“The Korean Zombie” vs. Yair Rodriguez headlines UFC Denver this November 10, 2018 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado.
One sentence summary
David: Zombies vs. Ninjas: Directed by John Woo
Phil: High-octane martial arts reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s finest work (don’t @ me LotR nerds)
Record: Chan Sung Jung 14-4 | Yair Rodriguez 10-2
Odds: Chan Sung Jung -102 | Yair Rodriguez -108
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: I still feel like we’ve been robbed of as much Korean Zombie action as we deserve. But hey, he was too busy doing civic stuff like actively practicing democracy. I expected something close to ring rust given his four-year hiatus, but instead he came back and just cracked open Dennis Bermudez inside of round 1. I don’t have much to say here. It’s good to have the Zombie back.
Phil: Going all the way back to his Aldo loss (which was only, uh, two fights ago), where his shoulder dislocated itself, I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised to see bits falling off someone who names himself after the undead? I still feel like we don’t really know who we have in the cage there: a crafty veteran? A brutal brawler? How physically intact is he? They’re all somewhat open questions, but the answers should be fun to find out.
David: Yair Rodriguez might be my favorite fighter to watch right now. But it was tough seeing him get predictably flattened and tooled by Frankie Edgar. The fight was a little too much too soon, but you hope it’s the kind of fight a prospect takes to heart and grows from. In truth, I question Yair’s ceiling. Not because he’s not good enough, but because the thing that makes him unique and effective are also the things he can’t get away with at the higher levels. Is there a way to retain his unique brand of Van Damme-level violence while polishing up his flaws? Can he ditch the Donnie Yen flashcards and remain just as effective? Is there a balance? Or must he accept a live-by-die-by sword dilemma? I have no clue. But I’ll keep watching.
Phil: What if Anthony Pettis, but more? This seemed to be the idea behind the creation of Yair Rodriguez. Pettis at the least has tended to have a few basic strikes to live one, like the one-two, the round kick to the body. What if you had someone who was even more physically explosive? What if they were even more insanely unstructured? What if they were just a consistent tornado of incredibly impressive weird shit? What then?
What’s at stake?
David: It didn’t even occur to that this fight had stakes. This fight is setup to sub in for one of John Wick’s next fight scenes, so that’s what I’m here for.
Phil: Featherweight is reasonably open for a thrilling new contender to emerge – you don’t exactly get the impression that the brass is thrilled by the ideas of Renato Moicano or Jeremy Stephens fighting for the belt. I think the most likely thing that happens is that the winner gets booked in with the Volkanovski-Mendes or Bektic-Moicano winner, and frankly any one of those fights would be amazing.
Where do they want it?
David: I’ve always thought of Jung as a borderline ham and egger. He kind of plods along. He eats brutal shots. He moves forward. And for some reason, a katamari ball of skill blossoms out from the octagon soil whenever he’s on the ground, or pressuring his opponent with a submission. But if you ever wanted to dig deep into what makes Jung unique, rewatch his KO of Bermudez. It was telegraphed: he read Bermudez’ jab duck tic, and unloaded an uppercut through the roof of his mouth as soon as Bermudez through the next jab. He still does a lot of things you don’t think should work — lack of head movement, awkward punch mechanics, and slow footwork — but he’s such a unique forward presence, it’s hard to read his shifts in offense. His punches feel more Russian-influenced than “Korean”-influenced (who throw punches more like fastballs). He comes in wide with each hand, which can set up his clinch offense (where he’s quick to chamber knees) and transition attacks toward the ground. He doesn’t get enough credit for his versatility. It’s easy to judge him by his wikipedia (oh snap, a twister submission), but it’s impressive how quickly, and deftly he sets up otherwise routine submission like the d’arce he landed on Dustin Poirier.
Phil: KZ represented an archetype of Korean fighters that he’s oddly kind of grown out of, while behind him an entire generation (Hyun Gyu Lim, Kyung Ho Kwak) grew into his former image as huge, powerful, insanely aggressive fight-anywhere brawlers. Ever since the Hominick fight, though, I think we’ve seen a more cerebral Zombie. He realized that he had a knack for counterpunching, and it’s since become the cornerpiece of his game on the feet. Since then his fights have been more characterized by patience than they have been by the blood’n’guts brutality of his Garcia bouts. That’s not to say that they’re not violent, but he tends to stalk and sling rather than just march forward and believe in his near-unbreakable chin. I still remember being surprised at how tepid Jung allowed the Aldo fight to be. As mentioned, beyond that he’s still an incredible grappler, and this has perhaps always been the best part of his game. Poirier is an expert at head control and a fine scrambler, and Jung consistently beat him there handily.
