Who is that mat man?Lee Wang-pyo, aka “Super Dragon,” rushed to the corner of the ring and climbed the post. Without turning around, the 198-centimeter-tall (6-foot 6-inch), 120-kilogram (264 pound) ponytailed wrestler leaped and made a spinning kick at his villainous opponent, the Honky Tonk Man. The American wrestler, however, swiftly stepped aside, having already recovered from an earlier body slam. Lee crashed on the mat, and lay there moaning.
Honky Tonk pulled up his opponent by the hair and started to choke him, slamming him back to the mat. The crowd started to cry out Lee’s name, trying to rally their hero.
Two other wrestlers on hand started to protest the Honky Tonk’s rule-breaking to the official, leading to the dreaded “Referee Turning His Back on the Bad Guy.” Honky Tonk wasn’t about to miss his chance ― he went to the corner and picked up his guitar, and smashed it down on Lee’s head with a mighty crash.
Well, actually it was more like a light hit on the head with a bit of a boink, but Lee was knocked out just the same.
Honky Tonk quickly tossed the guitar out of the ring, pinned Lee, and One! Two! Three!!!, the Elvis impersonator raises his hands in victory.
The crowd of more than 300 gathered at Jamsil Gymnasium in southern Seoul last Saturday booed the dastardly Honky Tonk Man (and five high school students in the far back rooted for the American wrestler, crying “Honky Tonky! Honky Tonky!”). But Honky Tonk now held the championship belt.
Not for long, though. Disgusted by the villainy he had just witnessed, the chairman of the World Wrestling Association, Antonio Pena, stripped the Honky Tonk Man of the belt. Mr. Pena tried to give it back to its rightful owner, but Lee refused to accept it. “Although I lost unfairly, I still lost,” Lee said. “I will fight to get my title back ― tomorrow. See you at Bucheon!”
Lee went to the corner and put his arms in the air as Queen’s “We Are the Champions” boomed from the speakers. Honky waved his arms furiously in protest and then was gone.
An announcer asked the crowd to chant the wrestling tour name, “Never Die,” but the crowd ignored his repeated requests and walked to the exits, so he turned off the microphone and the show was over.
It’s just another day in the life of Lee Wang-pyo, the W.W.A. world champion and only remaining protege of the famous wrestler Kim Il (see story below).
Born in a small village in South Chungcheong province, the second of four children, Lee was the largest kid in his neighborhood. Even Lee’s elder brother had difficulty bullying his younger brother. “When my brother was in middle school and I was in elementary school, we were similar sizes,” Lee says. “I used to get beat up by my brother but that was because I let him.” Lee smiles at the memory. “I was gentle as a lamb, but still I was the biggest kid.”
Once in elementary school, he was stabbed by an upperclassman who was intimidated by Lee. “The upperclassman couldn’t beat me by force, so he used cowardly means to win.”
It was in third grade that Lee decided to devote his life to professional wrestling. “I was watching a match of Kim Il. In those days it was the most popular sport,” Lee recalls. He was fascinated by the famous wrestler, but more than that, “there was a feeling of deep excitement and satisfaction drawn by ultimate victory of good over evil.”
Not one for the school books, Lee started to work out, but he didn’t learn wrestling right away. Instead, he took up different sports including taekwondo, track and field, judo and hapkido. Still the ultimate plan for Lee was to become a professional wrestler. “Every sport that I tried was just a step in preparation for becoming a pro wrestler,” Lee says.
Then in 1975, Lee saw an ad for a wrestling gym run by Kim Il. He quickly learned that there was nothing fake about the training; it was hell on earth. “A lot of people wanted to learn wrestling, but only a few made it to the end,” Lee says. “That first day, more than half the people left.”
It wasn’t easy for Lee either, and the bulky wrestler confesses that he too had times when he wished he would get badly hurt while training just so he could rest up in a hospital. “There was even a time when I almost fainted, but I had to keep doing what I had to do because I knew that if I failed, I would be a nobody for life.”
The relentless training continued. Sometimes he had to wrestle 20 of his seniors in a row, for 10 minutes each. “By the end of the day I would be vomiting until nothing came out,” he says.
Soon Kim Il took notice of Lee’s talent and started to personally train the young wrestler. “My mentor was like a tiger in the ring, but even when he was away from the ring he was really strict,” Lee says. The strict training continued unabated, even when the wrestlers went to Japan for a match. “The only time you got some rest was the week you were in charge of meals. Fortunately, I’m good at cooking tofu soup and grilling pork.”
Most of the time these days, Lee is the champ. But it didn’t start out that way. Wrestling has a notorious initiation period. “I lost all the time. In 20 matches I was always beaten,” Lee says. But he kept at it, kept training until he got his first victory in a match in Japan. “At the time I weighed only 85 kilograms. I was the tall and skinny guy. But after that match I learned how to become a winner.”
Since then, he has gone on to become one of the biggest stars ever in Asian wrestling. But Lee had the misfortune of rising to the top at a time when wrestling was on its way down. The public slowly turned its back on the entertaining sport in the mid 1980s. “A reporter once wrote an article that accused wrestling of being fake,” Lee says. “The reporter exaggerated a lot on his article and it was because of that that people lost interest.”
“Even president Park Chung Hee really enjoyed watching wrestling,” says Lee while shaking his head.
“Wrestling is real,” he says, pointing at scars that streak his forehead.
A lot of wrestlers since then have left the world of wrestling, but Lee has kept the tradition alive. “Wrestling in Korea needs to change and we are trying our best to make it regain the popularity of the glory days,” he says.
Lee has even created a martial art based on his repertoire of wrestling moves. He called his “gyeokgido.” “In gyeokgido, anyone can learn the techniques used in wrestling easily,” he says. “It’s also very effective in learning how to defend yourself.”
Although Lee and other Korean wrestlers hold matches once in a while, they struggle in finding sponsors. On the last tour of the “Never Die” campaign this month, a match had to be canceled because of financial problems, and Lee had to apologize to his fans over the Internet for the inconvenience.
When Lee is not on the road for matches, these day he teaches youngsters at his gym in southwestern Seoul. A handful of children in the gym bounce, run and jump around and Lee gives a radiant smile to the spirited children.
But then his eyes grow stern once more as Lee promises that wrestling will regain its popularity, and that the glory days are just around the corner.
by Lee Ho-jeong