combos that put him in the lead to begin with. Here, Jung is on some real next-level business with an unorthodox lead-rear-uppercut-to-left-hook combo that he sets up with a sneaky feint to the body. The feint breaks Poirier’s ankles and disguises the uppercut just long enough for it to land square on the jaw. Jung somehow has the physical coordination to slip in a left hook that finds the same mark and sends Poirier into an involuntary retreat.
Just as in his two prior fights, Jung coolly sets himself to the task of ending matters by bringing extreme levels of bold flavor. As Poirier tries to gather his senses, he manages to get his hands up in time to block a flying knee to the dome and dive for a double leg takedown. The key word here is “dive”, which is one letter short of “drive” and makes all the difference. Rather than drive into Jung’s hips and force him back, Poirier dives low for the knees hoping to catch him off-balance. It’s a desperate move that Jung shuts down with ease. He begins by sprawling his legs back and wide while securing a waistlock. This keeps Poirier from getting a solid grip on Jung’s legs while halting his forward momentum. From there, Jung shifts his hips, uses the waistlock as leverage to drop his body weight down on Poirier’s head and slams the door on any of this silly takedown business.
Of course, just as a jolly rancher is not a sprinkle, a stuffed takedown is not a finish. Jung gets to work on that situation immediately.
Sure, diving for a sloppy double leg was a mistake on Poirier’s part, but at least he tried something. Here, he commits the cardinal sin of MMA: doing nothing. When another man/zombie/Corgi wants to hurt you, doing nothing is not the solution. Here, the penance for sloth is swift as Jung circles to create the perfect angle for slipping his right arm through Poirier’s armpit and into a brabo choke.
Again, Poirier does nothing and pays for it. Jung circles further inside which tightens the choke while allowing him to get the palm-on-bicep grip necessary to locking the choke in. Once secured, he drives his right shoulder forward, forcing Poirier to roll even further into the hold. A few moments pass until Poirier’s inevitable surrender puts the stamp on a thrilling display of technique covering every facet of MMA. Also, it was dope.
Really, though, and at the risk of forfeiting whatever analytical objectivity might be left on my part, everything about Jung is dope. At a time when the UFC is trying to square every one of their fighters with a preconceived notion of how a fighter should act, look, feel and fight, Jung is stubbornly, brilliantly doing Jung. You won’t hear him trying to talk half-hearted smack handed to him by an incompetent copywriter and you sure as hell won’t see him trying to emulate the childish big-dick pseudo-swagger of his own employer.
What you will get is a guy who smiles at the absurdity and wonder of the world around him and goes about his work with a joy detached from the grueling realities of the work itself. If MMA were a bigger sport, he’d be starring in twee Apple commercials that follow him and an actual Corgi as they plan an Afro-Cuban jazz-themed birthday party for the Chicano girl across the street who only wears zoot suits. Zooey Deschanel would be out of work and make headlines some years later as the anime-eyed culprit behind a not-dull murder spree. The world would be a better place.
For the time being, we have to settle for Jung making the MMA world a better place. It's a pretty good deal for all of us.
"Zombie Corgi" illustration by Brandy Jefferys.