Before reading any further we just want to make readers aware that several videos featured in the article are of fights where some one passed away from their injuries. We understand there are upsetting scenes and want to just let you be aware that the videos are something that you may not wish to see, they won't auto play and will need to be played manually. They have been included to give those who want to see the fights a chance to see them.
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The first of the deaths, and by far the most famous in the west, was that of Duk Koo Kim who passed away in 1982 after losing to the extremely exciting Ray Mancini in a WBA Lightweight title fight.
The Korean a former national champion and a former OPBF champion before facing “Boom Boom” Mancini. Although the under-dog going in Kim had gone 17-1-1 (8) coming in to the bout and had not lost in 16 fights, with his only defeat having been a decision loss in 1978. That run of success had lead to Kim being ranked #1 by the WBA to face the then 24-1 (19) Mancini and had seen Kim become one of the rising stars of Korean boxing
The bout, which was aired on CBS in the US, was a thrilling battle for the most part, something that is often forgotten. It saw Mancini fighting with a badly damaged hand and Kim giving as good as he got until exhaustion and accumulated damage took it's toll. Early in round 14 Kim was knocked down and although he did recover his feet the bout was waved off. Sadly Kim collapsed following the bout and was immediately taken to hospital where he would pass away 4 days later at the age of 23.
The bout also lead to several changes in the sport, with the contest being used as a reason to reduce the length of bouts from 15 rounds to 12, it also lead to an increase in medical test given to fighters, both of which have had positive effects on the health and safety of fighters. In his honour a Korean film was made in 2002 entitled “Champion”, which focused on his courage in the ring.
The second of the deaths occurred on September 9th 1995 and happened in Japan when the Japanese based Korean Dong Chun Lee passed away at the aged of 33. Lee had fought much of his career in Japan, where he was known as “Great Kanayama”, and had claimed the Japanese Bantamweight title in 1992. He would defend the title successfully 7 times before controversially losing a decision to Setsuo Segawa. A rematch with Segawa saw Lee lose again and sadly suffer injuries that would ultimately end his life.
Prior to moving to Japan Lee had twice fought for world titles, losing to Khaosai Galaxy and Elly Pical, and had had two reigns as the Korean champion, holding both the Bantamweight and Super Flyweight titles. In Korea he felt he was getting little support to become the best he could be whilst in Japan he felt he could get that support and quickly fell in love with the Japanese culture, and the fans. That love was reciprocated and the fans adored him and his in-ring style.
After losing to Segawa, by decision, on September 5th Lee complained about various medical issues, such as nausea, and was taken to hospital. Whilst there he under-went treatment for an acute brain swelling though passed away, despite a doctor being quoted as saying the treatment had been successful.
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The third of the Korean deaths happened in 2008 when the former WBC Light Flyweight champion Yo Sam Choi passed away following a fight with Indonesian fighter Heri Amol in Seoul on Christmas 2007, a fight that Choi actually won with ease.
Choi, then 35, was several years removed from his prime, and it had been more than 5 years since he had lost the WBC Light Flyweight title to Jorge Arce. Despite being past his best he was still a talented fighter entering the bout with Amol and was entering on a 5 fight winning streak. That talent showed for more than 11 rounds against Amol, until Choi was dropped in the final seconds of the bout. He beat the count and was congratulated after the bell by Amol, who lifted him for a moment but then Choi collapsed in his corner before the result was read out.
Sadly the Korean medical staff were slow to react and oxygen wasn't provided in the moments following his collapse. Issues with traffic, the ambulance and with the overall medical care hadn't helped the situation and sadly Choi would never recover, dying several days later when his life support was finally turned off. There no accusation at boxing but instead the anger and ire was at the overall care received by Choi, which had been poor and illogical.
Choi had been a boxing hero in Korea, one of the few of the 21st century, and one of only two Korean men to hold a world title post 2000, along with In Jin Chi. After his death however his heroics continued as he donated numerous organs, organs that went on to save the lives of several people. In Korea organ donation is rare and Choi's decision to donate his organs was an incredible one given the belief in Korea in regards to how a person should be buried as a “whole”. Not only was he regarded as a hero but Korean band Leessang later released a song in his honour, “Champion”.
As with the previous deaths Choi went out as a hero and many fight fans in Korea still refer to him as "a champion", not a "former champion" showing their respect to a man who had given them excitement in the ring and given extra life to those out of the squared circle.
In many ways Choi's death was the most powerful to those in Korea as the bout had been fought on Korean soil. It was the first time a Korean fighter had died at home, and only the second recorded death of a professional fighter The Land of the Morning Calm.
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The fourth, and the least well known,of the significant deaths involved with Korean boxing was that of Ki Suk Bae, who passed away in 2010 after losing a domestic Super Flyweight title bout to Jin Ki Jung. Unlike the other men here, Bae didn't have much of an international impact but his death certainly damaged Korean boxing, and specifically the KBC who came under a lot of criticism for his death, at the age of 23.
Bae had began his career aged just 15, fighting in 2003 and went on to lose his first two bouts before finally getting his career on track in 2004. Notably his second professional bout came against future world title challenger Young Gil Bae. His winning run was snapped after 3 successive KO's as he suffered his first stoppage loss
After having run up a 6-4-1 (3) record Bae then took a break from the ring before returning 19 month later and beating a 41 year old Jung Il Go and being rewarded with his first Korean title fight. He lost that bout Jin Man Jeon, via 5th round KO, and took a break from the ring before returning to action in Japan less than 6 months later. In Japan he was stopped in 6 rounds by Tomoya Kaneshiro.
Bae's death lead to the KBC being strongly criticised and Bae's family attempted to sue the KBC, though the KBC did win the case. Things were even sadder when it was revealed that Bae was fighting just for the money and that he was essentially living with his grandmother on a shoestring along with his siblings. Korean reports out his entire ring earns, for 15 fights, at a little over $1000.
Bae's death furthered the collapse of Korean boxing, which had been struggling since the 1980's and the strong rise in the Korean economy. The financial growth of the country has certainly played a massive impact in boxing in Korea, which has seen purses in boxing not reflect the over-all growth in income, but it goes with out saying that the deaths of fighters has certainly harmed the sport in the country in a massive way.
We'd love to see boxing take off again in Korea, and we do hope we're on the verge of seeing that happen, however if it doesn't then it's certainly understandable given the emotional turmoil of the fans.
Other deaths of relevance -
Jai-Koo Song- A Korean amateur who died following an exhibition in the 1960's with an American fighter.
Andy Balaba- A Filipino who died following a bout with Hi Sup Shin in 1982. Balaba holds the distinction of being the first professional fighter to die following a fight in South Korea