MMA in Korea

May 18, 2008 reader Jason Kindree is writer and instructor working for an educational company in Seoul, South Korea. Kindree recently spoke with Kim Dong Hyun, who will make his UFC debut next weekend, and Im Jae Seok and offers the following glimpse into the South Korean MMA scene.

Korean MMA Fighters on the Rise

The MMA scene is relatively young in South Korea as it is elsewhere, but the popularity has been explosive as well. More clubs are opening up that teach pupils all the foundational skills – striking, grappling, and submissions. Team Tackle is one such gym located in the affluent Kangnam area of Seoul, where fighters such as Yoon Dong Sik train (Koreans put there family name first).

Yoon currently has a four fight win streak and a deceptive record because of early losses, including a competitive decision to Rampage Jackson. He won his last match at DREAM’s middleweight grand prix in April. Team Tackle’s head instructor is none other than Choi Mu Bae, the former PRIDE standout who won by submission in more than half his contests.

Other fighters have received notice such as Im Jae Seok who fought in Elite XC and Strikeforce and Song Un Sik, an undefeated lightweight from Daegu who is very young and has mainly fought in Japan thus far. Denis Kang was one of the first Korean fighters to become well known by dominating many contests in Spirit MC (Korea’s major MMA organization) and later in PRIDE and K1 Heroes, which are both now defunct. Kang, as many fans are aware, is half Korean, but that hasn’t stopped the fans from embracing him and showing their support whether he’s won or lost.

Right now the talk of the town though is Kim Dong Hyun. He used to train in Seoul, but he moved to Pusan to train at a club called M.A.D. When he’s not in South Korea he regularly trains in Japan with Yushin Okami. Kim, who has a similar build to Okami, (tall and rangy) recently signed with the UFC, and he’ll be fighting in UFC 84 against Jason Tan in the welterweight division.

His contract is for four fights, and he views this as an opportunity to make a statement not only for himself but for his country. His record is 9-1-1, with his first 3 fights in Spirit MC and then the last seven in Japan’s DEEP organization. While fighters are often hesitant to discuss specific numbers when it comes to money, they all admit that the pay is very low in Spirit MC. One could say it’s a farm league that develops fighters who move up the ranks and onto greener pastures. Most Korean fighters earn a living by fighting in Japan, through endorsements, or by opening up a gym and training other fighters, which is what Choi Mu Bae and Im Jae Seok have done.

This weekend on primetime national TV, Kim spoke with sportscasters as they watched highlights and offered analysis of his fights. The same South Korean TV network that broadcasts the UFC (Superaction) has also been heavily advertising UFC 84 and Kim’s match. He looked relaxed and excited as he discussed his career and future prospects.

His road to the UFC started when he was 18 with Judo. Shortly after he saw shooto fighting, and he was immediately drawn to MMA. Kim is an accomplished grappler as well, with ten years of training behind him. He stressed that money and honor had to remain secondary in a fighter’s mind, and that the love of the sport should always be the primary motivator.

Kim is looking forward to measuring himself and testing his skills against the best fighters. He said that before the UFC purchased PRIDE, there was some debate as to which organization had the better fighters. Now everyone agrees that the UFC is the top organization so he is very happy to be there.

When I asked him about his style and fighters who he wants to emulate, Kim mentioned Anderson Silva, his training partner Okami, and the fighter who he felt had the “perfect style” was Georges St. Pierre. He wants to be well-rounded, and like any self-respecting fighter his goal is the title. We’ll see how the increased media and fan attention affects him before the big show in Vegas on Saturday.

Other Korean professionals are undoubtedly watching with keen interest, as they know that success for Kim could translate into more opportunity for them, both at home and internationally. Whether he considers it or not, there’s more at stake than just personal honor and national pride.

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