Over the last decade or so boxing in Korea has struggled to make any sort of dent on the international stage. There have been flashes of potential, most notably Min Wook Kim, and fighters who have made a dent at the regional level, like Sa Myung Noh and Jung Kyoung Lee, but they have had very short term success.
The one exception right appears to be the enigmatic Ye Joon Kim (18-1-2, 10). Kim really is the only fringe world level Korean out there right now, but Injuries and inconsistent performances have limited his success and he's not really progressed beyond "fringe contender" over the last 3 or so years. Kim is well beyond being a prospect but he's really only a single good year away from moving from "contender" to "title challenger".
Today we look at the fighters following Kim through the ranks, and take a look at 5 of the top Korean prospects making their mark on the sport today. These are the fighters we see as leading the wave of Koreans looking to put the sport on the map in the country that gave us so many greats in the 1970's and 80's.
Jong Seon Kang (10-0-2, 6)
Exciting 18 year old old battler Jong Seon Kang made his debut in November 2017, only a month after his 16 birthday, and has quickly emerged as one of the nations shining hopefuls. The exciting Featherweight began his career 8-0 (5) in low level bouts in Korea. The most notable of his early wins was over Uzbek Ravshanbek Shermatov, and that put him on our radar. Since then he has gone 2-0-2, whilst notching notable wins on the road in China and Vietnam.
Although not the most polished fighter out there Kang is a very hard working fighter who has shown a great engine, incredible will to win and the desire to shine. There is a talented young kid here who needs real work, but has things you just can't teach a fighter, and his ability to bite down and fight through adversity is incredibly impressive. His win in China over Qixiu Zhang was good but his November win over Tomjune Mangubat was excellent.
Min Jang (10-0-2, 2)
Unbeaten 19 year old Min Jang might have 2 draws against his name in just 12 fights but don't let that suggest that the talented Southpaw isn't a prospect with real potential. The light footed, sharp punching boxer-moved is a real one to watch and has impressed since making his debut at the age of 17 back in 2017. He was unfortunate to mark up his record with a technical draw on debut but followed it up with 3 before another draw in 2018. Since the he has gone on a 7 fighter winning run, winning a South Korean Super Flyweight title and more recently the WBA Asia Super Bantamweight title.
Unlike many Korean fighters Jang isn't someone we would describe as a warrior or a work rate fighter. Instead he fights at range, boxes off the back foot and fights smartly. He fights to his strengths, using his speed and long, wiry arms, and as we saw against Junhui Zhao recently, he can deal with pressure pretty well.
Given his age Jang should certainly be given time to mature, develop and fill into the Super Bantamweight division. When he does that we wouldn't be surprised to see him fighting at OPBF level down the line. If his team are smart they will give him time, let him mature, and develop his power. He'll never by a KO artist, but with a bit more sting on his shots he could be a dark horse for the future.
Woo Hyun Kim (9-1, 1)
At 22 years old Woo Hyun Kim is one of the older prospects on this list, though also the one with strongest achievements. He made his debut back in 2014, at the age of 16, and won a Korean Super Flyweight title back in just his 4th pro bout, back in 2014. In 2015 he suffered his first, and so far only, loss as he came up short to Yo Han Bae. Despite the loss he bounced back quickly and won the interim PABA title in his very next fight. A single defense of that PABA title followed before Kim vanished from the ring for almost 3 years.
Kim returned to the ring last June, taking a 6 round decision win over Chinese foe Junhui Zhao, and built on that win recently with a victory over former OPBF Flyweight champion Keisuke Nakayama, for the WBA Asia Super Flyweight title.
With bouts against international fighters, including Nakayama and Michael Barnor, we've seen Kim fighting above domestic level and genuinely impressing. He's an outside fighter who looks relaxed in the ring, sets a decent tempo and moves around the ring very easily. Sadly he does lack power, and that will likely hold him back more than anything else, but he has the scales to make a mark at the upper echelons of the regional scene.
Da Won Gang (4-0, 2)
Debuting in May 2019 Da Won Gang has raced into the conversation as the best Korean prospect out there right now. The 19 year won the "Battle Royal", the KBM answer to the Rookie of the Year, last year and has already set himself up for a KBM title fight this year. The 140lb fighter looks like a brilliant, yet raw, talent with aggression, skills and power. It took Gang less than 6 months to go from debut to Battle Royal triumph, dominant the older Yoon Ki Kim in the final, and kicked off 2020 with an impressive blow out against Jin Su Kim.
