In the 1980's if a fight fan wanted to know which fighters were the bravest and the most exciting there was only 2 answers. You either answered with "Mexicans" or "Koreans". If you asked the same question now you wouldn't get the answer "Koreans", in fact very few boxing questions right now can be answered with "Koreans".
The one question that can be answered with "Koreans" is "which country has seen the biggest downturn in boxing over the last 30 years?" Sadly however it's not a question I, or anyone following Asian boxing, would want to answer with "Koreans" but it's a sad part of the sport.
Back in the late 1970's, the 1980's and early 1990's there was numerous exciting, talented and fun to watch Koreans breaking through and making a name for themselves in both the professional ranks and the amateur ranks. Amateurs such as Shin Joon Sup, An Young Su, Kim Kwang Sun and Baik Hyun Man were all Olympic medal winners and, although the most famous was Park Si Hun lets not have that controversy over-shadow some of the very talented amateurs Korea had in the 1980's.
They say success breeds success and whilst the amateurs were having notable success on the world stage so to were the professionals with the likes of Jung Koo Chang, Sung Kil Moon, Myung Woo Yuh, In Chul Baek, Young Kyun Park and numerous others. Genuinely the list of Koreans who were must watch action fighters in the 1970's, 80's and 90's was as long as any other countries.
The big question then is, "what has happened to South Korean boxing?" The amateurs have failed to have success on the global stage, the note-worthy professionals have all but become extinct and boxing in Korea is seemingly holding on in the hope of creating one more notable fighter, one more spark, one more fighter who can engage the fans.
Before we started this site we had hope that Ji Hoon Kim, the all action Lightweight, would manage to reinvigorate South Korean boxing. Sadly Kim, despite appearing on the global as a professional, has failed to move on to the next level. His limitations, which are quite obvious to anyone who has seen him, have prevented him from become a champion.
Kim has the style that is reminiscent of the Koreans of old. He walks forward with little to no defence, he depends on his toughness and bravery and, of course, throws a shed load of punches with every one of them having bad intentions. He's great fun to watch and we love him for the action but ultimately his warrior mentality has seen him tossed on the scrap heap in mid 20's.
Kim was unfortunately brought to professional boxing with out any sort of an amateur background, with out much in terms of training and with out a management team that could hone his skills. As a result he was never developed into a boxer and instead he was always a fighter. Even the old school Koreans could box when needed and had some semblance of defence when it was needed. Kim's lack of it however has likely cost him in the long run despite helping him make a name in the US.
The development of Kim is a big part of the problem with Korean boxing. In the past fighters, as they do in other parts of the world, came from the amateur ranks where they could develop basic skills that they could combine with their desire, hunger and toughness. The fact they aren't developing talent from the amateurs to the professionals is a major issue though it's far from the only one.
Another issue is money and interest. The sport isn't what is once was.
At it's best boxing appeals to young, poor individuals wanting to make some money. Whilst I'm not suggesting there is no one living in poverty in South Korea the economy has rocketed in a way that is unfathomable to those of us living in the west. Where their was once poor youngsters looking for a way to make money in the fight game there is now people going into manufacturing, technology and various other fields.
If you look in any room in your house it's likely you have something made or developed in South Korea. Be it a Samsung phone, an LG TV, a Daewoo microwave and numerous other items there are numerous every day items we use that are made in Korea, even the chips and displays used in phones, laptops and tablets have a link to South Korea.
With so much money in the country people are taking the wise decision to get a normal every day job. There is still boxing but why would you want to get punched in the face for possibly less than you'd earn doing a normal job?
Of course with fewer people going into boxing the interest in the sport is less, so as a result the talent pool is lower. When the talent pool in the sport lacks, either divisionally or nationally, interest wanes further. It's a vicious cycle but one that is really limiting the amount of fighters we have in the sport and one that doubles up with an even bigger issue, death.
South Korea has sadly seen 3 notable ring deaths. The most famous is, of course, Duk Koo Kim who died tragically after his fight with Ray Mancini in the USA. Kim's death saw changes in the regulations in boxing, though it doesn't matter how many changes it was never going to stop deaths in the sport. Kim's death in 1982 was bad though sadly it was followed up, more than 20 years later, by the death of former world champion Yo Sam Choi who died after his win against Heri Amol. Choi was the last Korean man to hold a world title and sadly his death was televised to a Korean audience, many of whom remembered the death of Kim.
Choi's death was followed just a few years later by the death of Ki Suk Bae. The death of Bae saw the Korean Boxing Commission (KBC) coming under a lot of scrutiny with many suggesting the KBC were responsible for his death.
Since Bae's death we've seen fewer and fewer shows in Korea. Parents have become scared of their children suffering the same fate and have urged them away from the sport, there is no big name fighter to follow in the footsteps of and no active fighter to look up to as a star.
With no star to follow and be inspired by, with no world champion to look up to, with deaths fresh in the memory and with an economy that makes boxing a very unattractive career it's little wonder that boxing in Korea has all but vanished. We hope, one day, the sport will return to the country courtesy of a big name fighter but it seems unlikely that either Min Wook Kim, Ja Ik Goo or any of the other aspiring fighters will have the appeal that can reignite Korea's love for boxing.
We know it's unlikely but the interest sparked by actress-turned-boxer Lee Si Young has demonstrated that there is still some interest in the sport, however small that interest may be and maybe, just maybe, it'll take a single fighter to help the country find it's gloves once again.
(Images courtesy of:
Boxrec.com-Ji Hoon Kim and Yo Sam Choi
(Ed's note-Of course there are even more issues than those looked at here, we've included only the most significant ones, though the rise of MMA is another that has further shrunk the talent field of promising fighters.)
Thinking Out East
With this site being pretty successful so far we've decided to open up about our own views and start what could be considered effectively an editorial style opinion column dubbed "Thinking Out East" (T.O.E).