Choi Doo-ho faces his moment of truth when he steps into the Octagon to face Cub Swanson at UFC 206.
The South Korean fighter hopes it will be the first of many such moments.
Quietly spoken but supremely confident, Choi sees the Swanson clash in Toronto on December 10 as just another step down a path to the world featherweight title he believes is his destiny.
“I know where I will end up in the end,” Choi tells ROUGH from his training camp in the port city of Busan.
“There seems to be some people who don’t believe me but when this fight is over, everyone will know my true worth.”
Since signing on to the UFC back in November 2013, the 25-year-old Choi has carved his way to a 3-0 record, having dispensed with Juan Manuel Puig, Sam Sicilia, and Thiago Tavares in succession – with a combined fight time of a breath over four minutes. Little wonder people call him The Korean Superboy.
After battering Tavares at The Ultimate Fighter finale in Las Vegas in July, with a right hand that often appears more like a sledgehammer, Choi’s overall record in MMA was pushed to 14-1 – with that one blemish (a split decision loss to Yusuke Kagiyama in his third fight) coming more than six years ago.
The hype has been building ever since, fuelled by Choi’s sheer all-round talent, by the UFC’s desire – make that need – to find world champion from Asia, and there’s has also been the matter of the man who had up until recently been lording it over the UFC featherweight world title.
No conversation with Choi can go without mention of Conor McGregor, just as pretty much no conversation about the sport can pass without time spent discussing the Irish whirlwind.
Choi admits quite openly to being a fan of the fighter and reveals he was, like millions around the globe, glued to the TV screen on November 12 as McGregor dismantled Eddie Alvarez to win the UFC lightweight crown, thereby becoming the organisation’s first dual-weight champion.
THERE SEEMS TO BE SOME PEOPLE WHO DON’T BELIEVE ME BUT WHEN THIS FIGHT IS OVER, EVERYONE WILL KNOW MY TRUE WORTH.
“It was very interesting,” says Choi. “Conor definitely knows MMA. There are athletes who just get in there and fight and there are very few who truly understand MMA. Conor knows and understands MMA.”
The topic came up when we sat down with Choi over coffee just outside his base at the Busan Team MAD gym. Choi moved here from Seoul to hook up with the “best team in Korea”, he says, and the relatively quieter surrounds of the country’s second city mean he’s able to live life out of the spotlight. For the most part anyway.
Choi is noticed as soon as he walks through the door – and a selfie is duly delivered – and eyes are constantly cast in our direction until the chat is over. Choi says part of what he admires when it comes to the case of McGregor and his rise through the sport is how the Irishman can cast all the attention aside and focus on what matters once his feet touch the canvas.
“We are different personalities, but we have the same philosophy,” says Choi.
“Spiritually and technically he is perfect. There are a lot of great fighters around the world but it is not just about the techniques or how strong you are. It’s more about the research and the study you do. If you want to be a fighter you have to study as hard as a doctor does – and I think I study this sport more than any other person in the world.”
It’s a passion first fuelled by the Pride fights screened into South Korea from Japan when Choi was growing up.
“I saw those fighters and I said I wanted to be like them,” he says. “I wanted to be that kind of person.”
Choi’s parents had concerns, initially at least. But their son’s reason put those worries to rest.
“Simple,” Choi says he told them. “I don’t get hit a lot.”
That’s been the case so far in the UFC and Choi says the game plan so far has been a simple one.
“They say I am easy to train,” says Choi. “If I touch anyone with my right hand, they are knocked out. The fight against Tavares went exactly to plan. We had worked it out with my coach and with sparring. I am ready to go to a higher level now.”
Enter Swanson, a far more seasoned fighter at 33 years of age and with an overall record of 23-7.
Choi reports he’s happy with his training camp and keen to move that one step closer to a title shot in a division that now is wide open following the UFC’s announcement on November 27 that McGregor had relinquished his featherweight crown.
Victory over the sixth-ranked Swanson and Choi – currently ranked 12 by the UFC – will move one step closer to a shot at a featherweight title that was handed back to Brazilian Jose Aldo.
For the moment Aldo (26-2) seems obsessed with McGregor, the man who knocked him out (after just 19 seconds) to claim that title last December, and he’s been ranting and raving about a rematch – even up in the lightweight division. Such distractions could play into the hands of the contenders in waiting.
And at UFC 206, Choi will also get a close up look at two of the fighters who stand between him and that belt as the third-ranked Max Holloway (16-3) and Anthony Pettis (19-5), ranked 10, square off for the interim featherweight title
For the moment, though, all thoughts are on Swanson.
“My record is rare,” he says.
TWELVE STRAIGHT WINS IN MMA IS VERY HARD TO DO. I ALWAYS KNEW THAT ONE DAY I WOULD GET INTO THE UFC.
“Twelve straight wins in MMA is very hard to do. I always knew that one day I would get to the UFC. That’s where the best fighters are and I am the best at what I do. I still have the top five to get in to but I look at those fighters ahead and, you know, they are just human beings and human beings can be beaten. Except me.”
The future, Choi says, is laid out ahead.
“There’s never been an Asian world champion in the UFC,” Choi smiles. “Until me.”