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By the time he steps into the Octagon against Dennis Bermudez at UFC Fight Night 104 on Saturday in Houston, exactly 1,281 days will have transpired since Chan Sung Jung’s last Ultimate Fighting Championship appearance. A lot has changed since then. When Jung fought last, George St. Pierre was still the welterweight champion, gearing up for his next title defense against up-and-coming contender Johny Hendricks, while Chris Weidman was fresh off his upset win over longtime middleweight king Anderson Silva. Current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier was 1-0 in the UFC, as was a young Irishman by the name of Conor McGregor, who was two weeks out from fighting fellow prospect Max Holloway. Weigh-ins were still the night before the fight, before-and-after United States Anti-Doping Agency memes had not yet come into existence and the UFC was still in the firm clutches of Zuffa.
When Jung returns, the sport will be a completely different place. Yet unlike most prolonged absences, his three and a half years away from the sport had little to do with injury. Rather, it was the result of a government policy that mandates all South Korean men serve in the military. This makes it hard to assess how he will look upon his return.
Inactivity in general rarely benefits fighters. Ring rust is real. Fighting is not like riding a bike, where years without practice can be remembered in minutes. Professional mixed martial arts is a complex intersection of physical skills and psychological readiness, less like riding a bike and more akin to riding a unicycle on a tightrope suspended 20 feet above hot coals. It’s much easier to be prepared for the mental and athletic demands of fighting when it has been months -- not years -- since you last did it. Those who buck the grip of ring rust, like Dominick Cruz, are the exceptions.
“The Korean Zombie” may very well be an exception himself, though. For starters, the time away has allowed him to rehabilitate a shoulder injury -- the same one that ultimately ended his last fight against Jose Aldo. In that way, his military service was a blessing in disguise. It’s not uncommon for fighters to rush back into competition prematurely after being sidelined by injuries, but Jung didn’t have that option. This may bode well for him, since Cruz also had plenty of time to rehabilitate his injuries before his triumphant return. Of course, rehab was not the only thing Jung was up to while serving in the military of a country that is technically still at war with its neighbor. Some cultural and historical context is important to understand here.
In general, the modern history of Korea is a military history, underpinned by the constant threat of violence from outside and within. It has been at odds with larger, more powerful Asian rivals for over a century. Shortly after the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945, it was written into the constitution that all Korean citizens were required to serve in the military. As a result of the Cold War, Korea was divided in two and hosted a proxy war for the U.S.-Soviet conflict when the North invaded in 1950. Even after most of the dust had settled from the Korean War, the country’s first president, Park Chung Hee, took control of South Korea through a military coup, serving for 16 years as a dictator who both violently suppressed political opponents and led the nation’s rapid economic development. Before he was assassinated, he changed the military conscription law to only apply to males aged 18-35, and it has more or less remained the same since then.
All this to say that military service in South Korea is no joke. Militarism, in one form or another, is stitched into modern Korean culture; the generations that lived through the Korean War and the coup d’état are still alive. For most citizens, military service means hard, long days of work underneath an ever-present, hurry-up-and-wait stress of potential conflict with the North. It is an understood necessity but a miserable experience nonetheless.
However, this reality did not apply to Jung. Instead of life in the barracks with most soldiers, he worked a cushy gig doing “maintenance work” at a sports facility in Seocho-gu, an upper-class area of Gangnam known as a hotspot for elderly people and mothers to take aqua-aerobics classes. His workday ended at 2 p.m. While he did have some duties to help promote government-sponsored athletic and cultural events, he was generally free to train and teach at his TKZMMA school, as well as attend local MMA promotions to either corner his fighters or watch from the VIP tables.
This is not a surprise. Athletes tend to get special treatment in the military. They are among the few who have the ability to earn exemption from their duties. In theory, only athletes who win Olympic medals or Asian Game gold medalists are exempt, though there have been plenty of exceptions for teams and players who have brought national pride to Korea. Jung is not quite on that level, though it would have been interesting to see what would have happened had he won UFC gold in 2013. Still, he is popular enough to get softball treatment in the military. For fans of “The Korean Zombie,” this is a good thing.
Ultimately, we will only see if his time away from competition was a benefit or a detriment on fight night. Not surprisingly, the man himself has said that these last three and a half years have been good for him. His shoulder is healthier than ever; he has been able to sharpen his mind for the fight game through coaching and cornering; and he has been able to train without shaving years off his career through grueling fight camps. Plus, he’s only 29 years old, still in his athletic prime. There is indeed a lot of upside to his service, at least as far as talking points are concerned.
Yet the fact remains that he is returning against a top 10 opponent after a long, long layoff to a featherweight landscape that is dramatically different. To say the odds are against him is an understatement. Still, if there is a way to spend 1,281 days off from fighting and come back better for it, this is probably it.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.