By the mid-2000s, the expectations for how an MMA bout could end had been firmly established. To that end, in the UFC’s 546 pay-per-view fights between 2001 and 2008 — specifically the fights between UFC 31 and UFC 92 — 99 percent concluded in one of three ways: either by knockout, judges’ decision or submission. Beyond that, a mere three submission holds — the rear naked choke, the armbar and the guillotine — accounted for nearly two-thirds of all submission victories achieved inside the Octagon. If not boring, it was certainly very predictable.
Then came the March 26, 2011 fight between “Bad Boy” Leonard Garcia and “Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung at Seattle’s KeyArena. Jung didn’t just defeat Garcia, he twisted him into immortality with a finishing maneuver appropriately known as the Twister, or “wrestler’s guillotine,” in which the spine is contorted to Gumby-like levels and is seemingly a one-way ticket to paralysis. It shocked both the crowd and locker room, an extremely rare occurrence that few in the building and pay-per-view audience had ever seen before. Garcia, of course, was left in a world of hurt, as the Twister is considered the most painful move in MMA. In fact, Garcia was worried that if he didn’t tap, his back would snap in half (and this was after his back had “popped” three times already).
Below, Garcia, his trainer Greg Jackson and combat-sports journalist Jonathan Snowden recall that fateful evening (and submission hold), which Garcia happily lived to tell about (if just barely), and everything that had led up to it over the previous year.
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The Garcia-Jung feud had been simmering ever since their first encounter on April 24, 2010 at WEC 48. In the WEC’s only pay-per-view event before its merger with the UFC, Garcia and Jung waged war in a toe-to-toe, fist-slinging shootout. As they frequently descended into exhaustion during their three-round war, neither ever retreated except to search for an opportunity to land another teeth-rattling blow.
At the conclusion of the contest, both men swung wildly for the fences, with neither being able to land a blow sufficient enough to separate the process of selecting a winner from the grasp of the judges.
When ring announcer Bruce Buffer dramatically announced that Garcia had eked out a razor-thin split-decision victory, a mild controversy followed as there were plenty who believed that Jung had done enough to merit the victory. Either way, both men received “Fight of the Night” honors, and the bout would also be named the 2010 “Fight of the Year.”
Jonathan Snowden, MMA Historian and Author: This fight has mostly fallen through the cracks as the MMA fandom has repopulated over the last decade. At the time, it was considered an instant classic, the kind of bout that fans salivated over. While both were skilled fighters, martial arts prowess was kind of beside the point. This was a battle between two madmen, whirling punches without hesitation or fear of return fire. While Garcia had his hand raised in the end, Jung’s career was launched that night in his first American appearance. Soon enough, his “Korean Zombie” T-shirt was a top-seller, and he’d placed himself on a short list of young fighters worth paying attention to.
Leonard Garcia, UFC Fighter: We had a great fight, and a lot of the things that happened for both of us after that first fight were great. We both went out there and let it all hang out. We both got the recognition afterwards, and we both were elevated to a different level. We had way more fans because of what we went out and did in the Octagon together. When great fights happen like that and both guys get uplifted because of it, that’s what fighting is all about.
As memorable as the second fight between the two men would eventually become, it wasn’t initially in the offing. Garcia’s scheduled opponent for UFC Fight Night 24 had originally been Nam Phan, a highly skilled Korean-American standout from The Ultimate Fighter TV series whom Garcia had seemed embarrassed to have been awarded an unmistakably controversial decision victory over in another Fight-of-the-Night-winning outing. (The fight would go on to be ignominiously awarded as MMA’s most egregious robbery of 2010 during the Sherdog.com MMA Awards.)
After the decision was announced, in a clear gesture of appeasement, Garcia accepted the microphone from post-fight interviewer Joe Rogan and promised that he would make it up to Phan by offering him a rematch whenever the UFC deemed appropriate. Ultimately, though, Phan would withdraw from the rematch due to an injury, and Jung would be quickly ushered in to replace him.
Snowden: Jung and Garcia had established a new standard for the MMA action fight in the first bout. To say the rematch was highly anticipated among hardcore fans is selling the concept of highly anticipated short. The bout was positioned on the main card, which was a big deal at the time when there were fewer cards and each event generally featured significant star power. Everyone was hoping that they’d pick up like it was minute 16 of the first fight — which they kind of did.
Greg Jackson, Co-Owner and Trainer of Jackson Wink MMA Academy: I wouldn’t have been more confident than usual coming out of the first fight even though Leonard won it. With Leonard, he has heavy hands and is super tough. I love him to death. He’s one of my favorite humans. But sometimes the more technical guys would be able to control him, so I’d never go into a fight with Leonard being overconfident. I was always worried about someone controlling him, taking him down and holding him down.
Snowden: Jung, even then, had a more well-rounded game. Because of the way the first fight went down — and thanks to the “Korean Zombie” nickname — people had this picture of him that didn’t wholly reflect reality. People who watched the international scene carefully knew he was far from a mindless brawler. In fact, he’d won the bulk of his bouts in Asia by submission.
The second fight commenced as most fans would have expected, punctuated with stand-up exchanges reminiscent of the inaugural contest. Then, in the final minute of the second round, both fighters threw simultaneous high kicks at the other’s head. Jung’s right shin connected with the underside of Garcia’s extended right hamstring, elevating the leg further into the air, and throwing Garcia perilously off-balance. Garcia crashed onto his backside, and Jung swarmed into Garcia’s guard before raining elbow strikes down upon his face.
