Anything goesNo-holds-barred fighting ― punching, kicking, wrest-ling, squeezing, pinching ― basically is using every part of your body as a weapon.
It can be bloody and it can be rough, and now it has come to Korea.
On April 26, the first ultimate fighting champion will be crowned in the Spirit Martial Challenge tournament at Jangchung Gymnasium, on the edge of Mount Namsan in Seoul.
Eight finalists have entered, but only one will win the trophy and the 30 million won ($24,000) prize money. Four of the finalists were determined at a huge, 64-person tournament last month. Four more have been hand-picked by the event’s organizers, and include a traditional taekkyeon master, Kwon Ik-seon, and a former member of the national wrestling team, Kim Min-su.
While ultimate fighting has a solid following in the United States and Japan, it is new to the peninsula. But if cable television ratings are any guage (shows like “King of the Cage” and “K-1 Series” pull some of the strongest ratings on all of cable), it is poised to be just as big here.
The rules are minimal ― no biting, fish-hooking, or head-butting, no poking the eyes and no elbow blows above the neck. There are no weight classes. Otherwise, anything goes.
The qualifying rounds took place on March 22 and 23 at Jamsil Student Gymnasium at the Olympic Park in Southern Seoul.
The 64 entrants came from a wide range of disciplines, including judo, taekwondo, muay thai (kickboxing), boxing and Brazilian jujitsu. Each fight lasted for two, 5-minute rounds. If you won, you moved on to the next round. If you lost, you went home to nurse your wounds (and pride).
The contestants were as diverse as their training. Jung Jae-woong, for example, is a 31-year-old equities trader for UBS Warburg with an MBA from the University of Chicago.
Mr. Jung has been practicing Brazilian jujitsu since 1998, and had studied a little taekwondo while growing up. Despite coming from a prominent martial arts family, he did not learn to fight from his father. “He refused to train me. He wanted me to get an education,” Mr. Jung says. But Mr. Jung did both.
“I wanted to test myself,” he says of why he entered the tournament. “And I wanted to show the beauty of martial arts.”
“Besides, it’s good exercise,” the 110-kilogram-of-less-than-solid-muscle broker adds.
Mr. Jung had won an amateur ultimate fighting tournament in Seoul in January, but he wasn’t so fortunate this time. His fight against a police officer was the longest, bloodiest fight of the second round. He won it, but then quickly threw in the towel in the third-round fight.
Another contestant, Kim Hyeong-jun, manages the fighting Web site www.cafe.daum.net/Ssambakzil, where about 50,000 members exchange information on no-holds-barred contests, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the United States, the Pride Fighting Championships of Japan. Ssambakjil in Korean means “brawl.”
Mr. Kim, 23, thinks the Spirit Martial Challenge will boost the number of fans of the fighting arts. “I think it’s great,” he says. “Korea can now breed its own champion and send him off to other competitions.”
“Some people might not like this sport because of the violence,” he says, “but it’s just like reality, with real blood that you can’t see in other competitions.”
Mr. Kim lost in the second round.
While fans of the genre are enthusiastic about having a chance to watch some ultimate fighting live, not everyone is overjoyed to have such a bloody sport taking hold.
Yang Jin-bang, a taekwondo professor at Yong-In University, a martial arts center, says that the taekwondo community in Korea has mixed feelings about the event.
“On one hand, we have people who think that the event will move martial arts like taekwondo toward a more realistic fighting style,” he says. “Then we have people who think that this type of dogfight is bad for the image and is against the traditional values of taekwondo and other martial arts.”
But for others, like Mr. Jung, shaking up that tradition is just the point. These arts have tremendous pride in their own abilities, he says, but when they meet with international competition, they don’t have the skills to compete. “It’s a lot like Korean businesses,” he adds.
Mr. Yang is much less theoretical, though, and says that this type of competition is popular because people are naturally curious about who is the toughest, best fighter.
“In ancient Rome, gladiators were popular,” Mr. Yang says. “The competitions were bloody and deadly but people just loved it. People are just fascinated with tough people. It’s a trait embedded in human nature.”
Among the participants, Kim Jong-wang is the most experienced in this type of no-rules fighting. Mr. Kim participated twice last year in Japan’s Pride competition, and 11 times in 2001 in the King of the Cage competition in the United States. In both events he was the first Korean to compete.
At age 32 and 120 kilograms (265 pounds) Mr. Kim is the oldest and heaviest participant. He majored in judo at Yong-In University.
“This is not a show,” he says. “You have black belts in this and that, but once in the ring, the man who has done some real street fighting will be the last man standing. If you want to kick and look good, you should not be here.”
In the tournament finals in two weeks, the stakes will be raised ― instead of 5-minute rounds, competitors will have two, 10-minute rounds.
“Those who have the most stamina and desire will prevail,” says Kim Jong-wang.
The most experienced of the finalists emphasizes that technique is secondary in this type of fighting. According to Mr. Kim, the drive to continue and being able to absorb punishment is what is most important. He added that knowing several fighting styles is better because the free-for-all nature of these fights require many skills.
Still, the local scene has a long way to go, particularly in the stamina prevailing department. At last month’s qualifier, a kickboxer from South Africa said, “I’ve never seen so many people tap out so easily.”
by Brian Lee
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