There was nothing in 2010 about Chan-Sung Jung, best known to mixed martial arts fans as "The Korean Zombie," that suggested he'd ever even have a remote chance of winning a UFC title one day, let alone beat one of the sport's all-time greats to do it.
But here it is, a little more than three years later, and that skinny kid with the sly smile will be locked inside a cage with Jose Aldo at UFC 163 on Saturday in Brazil, with a real chance of leaving with the featherweight belt slung across his shoulders.
No less an authority than UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre gives the Zombie a shot to defeat Aldo and take home the belt. Aldo, St-Pierre said, is rightfully the favorite, but St-Pierre also said it would be unwise to overlook the Zombie.
"I do, I do believe that he has a chance to win," St-Pierre said the other day in Las Vegas during the first stop on the UFC World Tour. "Look what he did to Mark Hominick; nobody would have expected that. Look at what happened to [former middleweight champion] Anderson Silva. You never know what can happen."
The Zombie debuted with Zuffa at WEC 48 when he met Leonard Garcia in what turned out to be possibly the greatest top-to-bottom fight card in the World Extreme Cagefighting organization's brief but glorious history.
He lost a split decision to Garcia in an unreal slugfest that was reminiscent of a bar brawl in a badly done Spaghetti Western.
Garcia, who was dropped by the UFC shortly after suffering his fifth consecutive loss at UFC 159 earlier this year, was a tough guy and an entertaining fighter, but was never a real title threat.
That the Zombie didn't beat him didn't speak well for his prospects of success in the loaded featherweight division.
He followed the hotly disputed split-decision loss to Garcia with a loss to George Roop. That gave him back-to-back defeats and losses in three of his last four.
But in a remarkably short period of time, the Zombie almost completely overhauled his game. He tightened his boxing, improved his ground game and in the span of a few months, built himself into a world-class featherweight.
"He's so much more technical than he used to be," former UFC fighter Kenny Florian told Yahoo! Sports. "He got caught against Leonard fighting Leonard's fight and, frankly, it was a sloppy fight. It was extremely exciting, but very sloppy. But he's like a different fighter now. He's really cleaned up his striking.
"He's throwing shorter punches. He's way more technical now. His hands are up and his chin is down. He's made huge improvements in that department, but he still has that power and he can still knock you out."
Even when the Zombie wasn't at the top of his game in his first bout against Garcia, he showed two attributes that will undoubtedly be important for him against Aldo: an ability to absorb amazing amounts of punishment and incredible stamina.
His best chance to win the fight, it would seem, would be on the ground, but getting the fight there will be a major challenge for him. Aldo has an incredibly good takedown defense and pops up quickly on the few times he's on the ground.
If it's a standup fight and the Zombie needs to use his power to get Aldo to the floor, he has to be able to withstand the power of Aldo's leg kicks.
Nobody, not even Edson Barboza, who put on a devastating kicking display last month against Rafaello Oliveira at UFC 162, has more powerful kicks than Aldo.
"That's a tricky thing," Florian said. "I can tell you from having fought Jose, he has unbelievable kicks. I've never felt anything like it. And when he catches you with one, it's like a body shot. If he hits you right, you just can't move."
Jung is well aware of Aldo's numerous strengths, but he's typically unconcerned. He's as relaxed in the cage as anyone.
He believes desire will be a big factor in the outcome.
"Aldo has fought the best of the best and beaten them all," he said. "We have seen that having great technique is not enough to defeat him. He is too good for that. You have to make the fight about more than technique. You have to make it about who has the strongest mind and which warrior wants it more.
"My strength in the Octagon is that I will push my opponents all the way. I break them in their hearts and minds. People think Aldo is stronger standing, [but] I see it differently. He also had weaknesses on the ground which I can take advantage of."
The Zombie is on a three-fight win streak, but he conceded he was surprised to be in a title fight. After a stirring victory over Dustin Poirier last year, he became the division's top contender, but he then needed rotator cuff surgery.
He was supposed to return last month against Ricardo Lamas, but when Anthony Pettis pulled out of his fight with Aldo, UFC president Dana White chose the Zombie to replace him.
When he heard the news from manager Brian Rhee, he was half-thinking it was a prank.
"At first, I was really in disbelief about it, and so until Dana White actually announced that I was going to be in the fight, I actually didn't really even believe it," he said. "But it was true [and] the excitement lasted quite a while.
"To be honest with you, I thought that Lamas would have been the first choice as well. But I'm happy to have been chosen. I think maybe what made the difference was the stylistic differences and I think that this fight is guaranteed to be an exciting fight. And that's probably one of the big reasons why they chose me to go over Lamas."
Aldo has been a terrific champion inside the cage, but hasn't become extraordinarily popular outside his native Brazil. He has resisted attempts to learn English and is very stoic in his public appearances, making it difficult for fans to get to know him.
The Zombie doesn't speak English either, but he has a way of communicating with his body language that has already caught on.
A Zombie title reign would also have the added benefit of the spur of impacting Asia.
"More than anything else, I think a [Zombie] win would do amazing things for MMA in Asia," Florian said. "This would be an historic win for, of course, Korea, but it would be significant for the sport in all of Asia. He'd go down as a major hero.
"In my eyes, Aldo is a special athlete and one of the top three pound-for-pound guys in the world. For the Zombie to go out there and beat him, that would be a huge boost for the sport in Asia."
The most amazing thing, though, is that it will show that, in MMA, anything is possible. Jung was 0-2 and looking nothing like a title contender in 2010. In 2013, there is a very real possibility that the sport is about to enter the Zombie Era.
If that message doesn't bring droves of great athletes to the sport, nothing probably will.
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- Sports & Recreation
- Martial Arts
- Leonard Garcia
- The Korean Zombie
- Jose Aldo