The Korean Wave


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 arts.

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 Maeda (Pictures).

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 Sergei Kharitonov (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 Yoshihiro Akiyama (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 occasions.

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.

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