There are copious amounts of entertaining moments in the fight canon of South Korea’s Ji Yeon Kim, and perhaps none more so her last Octagon outing at UFC 243 versus Nadia Kassem.
The tilt began with a fake glove touch from Kassem, and the karmic comeuppance for violating one of the unwritten MMA rules was immediate. Kim sent Kassem straight to the mat with an overhand left to the jaw.
“Kim made her pay for it,” Daniel Cormier noted on the broadcast. “Big time.”
Kassem would recover from the blow in the short term, but the tone for the rest of the fight had been set.
“I had a chance to finish her earlier in the middle of the second round. That’s when her mouthpiece fell out and the referee stopped me from pressuring her further,” explains Kim, thinking back to that evening in Melbourne. “Then I suddenly thought to myself, ‘If I don’t finish her it could go to a decision and the result could come out not in my favor.’ I had to go harder and be more aggressive. And eventually it paid off.”
It certainly did. Frustrated by the ref’s decision to halt a striking sequence for the mouthpiece, Kim came back fiercely following the break, crumpling Kassem with a gut punch KO with one second remaining in round two.
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“I’m proud to have managed myself to not be affected by the referee’s call and pushed through with calmness.”
It was the sort of thrilling striking clinic that whetted the appetites of the matchmakers and caught the notice of fellow flyweights. But life often gets in the way, and the momentum of that performance was stalled by things like injuries, postponements, and pandemics. When Kim steps into the Octagon Saturday to finally meet her on-again-off-again opponent Alexa Grasso at Fight Night: Smith vs Rakic, it will have been nearly a year since that night at Marvel Stadium.
“After the surgery I had on my elbow last year, spending good quality time on recovery was important,” she says. “I tried to eat clean and keep my mind and body in good health for faster recovery. I was a bit worried when the visa issue was not moving forward due to the pandemic. But when I finally got the visa, everything proceeded seamlessly. I feel relieved that I’m finally fighting again, and I am so excited.
Like too many of us these days, “Firefist” has spent a good amount of the last few months getting exasperated by glitchy Zoom meetings like the ones she did with her movement teacher. But in a country that was especially hard hit by COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, one couldn’t be too cautious.
“For some period of time, congregation in large numbers was prohibited in Korea. The danger of the pandemic is still present, and I really hope things get better soon.”
Online meetings eventually gave way to small-group training, and ultimately her long-awaited meeting with Grasso; a pairing that has all the ingredients to build on the fireworks of her last outing.
“I focused the majority of my training on movement capabilities and researching. The main goal was to find weaknesses and flaws in my movement and I trained to make adjustments and improvements. Because we both are fighters with a strong boxing background, a knockout by punch is a possibility,” she assesses. “I plan to keep calm and be precise in what I do and make the fight interesting.”
The calmness Kim speaks of is almost as much of a weapon as her hands. On her march to becoming the bantamweight champion of both the Jewels and Gladiator promotions, Kim has honed an air of serenity in the Octagon that is notable from the cheap seats. Betraying no hint of frustration or exertion, she wields one of the best poker faces in MMA.
She’s anxious to show it, too. Ten-plus months removed from ascending her division has felt too long, and it’s not a pattern she’s keen to repeat.
“If my body is healthy after Saturday, I want to fight right away. I can fight in one week.”
If we were in any other moment of the sport, a week would sound like hyperbolic boasting. In the coronavirus age, however, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that’s happened.
“I’m good to fight anyone. Because I’m a striker, the fight will be more exciting if I face another striker. I want a striker in the top rank. Who would that be? (Joanne) Calderwood?”