UFC featherweight Doo Ho Choi is racing the clock in a way not many fighters must do at age 26.
He has about a year before he must take a hiatus from his thriving career and fulfill a two-year military term mandatory for South Korean males.
Choi hopes to make the most of that time. He thinks he can string together enough wins to earn a title shot before he reports for duty.
Choi will get a chance to jump-start that plan when he meets Jeremy Stephens in the main event of UFC Fight Night 124 on Sunday in St. Louis.
The card took a hit Saturday when Las Vegan Uriah Hall was forced to pull out of his bout against Vitor Belfort because of complications during the weight cut.
There was no such issue for Choi ahead of his matchup with Stephens.
“He’s ranked (in the top 10) in the division,” Choi said through an interpreter last week in Las Vegas. “I know he’s a scrappy fighter with power, and he always has a good game plan. I’ve known if this fight was presented, we’d put on a good fight.”
While Choi hopes to put together a run before he is forced out of action, he doesn’t think his service will end his days as a top competitor.
“I feel that during that time I’m in the military, I’m still going to be working on my fighting career,” Choi said. “So I’ll just become an even greater fighter.”
“The Korean Superboy” doesn’t need to look far for a positive example.
Chan Sung Jung, “The Korean Zombie,” came up short in his bid to win the featherweight title from Jose Aldo in 2013 in his final fight before his mandatory military service.
He finally returned to action in February with a knockout of Dennis Bermudez.
While Choi is aware of his time constraints, he’s not letting it weigh down his development as a fighter.
“I don’t feel stressed or pressured,” he said. “I enjoy what I do. My goal is to just take it one fight at a time.”
Choi had his 12-fight winning streak snapped by Cub Swanson in a December 2016 bout that captured many fight of the year awards, but missed all of 2017 because of two potential fights falling apart and then an injury.
Belfort was hoping to end his career on the same card with his planned retirement bout, but won’t get the opportunity after Hall’s withdrawal.
“I dedicated two months for this training camp,” Belfort posted on social media. “My team had an intense dedication even during the holidays. I did all my fight week obligations, cut the weight and made the fight weight. Unfortunately my opponent had a problem during his weight cut. I wish him a soon recovery. Now I just want to go back home and see my family. Thanks for all the support along this training camp.”
The 40-year-old former champion also had announced his retirement before his last fight, a win over Nate Marquardt in June. Belfort said he wanted to come back for one last fight to finish his contract, however.
Belfort’s final fight will be moved to a new date.
The main card, which includes a women’s flyweight bout between Paige VanZant and Las Vegan Jessica-Rose Clark, will air on Fox Sports 1 at 7 p.m. The preliminary card will air on Fox Sports 1 at 5.
UFC Fight Night 124
Main card bouts for Sunday’s 7 p.m. event on Fox Sports 1:
— Jeremy Stephens (26-14) vs. Doo Ho Choi (14-2), featherweights
— Paige VanZant (7-3) vs. Jessica-Rose Clark (8-4, 1 No Contest), women’s flyweights
— Kamaru Usman (11-1) vs. Emil Meek (9-2-1 1 No Contest), welterweights
— Darren Elkins (24-5) vs. Michael Johnson (18-12), lightweights