&#91FOUNTAIN&#93A ringmaster returns

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&#91FOUNTAIN&#93A ringmaster returns

I am looking at a black-and-white photograph taken some 30 years ago. In the picture, the professional wrestler Kim Il, veins on his neck popping out and his head thrown back like a praying mantis, is charging the Japanese wrestler “Foul King” Mori. Mr. Kim, who was also known as “The Head-banging King,” was a Korean hero in the 1960s and 1970s. On days when Mr. Kim had a match, everyone would stop what he was doing and rush to a television. “Even our dog watches him,” one fan said. At the time, pro wrestling was wildly popular here, and the most popular pro wrestler was Mr. Kim.
In Greek mythology, heroes have three common characteristics: adventure, justice and rebirth. Hercules, Perseus, Oedipus and Theseus all embarked on adventures, enduring all kinds of hardships to become heroes. They would always help those in need and fight evil. Most heroes met unhappy ends, but they were born again as constellations to remain forever in people’s hearts.
Over 40 years, Mr. Kim competed in more than 3,000 matches and won more than 20 world titles. Mr. Kim’s adventure began when, in the sixth grade, he left his home in South Jeolla province to learn pro wrestling in Japan. The training period was harsh: Mr. Kim once broke his neck while banging his head onto a brick. He survived -- and earned a lifelong nickname.
Mr. Kim played the hero in the ring, always fighting “bad guys.” He fought “dirty” wrestlers, too, like Mark Lewin, who attacked with razor blades, and Bernard, who always entered the ring while secretly holding a club.
Alas, like the heroes of the myths, Mr. Kim has met misfortune at the end of his adventure. Today he is plagued by injuries and poverty.
On his 75th birthday last week, an exhibition of photographs and videos of Mr. Kim’s matches was held. “I am not afraid of death,” he said. “It is the ultimate stage of completion in life.”
A “Kim Il boom” appears on the Internet these days. Kim Il cartoon figures and cyber fan clubs have formed. Mr. Kim has become a hero again -- to a new generation.
“Hear the bell ring and forget your human sorrows,” the Buddhists teach us. There was a time when a bell would ring, wrestlers climbed into the ring and the people forgot their worries. Will the “Kim Il boom” bring a rebirth of professional wrestling in Korea?

by Lee Kyu-youn

The writer is a deputy city news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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