2019 saw “The Korean Zombie” have two fights and two first-round TKO victories. Now he hopes 2020 will bring him the UFC featherweight title.
This article was originally published in Fighters Only March 2020 – Issue 189
You recently scored a decisive TKO stoppage of legend Frankie Edgar at UFC Fight Night 165: Busan. What are your memories of the devastating strike sequence and the finish of the fight?
Putting pressure on Frankie was what I had planned on doing after blocking his attempted takedown. I know that Frankie normally doesn’t attempt a second takedown if he fails to do it early on during the fight. So, since he failed taking me down once, I knew he would resort to punching and I prepared myself with a counter punch. This was one of the game plans thought of by my coach, Eddie Cha, whom I am very thankful for.
Edgar is known as one of the most durable fighters in the history of the sport. Your stoppage of him was only the second in his entire career. How great is it to have that on your resume?
Frankie is loved by everyone who is a fan of the UFC. He is known as one of the most legendary lightweight UFC fighters to date. I take pride in my victory and feel very honored that I was able to fight with the legend himself.
You had an amazing crowd support during the contest, fighting so close to home. How much did it mean to you to have that level of love going into, and during the fight?
I was not made at all nervous by my fans’ support since I have experienced similar situations multiple times in America and other countries. I try my best not to worry about my surroundings when going into the fight as well as during it. I had ruined a few fights in the past by being too tense and now I try to avoid it. After my fight is over, though, that is when I interact with my fans and I hope that showing them a good fight is worth it. I have a feeling that this win has made me an experienced fighter.
With the impressive win, many have been calling for you to receive a title shot against newly crowned champion, Alex Volkanovski. Do you feel that this is the best option for your next fight? If not, who do you feel would be the best fight for you (Ortega, Holloway, etc.)?
It doesn’t matter who I have to fight as my next opponent. I would, however, prefer to challenge the champion for the title first. Ortega, Holloway, Zabit, and Volkanovski are all great fighters and should never be mistaken as fighters who can be easily messed with. However, if I had to pick one, I would pick Volkanovski. I believe he would be a fairly easier opponent for me to fight among those four fighters.
It was reported that this was the first time your father has seen you compete live. What did that add to the experience for you?
Right after the fight, I was unbelievably happy. I was smiling the entire time, but as soon as I saw my dad’s face, I found myself crying. When I was younger, I spent more time with my dad than I did with my mom. He has always supported me during my career in the MMA and through all of the tough times that I had to endure. I think I was reminiscing about the past and became emotional. My dad has always been a positive influence to me and I feel it is my job to make him happy.
Some would argue that with your body of work, that you are the most entertaining and exciting fighter of the decade. What do you say when you hear that compliment?
I always try to reward my fans with better performances because I am one of the only Asian contenders in this field and I do not speak English very well, so I appreciate it when fans say that my fights are one of the most exciting ones. Although being labeled as one of the most entertaining and exciting is great, I do want to reciprocate to my fans and be titled a featherweight UFC champion.
Where does your zombie-like fight style originate? Who or what are the influences that made you the fighter that you are today?
I went through a very hard time as a MMA fighter. I trained myself to never give up when everyone else did, and I was able to habitually prevent myself from doing so. This was something I couldn’t do alone, though. For the past 15 years, I received help from so many people around me, who uplifted me whenever things got rough, so I knew I couldn’t give up. There are too many names to mention but I express my sincere appreciation to all of them.
As a fan of the sport, who are your favorite fighters to watch and why?
My favorite fighters are the Diaz brothers. They win their fights with their strong mentality over their physical or athletic abilities. It always fascinates me when they overwhelm their opponents mentally because I also enjoy taking down my opponents that way as well.
You’ve made it known that you have been suffering from double vision for some time. What moment from this entire process has been the most difficult for you and how did you overcome it?
I see people and objects with double vision. Only when I tilt my neck to the left and raise my eyes, I see them as one. I trained my body to always tilt my neck and that caused problems for me when I was training. I have also had some issues with running because it made me dizzy. Initially, I could not do sparring either since it was so difficult, but amazingly, my body found a way to get used to it and I was able to continue at the training camp. Although my double vision has not gone away completely, I am now able to differentiate between the two objects I see, and luckily, it has had no negative impact on my sparring.
How has striking coach Eddie Cha changed your striking game?
Coach Eddie Cha struggled to fix my bad habits in striking. In an attempt to break my bad habits, I learned that I was only able to fix it with positive reinforcement. Recently, since training with Eddie Cha, I realized that my punches became much more powerful. His coaching style fits perfectly into my fighting style. I really do believe that he is one of the best coaches in the MMA world.
As we look back at 2019, what are your takeaways personally and professionally?
Some people said that I was past my prime, but with this fight, I was able to show everyone who doubted me that they were wrong. The two biggest takeaways that I have for 2019 are truly showing my abilities as a professional fighter and that I am very close to becoming a UFC champion.
If we were having a conversation one year from now, what would we be saying about your place in the sport in 2020?
If everything goes according to my plan, I will become a champion in 2020. There is no doubt about it. I am talented and I am now with the best coaches in the world. I trust their abilities more than mine at this time. This is why I believe that I will become a champion in 2020.