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Losses are typically more educational experiences than wins. If you win a fight, it may be because you fought well or because your opponent didn’t, though usually it’s some combination of the two. If you win because you fought well, there isn’t a whole lot to learn from that; it’s just a single display of skills and strategy against a single opponent on a single night. With some obvious exceptions, it’s hard to extrapolate much from that other than “keep doing what you’re doing.” Yet if you lose, even if your opponent excelled, there’s always something to learn, some nugget of insight to apply and improve upon for the next time.
Chan Sung Jung’s win against Renato Carneiro at UFC Fight Night 154 on Saturday in South Carolina was especially unenlightening. He didn’t just win; he won in under a minute, absorbing exactly zero strikes in the process. On top of that, it was only his third fight in the last six years, as he was sidelined with injuries and compulsory military service. In an increasingly competitive 145-pound division, it’s hard to figure out where “The Korean Zombie” fits. Blitzing “Moicano” in 58 seconds, impressive as it was, doesn’t make it any easier to know where he stacks up in the Jenga tower of the featherweight hierarchy. Losses, however, hold more secrets, and Jung’s four big-league Ls say a lot.
His first World Extreme Cagefighting fight was his first WEC loss, a 2010 bout against Leonard Garcia which holds the dubious distinction of being shortlisted for both “Fight of the Year” and “Robbery of the Year.” It was a drunken hookup of a fight, wild and sloppy and fun because of it. All three Sherdog judges scored it as a clean sweep for Jung, but two of the judges who actually matter inexplicably awarded the split decision to Garcia. Though Jung did everything he needed to win, the lesson was clear: The nonstop forward movement and power punching that had the Sacramento, California, crowd chanting “KO-RE-A” also muddied the waters enough to let judges mess it up.
As is the case with most bad decisions, the real robbery faded into the official loss, and the lingering memory of Jung -- that he fights like a maniac, to the delight of fans but to his own detriment -- set the tone for how he was perceived. In his next fight against George Roop, commentator Stephan Bonnar said Jung was “more of an entertainer. He’s not so much concerned with winning. He wants to put on a show, which may not be the best thing for your record, but boy it makes the fans happy.” That turned out to be prophetic: Jung fought sloppy and got knocked out in exciting fashion, helping his opponent walk home with the $10,000 “Knockout of the Night” bonus.
After the WEC was absorbed into the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Jung reeled off three consecutive “Performance of the Night” finishes -- including a rematch with Garcia -- and landed in the cage for Jose Aldo’s seventh title defense. Even with a visibly more refined game, Jung was simply outclassed by the champion, left flat-footed and frozen at range by Aldo’s power, speed and crisp counters. Jung was more patient and technical than he had ever been, but he wasn’t able to make the right adjustments, though few who have ever faced Aldo were. Even if he hadn’t injured his shoulder, “The Korean Zombie” was well on his way to losing a lopsided decision.
Between injuries and military service, it would be nearly four years until Jung returned to the Octagon. Another first-round knockout and “Performance of the Night” bonus earned him another headlining spot against up-and-comer Yair Rodriguez. Jung won the first 24:59, then lost the fight. The last-second homerun elbow can’t be called a fluke exactly. It was thrown deliberately, and the technique, confidence and composure it takes to attempt and land that kind of strike at that stage in the fight should not be dismissed as luck; but it did feel a little lucky, right? Had Jung simply disengaged and waited out the clock, he would have won the fight on all scorecards, even if backpedaling for the last 10 seconds would have lost him the round. You don’t earn the nickname of “The Korean Zombie” by waiting out the clock, though.
So what do these four losses say about Jung? That he’s evolved, and in a satisfying and sensible way, no less. It’s satisfying because he hasn’t really compromised his core game: forward pressure, power combos and internecine exchanges. That style of fighting was what made him a fan favorite, of course, but it also led to success more often than defeat, and half of his defeats have a bit of an asterisk by them. He didn’t forget what got him to the dance; he refined it. He’s still durable and wades forward through light drizzles and heavy hailstorms alike, but he’s a little less Drunken Master now, with sharper timing and cleaner punches. He hasn’t mitigated his recklessness so much as leash it, releasing slack when opportunities arise, even if they come in the opening moments of the fight. He has become a better version of himself, which is saying a lot.
The featherweight division is stacked. There’s no guarantee that Jung will be able to get through the top of the weight class and get another shot at the title, let alone win it. However, never doubt someone who makes steady, incremental improvements; they’re the ones who come closest to reaching their potential. Jung is becoming who he’s meant to be as a fighter, and considering who he used to be, it should be a hell of a show.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.