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 November we counted down a number of honourable mentions for our 20 for 20. Now it's time to look at the 20 fighters who have managed to make it into the list properly, and they come from all over Asia and all over the weight classes. Some of these you may already be aware of, some are perhaps less well known, but either way these 20 men are going to be well worth following in the new year as they look to push forward in their career and move towards major success.
For these fighters we will look at the the reason why you should follow them, our expectations for them in the coming year and the issues they may face going forward. The one rule with all of these fighters is that they can't have fought for a world title at the time of writing.
Some of these are world ranked, and some of these may well be set for world title fights in the near future, but so far they have not had that top level bout.
Without any further ado, lets take a look at the man we have ranked #19 in our list of the top 20 Ones to watch in 2020.
Ye Joon Kim (18-1-2, 10)
South Korea desperately needs a fighter that the country can get behind, and the only one who seems to have the skills to really make a mark is Ye Joon Kim, who is a real natural talent. Kim can be frustrating at times, cruising through portions of bouts, but when he moves through the gears he looks like a genuinely fantastic talent. If his team can keep him on the right track, which is a challenge in it's self, and he can avoid another big injury, an issue that forced him to cancel a 2019 bout, then Kim is very much one to watch in 2020.
The problem with Korean boxing is that it feels really badly structured, with bouts falling through, and a lot of political issues, further adding to the frustrations fans can have with a fighter as frustrating as Kim. Despite that he's an enigma, a character, and boxing fans do enjoy characters. That is especially true when the fighter in question is talented, and can appeal to fan who want to see them beat as well as fans who want to enjoy their skills. Kim probably isn't known well enough to have genuine haters yet, but his personality could well make him a fighter you want to see
What do we expect?
If Kim can get his act sorted then we genuinely see 2020 being a career year for the Korean who should be in the mix for either the OPBF or WBO Asia Pacific title. Korea has lacked a genuine Oriental level fighter, but Kim has the ability to do just that! And more. We don't see Kim winning a world title in 2020, but by the end of the year he should be in the mix, even in the stacked Super Bantamweight division. Sadly, though, it all depends on whether his team can keep him active and get him the bouts he needs.
In Korea the political mess can really hamper a fighter, with the KBC, KBF and KBM all having their own little games, but it does seem like better bouts are being made in Korea and 2019 has seen some good fighters travel to the peninsula for fights. If that continues in 2020 then Kim is likely to be one of the fighters who does get to face notable opponents and there really is no excuse for him to not be mixing at top regional level.
We won't dwell on the issue of Korean boxing too much here, as it does appear to be going in the right direction and we suspect that all of the political machinations would be wanting a Korean world champion to spearhead the sports revival in the country. The bigger worry with Kim is Kim himself.
The talented enigma has lacked consistency, both in terms of when he fights and how he fights. One fight he can look like the talent Korean boxing has been wishing for, and in his next fight he looks like a lazy, wild fighter, full of arrogance and lacking a boxing brain. We don't have a problem with Kim having fun in the ring and putting on a show for the fans, but he does need to put on more intelligent performances. Winning in style is great, but willing and looking a bit like you don't care is a less great and Kim, at times, has looked like he doesn't care.
As well as the arrogance and underwhelming performance we also have concerns about Kim's longer term ambitions and every time he seems to have built some momentum something has stopped it dead. Be it a lay off, an injury, or something else we've never seem Kim manage to snowball success into more success. In 2020 we hope that changes, but we will always suspect something, just lurking out of sight, will be an issue for Kim.
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