Sometimes, even after 25 years, this sport still comes up with completely new surprises. Sometimes, historic events have a way of living up to the hype. UFC 189, the arrival party of the rising Conor McGregor and the greatest UFC card of all time, featured the classic bloody battle between McDonald vs. Lawler 2 in the co-main event. (McGregor has had incredible luck- UFC 196, 202, 205 and 229 were all wildly entertaining) UFC 100 featured Dan Henderson’s classic knockout of Michael Bisping, probably the most iconic moment of Henderson’s UFC career. The last WEC round of the last WEC fight of the last WEC event ever, featured a five-round classic between Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis, capped off with Pettis’ infamous Showtime Kick off the cage for all the marbles.
The UFC’s 25th anniversary main event between the Korean Zombie, Chan Sung Jung, and El Pantera, Yair Rodriguez, was such a historic moment.
It was always a fascinating clash of styles, a perfect showcase for the cross-cultural violence that built the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Both men are known for excitement and originality; Chan Sung Jung owns what is still the only twister submission in UFC history, and his battles with Dustin Poirier and Leonard Garcia are legendary contributions to the annals of fighting history. Yair Rodriguez lands kicks no one else even attempts in the Octagon- I’m not even sure they all have names. This wasn’t supposed to be the main event, but Frankie Edgar had gotten injured. The gods of war had other plans, and Yair stepped up on short notice for a five-round fight at altitude.
It became clear early on that this fight would live up to the hype. The Korean Zombie was blitzing in, landing big rights and lefts, and Yair was countering with lightning-fast kicks that looked like they could take his head off. He was also landing crippling low kicks, but those went away after the first few minutes. After the fight, he revealed to Rogan that he had injured his foot on one of them in the first round, joining Jose Aldo on a list of fighters who have hurt themselves kicking the Korean Zombie.
In the second round, Chan Sung Jung got his jab going, and seemed to be getting a bead on Rodriguez. He used it to measure for his big right hand, and broke the rhythm with wild blitzes. He ended the second round with such a blitz, an exchange so quick you might have missed the back elbow Yair landed in the exchange. That will be important later.
In the third round, blood was flowing, and both men were tired. This fight was at altitude, in Denver, making it a feat of endurance to fight five rounds at all, much less five rounds at the pace these two were keeping. Yair’s body kicks looked like they were taking their toll, but the Korean Zombie was living up to his name and no-selling them as he always does. He was landing heavy punches of his own. He caught a headkick, then somehow ate two punches as Yair recovered his balance. The third round also ended with a wild exchange that saw Rodriguez try a rolling thunder, eat a hook for his troubles, then improvise a spinning backfist that missed as the Korean Zombie swung wildly.
In the fourth round, the Korean Zombie sent Yair staggering backwards with a huge right hand. He was taking over this fight in the championship rounds, despite Yair’s game approach. Yair’s creativity was bringing out the best in Chan Sung Jung; there kept being little moments of creativity that were utterly fascinating. Yair tried an Iminari roll but bailed quickly after Sung Jung eagerly engaged in the grappling. The scorecards showed that Jung was ahead, 39-36, on two of the three scorecards headed into the fifth round.
The fifth round saw more of the creative destruction, but also the jovial camaraderie that has been characteristic of many UFC fights over the past 25 years. Sometimes, in fights that seem lackluster, it can be frustrating to watch fighters congratulate each other; in fights like this, it only adds to the experience. Some fans like to see acrimony, but some of the best moments in fighting history come when two men go from beating the shit out of each other, to grinning from the sheer joy of expressing themselves through consensual violence, then right back to beating the shit out of each other. Donald Cerrone, who broke the UFC win and finish record in the co-main event, is known for this habit. Two men or women often earn each other’s respect in the cage after throwing down. This was that kind of fight. Jung and Rodriguez embraced at the start of the round, then had a bizarre moment midway through where they each turned to the crowd and smiled. Even for those used to seeing the odd glove touch here and there, it was an odd break of the fourth wall, an armistice for a moment of mutual appreciation for each other and the enthusiastic crowd. When the battle resumed, Yair landed a clean head kick; Chan Sung Jung hit him with a hard right hand. They paused again for a moment of mutual congratulation with ten seconds to go, then went all out for the finish. Chan Sung Jung leaped in with one last signature blitz, but it was his undoing. Yair bent at the waist, moving backwards, and as he ducked under Jung’s wild swings, he threw his elbow up over his own back. It landed flush on Jung’s jaw, and he faceplanted forward. He had no sooner hit the ground that the horn sounded to end the fight. Rodriguez had landed a knockout at the very last second of the fight, 4:59.
It was, in many ways, the perfect end, though a gut-wrenching one for Chan Sung Jung. Sometimes the best stories are tragedies. Just like Rory Macdonald at UFC 189, Jung was winning the fight, right up until he wasn’t. The finish was totally original- in my years as a fan and of catching the most obscure finishes from combat sports for Midnight Mania, I have never seen anything quite like it — 25 years in, and we are still seeing new things in MMA. It might not even be the weirdest knockout this year (remember Niko Price’s hammerfists from the bottom?) but when you combine the timing and placement with the sheer creativity needed to even think of throwing that shot — so quick that some thought it was accidental — this one might just be the greatest knockout of all time.
Chan Sung Jung and Yair Rodriguez are what make this sport great- fighters who put their health at risk to try to hurt each other in the most creative, original, and exciting ways they can think of. Sometimes they pay for it with their consciousness. Sometimes they win it all at the last second. For all time, they are legends.