Gang appears to still be a rather raw fighter, who certainly needs some polishing, but with natural ability, an aggressive mentality, and solid power, he is certainly someone worthy of making a note of. The real thing to note is that Gang has time on his side and he should be seen a major hope for Korean boxing in the longer term.
So far he's yet to fight someone willing to make a fight and try to actually beat him, and we suspect that when that happens we'll see the best of him. Sadly his two biggest wins have come against rather negative opponents, and they have made him look a touch cruder than he really is.
Sung Min Yuh (4-0)
Arguably the most naturally gifted fighter on this list is 154lb fighter Sung Min Yuh, who looks to be incredibly well schooled. Yuh won the KBM "Battle Royal", like Gang, last year and looked a natural in the ring with his sharp punching, slick defensive skills and surprisingly solid work on the inside. He's a big, tall fighter who uses his size well and lands crunching body shots, and is a real talent. Sadly Yuh has several major issues. His work rate doesn't match his ability, and he is very much a fighter in the "talented but lazy" mould, he is also someone who seems to want to amuse a very small number of fans, his family and friends, rather than put in dominant displays in the ring.
Later this year the 18 year old Yuh will be fighting for the KBM Light Middleweight title, where he will face former foe Do Ha Kim for the second time. He'll be expected to win, having already beaten Kim, but the issue for us is more his performance. If he can put it all together he won't just beat Kim, but will do so with ease. Sadly that's a huge "if" and we wouldn't be surprised by Yuh's laziness costing him at some point, which would hopefully serve as a wake up call.
In all honesty we're being harsh on the teenager, who only debuted in March 2019, but that's because he is such a natural pure talent. Other fighters would kill to have his gifts.
(Image courtesy of BoxingM)
In December we are going to be sharing our "20 for 20", a list of 20 fighters to keep an eye on for the new year. Ahead of that we will be looking at a number of fighters who just missed out on that list.
These are the fighters who perhaps won't be ready for a world title by the end of next year, but we feel will make a mark in the year, and go on to do big things in the following year or two. Typically they are the prospects who perhaps need a little more time to develop, or who are still a bit too young for the big fights, or maybe just don't seem like they are quite there yet. These are our "Honourable mentions - 20 for 20" fighters and these will be posted daily until the start of December!
Da Won Gang (3-0, 1)
Whilst the Korean Rookie of the Year competitions aren't as strong as their Japanese counterpart their is some good talent that gets the chance to shine through the tournaments. One such example of that is Da Won Gang, a 19 year old who won the BoxingM version of Rookie of the Year, "Battle Royale", this year. He did so by looking very, very talented and scoring 3 wins in the space of 6 months. The youngster didn't look the most polished fighter through the tournament, but being polished has rarely been part of the Korean boxing ethos, where energy, aggression and excitement are key and Won appears to tick all those boxes. The young Gang is certainly aggressive, very strong and has proven his ability to go 6 rounds with a frustrating opponent, in the form of Yoon Ki Kim. Gang is clearly a work in progress, but that's never a bad thing, and at just 19 years old, with a good team behind him and a real desire to show what he can do we're excited about his potential.
Obviously Gang will need to polish his skills off, sharpen his punching and add a bit more power to his shots, which should come when he matures, but that will hopefully happen in 2020.
Expectations for 2020?
The way that BoxingM have been in the last few years we've seen a lot top BoxingM guys fight Japanese opponents in Korea Vs Japan shows. We expect Gang will be on one of those in 202, though the reality is that we don't really think that's the best option for him. At least not next year.
It we were handling Gang we would be looking to move him to a BoxingM title fight, giving him more Korean opponents, and maybe importing a limit Thai or Filipino opponent. The focus should be on Gang to get rounds, fighting over 8 or even 10 rounds, getting experience against tough opponents and then getting the chance to smooth out his technical issues. He's a promising fighter but he needs to be given time.
We expect the worse, though if Gang's team can look after him then the future is very bright for this talented and promising Korean teenager.
When we have some free time we're hoping to add a series of fun articles to the site. Hopefully these will be enjoyable little short features