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It’s safe to say that the Doo Ho Choi hype train has been derailed, at least for now. After a promising 3-0 start in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, “The Korean Superboy” has dropped two consecutive fights, and with his compulsory military service hanging on the horizon, the future is looking more uncertain than ever.
Luckily, even with the impending two-year absence, the 26 year-old still has a lot of future ahead of him. If there’s any silver lining to his losses to Cub Swanson and Jeremy Stephens, it’s that both of them are much more experienced. That experience matters. Choi was barely a teenager when Swanson made his 2004 professional debut, and Stephens debuted only six months after that. Stephens was 17-5 with seven UFC fights under his belt by the time Choi got paid to fight. That’s a huge head start. There is no substitute for the confidence and grit earned through time in the cage. Prior to his UFC Fight Night 124 appearance on Sunday in St. Louis, Choi hadn’t even been in the Octagon for more than 20 minutes.
It was still a winnable fight, too. Choi was not technically or athletically outmatched. He won the first round, landing more strikes while throwing less and causing Stephens to whiff on the majority of his shots. Choi was not ruined by the war he went through with Swanson a little more than a year ago, a strange sentiment that popped up immediately after the fight. Stephens is a powerful puncher and landed several big shots before putting Choi on the canvas. Stephens was patient and sucked Choi into his range, while the latter abandoned a successful strategy. Unless you believe the war with Swanson affected Choi’s decision making and fight IQ, it’s safe to rule out any lingering effects from December 2016.
Stephens’ patience and Choi’s impatience is the difference between hours inside the Octagon and mere minutes. That’s why Choi needs to slow down for now. He was -- and still is -- capable of crushing fellow prospects, but twice in a row now he has been thrown into the deep end. That’s not a bad thing, per se. Had he won those fights, as he was favored to do, he would be an emerging star knocking on the door to a title shot. What these losses have shown us, however, is that while he’s not quite ready to crash the top-tier at 145 pounds, he will almost certainly get there. It’s worthwhile to build him slowly until then.
UFC Fight Night 124 showed how the Ultimate Fighting Championship is in a tricky spot when it comes to building stars right now. Of course, it can’t simply make anyone a star on its own; otherwise, Paige VanZant would be among the biggest draws in the sport. Winning alone also does not make you a star, as Kamaru Usman, winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 21” and owner of the longest active welterweight winning streak, can attest. When it comes to trash talk, Stephens can tell you that it’s not exactly a guaranteed path to stardom, either.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent how rare it is to stumble into a Conor McGregor or Ronda Rousey. While they were actively fighting, it was easy to take for granted just how rare both of them were, let alone to have both headlining pay-per-views at the same time. They were, in many ways, self-made stars. They won big fights in GIF-able ways; they were entertaining and charismatic in interviews and at press conferences; and they both tapped into unique demographics that otherwise didn’t tune in to other UFC events. It’s also worth noting that they both speak English as their native language.
This is not an easy combination of traits and performances to replicate, which is why it’s so bizarre that UFC President Dana White, who surely has enough business acumen to understand how special those two are, continues to insist that fighters should make themselves into stars. If fighters are winning fights and doing their best to sell themselves in front of whatever cameras are around, there’s not a whole lot more they can do. The rest is up to the promoter to, you know, promote. This is especially hard for international fighters like Choi, who can be used to tap into unique regional markets but are often left in the cold when it comes to their ability to connect with North American audiences.
The idea of being and building stars is particularly important at this juncture of the UFC. A recent MMAFighting.com report showed that people did not tune in last year like they have in the past. The UFC needs stars, because fans flock to them. Gone are the days when the UFC brand was enough to carry audiences in droves. People connect with people, not promoters, and the lack of bankable stars is becoming a legitimate crisis for Endeavor.
That brings us back to Choi. He has many of the ingredients to become a star -- probably not on the level of the biggest stars ever but a star nonetheless. Hopefully Choi, his camp and the UFC matchmakers realize how to cash in on that potential and book appropriate matches for the remainder of the year. After a two-year absence for his military service, a comeback story could be just the thing to catapult him back into the spotlight. Hopefully by then he will be ready for 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.