When Garcia responded by rolling over onto his knees, Jung’s response was typical: He climbed atop Garcia’s back, wrapped both of his legs around the Bad Boy’s waist and hooked them in. What happened next was highly atypical, though. Nine out of ten fighters with the dominant position in this scenario would have attempted a rear naked choke — the most frequent submission in all of MMA. Instead, Jung grapevined and trapped Garcia’s left leg. From there, history was made.
Garcia: He took my back. He trapped my leg, and I was like, “What’s he doing? I’m gonna roll forward for his knee.” Then he reached back over and trapped my arm, and I said, “What the hell? I can’t move!”
Snowden: I can’t pretend to be prescient enough to have seen the Twister being set up from the beginning. But I’d seen it before from Shayna Baszler against Keiko Tamai, and it was recognizable once he locked it in.
Jackson: I saw Zombie lock in that leg, and I was thinking, “Uh oh!” I could see what he was going after, and I knew we were in trouble if Leonard couldn’t get out of it. From there, he could go for another wrestling move called the Banana Split, which is where he’s spreading your legs apart. He could also go after calf crushers and rear naked chokes. There are a bunch of options. But when you’re locking it up in that style, usually you’re going after the Twister, or that wrestler’s guillotine — whatever you want to call it. We hadn’t trained to counter that thing. It’s a very low percentage move. So I remember when Korean Zombie was locking it in, I was like, “Oh crap, we’re in trouble.”
Garcia: The pain I felt was like if you fall down and hit yourself really hard and knock your wind out, and then someone picks you up once your wind is knocked out and drops you again. That’s the closest thing I can compare it to. It was horrible. He snuck it in well, but once he locked it in and really started cranking, it definitely was the most painful position I’d ever been stuck in. Your body is trying to twist in two different directions. Your spine is going one way, and the rest of your body is going the other way. It definitely isn’t a good thing. On a 10-point pain scale, it was a 10-and-a-half.
Jackson: We had fought him before, so I didn’t think there was anything special that he was going to pull out of his bag of tricks the second time, but of course he did. I wasn’t thinking, “He’s going to look for that wrestling guillotine thing.”
Garcia: I’d been caught with a head-and-arm choke before by Mike Brown. That was the only time I’d ever tapped before that Twister. I’ve been caught in an armbar before and been able to make my way out, and caught in some other things and been able to make my way out of them. But the Twister — there was no escaping it, man.
There was one second left in the second round, and I’d been caught in the Twister for three to four seconds before that last second. My back popped three times, and it felt like that fourth pop wasn’t going to happen unless something important gave way. I was hanging on for dear life, and I had to tap.
Jackson: I thought to myself, “That was a nice move by Korean Zombie. That was a nice little way to put that together.” Again, you don’t really see that move completed very often, so I remember having respect for Korean Zombie for setting that up.
Garcia: I remember Cowboy [Donald Cerrone] telling me, “I wanted to yell to you that there was one second left, but I didn’t want your back to pop and you to be upset at me for the rest of your life.” I was like, “Yeah, if you would have told me one more second, I probably would have tried to hold on, but it was about to pop again.”
It was weird, because after the fight, I went to the back and stretched out a little bit. I got up and walked around just fine. It was one of those things where I was thinking, “Man, I could have let it pop one more time; I would’ve been just fine.” But in the moment, it didn’t feel like there was any more popping left. My back has never popped like that again, so I’m grateful. I also appreciate Cowboy for not screaming that out to me.
Jackson: Losing sucks. So I always start by telling my fighters that I know losing sucks. My thing is always that we’re never going to lose the same way twice, right? So if anyone ever tries that on you again, we’ll work to counter it. You might lose again, but you’re not going to lose that way twice.
Garcia: Immediately after, there were a couple wrestlers in the back saying, “What the hell? He caught you in the wrestler’s guillotine.” They didn’t know it was called a Twister until they heard Joe Rogan announce it as the Twister. That’s when everybody started saying, “Oh crap — the Twister! The Twister!”
I had never seen it before. I never knew about it until one of the wrestlers said, “That’s an old wrestling move that got adapted by Eddie Bravo into jiu-jitsu!” All the wrestlers knew what was going on, but all of the other guys were like, “What the hell was that?!” I realized I’d fallen for one of the new tricks. I knew it was going to be something people were going to talk about for a while because Zombie caught me totally by surprise.
Jackson: The Twister is a very old move in wrestling. It’s legal in wrestling, and wrestlers use it all the time to try to pin each other.
Garcia: The Twister was voted the best submission at that year’s Fighters Only World MMA Awards. But Korean Zombie had been drafted into the South Korean military and wasn’t able to accept the award. I reached out to them and said in honor of him catching me, I’d accept the award for him and then have it sent to him. I got up to the podium and said something like, “I didn’t want to accept this for him, but he kind of twisted my arm.” Everybody got a kick out of that. It was cool to do that for him while he was serving his country.
Jackson: Did I follow-up by teaching the fighters at my gym to counter with that specific move in mind afterwards? Of course! I might be dumb, but I ain’t all-the-way stupid.
Garcia: I don’t feel any resentment toward Korean Zombie at all. We stay in contact even now through social media. He came out, and he talked about me going into bare-knuckle fighting and how well I was able to do there, and how happy he was that I was doing well. And of course, I support him and get behind him every time he fights. There are no hard feelings at all. We were just two professionals who wanted to go out there and have some fun.