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The last time Doo Ho Choi walked into the Octagon was 13 months ago against Cub Swanson. A lot of hype was behind him. He was on a 12-fight winning streak, 10 of which were knockouts. He was 3-0 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and all three of his wins were first-round knockouts. Even though he was ranked 11th in the official UFC rankings and Swanson was fourth, Choi was still the favorite. Choi was a promising prospect, an exciting fighter from a region ripe with potential. Swanson was a fairly known commodity who increasingly fit the bill as a featherweight gatekeeper, boasting the most wins in World Extreme Cagefighting-UFC featherweight history but having suffered losses to the division’s elite more often than the opposite. An exciting standup affair was expected, and it looked as if a memorable win against a top-five opponent was in the cards for “The Korean Superboy.” All the stars were aligned for a coming-out party. The fight was indeed spectacular, but the result was not what was expected: Choi lost a competitive decision in one of the year’s best fights.
Choi returns in the UFC Fight Night 124 main event against Jeremy Stephens on Sunday in St. Louis. The specifics have changed, but the general idea is the same. Stephens is ranked higher at No. 9, but the 13th-ranked Choi is the favorite, albeit with narrower odds. Stephens is looking more and more like a tough gatekeeper to weed out the weak from jumping in the deep-end of the division, and the style matchup of two heavy-hitting standup specialists should result in an exciting fight. Especially since the Swanson loss did little to derail his hype, the stars have once again aligned for Choi to make a jump to the next level.
Regardless of the outcome, however, Choi faces an even larger, more insurmountable foe on the horizon: compulsory military service in the South Korean army.
In a recent interview with MMAJunkie.com, Choi said he will fight throughout 2018 before he goes into the military. This is unavoidable in a country with significant militarism undergirding its society. Since 1900, South Korea underwent 40 years of foreign occupation (though it should be noted the peninsula was not divided into two countries then), three military coups, 24 years of military dictatorship, several assassination attempts on heads of state -- some successful, some not -- and democratic protests that were met with government violence; and it has also been at war for nearly 70 years with a bordering nation. Even if he gets softball treatment like fellow featherweight Chan Sung Jung did, which is very likely, Choi’s time in the military will still eat up two years of his career.
That’s why it was odd for Choi to say that he wanted a title shot this year before he goes into the military. If he does find himself in title contention in 2018, the best-case scenario is that he becomes champion and then gets stripped due to a two-year absence. What would be the point?
I have a few theories about this. The simplest one is that the calculus is still ultimately worth it for him: Better to be stripped of a title then come back to reclaim it after his military service than to never have the title at all. This would ensure that he receives an immediate title shot, too, which is valuable in a division as competitive and talented as featherweight.
There may also be a subtle gambit at play here. Should Choi win a title this year -- which would almost certainly require a win against Stephens and another high-profile victory before getting a title shot in the first place -- he would have leverage to get out of military service altogether. It would be unprecedented in South Korean history, but there is definitely an argument to be made for it.
It has been tricky to find any hard rules about military exemption, and for good reason; if there was concrete criteria to get out of conscription, there would be a lot more people shooting for that criteria. Conscription, while understood and accepted, is still a miserable time for Koreans, often approached with dread and resignation. However, for decades the government has exempted citizens who have brought acclaim to their country. On both sides of the Demilitarized Zone, a strong ethno-nationalism pervades society, so if individuals can do more for Korea outside the military than serving within it, then the government supports them.
Historically, only Olympic medal-winners were eligible, which quickly expanded to include gold medalists at Asian Games. Yet there have been instances where new precedents have been set. The South Korean men’s national soccer team made it to the semifinals of the World Cup in 2002, and then-President Kim Dae-jung granted the team an exemption -- before the tournament was over. It went on to finish in fourth place. Similarly, in 2006, the national baseball team advanced to the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic and was given an exemption by then-President Roh Moo-hyun. The team finished in third place.
Here’s the rub: In all cases of military exemption, the athletes have been participating in international contests. The UFC pulls talent from all over the world, but it is still seen as an American league. Choi has an argument to make, though. Not only is there legitimacy to the claim that the UFC is an international contest of sorts, but the sport of MMA is growing in South Korea. Organizations like Top Fighting Championship and Road Fighting Championship are among the most talent-heavy and well-respected regional promotions in the world, and professional fighters are gaining in widespread renown and popularity. Choi himself is not at all famous among the general sports-watching populace, and MMA is still not nearly as popular as baseball, soccer, e-sports or even basketball or volleyball, but both are trending upwards. Plus, there are two X-factors: In both the World Baseball Classic and World Cup instances, there was a general fever in the country surrounding their success, and both teams were given exemptions by liberal presidents (note: the conservative-liberal dichotomy is very different in Korea, so this is not any sort of jab at American politics). If Choi is able to make it past Stephens and then, say, win a high-profile fight at another UFC event in Seoul, he may be able to translate that into a similar sort of national fever. It won’t be as large as the others, of course, but in a burgeoning market, he may be able to convince current President Moon Jae-in -- a liberal president who worked in president Roh’s administration and is ideologically aligned with both the aforementioned leaders -- that he could do more for the country as a UFC champion than as another dude in a military office somewhere.
Of course, it’s impossible to know the intentions of someone else, and often the simplest solution is the best. Whatever Choi has planned, though, it is worth pursuing military exemption at the end of this year. It’s unlikely, but stranger things have happened.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.