UFC Fight Night: Brian Ortega seeks fresh start as The Korean Zombie returns to old ways
The fight fans have been waiting almost a year to see will finally go down this weekend on BT Sport as two former world title challengers collide when Brian Ortega faces The Korean Zombie on Fight Island.
If Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Tony Ferguson is the UFC’s undisputed cursed match-up, Brian Ortega vs The Korean Zombie is a worthy interim champion.
It was September 2019 when the UFC first announced the two lightweight contenders would face one another in a mouth-watering main event set to take place in Seoul, South Korea.
But disaster struck just a couple of weeks out from the fight when Ortega suffered a serious knee injury, a partial tear of the ACL in his knee, that required his withdrawal and a spell of three months on the sidelines.
In his place, Zombie – real name Chan Sung Jung - made light work of veteran replacement Frankie Edgar, stopping the New Jersey native inside the first round just as Ortega had done in March 2018.
With UFC boss Dana White set on fulfilling the match-up in the New Year, Zombie and Ortega crossed into 2020 waiting on news of the Mexican-American's return to action before a rescheduled date could be agreed.
In the meantime, Zombie joined MMA scribe Ariel Helwani’s podcast alongside Korean celebrity Jay Park, acting as Zombie’s stand-in translator, blasting Ortega for his no-show back in December.
“It doesn’t matter [if it’s Max] Holloway, [Alexander] Volkanovski, or Ortega,” Jung told ESPN in February when asked who his next opponent might be.
“But Ortega already ducked [me] once. [I] don’t need to fight a fighter that’s already ducked [me] one time.”
It’s safe to say the barb did not land well with Ortega, who unleashed his frustrations on the pair during an altercation at UFC 248, slapping Zombie’s translator Park in the face.
The feud made waves across the MMA landscape, focusing minds in the UFC hierarchy to get the fight on sometime during the spring.
I now realize that trash talking only puts me in stressful situations and I no longer want to participate in it
- The Korean Zombie
However, only weeks later, the coronavirus crisis erupted across the globe, burying plans to settle scores between the two men until the news broke in August that a new date had been confirmed.
With the benefit of some breathing space during the global lockdown, Zombie emerged from his hiatus regretful about the manner in which he had tried to provoke Ortega some months earlier.
Speaking to CBS’ Brian Campbell, the 33-year-old apologised for the outburst which he claimed was out of character of his normal behaviour.
"The reason why I talked about Brian Ortega running away from me during Ariel Helwani's podcast was because I thought my fans would enjoy the trash talking," he said.
"I now realize that trash talking only puts me in stressful situations and I no longer want to participate in it."
Well-versed in the art of violence, Zombie’s fights have done the talking for him over the course of a career that has seen him become a fan favourite to the hard core MMA spectator – an achievement he credits to his alter ego.
"This may sound a bit funny, but whenever I get into the ring, I try to forget that I'm Chan Sung and repeatedly remind myself that I am 'The Korean Zombie' instead.
"Chan Sung is just an average guy. But when it's time to get down to business, I transform into 'The Korean Zombie'. That's why I'm so comfortable once I get in the ring."
Of his contemporaries in the promotion today, only the likes of Dustin Poirier, Tony Ferguson or Justin Gaethje could be considered worthy rivals to his claim as one of the most all-action fighters in the UFC.
"Their fights are very entertaining, and they do an excellent job at grabbing the attention of even the people that know nothing about MMA," he added.
"I consider those guys to be real professional fighters. It will be an honour if people viewed me the same way one day."
If humility is the theme for a Korean Zombie heading into this fight keen to return to the methods that have brought him much success, Ortega’s mind set could not be more of a contrast.
When the 29-year-old makes his Octagon walk on Saturday night, it will be nearing two years since he last fought, losing to Max Holloway on his maiden attempt at the 145lb belt.
Since that night, ‘T-City’ believes he has undergone something of a personal transformation, changing camps, changing manager, changing his medical team and ‘reprogramming’ his mind.
Only revered jiu-jitsu coach Rener Gracie remains of those who played a role in his meteoric rise through the lightweight landscape – but the Brazilian won’t be permitted to be in Ortega’s corner this weekend after testing positive for Covid-19.
In a conversation with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto, Ortega explained his reasoning for revolutionising his environment over the past 24 months.
I've fallen in love with learning again
- Brian Ortega
“[I’ve fallen] in love with learning things again,” he said.
“I got so used to having the same striking and jiu-jitsu and I was so good at it that it felt like it was Groundhog Day. Everything on repeat. Now I’m falling in love with martial arts again, I’m learning things and I’m failing it and I’m like ‘f***, I gotta get better at it’ – and then I land it and it’s dope. That [feeling] came back into my life.
“I was craving information. I was like, this can’t be it. There has to be more...”
With so much time to dwell on his fight against Max Holloway at UFC 231, how does the Los Angeles native now view his performance?
“I got technically picked apart,” Ortega added.
“And it was like okay cool, this is what I’ve been telling you guys I needed. To be more technical. I’ve got the heart, I’ve got the chin, I have all that. Give me more technique besides jiu-jitsu.”
For all the talk of demonstrating his new array of skills, Ortega knows winning must be the first priority on his long-awaited return this weekend.
But the number two ranked featherweight wishes to leave a lasting impression on those tuning in to watch when he finally graces the Octagon once again.
“That’s my goal, for everyone to say ‘that’s a completely different fighter’,” he said. “That takes a hard time because I had a lot of years bad habits.
“So these last two years has basically been reprogramming myself not to do the things that I like to do. That’s the test for me.
“I really wanted change, I really wanted growth. I got it. Now I have to follow the steps.”
Watch Brian Ortega vs The Korean Zombie exclusively live on BT Sport 2 HD from 10pm on Saturday night.