David: Yair would be an anomaly in any division. It’s one thing to be flashy. But Yair is flashy, effective, typically bigger than his opponent, and has a ridiculous workrate. All that movement should be physically draining, but Yair’s so fluid, his attack is constant, and overwhelming. Unpredictably is a weapon onto itself, and Yair embodies that trait with violent aplomb. The advantage his attack has is simply the raw amount of space he’s able to cover. With his length and size, these eccentric attacks carry with them a different kind of weight — administering a sense of claustrophobia for opponents. Yair can be up in the rafters, and he’d still a threat to land some kind of Ken Masters attack. All of this would be moot if he didn’t have a ground game he feared being exploited. His game isn’t perfect. A lot of his attacks are, shall we say — superfluous. I think it was his bout with Andrew Fili who he double drop kicked with what we could charitably call ‘minimal success’ but it’s fun, it’s watchable, and I’d hate to see ever think there was a moment when a strike like that wasn’t worth trying.
Phil: There are fighters who are large for their divisions and there are fighters who are fast for their divisions, but it is rare that you get fighters who are both. Rodriguez is a tall, muscled featherweight who nonetheless zips around the cage like he’s a goddamn bantam. This seems like one of the major reasons why he’s had the success that he’s had: while his footwork is no-one’s idea of efficient, he simply covers too much space for most fighters to be confident that they’ve got a bead on him before a 720 tornado kick is ripping through the air towards their face. He’s a surprisingly accurate puncher while he’s warping backwards, albeit again, with the caveat that they do not tend to be beautiful, straight punches. Something which he shares with Korean Zombie past and present is that his grappling game is one of the most consistently functional parts of his approach: his footspeed often draws chasing opponents into a powerful counter double leg, and he’s a tremendous scrambler and submission grappler.
Insight from past fights
David: The thing with Jung is that his fights — whether old or recent — always concede a certain amount of space. He accepted that Bermudez would have space to land an overhand right, and he landed it. He accepted that Leonard Garcia, and Dustin Poirier would sift in combinations, and they did. If he accepts that Yair is free to switch kick his way to opportunity, those switch kicks will land. The question is whether Yair’s kicks will finish the fight before Jung’s pressure game (which tends to happen gradually rather than outright) takes over.
Phil: There isn’t much to take from these guy’s recent fights, seeing as they’ve tended to be one-sided or… not very recent? I will say that I thought Jung’s bout with Bermudez was encouraging: he tracked down Bermudez, pressured consistently, and threw in combination. He’ll need all of that to throw Rodriguez off his sprint and blitz game. That said, the Zombie has unsurprisingly never been the fleetest of foot, and if George Roop can pull you into a headkick then Yair Rodriguez probably can as well.
Phil: Weirdness abounds. Primarily, how do both men look after their long layoffs? Rodriguez is at the point in his career that you’d expect to see improvements, but I’m not sure that he’s making them? Kicking a Monster energy can off Tiki Ghosn’s head is pretty cool tho, I guess.
David: A jumping double spinning heel kick: Yair Rodriguez, ladies and gentlemen.
David: On paper, this fight favors Jung. He’s more well rounded, dangerous on the ground, incredibly durable (which could offset some of Yair’s offense), and is good enough on the feet to simply beatdown Rodriguez in a rock ‘em sock ‘em punch-off. The thing that keeps me away from picking Jung is a mechanical one: Yair’s switch kicks, rolling thunders, and jumping double spinning heel kicks are just physically hard to counter. Countering Yair on the feet is like figuring out which gaskets do or do not survive in the cold. Jung seems like a smart guy, but he’s not a Cal Tech physicist, nor does he have the sturdy wrestling to outright exploit Rodriguez. I think it’s more likely that Yair cracks Jung with something, and Jung just isn’t able to recover. If he is, Yair will likely crack with something else. Who knows. Maybe that double drop kick works this time. Yair Rodriguez by KO, round 2.
Phil: Like the co-main, this does not feel particularly easy to figure out. Jung is not quick or a particularly natural pressure fighter. However, he does have a depth of skill which Rodriguez just doesn’t, and a knack for picking up hard counters on careless offense. His gas tank and relatively slow footspeed are points for concern, but if he’s able to broadly replicate the pressure-and-counter game he ran on Bermudez, I think he can wear the younger fighter down. Chan Sung Jung by submission, round 3.