Korea is currently emancipating itself after suffering from the
effects of the Korean Conflict for decades. All the more since the
2002 FIFA World Cup, during which Korea co-hosted together with
Japan, and where the Koreans presented themselves as congenial and
hospitable people, keen on sports and forward-looking. In the next
five years, a real "Korea boom" struck all of Asia, including
music, movies and consumer electronics.
This cultural phenomenon, dubbed the "Korean Wave" by Chinese
journalists, reached its peak when Korean drama series "Winter
Sonata" became a huge success in Japan. As a result, leading man
Bae Yong Jun is now a big star in the "land of the rising sun" and
the top-earning actor outside of Hollywood. Meanwhile on the
electronics front, Korean companies like Samsung and LG have become
so dominant, that they have virtually forced Nokia - the world's
largest manufacturer of mobile phones - out of Asia.
The fight industry may be set for its own Korean wave. At UFC 84,
Dong Hyun Kim looked
impressive while stopping Jason
Tan in the third round. But the search for a Korean MMA star
began in late 2003. The main obstacle in their search goes back to
the fact that traditional Korean martial arts - Taekwondo, Hapkido
and Ssireum - have proven to be mostly unsuitable for mixed martial
Nonetheless the two big powerhouse promotions at that time,
Fighting & Entertainment Group (FEG) and Dream Stage
Entertainment (DSE) continued their search for a Korean top ace to
milk the booming Korean market. The main supporters of this idea
were Korean natives: former Pride Fighting Championships owner Kim
Dok-Soo and Hero's Akira
Pride presented its first Korean fighter in February of 2004 when
Mu Bae Choi (Pictures) made his debut. A solid wrestler
from Team Tackle in Seoul, Choi was fed a couple of tune-up
opponents before being smashed by former heavyweight top contender
(Pictures) in his sixth fight with the
promotion and subsequently let go.
K-1 waited until their prestigious New Year's Eve show "Dynamite!!"
before they revealed their Korean hopeful for the first time. In
(Pictures), they not only managed to
sign a highly decorated judoka who had won several gold medals at
the Asian Games, but also a so-called "Zainichi Korean."
"Zainichi" is a term commonly used for an ethnic Korean who was
born in Japan. As a result, FEG had gotten a fighter with the
potential to be a big star both in Japan as well as Korea -- where
he goes under the name Chu Seoung Hoon.
Akiyama went on to become the most successful Korean fighter to
date, but also a most controversial one. He was twice involved in
bouts that were changed to no-contests after they had ended.
Another man who would eventually become the most popular fighter in
Korean history appeared in the K-1 ring just three months after
Akiyama. At 7-foot-2 and 325 pounds, Hong-Man Choi really is larger
than life. The "Techno Goliath" made the switch from Ssireum,
Korea's equivalent to sumo wrestling, to kickboxing in early 2005.
Choi proved to be an instant hit, winning the K-1 World Grand Prix
in Seoul in his first appearance.
In the years ahead, the Korean colossus defeated former mega star
Bob Sapp (Pictures) inside the ring and also took the
Beast's place as the company's primary Asian draw. He also was one
of only two men to chalk up a win over Semmy Schilt (Pictures), who has been kickboxing's
dominant fighter for the past three years.
At the same Yarennoka show Akiyama was fighting in, Choi was
matched up with Pride heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko
(Pictures). In only his second MMA
fight, he gave the "Russian Emperor" a couple of bruises, before
succumbing to a first-round armbar.
Most recently, the 27-year-old has been in the news for being
drafted into the Korean army. Because of a brain tumor that affects
his vision, he has been exempted from service for the time being.
If he is deemed fit at a later physical, he will be away from the
fight game for twenty-four months. Even if he discharged for good,
it is unlikely that the hugely popular giant will return to the
ring this year.
With Choi out of action, other Korean fighters are in demand. A
true late bloomer is Dong
Sik Yoon (Pictures). After four consecutive defeats
in Pride, Yoon was already declared a failure in MMA despite being
one of the most dominant judokas of the 1990's. Yoon reversed his
fortunes by switching to rival promotion Hero's. Winning his next
four fights, the 35-year-old is currently among the elite eight of
the Dream middleweight grand prix.
Already eliminated from the 185 pound tournament is Denis Kang (Pictures). The son of a Korean father and a
French mother may very well be the most unlucky fighter in recent
memory. A super star in Spirit MC, Korea's biggest mixed martial
arts league, Kang has come close to stardom in Japan on numerous
A fighter who still has his future ahead of him is talented
featherweight Un Sik Song.
At 5-foot-10, the lanky 22-year-old is huge for the 145-pound
division. The "Tornado" doesn't train with any of the big teams in
Seoul, but at Daegu Academy in the southeast of the country. He
combines aggressive kickboxing with solid submission skills and
boasts a 7-0 record. At the current rate, it is only a matter of
time before he is picked up by either Dream or World Victory Road.