Up against a wallCHEONAN, South Chungcheong
In a boxing ring, two men spar, one obviously far better than the other. A punch is thrown, blocked by the better boxer, who then dances confidently toward his opponent and moves his left shoulder. The other man falls for the feint. A crushing right uppercut sends the outclassed fighter’s head back with a snap. A swift hook and a left cross follow.
“That’s enough!” yells a crew cut trainer standing outside the ring. The skilled fighter who threw the combination halts, one arm in the air poised to finish off his opponent.
No victory is ever assured, not even in a practice session in prison.
Park Myung-hyun is a prison boxer. In January, he captured the sininwangjeon, or king of the class, a competition held yearly for professional boxers. The win didn’t change Park’s life. He continues to train behind bars as an inmate here at the Cheonan Juvenile Correctional Institution, south of Seoul.
Fighters are used to hearing ring counts. At 6 a.m. each day when he lines up with other inmates, Park hears the much more familiar morning count.
Cheonan is for first-time male offenders under 20. Inmates can stay on until they’re 23 if enrolled in vocational training programs offered by the institution.
Park, 23, has been boxing for slightly more than four years. Standing 170 centimeters (5 feet, 5 inches) and weighing 60 kilograms (132 pounds), his body is slender but hard. He works out almost all day. He does his daily running, punches the body and speed bags for hours, jumps rope and spars.
After training, he returns to a cell that he shares with four inmates. His parents live in Incheon, which he once wondered if he’d see again. That all changed last December. For the first time in Korea’s prison history, an inmate was allowed by the Ministry of Justice to participate in the sininwangjeon, in Seoul. For the first time ever, an inmate won.
For prisoner No. 543, the victory meant leaving bars and walls and guard towers and going home, briefly.
Park turned professional last December, just before the monthlong siniwangjeon tournament. He trains at the institution’s gym on the second floor in the vocational education building. For the past four years he has passed by a flank of guards separating the first and second floor.
Fighting in the featherweight class in the sininwangjeon, he won despite suffering fractured ribs and a bad cut above his left eye.
For the victory, Park received 2 million won ($1,600) and a special five-day pass home. He gave his winnings to his parents.
Park has even bigger dreams. “I want to step on the world stage,” says Park between sparring sessions. “I am not going to stop here.” His hero is Yu Myung-uh, a 1980s junior flyweight champion who successfully defended his title 17 times.
Park’s trainer, Choi Han-gi, 46, thinks his star pupil has a chance at bigger things. Choi says that boxing in prison is much different than boxing out of prison. Boxing in prison requires an iron will. “You can’t control your weight with prison food. You eat the same chow like everyone else. Your only option is to work out harder. I mean much harder.”
Shaking his head the trainer continues, “He is a dokjong (someone who does not quit easily). No doubt about that. This kid does not have any sports reflexes at all. He is a pure workalcoholic. One-hundred percent, I mean.”
Choi remembers clearly the day when Park came to the prison gym and said he wanted to box. “When I first saw the kid he wasn’t anything like a prototypical fighter.”
“When coach asked me what I had done in sports outside, I told him, ‘breathing,’” says Park.
Choi has taped to a gym wall in the prison photographs of Korea’s female boxers, such as Lee In-young, to prove a point. “She works harder than anyone else because she has to prove herself in a man’s sport.”
The 13 inmates who comprise the Cheonan prison boxing team face a much harder physical program than a normal boxer outside the walls. According to Choi, his boxers do about 15 to 20 kilometers (9 to 12 miles) of daily roadwork -- in the prison yard.
“The workout load is about one and a half times more than other boxers,” says Choi, who once was one of Korea’s bright young boxing stars. Choi fought and lost to the legendary Kim Duk-koo not long before Kim died following injuries suffered in a title bout in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1982.
Choi thinks that Park has found a home in boxing. “The kid has been behind walls for five years. He must have done a lot of thinking. It’s not a short time.”
On a May night in 1997, Park, an angry 17-year-old, got into a brawl while drinking with friends at a bar in Incheon. He stabbed a stranger, who died. Park received a 5 to 7-year sentence. He’ll get out in May 2004.
“Boxing was a salvation for me.” says Park. “Mentally I was weak. I didn’t know how to cope with my anger. Boxing has taught me to control myself.” Pausing he adds, “I won’t make any mistakes again.”
Talking about the tragedy that erased one person’s life and altered another’s isn’t easy for Park. He remembers how shocked he was afterward and how it suddenly dawned on him that he had committed a serious crime. “When I came here, I heard boxing was the hardest thing to do. That’s what I wanted. I needed to throw myself into the hardest thing possible. I thought overcoming it would cure my soul.”
Park’s triumphs in the ring have given a lift to many at the Cheonan institution. “When he gets pummeled by his opponent, I feel my mouth going dry,” says Goo Bon-hei, a prison guard who assists the boxing team when he can. Thirty of the prison’s guards rented a bus and went to Seoul to watch Park win the title.
“We screamed our lungs out,” says Kim Gil-sung, the deputy warden at Cheonan. “I felt like going into the ring myself. He is our guy. Know what I mean?”
Some penal experts believe boxing breeds more anger. But Cheonan’s deputy warden thinks that the effects of boxing are only positive. “When you step into the ring, you are subject to rules,” says Kim. “That’s the lesson they’ll learn. Embedding into them such things during their daily life here is part of our education.”
Cheonan has the only prison boxing team in Korea. Organized in 1984 at the Incheon Juvenile Institution, the team continued to exist during that institution’s relocation to its current site in 1990.
In addition to Park’s success as a professional, amateur fighters in Cheonan have a strong record in National Youth Competition bouts.
The boxing team’s triumphs have not brought its members any special treatment. There is no budgeted money for the team and Choi and other guards chip in from their own pockets from time to time to buy the fighters snacks or equipment.
Choi, who has dreams of opening his own private gym for former inmates who find it hard to take up boxing at regular gyms after their release, says, “It’s not much. But I give what I can to make these kids better. If they can become good guys again through boxing, that’s all I am asking for.”
Park currently is ranked fifth in Korea’s super featherweight class. He’ll get a chance to improve that ranking on March 29 when he again goes outside the walls to fight. An opponent and a site have not yet been determined. A win will make Park the No. 2 or No. 3 contender in his class. By July, he’d like a fight against Sung Yang-su, who rules the featherweight class.
In order for Park to achieve an Asian boxing ranking, he and Choi are considering an international bout in May.
Down the road --not too far down -- the fighter and trainer hope, is a shot at a world championship.
Six years ago, prisoner No. 543 committed a senseless act. Park Myung-hyun is doing his best to put that horrible night in May far behind him.
A lot of people are cheering that he will.
by Brian Lee
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