From the past, a familiar name and headAnyone who sat in front of a black-and-white television in the 1960s and ’70s remembers Kim Il, otherwise known as The King of Head-butting.
Kim was a national hero during those years. He gave hope to viewers and headaches to his opponents’ noggins.
That hero is now in his mid-70s, and his foes these days are seriously high blood pressure, Parkinson’s disease, a misaligned neck and numerous aches and pains.
After being a professional wrestler for 40 years, and collecting 20 world titles through more than 3,000 matches, Kim has spent much of the past decade in the beds of Eulji General Hospital in northern Seoul.
On one recent afternoon Kim sat in room 7711 at Eulji, eating a bowl of Chinese noodles and reminiscing about his long career.
In the wrestling ring, Kim used to change into the devil himself but on this day he had a benevolent smile that was soft and comfortable. Sharpness and dignity shone in his eyes and his low-toned voice still had a ring of authority to it.
All those head butts have left his skull crisscrossed with scars. Pulled on and slammed to the mat so often, his ears hang like flattened trophies. When asked about his health, Kim says, “Not one part of my body is intact, but it's getting better.”
In recent months, Kim, using a cane, has been attending wrestling matches in Seoul.
In early March Kim visited a photo exhibition that featured pictures of his wrestling matches. The exhibition, which was held, curiously, in a mausoleum in a Seoul suburb of Gyeonggi province, was a gift for Kim’s 74th birthday from well-wishers. Many fans as well as a range of celebrities attended the event. The fashion designer Andre Kim presented The King of Head-butting with an embroidered robe. In turn, the wrestler shared stories of his good old days with the American wrestler Abdulla, once a rival in the ring.
Kim says that he would like, more than anything, to experience a wrestling revival on the peninsula. After Kim left the ring for good in 1985, the sport’s popularity here waned.
“My husband likes to watch professional wrestling on television, but he does not watch American wrestling,” says Kim’s wife, Lee In-soon, 57, who this day has taken a seat on his bed in room 7711. Ms. Lee and Mr. Kim were married in 1996.
“My husband doesn’t like American pro wrestling because he thinks most of the matches are decoration,” Ms. Lee says.
Kim interrupts. “I’d love to see pro wrestling be the way it was 40 years ago, filling people’s lives with excitement. Wrestling as we knew it was a sport alive with true skills. Times have changed. Fans today want to be dramatically amused or wildly entertained. I liked to entertain people, but when I head-butted someone, I made sure it hurt.”
by Jeon Ick-jin