Wrestling hits Seoul! It's true! Oh, it's true!It's real loud. It's real violent. It's real exciting. And if it isn't really real, who cares?
It's the WWE, the premiere professional wrestling federation on this planet, and it's coming to Jamsil Gymnasium in southern Seoul this Thursday.
Once a low-budget, regional-based form of entertainment, the World Wrestling Entertainment has turned wrestling into big business. Explosions, loud music and elaborate light shows fill each performance. Worldwide marketing and a plethora of television broadcasts have made the top tier of muscle-bound performers as well-known as NBA players and Hollywood stars.
This is the first Korean tour for the WWE (no longer the WWF, by the way, having lost a trademark dispute with the World Wildlife Fund), but it's not the first time for Booker T.
"I was in Korea once before, early in my career, in '93," Booker T says. "It was a pretty good tour, with the IWE and New Korea" (two wrestling federations). I wrestled Lee Won Kim, the top draw at the time. We worked in Seoul and other cities."
Booker T made his name in the 1990s in Ted Turner's now-defunct World Championship Wrestling organization. But the WWE bought out the WCW a couple years ago, and Booker T was one of the stars who was brought over to the WWE. "Korean fans were energetic, a lot like Americans," he recalls. "They were totally different from the Japanese. In Japan, they usually clap and have no emotion. But Koreans are really lively. It was good for me because they liked me."
Korea has long had a strange love-hate relationship with professional wrestling. The testosterone-laced theater was quite popular on the peninsula until about 10 years ago, and the local style was known for being extremely stiff. Its wrestlers were tough and dangerous.
A series of expos럖 in the early '90s, revealing the more creative aspects of pro-wrestling, greatly hurt its popularity here.
But the tide began to change, and one of the most popular movies in 1999, "The Foul King," chronicled a frustrated white-collar salaryman who became a part-time wrestler in order to let off steam and gain self-confidence. Today, the WWE's programs are among the highest-rated programs on cable each week.
Most people don't realize how pivotal Koreans have been in the history of pro grappling. Japan is perhaps the biggest country in the world when it comes to rasslin' (or puroresu as it is known there). But in fact, Koreans established professional wrestling in the Land of the Rising Sun. The man responsible was Rikidozan, whose victory after victory over American wrestlers (villains, of course) in the 1950s help to rebuild Japan's national confidence after World War II, turning the sport into a national obsession.
Rikidozan was born Kim Sin-Nak in North Korea in 1924. But in Japan, he called himself Mitsuhiro Momota, and claimed to have been born in Nagasaki. It was a secret that he kept all his life, and his Korean birth only came to light after his untimely death in 1963.
Since then, numerous other wrestlers of Korean heritage have risen to the top of the game in Japan, most notably Riki Choshu. Mr. Riki was one of Japan's most-loved wrestlers in the 1980s and '90s, becoming the booker for the New Japan wrestling association for much of the 1990s.
He was also a wrestler that William Regal faced when he went to Japan in the 1990s. "He was a great wrestler, and one of the hardest wrestlers I've ever been hit by," says Mr. Regal, a native of Great Britain. "I could feel that." Those are impressive words coming from the man who has one of the toughest reputations in the industry. In fact, Mr. Regal's wrestling stint in Japan reportedly came to an end when, one night, he decided that his Japanese competition wasn't trying hard enough, so he unleashed the stiffest punishment possible -- he actually started hitting people very hard. Mr. Riki was one of those on the receiving end, and Mr. Regal was booted from Japan.
One thing many people do not realize is how much professional wrestling differs from country to country. "I've wrestled in 28 different styles," says Mr. Regal. "I started wrestling in England 20 years ago, a very scientific style, with holds and counterholds, submission wrestling. France is almost like a ballet. In France, they don't consider themselves athletes, but more like artists. Mexico is the same, a lot of high-flying. But they have a lot of wrestlers who can wrestle. In Japan, the style I did was 'strong style,' the hardest style there is -- a lot of hard-hitting, dangerous things, getting dropped on your head."
Mr. Regal says that the Japanese strong style is his favorite, similar to what he did in England. "I do it very hard, and I like when they do it back," he says. "If it's done right, I think there's nothing better. Very believable."
When asked who else wrestles strong like him and Mr. Riki, Mr. Regal quickly whips off several names. Chris Benoit, Kurt Angle, Eddie Guerro, he says, all current WWE stars. Kurt Angle, in particular, gets a lot of praise. Mr. Angle is a new breed. A lot of wrestlers used to come from a football background, but Mr. Angle was a real wrest-ler, one of the top amateur wrestlers of modern times. An Olympic gold medalist. "He amazes me," Mr. Regal says. "I remember how bad I was after three years, and Angle was so good after a few weeks, then a few months. I've never seen anything like it.
"Until a short while ago, I would have said he's one in a million," Mr. Regal says. "But then Brock came along, and he's doing the same thing." Mr. Regal is referring to Brock Lesnar, another amateur wrestling champion and the youngest champion in WWE history.
On the card, in addition to Booker T and Mr. Regal, will be Chris Jericho and Kane. Most notably, HHH and Scott Steiner will square off in their first ever match, coming nearly two weeks before their official bout in the United States.
Also, at 2 p.m. Thursday, fans will have an opportunity to meet WWE wrestlers and get autographs at the COEX mall in southern Seoul.
Officially, Thursday's match sold out in just five days ?the fastest sell-out of such a large venue in Korean history, at least according to the WWE press team.
Despite that sell-out, a few more tickets are expected to go on sale. The U.S. military's United Services Organization is also selling a few tickets at (02) 795-3063, but they're going fast. And, of course, scalps are always a possibility. You can try, or else just go to Jamsil Sports Complex on Thursday evening and hope for the best.
Great Leader lays a smackdown
Any guesses as to the biggest wrestling event of all time?
The New Japan Show at the Tokyo Dome in 1998 (70,000)? Nope.
Wrestlemania III at the Pontiac Silverdome (73,000)? Nope.
That's right, North Korea was host for not one, but the two largest wrestling events of all time, the two-day World Peace Festival (renamed "Kollision in Korea" by antsy pay-per-view promoters in the United States), held April 28 and 29, 1995. The first show brought in a staggering 150,000 people. The second, 170,000, for a total of 320,000.
(Note, never content with any figure, promoters claimed to have pulled in 380,000 fans for the two events.)
Antonio Inoki brought over his New Japan wrestlers and several WCW talents for a show that most commentators call lackluster. The first day "climaxed" with Shin'ya Hashimoto versus Scott Norton for the International Wrestling Grand Prix's Heavyweight strap. The second saw an aging Mr. Inoki battle an even more aging Rick Flair.
And although these two events did set the world record, one has to wonder how much "encouragement" the people of Pyeongyang had to turn out.
By Mark Russell