Just the other day, Chael Sonnen went on one of his usual thought benders, and discussed the story of Georges St-Pierre, and what he learned about seeing a sports psychologist — about whether you can be good at something you hate. It’s a fun discussion. Plenty of fighters love to compete. Plenty of fighters just love to get paid. None of it is mutually inclusive in the context of violent efficiency. But this discussion of lovers versus haters leaves out another category: the fighter on display.
You know the type. Whether they love the sport or not is irrelevant. They’re usually talented at something thoroughly (or nominally) peripheral to mixed martial arts. Their presence is enough to put their fighting skills on display. Think about the pro wrestlers on display, like Brock Lesnar. They could be not too bad, like Bobby Lashley, or not too good, like C.M. Punk. Think about your Olympic wrestlers like Rulon Gardner. Or your grapplers, like Marcelo Garcia. These fighters normally lead shortlived careers. Sometimes they don’t: like Mariusz Pudzianowski, Satoshi Ishii, or China’s 300lb version of Nick Diaz, Aorigele.
They can be talented. They can be awful. Or they remain somewhat unknown. After all, these fighters are typically creatures of experimentation. They’re MMA’s story of Prometheus, but with Affliction shirts and bad tattoos. That’s the story of Jung Bu-Kyung. With a career record of 0-4, you might ask yourself how he can be anything other than a complete MMA failure. To show you how wrong you are, we have to go back to 2007.
Actually, let’s go back to 2000 instead. That’s when Jung Bu-Kyung won a Silver Medal in the Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Before there was Rhonda Rousey, there was a 5’7 Korean lightweight.
Now let’s get back to 2007. Remember: this was a weird time for MMA. We think of the UFC now as nearly synonymous with MMA, but in 2007, we thought of MMA distinctly as MMA: you could find the highest levels of competition in North America, and Japan. Even the European-based Cage Warriors helped foster names like Conor McGregor, Michael Bisping, Gegard Mousasi, and many others. 2007 was the year this was beginning to change. Like something out of an 80’s action film, Pride’s parent company, Dream Stage Entertainment, were rumored to have ties with the Yakuza. Those rumors happened in print, and those allegations forced Fuji TV to drop all Dream Stage Entertainment-related programming, which meant no more revenue, and ultimately, no more Pride.
Nine months had passed since Pride went under. It was for the best. The only thing Pride’s last card, ridiculously titled Kamikaze, did for fans was make them forget what made Pride special. Seriously. Go back and check that lineup.
Then Yarennoka happened. Although it wasn’t Pride, some of Pride’s former staff got together with the brains behind K-1, M-1, and DEEP to create a show in much closer keeping with what Pride used to represent. There were a lot of fun matchups, competitive matchups, and the usual Lambs to the Slaughter show. That’s what Shinya Aoki versus Jung Bu-Kyung was supposed to be.
Aoki already had wins over solid Shooto veterans in Akira Kikuchi, and Joachim Hansen. He’d go on to beat former and future world champions in Vitor Ribeiro, Caol Uno, Tatsuya Kawajiri, and Eddie Alvarez. Add in the fact that Aoki is a bit (?) of a psychopath in the ring, and you have to wonder what kind of Jeffrey Epstein flash drives Jung accidentally found in his possession.
When the fight began, it was Jung who went on the offensive. First off, scoring an armbar from guard is notoriously difficult in modern MMA. It’s a technique everyone knows how to defend. Not only does your movement have to be perfect, but you have to control the opponent’s posture. On top of all that, you have to be extremely fast. Execution, control, agility, speed — you have to have it all. Less than a minute in, Jung pulls guard. Postured in butterfly guard against one of MMA’s top submission experts, Jung hooks Aoki’s right elbow, twisting it against Aoki’s sternum to give himself space to move, and whips his left leg straight up in the air, letting his hips do the rest to lock in an armbar. As soon as Aoki tried to stand, Jung grabbed Aoki’s left leg with his free arm to restrict Aoki’s counter movement. Aoki got out, but what a move!
The fight being what it was, normally this is when the underdog has his moment, and eventually crumbles under the weight of experience. But Jung would catch Aoki again: this time flipping him over to threaten from the top. Aoki made a great move to rotate, and spin out just as Jung was starting to pull away for the full extension. Jung would follow that up with a stiff right hand that seemed to daze Aoki later in the first. Aoki’s experience would eventually take over using an endless stream of heel hook attempts, achilles locks, and illegal strikes. But it was a hell of a performance from Jung.
Under normal circumstances, an organization might look at that performance and think ‘well there’s potential there at least. Let’s feed him some chum, polish his existing skills, and foster areas of weakness to ultimately identify his ceiling.’
What do you think this is? A professional sport? Except for some of the early organizations in Japan, there’s never been anything akin to a professional draft in MMA. The Ultimate Fighter could, at least for a brief window, boast being a combination of raw entertainment with tools to help develop fighters. But that was a stretch then, and it’s certainly a stretch now.
Jung would not only get a follow up match, but he’d get his next fight on the massive stage of DREAM’s inaugural show. Again he’d be punished. Jung’s follow up match was to Mitsuhiro Ishida. On the same show that Jung lost to Aoki, Ishida beat one of the top lightweights in the world at the time in Gilbert Melendez. Jung predictably lost. His third fight would ask him to flex his well rounded muscles against DEEP veteran, Daisuke Nakamura; a fighter I’ll consider for this list, if just for the Tokoro battle alone. Again Jung would predictably lose. After that, he’d get matched up with a brilliant-looking striking prospect by the name of Katsunori Kikuno. And the story of Jung’s vicious matchmaking continued.
And that was that. Jung fought his last fight in 2009. Four fights. Four losses.
So what is all this? Was Jung Bu-kyung secretly a world champion if he only had the right direction? Of course not. There were a lot of flaws to Jung’s game. He seemed to fade in fights, and his striking left a lot to be desired.
What fascinates me about Jung’s story is that it follows the pattern of many MMA fighters: we never quite know if the sport is getting the most out of them. Combat sports are typically unforgiving to begin with, but few combat sports are like MMA, which takes pride in watching their young survive on an island. After all, Jung was never meant to be anything other than a fighter on display — a model on MMA’s runway. Eventually he decided that his future was more important than a convenient fistfight. Good for him. He just might go down as the greatest fighter to never win a fight. That’s genuinely nothing to be ashamed of. Especially when no one has your back.