A couple of real knockouts

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A couple of real knockouts

Muhammad Ali takes pride in the ability of his daughter, Laila Ali, to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, just as he did when he boxed. But most Korean fathers would reel at the thought of their daughters taking up something in which they used their fists.

Still, boxing is becoming popular among women as another aggressive sport, apart from the many martial arts offered, to sweat away the kilos.

And the changing times mean a Korean woman can even try to make a living by swinging at a human being.

Korea has about 25 women who box competitively, nine of whom are bunched in the flyweight (up to 50.8 kilograms) division, currently the only organized division for women boxers in Korea. "Sparse" is the word that a local boxing promoter, Lee Se-chun, uses to describe the women's boxing scene. But Mr. Lee, the secretary general of the Korea Boxing Commission, waxes optimistic when it comes to two promising newcomers: Kim Ju-hee, 17, and Lee In-young, 31. To promote women's boxing, Mr. Lee and his commission staged a boxing tournament on Sept. 14 for flyweights and Kim and Lee are the two finalists. The pair will square next month to see who will be Korea's first female professional boxing champion. The winner will get a belt and 3 million won ($2,500).


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In this corner, it's the cabbage lady


The Sanbon Boxing Gymnasium in Gyeonggi province, southwest of Seoul, has only one woman boxer, Lee In-young. Look around the gym and you'll see nothing that seems even remotely ladylike -- only, on this afternoon, the gym's manager, Kim Ju-byeong, 51, a former Korean flyweight champion, along with a couple of sinewy young men hitting the bags. To the question of where the woman boxer is, one of the boxers punching the big bags stops and says, "It's me." With a short haircut and impressive physique, Lee In-young looks tougher than any man.

The secretary general of the Korean Boxing Committee, Lee Se-chun, speaks highly of Lee. "She's got a punch that's much stronger than most male boxers," he says. But it took time for Lee, 31, to hear her calling to step into the gym.

A native of Gwangju, the capital of South Jeolla province, Lee was athletic in high school, competing as a runner and shot-putter. In 1995, she followed her elder sister to Sanbon, a city in Gyeonggi province. Her sister opened a small restaurant, but Lee had to make a living on her own. She spent her 20s trying her hand at different jobs, such as driving a taxi and delivering food.

"Working in an office doesn't suit my constitution at all," she explains. "I am happy when I'm doing active work, when I have to move and never spare myself. I was born that way." Employers were delighted with Lee's working style, though some initially balked at hiring her to do jobs typically handled by men. For one, Lee had to haul more than 200 16-kilogram boxes of vegetables each day, mostly Chinese cabbages. She recalls the job as being "enjoyable." During that time she worked so hard, she says, that she hardly had time to go to the bathroom.

Upon reaching her 30s, however, Lee felt that she needed some kind of change, and an escape from humdrum routines. One summer night last year after a busy workday, she turned on the television and saw Kim "Fireball" Messer, an American women's boxing champion, in the middle of a bout. "Messer looked so cool in the ring, and I decided to be like her some day," Lee says.

The first thing she did the following morning was look for a gym. She found the Sanbon gym and in August 2001 began going there regularly. Since then, she's been training nonstop. This spring she quit her delivery job to focus on boxing.

Except for a few hours each morning when she helps her sister with the restaurant, Lee's days and nights are filled with boxing. After roadwork at 6:30 a.m., when she usually runs 5 kilometers, she shows up at the gym without fail at about 1 p.m. Over the entire afternoon she shadow-boxes, spars and skips rope. Then she hits the weights to build up her muscles. After completing her daily training by running 7 more kilometers, she goes home, falling asleep to a boxing video.

With a schedule like that, does she have time to socialize? Lee says, with a determined look, that she's not at all interested in getting married. "She's married to boxing," says her trainer and the master of the gym, Mr. Kim. Her parents in Gwangju first shunned the idea of their daughter beating up somebody to succeed, but now they are her most enthusiastic fans.

Lee had her first fight last August, and has had two more since -- all victories, including one TKO. At the gym, she enjoys sparring with the male pros, which is challenging but not beyond her abilities.

The only reservation Mr. Kim has about Lee is that he found her too late. But Lee is not one to be discouraged: "I know I'm a late bloomer, but I'm ready to take the long road ahead, especially the champion belt next month."


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And in this corner, the high-school kid


It's almost midnight, but Kim Ju-hee, 17, isn't about to call it a day until she's done with her daily regimen of skipping a rope 25,000 times. She works out at the Geoin Boxing Gymnasium, which is not a place you'd expect a high school girl to hang out. Situated on the third floor of a rundown gray-brick building, the gym is filled with the smells of sweat and the sounds of grunting and panting. Mirrors line the walls of the gym, punctuated by timeworn posters of boxing luminaries such as Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini. At this time of night, the gym is the only illuminated place in the neighborhood, a dim industrial area in Mullae-dong, southern Seoul.

Kim is called a "venomous serpent" by the other boxers at the gym, according to Park Ki-won, an office worker who goes to the gym to work out every night. Though the nickname doesn't sound flattering, Mr. Park says it's a compliment. "She is the incarnation of tenacity," Mr. Park says. Kim is not particularly happy with the nickname, but watch one of her workouts and you'll see it suits her.

Kim's private trainer and the manager of the Geoin gym is Jeong Mun-ho, 47. He describes his 17-year-old prospect as a hidden treasure. "Ju-hee was born thirsty for a victory and she's got what it takes as a boxer," he says. "She's speedy, aggressive, well-mannered and steadfast." When the Chuseok holiday arrived last week, Kim says, she was happy only because she didn't have to go to school and could concentrate fully on boxing. Kim is in the second grade at Yeongdeungpo Girls High School.

When Mr. Jeong hands a can of jujube fruit juice to Kim after she completes the night's training, she becomes the funny girl next door, knitting her eyebrows at a health drink favored by older generations. She remains courteous, however, by opening the can and pretending to take a sip. "It's a blessing to meet the master Jeong," she says, "who taught me to be a decent human being, before being a good boxer."

It was January 2000 when Kim first paid a casual visit to the gym, tagging along with her elder sister. Initially, her sister was more interested, but Kim soon grew mesmerized. A few years ago she was a talented runner, but gave up that sport when she was diagnosed with anemia. After two years in the ring, Kim believes that boxing has boosted her health and confidence. "Boxing showed me that nothing is impossible," she says, swatting a mosquito.

Since that first day at the gym, Kim can count on her fingers how many workouts she's missed. After her first six months, she sparred with Mr. Jeong and did well. She had her first real fight in June 2001, against a Japanese professional.

"Once in the ring for the first time, I couldn't see or hear a thing," Kim says. The fight ended in a draw. "I learned from the fight that I still had a long way to go and my biggest enemy is self-conceit. With that fight she also became the peninsula's youngest competitive boxer. Since then, she has had two more fights, both at the tournament this month and both wins, including one TKO.

To explain boxing philosophy, Kim borrows a line from "Champion," the recent feature film on boxing: "A boxer looks at a mirror more than a Miss Korea." She adds, "I think that's because you have to fight against your very self, looking at a mirror."

The hardest part for Kim is that there is almost zero consideration for women pros on the local boxing scene. For her debut in Daejeon, she had to spend the night in a motel -- but had trouble getting a room. A trainer and a boxer are supposed to sleep in the same room, but that looks strange when Kim and her coach show up. "People might have thought I was a reckless teenager with a sugar daddy," she says, laughing. In the United States, a woman boxer usually has two trainers, one male and the other female. But that hasn't happened yet in Korea. That's why Kim wants to be a trainer for women boxers some day. She plans to major in physical education in college, while still competing professionally. Meanwhile, her first course of action is to win a championship belt next month.


by Chun Su-jin

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